Friday, October 28, 2011

The White House Responds to Secularists...With Bullshit

I'm normally a quiet person.  I'm not moved to profanity easily.  I am largely in support of, though somewhat disappointed in, our current US administration.  But I just got an e-mail from the White House, as did many other people in a community I share.  And this makes the situation not a usual one.  This comes from Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships:
The separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is an important founding principle of our nation. Our nation's Bill of Rights guarantees not only that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also guarantees citizens' rights to practice the religion of their choosing or no religion at all.
Throughout our history, people of all faiths – as well as secular Americans – have played an important role in public life. And a robust dialogue about the role of religion in public life is an important part of our public discourse.
While the President strongly supports every American's right to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, that does not mean there's no role for religion in the public square.
When he was a Senator from Illinois, President Obama gave a keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference where he spoke about the important role religion plays in politics and in public life.
"A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters."
That's why President Obama supports the use of the words "under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance and "In God we Trust' on our currency. These phrases represent the important role religion plays in American public life, while we continue to recognize and protect the rights of secular Americans. As the President said in his inaugural address, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." We're proud of that heritage, and the strength it brings to our great country.
Fuck this.  Fuck everything about this.  This is complete and total bullshit.  The fact that an "Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships" exists is bullshit.  This is antithetical to the principles upon which our nation was founded.  We are NOT one nation under god.  We do NOT trust in god.

That. Is. Not. America.

I am not unaware of the role that religion has played in our history.  I am also, unlike most people, not unaware that that role has not always, and I would go so far as to say rarely, been a positive one.

The addition of "under god" to the pledge of allegiance took place under McCarthyism, not exactly a shining moment in our history.  Putting "In God We Trust" on our money became law during the same period.  "In God We Trust" became our national motto during the same period.  Not only has this been "one nation under god" for only about 60 years, it became so only to differentiate ourselves from the communist USSR.  Because some people were scared of "Ivan" in the 1950s, I have to live with blatant theism thrown in my face whenever I look at a piece of American currency or hear children being taught to love their country.

I find it hard to express just how much anger I am feeling right now.  I am in no way proud to be American at this moment.  My country, the leaders of my nation, have forgotten the words of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and so many of the profoundly secular people who were instrumental in the founding of this country.  I think that our leaders have forgotten the Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1797:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
 The petitions that led to this response from the White House were some of the most supported petitions on the site set up to allow them.  The r/atheism forum of just celebrated passing 200,000 members, a wonderful milestone for a single Internet forum representing any community.  There are millions of atheists in the United States.  Where is the government decree stating that every American has to look at something on a frequent basis stating "In Reason We Trust"?  No god of any type has any part in my life, and no god of any type is supposed to have a part in the governance of my country.  With one e-mail, one page on a website, the White House has let down the American people, and the Constitution of the United States.  Today is a sad day.

Yahwists and the Sequel Hypothesis

So, I'm going to be a little more lighthearted here, and also somewhat speculative.  What can I say, I'm in a mood.  I'm going to make some comparisons here involving the major Abrahamic religions of the world and television shows.  For those of you who are atheists, particularly if you're also somewhat of a geek, you can probably already see where I'm going with this.  Enjoy the ride.  Oh, and warning, TVTropes will ruin your life, but I'm linking to it anyway.  For the rest of you, let me lay this out as clearly as I can.

There are four major religious traditions that descend from the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism.  Its possible to do serious studies of these traditions, and they've been very important to the history of the world.  But stepping back for a moment, and viewing them as a whole, they follow a very familiar pattern.

Judaism is the "original series" of the Abrahamic religion.  You can see clearly how it drew upon the influences of other religions of its time, but it had some new concepts that made it stand out from the pack.  It took old stories and ideas and interpreted them in unique ways, creating something very new when all was said and done.  Now, that's not to say it was always very high quality work.  The characters weren't always consistent, the stories could get overblown or pedantic, and the editing control was obviously in dire straits.  Occasionally, the moralizing got a little heavy-handed, and when you look at it from a modern perspective, it certainly shows its age; some of the things it includes may have made sense at the time, but today we just cringe at the unfortunate implications.  And the special effects?  Well, they were certainly big, and might have been cool for their time, but in hindsight they're definitely lacking, and the flaws tend to break one's suspension of disbelief.  Still, it must be said that it has some good points, and even today it maintains a faithful following.  It might even be called a cult classic.

Christianity seems to be the "next generation" of Abrahamic religion.  It draws on the same roots as the original series, and takes place in roughly the same universe.  But we've moved forward in time a good bit, and we've got a completely new cast of characters.  The writing is more consistent, although there are a number of places where the sheer silliness of the premise shows through.  The special effects remind us of the kind of things done in the original, often being explicit revisits of those old episodes, but they're more closely grounded to believability, if not entirely possible in the real world.  Only on occasion do they get really cheesy, and even then, they at least are used to draw out strong emotional appeal.  Most importantly, there's a more clear message to the series, one that feels a little more comfortable to modern sensibilities.  It still has some things that make us wince, because it tries as hard as it can to remain true to the timeline of its universe, and some might criticize it for being too optimistic, expecting that the future will be all sunshine and rainbows and we'll all live in peace.  But on close examination, it doesn't really flinch away from hard truths, and is overall a much higher quality work of fiction.  It maintains a large group of fans today, and has spawned several spin-off series that try to interpret the material, with greater or lesser success.

Islam comes next chronologically, and seems to be the "gritty reboot" of the Abrahamic concept.  It makes it clear how much of an influence the previous two series had on its writer, and it tries to remain consistent with the story previously set in place.  But the special effects have been simultaneously amped up and strictly tied to reality, or so the series claims.  Everything is supposed to be purely in the realm of plausibility, as long as you accept that you're living in a universe with rules just slightly different than our own.  What really makes this story different, however, is the underlying message.  It doesn't shy away from hard topics, and makes its stance on difficult modern issues very clear.  This can get uncomfortable at times, because the old harsh morality of the original series is still very much in evidence.  Islam strictly enforces the old rules, adds some more of its own, and deals very honestly with the implications.  Now, to be fair, it made some amazing advances, particularly in the realm of technology.  When it dealt with the universe, there's no denying that it made some brilliant insights, and inspired people who weren't even fans of the show to advance new ideas.  But like so many of these shows, the fanbase got a little too serious about it, and insist that everyone should follow the show.  They take a lot of offense at the suggestion that there might be some flaws in the writing or the effects, because they know that both the show itself and the writing staff are beyond reproach and deserve universal respect and adoration.

So, that covers it, right?  Oh wait, I almost forgot one.  Mormonism.  The "wacky fanfiction" of Abrahamic faith.  Rabid fans of the original series and the next generation, the writers decided that there was only one thing missing from the stories: themselves.  And so the new, unofficial episodes began to be written, but without the reality checks of trained writers, the plotlines soon went way off the rails.  There might be a few gems in there, some stuff that is really quite good, but its overwhelmed by Mary Sue characterization, ridiculous plots that make absolutely no sense, contradictions galore, and a return of the heavy-handed moralizing.  Only now, its clear that the "morals" are designed so that the main characters can get away with pretty much anything they want.  The stories obviously split the fan base; the majority just don't see the appeal, and think that there's no reason to add bad writing to a perfectly good story.  But there's a very vocal, very loyal community who think that these fan fics are the best thing since sliced bread.  They continue to tout its virtues, making excuses and coming up with new stuff all the time.  The leaders of this group are obviously benefiting greatly from the fact that a lot of people like the stories, so there's no reason to accept any criticism.  But they just want to be accepted by the mainline fans, so when they get into discussions with outsiders, they emphasize their similarities and do their best to shove the differences out of the spotlight.  Easiest way to do that?  Pick on the people who don't like any of the shows.  Like me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stuff. All Of It. No, Really!

In this post, I'm going to show you what I'm really made of.
Yep, that's it.  In fact, that's what the universe is made of.  Twelve particles of matter, four fundamental forces.  This is what is called the Standard Model of particle physics.  Everything, absolutely everything, with no exceptions, can be broken down at base into these things.  The interactions of these twelve particles and four forces are the cause of absolutely all phenomena.  We are very close to understanding these interactions to a very high degree of accuracy, and we are also close to being able to plug the numbers into a computer and have it start calculating, and have it end up predicting everything within certain levels of probability.  But obviously, I'm more than just quarks and gluons.  I'm a human being, a living thing, and a thing with a mind.  As Carl Sagan put it, the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.  So, how did this stuff end up turning into me?

These elementary particles have to come together as composite particles before we can even start to build atoms, which are the smallest pieces of elements.  The nucleus of an atom is made of protons and neutrons, and that nucleus is surrounded by a cloud of electrons.  Yes, its a cloud even in a hydrogen atom, where there is one electron.  Protons and neutrons are made of three quarks each; a proton is two up quarks and a down quark, while a neutron is two downs and an up.  The quarks are held together by one of the four forces, the strong nuclear force (which is also gluons).  The nucleus of a relatively large atom looks a little bit like this:
Now, that's only an approximation, because in reality, all of those particles are in many different places at the same time.  When you look at them, they are only probably going to be in any given place.  These particles are held together by the nuclear force, which is really just the residual bits of the strong force holding the quarks together.  This nucleus, as I noted, is relatively large.  All of the atoms of heavier elements, and by that I mean anything with an atomic number 3 and up, started out as much simpler atoms than this one.  They all looked kind of like this:
That's hydrogen, specifically protium.  It has one proton and one electron, and most of the stuff in the universe still looks like this.  About 75% of the chemical matter in the universe is hydrogen, and about 99.98% of hydrogen is protium.  At one point, you were this.  I was this.  Everything you see was this.  These particles were formed when the universe was born, about 13.7 billion years ago.  So in that sense, you are 13.7 billion years old.  The particles that compose my body are as old as the cosmos.  Obviously, I'm not made of hydrogen.  A big part of me is, because the second most common molecule in the universe is a large percentage of my body.  The most common molecule is of course hydrogen gas, H2.  Helium doesn't form bonds.  The next most common element is oxygen, and since there's a lot of hydrogen and oxygen, they combine to form H2O.  Water.  So I've got a lot of hydrogen in me, but I've got other stuff too.  Obviously, I've just mentioned oxygen.  There's also carbon, iron, and various other elements.  Where did all that come from?  Well, when you put a whole lot of hydrogen together, another force takes over: gravity.  It starts pulling all of the hydrogen into a ball, and crushing it together in the center.  It eventually looks like this:
That's a star, specifically our Sun.  Its emitting a lot of energy, partly in the form of heat and light, because in the middle, gravity is pushing the hydrogen atoms together.  Normally, they're held apart by the electromagnetic force, which is much weaker than the strong nuclear force, but holds up better over distance.  Gravity is much weaker than the electromagnetic force, but its even better at working at a distance, and the more matter you have, the stronger it gets.  When a proto-star gets big enough, the gravity pushes the nuclei close enough that the strong nuclear force beats out electromagnetism, and the atoms snap together in a process called thermonuclear fusion.  The energy the particles release when they fuse is greater than the energy needed to push them together, and the star ignites.  At its core, our Sun and every other star is fusing hydrogen into helium.  Our Sun, amazingly enough, isn't big enough to go on to the next stage when it eventually runs out of hydrogen.  Bigger stars start fusing hydrogen into carbon through the triple-alpha process when they near the end of their lives.  Really big stars go on to fuse lighter elements into iron.  But going any heavier than that stops releasing energy; it takes more energy to fuse the nuclei than they release when it happens.  So what made all the elements heavier than iron?  There are a lot of them.  That process might look a little something like this:
The incredibly huge stars explode when they reach the end of their lives; they've fused everything they can into iron, and something has to give.  Fusion isn't making more energy, but gravity just won't let up.  They release truly apocalyptic amounts of energy in what is called a supernova.  Such a destructive event would wipe out all life in every nearby solar system.  Whole planets would be utterly destroyed, and even other stars might be swept up in the massive explosion.  Supernovae observed from Earth can outshine the entire galaxy in which the star resides.  One explosion outshining hundreds of billions of stars.  But in the midst of all that energy being released, lots of atoms are being slammed together with tremendous force.  And we get supernova nucleosynthesis.  All the heavier elements, everything with an atomic number higher than 56, gets made when the biggest of stars die.  Stars that burned billions of years ago and uncounted light years away died, so that you could be here today reading this article.  On YouTube, philhellenes said it quite well:  Stars must die so that I can live.  I stepped out of a supernova.

And so did you.

So, what am I really made of?  Energy.  Quarks.  Atoms.  Molecules.


I'm pretty awesome.  You are, too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why We Believe: The Arsenal of Fear

I've been doing a lot of thinking about why religious people believe the things they do.  Having been religious in the past, I've of course looked at my own reasons for believing.  I think there are two primary groups of believers: the indifferent believers and the conscious believers.  Those who are indifferent are easily explained; they don't really think about their belief, it doesn't affect their lives at all, they just believe in god because they do.  Perhaps they were brought up in a religious household, and indoctrinated into their belief system as children.  But they don't really have reasons for their belief.  What I'm interested in are the conscious believers, the ones who think about their beliefs and hold them for a reason.  And I think I've puzzled out what that reason is, in pretty much all cases.


Now, assuming I have some religious readers, they'll tell me that I'm wrong.  They have all kinds of justification for their belief, plenty of support from their holy book, their own personal experience of the presence of a divine being, and of course for many of them the idea that "God is love."  A loving god wouldn't make you believe out of fear!  But I don't think I'm wrong; I think that as an outside observer, I can see the weapons of religion more clearly than those who have been defeated by those weapons.  And that's what we're dealing with here: weapons.  Religion uses fear as a weapon against the minds of human beings, and not just as a single weapon.  Fear comes in many flavors, and religion has no qualms about using each and every one.

The opening salvo in the religious assault is the Fear of Hell.  This is the initial barrage, it is a direct threat against the enemies of the religion in question.  It tells people, believe what I say, or you will be burned forever. Now, the vast majority of us have been burned at some point in our lives.  A burn hurts like no other wound.  Even when you know that all of your pain receptors are on the surface of the skin, and thus it can't actually hurt anywhere else, a burn feels deeper than other pain.  A bad burn feels like it goes to the bone.  Even the mildest burn is quite painful.  This alone should tell you why religions use fire as a threat, as their most extreme punishment.  Imagine being in a fire, burning worse than you've ever burned, all over your body, forever.  You'll never die, you'll never be released from the pain.  What wouldn't you do to avoid that?

But some people don't fear torture; the religious know that, from the examples of their own martyrs.  Many people, however, may be susceptible to the next weapon in their arsenal, the Fear of Death.  Its a terrifying moment for a child when he or she first encounters death.  Its often not until the teenage years, if not later, that a person truly confronts the idea of their own mortality.  And it is very, very scary.  I exist, and I'd like to put off not existing for as long as possible.  Here, religion steps in and tells you that you don't have to stop existing.  You can live forever; their god can grant you eternal life, if you believe in him and do what he says. Of course, they have to deal with the fact that their believers do actually die, so they promise you life after death.  Something about you lives on, either in an eternal afterlife or in unending rebirths.  The specifics vary, but all the major religions tell you that death is nothing to fear, because it never really happens.

The weaponry is far more extensive, though.  Maybe an enemy doesn't fear their own death, maybe they have something they would die to protect.  To deal with that, religion has learned to wield the Fear of Loss.  Most people have others in their life that they love and care about, people that they like to be with, their friends and family.  Knowing that we ourselves are going to die one day may not be quite as scary as the fact that our loved ones will also die.  They are just as mortal, just as subject to death, and being without them is something we don't like to contemplate.  Here is where the attack from religion becomes insidious.  If your loved ones were believers before their death, then they have eternal life already; if you believe too, you can see them again, and be with them for all eternity.  If they are still alive, but they don't believe, then even if you live forever, you'll still lose them.  Shouldn't you try to convert them, too?  From pets to parents, we all want to be with our loved ones forever, and religion promises to help with the fear that we can't, and in doing so uses that fear against us.

What about right now, though?  All of these weapons have had to do with the future.  Religion can deal with the fears you have today, and the next thing it draws from the armory is the Fear of the Unknown.  We humans, even if we accept that we are amazing creatures, must also accept that we are limited.  We do not know everything about the universe, and for that matter we don't always know what's around the next corner, or what's going to happen in the next five minutes.  Uncertainty scares a lot of people.  Who knows what dangers are lurking in the tall grass?  And we have lots of questions, which can be overwhelming at times.  What am I?  Where did I come from?  Where did everything come from?  Is there a reason I'm here?  Religion offers a balm against these fears; for the dangers of the world that we aren't aware of and can't control, there is at least one all-powerful, all-knowing god looking out for us and protecting us.  And all of those questions can be answered, most likely from the holy book, and by a priest if the book is somehow lacking.  Religion claims to be able to make the unknown known, if not to you, then at least to god.

Finally, religion has one deadly weapon, one final blow against the human mind.  It wields, almost paradoxically, Fear of the Known.  This weapon is a two-pronged attack in itself.  The first part is targeted at those who know a little, and it is based on heaven.  Religion promises us that if we believe, there is an afterlife waiting for us that is glorious, wonderful, perfect.  There is no pain, no suffering, no strife, just pure happiness and contentment.  Heaven is a beautiful place, even if they can't give you specifics.  In comparison, we can look at the real world, and see that it is dull, boring, and most importantly frightening.  Compared to heaven, the real world is a very scary place; religion wants you to yearn for heaven as an escape from this fearful world.  Secondly, for those who know a lot, there's an additional element of fear.  When you see how incredibly big the universe is, or even just the Earth, you feel insignificant and pointless.  Your life will be short compared to the grand sweep of time, and in comparison even to a planet like ours, an individual human almost disappears.  The mind recoils from the vastness, and in that moment, religion springs its trap.  God made all of it, and he made it just for us.  You are important, you are loved, you are special, because god says you are.  You're afraid for good reason, but god can comfort you.

I think that these weapons, the Arsenal of Fear, are at the root of why every single conscious believer follows the dictates of a religion.  Whether they fell to one attack or many, when you dig deep enough, you'll find that religion is based on some form of fear.  Its an impressive armory, a nearly insurmountable force.  Humans are fearful creatures; whether you believe we were created that way or evolved that way, the truth is that today, we are often filled to the brim with fear.  And religion knows that, and it uses that, and it conquers millions by attacking with that fear.

But we aren't always afraid.

We can defend ourselves against the attacks of religion.  We have within us the power to overcome fear, to weather the blows and come out stronger than when the attacks began.  The defense that works best, that is most effective against the Arsenal of Fear, is reason.  Knowledge, rationality, skepticism, the amazing capabilities of our minds; these are what religion seeks to conquer, because religion fears them!  So, how can you fight back against these fears?

First and foremost, look at the commonality among every single weapon.  They all propose something beyond our reach, something that we cannot ever detect.  For the Fear of Hell to work, you have to believe that you will live on after you die; you have to believe in hell.  I'm not afraid of hell, because I know hell doesn't exist.  Even if we assume that we live on after we die, wherever we go, we go there without our atoms.  If I don't have atoms, how can I have nerves to feel fire?  For that matter, how can there even be fire?  Firelight is the light emitted from excited atoms as the electrons change energy states.  If there is fire, then there is electricity, and atoms, and natural laws that we understand.  If there's fire in hell, I can build a fireproof room, and an air conditioner.  The religious will tell you that its not like real fire; it burns your soul (which can feel pain without nerves), and it doesn't need fuel, or oxygen, or atoms.  In short, the fire in hell is magic fire.  I don't believe in magic, so hell isn't scary.

The Fear of Death and the Fear of Loss also depend on an afterlife.  Before religion can help you assuage those fears, it has to convince you that there is an afterlife.  But there's no evidence of that; we can't detect a soul, we can't detect an afterlife, and the religious can't really even tell us what's so good about it.  This also takes care of one half of the Fear of the Known.  When someone promises you heaven, ask them for details.  What am I going to like about it?  Will there be great meals, good TV shows, amazing sex?  Will I even have a body?  Why should I look forward to simply praising god for all eternity?  No one has ever reported back from heaven.  All the evidence points to the fact that when we die, that's it.  Yeah, its still scary.  But it isn't noble to hide from that fear by believing in a reassuring lie.  The best way to face these fears is to life our lives in ways that we enjoy, to make the most of the time we have.  Tell your loved ones you love them, make memories with them and keep those memories as you see fit.

Most importantly, for the Fear of the Unknown and indeed every weapon, religion asks you to believe in god.  Their god is a judge who can send you to hell, who demands your worship, who has infinite power and knowledge.  But what can he actually do?  If god has such power to judge me for my supposed sins, why has he not already struck me down?  Why must he wait until an afterlife that we can't prove exists anyway?  The best evidence most religions have for their supernatural god is the natural world, which is ridiculous.  If god was really all-powerful, we would be able to see some manifestations of that power; things that should be totally impossible should actually happen, with no explanation.  And yet, everything we see appears to follow the invariable laws of nature.  There are no broken rules, no E that does not equal mc^2.  If god is really all-knowing, then why does his book, supposedly either written by him or made at his direction, regardless of what holy book you're talking about, get so much stuff wrong?  Every time the supposed creator of the universe says something that we can independently test, even most of the time when his book records historical fact, it is verifiably incorrect.  The supernatural god proposed by every major religion not only has absolutely no evidence supporting his existence, he also appears to have none of the traits that he is claimed to have.  Its far simpler to say that no such god exists at all.

Without an afterlife, and without a god, religion's Arsenal of Fear is broken.  The weapons are duds, the swords are pitted and dull.  There is nothing to fear from the threats of religion, and nothing religion can do to truly assuage our very real fears about the world.  Fight for your mind, face your fears; you're armed to the teeth, and religion's armory is all flash and no substance.