Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another YouTube Challenge

This one is entitled “5 Questions Every Intelligent Atheist MUST answer.” I thought the “MUST” in all capitals was cute.

Question #1 - "Aren’t you using random chance as a substitute for the “God of the Gaps?”

No, I don’t think so. We know, from observation, that certain events, such as genetic mutation occur and that these events appear random. A key word here is “appear.” Perhaps if we knew all the variables involved, they wouldn’t, but we don’t so “random” supplies a reasonable approximation.

We can even measure the rate at which these events occur and observe some of their effects. So no, this isn’t the same thing as the "God of the Gaps." Observation and measurement leading to an inference is not the same thing as saying I don’t understand how it happened so “GOD DID IT!”

Question #2 – "Why should there be something instead of nothing?"

I could ask why should there be nothing instead of something? Clearly we exist. What science has been trying to understand is how we came to exist. Perhaps that might lead to an understanding of why we exist and perhaps not. Maybe we’re just a temporary cosmic accident that will strut and fret its hour upon the stage and then be heard no more.

Question #3 – "Where do you get your morals?"

Here we go again with the idea that morality can only come from God. Men can use their intelligence and reason to agree upon a greater good, establish rules to bring that greater good about and enforce laws against breaking those rules. Mankind has been doing it since the dawn of civilization. The greater good could be as simple as the survival of the tribe or as complex as the glory of the empire.

Question #4 – "How can morals evolve?"

Why do they have to? In explaining this question, the video maker implies that evolution needs to intelligently move toward an objective for morals to evolve. First of all it’s unlikely that “morals” do evolve.

Second of all Natural Selection is not intelligent nor does it have any objective or goal. If a trait or mutation confers a reproductive benefit, more organisms in the next generation will have that trait or mutation and even more will have it in the generation after that. Eventually it will extend throughout the gene pool. It really is just simple arithmetic.

Most “morals” are probably learned traits. The ability to inherit learned traits is called Lamarckism and has generally been discredited (BUT some recent experiments at MIT indicate that perhaps the concept needs to be revisited at least with respect to some environmental effects).

Morals may not evolve but survival, reproductive and perhaps co-operative instincts do. Most individuals will choose actions that enhance their survival and ability to reproduce. Often those actions have been declared by society to be “moral.”

Individuals that don’t follow the rules tend to get ostracized or expelled which makes it difficult to survive or reproduce. This is normally not an effective strategy.

The point is that “morals” don’t need to evolve as long as survival and reproductive instincts do and following the rules is safer than not following them.

Question #5 - "Can nature generate complex organisms when originally there was none?"

If what is meant by the question is going from nothing to a complex organism in one step, then the answer is no, it can’t. This is called “spontaneous generation” and Louis Pasteur laid that hypothesis to rest over a hundred years ago.

If however what is meant by the question is can it occur in a series of thousands or even millions of steps starting with an extremely simple cell and then laboriously, over millions of years, evolve into a complex organism, the answer is obviously yes because it has. We’re here aren’t we? The question is how?

There are two distinct steps to this hypothetical process. The first step is the emergence of the first simple living cell. The second step is Evolution and Natural Selection which takes over once the first cell appears.

That Evolution occurs is a fact. The question of whether it can produce complex organisms using only the tools of genetic mutation and Natural Selection is, to my mind, not entirely clear. That’s why science keeps looking, like revisiting the idea of Lamarckism at MIT.

The first step is also something of a problem. The current hypothesis is that, under the right conditions, organic chemistry can produce simple cells and then Evolution will begin and ultimately lead to the proliferation of life that we see today. Perhaps, but I don’t think we know with any degree of probability exactly how that first step can occur.

You are free to postulate that neither step can occur without the guidance of a supernatural authority. However, you will excuse me if we continue to search for answers rather than throw our hands into the air and say “GOD DID IT!”

To be satisfied with “GOD DID IT” is to accept being ignorant. If there is a God, and he directed the development of man, then he decreed that we have intelligence, the ability to reason and a thirst for knowledge. To not use those gifts to discover the secrets of creation would be to sabotage the deity’s rationale for our creation.

Therefore to my mind, whether there is a God or not isn’t the question, in either case we should place our energies into science and the effort to advance man’s knowledge of the universe. To accept “GOD DID IT” as the answer is a blasphemy. The only question is whether it’s a blasphemy against men or a blasphemy against God.

As I've said before, Atheism is the null hypothesis and the burden of proof is on the Theist to topple that hypothesis with compelling evidence or a compelling argument. This video is again essentially an attempt to shift the burden of proof. I find it entertaining to address questions like this but technically the Atheist doesn't have to answer a damn thing. It's the Theist that is making the positive assertion and who needs to answer the questions.

A Theists Idea of Atheism

Atheism is a terrible threat to religion. Religion banks upon people’s fears and extends a false comfort to ease those fears. Atheists, while they may be just as afraid as anyone else, reject that false comfort. This rejection undermines the feeling of security that leads the theist to buy into religion in the first place.

If you take away someone’s security blanket, don’t expect them to thank you for it. Theists will often, in a confused way, try to make atheism something it’s not. I guess somehow that reduces the threat. I was watching a video on YouTube the other day called “The Inconvenient Truth about Atheism” that did just that. Let’s consider the video’s arguments shall we.

Point #1 - The absence of proof that something exists is not proof that it does not exist. It is by faith that an atheist believes God does not exist.

This is the old absence of evidence is not evidence of absence argument. I honestly don’t know what people mean by “proof.” One can only “prove” something in mathematics and formal deductive logic. Everywhere else it’s only “evidence” of varying strength.

The burden of proof is on the positive claim. In this particular case it is upon the theist to present compelling evidence for the existence of God not for the Atheist to present evidence for his (her? Its?) nonexistence.

Besides, atheism is not only based upon an absence of evidence, it is also based upon evidence of absence. The problem of evil provides compelling evidence, if not for the absence of all gods, then at least for the absence of the Christian definition of God.

While one cannot prove the negative that no gods exist, one can prove that a specific god does not exist. For instance, the Christian God is a logical contradiction. A being cannot be all powerful and all knowing yet be susceptible to the prayers of mortals. A deity cannot be perfectly just and perfectly loving yet create cancers that kill innocent little girls.

It is not by faith that an atheist rejects the existence of God. It is by a combination of the lack of evidence that he (she? It?) does exist combined with evidence that he (she? It?) does not. In other words, it’s an opinion based upon the evidence that exists as well as the evidence that does not exist.

Point #2 - In fervently seeking to convert anybody they can to their faith atheism is no different than every other existing religion.

By that definition every philosophy or opinion would be a religion. That is of course absurd. Like I said with respect to Point #1, atheism is not faith but an opinion. On many occasions I’ve tried to convince people of the accuracy of a particular opinion of mine. Does that automatically make it a religion?

We argue fiscal politics and economic systems ad nauseam. Does that render Capitalism and Socialism religions?

Besides, like I pointed out above, atheism is not based upon faith. Faith is by definition the acceptance of an assertion despite the lack of evidence to support it. Atheism is essentially the rational null hypothesis. It is the logical conclusion that one must assume something does not exist in the absence of evidence for its existence. When one adds to that actual evidence, such as the problem of evil, that supports the null hypothesis, the conclusion becomes even stronger.

In the absence of that rational assumption we would have to accept the existence of all manner of absurdities including purple unicorns, fairies, leprechauns and Santa Claus unless someone managed to “prove” they didn’t exist.

Point #3 - By declaring no higher authority the atheist declares each to be the lord of their own existence. To avoid being a hypocrite an atheist must defend the right of anyone to believe whatever they want.

Not really. The fallacy here is the assumption that there is one and only one source of morality and therefore only one possible “higher authority,” that which is known as “Divine Command Authority.” In the absence of a divine authority, it falls to men to decide what will be the basis of morality and define what they will accept as a “higher authority. “

If there are differing ideas about how to do that, I need not defend the right of everyone to believe whatever they want. I can try and enforce my opinion upon them and they can try to enforce theirs upon me.

The mutually agreed to "higher authority" could be as simple as the peaceful survival of the tribe, or as complicated as the glory of the empire. There is such a thing as “society” or “civilization” that most rationale men recognize as essential to their survival and evolution has established survival as the ultimate "higher authority."

We could get together and define a moral code based upon whatever ethical theory we’re comfortable with. The problem of course is in enforcing the decisions. That’s why men invented religion. It makes it a lot easier to enforce society’s rules if you convince the riff-raff they’re the will of the gods.

Consider ancient Egypt, ancient Babylon, ancient Greece and ancient Rome for instance. They established peaceful and flourishing societies without any knowledge of the Judeo-Christian God. One must either concede that Amen-Ra, Marduk and Zeus were equally valid manifestations of God or concede that a real god is not necessary for the establishment of laws and morality.

Point #4 - By declaring no higher authority the atheist declares that each person has the authority to decide what is right and wrong and cannot declare the belief of another to be wrong.

Why not? This is really the same error as the previous point. It assumes that a “higher authority” cannot be established in the absence of a deity and therefore no one is allowed to have an opinion about what is "good." This is absurd. Like I said, the simple peaceful survival of the tribe can be the “higher authority” that we agree is "good" and the majority can expell those that act in a manner deemed harmful to that survival.

What religion and theists tend to ignore is that evolution has built into us the basic need to co-operate. You know the old saying that goodness is its own reward? That’s because doing what is considered “right” makes you feel good.

The question becomes whether the definition of “right” is learned or instinctive. I suspect it’s a combination. Some things, such as protecting the young and helping the injured, are most likely instinctive while cooperating to bring down a wooly mammoth for dinner is most likely learned.

While Christianity teaches that men are fundamentally evil sinners, atheists realize that, except for the occasional sociopath, men are conditioned by natural selection to be "moral" and basic morality is instinctive. If it isn't, then how do chimpanzees, wolves and other social animals manage to survive?

Point #5 - If god does not exist then right and wrong become meaningless words.

Sigh. He’s beating the “only God can define right and wrong” to death isn’t he? Allow me to reference the Euthyphro Dilemma. Simply stated Plato’s dilemma asks the question “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

If you go with the first option, “it’s commanded by God because it is moral,” then there must exist an independent measure of right and wrong to which even God must adhere. If you go with the second option then the concepts of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” become arbitrary based upon God’s whim. It therefore makes no non-tautological sense to call God “good.” The most you can say is that he (she? It?) is consistent.

Point #6 - You would not want to live in world with no god because it would be a no-holds barred fight to the death for temporary survival.

You mean it isn’t that way? What planet do you live on?

This is the old “argument from consequences” fallacy. The fact, or fear, that the consequences of something are unpleasant, doesn’t have any effect whatsoever upon whether it’s true or not.

The author claims to be an ex-atheist. Strange that he could have been something that he knows so little about.

I’m sorry, but it’s not that simple. One cannot assert the position that only God can define morality and then use that assertion to prove that morality cannot be established without God. That argument is so circular it should make even Christians, champions of the circular argument, dizzy.

The entire video is essentially an attempt to shift the burden of proof. Atheism is the null hypothesis. It’s the Theist that must present compelling evidence that God exists if they want to topple that hypothesis.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett

Two more empty chairs from my youth. Sigh. So many of them are empty now. So many of them. It's starting to get very lonely.

So long Michael. You were more than a little weird, but what the hell. Here's hoping you're partying somewhere with Farrah and George Carlin and Dom Deluise and all the others that entertained us way back when.

Good-bye, and thanks for the good times.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Rotation of the Earth

The earth is slowing down and the day is getting longer. I wouldn’t start making any plans for that extra time however because it only amounts to about 5 milliseconds per year. That’s 5 one thousandths of a second so in about 200 years you’ll gain about one second per year.

And that’s about where we are since the last day was calibrated to 86,400 seconds in 1820. In 2005 the current day was about 86,400.002 seconds. That’s a gain of something slightly greater than .730 seconds.

By now I’m sure you’re asking yourself “Is this something I really need to be concerned about?” Well, not really, but the slowing of the earth’s rotation is one of the arguments used by creationists to claim that evolution is impossible. Actually there are two arguments in this category; a simple one and a more sophisticated one.

Let’s talk about the simple one and the folks at Religious Tolerance first.

If you’re not familiar with “” it’s a web site maintained by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance and is about as neutral a site as exists when it comes to religion. They stand for tolerance and mutual respect and say in their statement of beliefs that they believe “In the inherent worth of every person. People are worthy of respect, support, and caring simply because they are human.”

I don’t agree with them on everything and in some ways I find them rather naïve but clearly their hearts are in the right place. They tend to tread very delicately around controversial issues but do have several pages related to the evolution versus creationism question.

On one of these called “A Failed Attempt to Dialogue with Young Earth Creation Scientists” they describe a simple misunderstanding related to the slowing of the earth’s rotation and the need to add “leap seconds” in order to prevent the error from exceeding .9 seconds. The simple misunderstanding was that since leap seconds were added at the rate 0f .7 per year, that the earth was slowing at a rate of .7 seconds per year.

If you extrapolate that back 4.5 billion years it yields a rotation of about 14 minutes rather than the current 24 hours! Such a rapid rotation would have flattened the earth into a pancake which obviously didn’t happen.

Actually, the earth has slowed at a rate of somewhere between .005 and .006 seconds per year depending upon whose numbers you use. The Goddard Space Center says that the solar day is increasing 1.5 milliseconds per century which would be (.0015*365.25)/100 = .00548 seconds per year so I think I’ll use that number.

If you extrapolate that back 4.5 billion years it yields a rotation of about 13.5 hours rather than the current 24 hours, faster certainly, but well within the realm of possibility. Now please note this is a simple misunderstanding about the significance of the leap seconds leading to a simple mathematical aberration. There is no interpretation or subjectivity here, its straight fact and mathematics.

Now comes the fun part. Like I said the folks at RT are a little naïve. They contacted fifteen creationist web sites with the objective of simply pointing out the error so they could remove the argument. They looked upon this as a “win-win” situation as follows:

“The cause of creation science would benefit, because the invalid ‘proof’ of a young earth would be withdrawn. Their credibility would increase in the minds of the public.”

“The cause of evolution would benefit, because the creation scientists would have one fewer ‘proof’ of a young earth.”

So what happened? In RT’s own words, with commentary.

“One webmaster thanked us for our interest. However, they will not change their web site because it is an archive of previously published materials. Thus, accuracy is unimportant.”

Accuracy is unimportant!? An honest broker would at least note the error in order to prevent readers from being misled.

“A second webmaster responded, but said that there are no inaccuracies in Scott Huse's book.”

I assume that’s the source of the argument for that web site. Well, I beg to differ; there is clearly at least ONE inaccuracy.

“A third webmaster responded, asking for information on our identity and motivation. They also asked for more information about the error.”

Paranoid? Who’s paranoid? More information about the error!? You don’t understand arithmetic?

"A fourth webmaster thanked us for our E-mail."

Well that was nice of him.

"The remaining 11 webmasters have not replied to our E-mail."

One individual other than the webmaster “responded to our query. However, his site leaves the original error in place. He wrote that he has many quotes from scientists which suggest that many dating methods are equivocal. ‘It is not a crime to present a differing viewpoint.’”

I didn’t know arithmetic had differing viewpoints.

None of the 15 web sites has been changed (emphasis RT’s). Persuading the webmasters of these creation science web sites to correct their error appears to be quite impossible. In fact, dialog seems to be hopeless.”

No real surprise here. The dishonesty of Christians, whether pitching creationism, biblical inerrancy, bible instruction in the public schools, the display of Christian icons in public places or the denial of gay marriage, is legendary. The dishonesty of Christians is what demonstrates that Christianity is a bankrupt philosophy undeserving of respect or adherence.

The RT folks gave it up with the following conclusion.

“The experiment has convinced the author that meaningful dialog is probably impossible. Supporters of creation science -- at least the 15 contacted -- seem to be totally resistant to change. Attempts to correct these websites are probably not worth pursuing.”

Yup, I’ve also learned that any "meaningful dialog" is impossible.

However, there is a more sophisticated creationist argument revolving around the slowing of the earth’s rotation. This combines the slowing of the earth with the receding of the moon from the earth. The CreationWiki web site provides an excellent example of this argument on its refutation of Talk Origins explanation of the slowing of the earth’s rotation.

I’m no expert in celestial physics, but there are some problems with the CreationWiki presentation starting with its estimate of .008812 seconds per year “based on data from the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.”

What data? This is .0033 seconds faster than any other number I’ve seen. Second is the statement that this yields a 7 hour rotation when extrapolated back 4.5 billion years. My arithmetic yields a 10.6 hour rotation. I could be wrong, but I checked several times.

Third is the presentation of the current measured rate of recession of the moon at 3.82 cm per year. This is a measurement made possible by the three cornered mirrors left behind on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts. This number is important because the closer the moon is to the earth, the faster the earth should be slowing down if the moon's gravity is the dominant factor. As we shall see both this number and the assumption are sort of accurate but misleading.

Finally, CreationWiki makes the assertion that if you plug these values (.008812 seconds per year and 3.82 cm per year) into the “laws of physics,” without ever articulating those laws, one can show that the earth cannot be older than 1.2 billion years so therefore evolution is impossible.

I’m not even going to make an issue about not defining the “laws of physics.” I’m going to make three points and then present a conclusion.

Point #1 – 1.2 billion years is 120,000 times the 10,000 or so years that Young Earth Creationists claim is the age of the earth based upon an inerrant bible. So, if nothing else, the calculations have demonstrated that if the earth is anywhere near that old, the bible is not inerrant and therefore fundamentalist Christianity is a false teaching. Of course that is the upper limit so I guess it's possible for the earth to be only 10,000 years old, just terribly unlikely given the range of options.

Point #2 – Like I said before, I don’t know where the .008812 seconds per year number came from, everyone else’s number is closer to .0054 seconds per year. You’ll excuse me if I take the word of NASA rather than a vague claim “based on data from the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics” which isn't identified.

Point #3 – The current recession of the moon at 3.82 cm per year has been shown to be abnormally high. The rate of recession is affected by continental drift and was much slower in the past. Two converging pieces of evidence demonstrate this. The first are computer models which take into account the effect of continental drift and the second is paleontological evidence based upon the study of tidal rhythmites (sediment). The rhythmites indicate that between 2.5 billion years ago and 650 million years ago the lunar recession had a mean of around 1.27 cm per year and between 650 million years ago and today, the mean was around 2.16 cm per year.

Conclusion – When you take into account the reduced current slowdown and the reduced recession rates and plug them into the same “laws of physics” you get, TA-DA, about 4.5 billion years or so. Therefore the only thing CreationWiki managed to show was that most likely the bible is wrong and fundamentalist Christianity is a crock, but we all already knew that.

Actually this is not on the same order as the simple case. Here, there is much to discuss about which are the right numbers, the validity of the computer models, the precise calculations to be used and the trustworthiness of the conclusions from the rhythmite studies.

The problem is that all the information I've presented is readily available. If you disagree with it, acknowledge it and show why you believe it’s invalid. You cannot simply ignore it because it ruins your calculations.

I might be wrong but I've presented both sets of numbers and arguments and explained why I don't believe I am. That's what science is all about. It's about dealing with the facts as they are understood even if those facts indicate you might be wrong.

This would be the perfect opportunity for a "meaningful dialogue." But as the folks from Religious Tolerance discovered, that's almost impossible with a creationist.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Of God and Men

What would be your opinion of a man that had the power to save the life of a child but chose not to do so?

Did you read the story of the little girl in California named Colby as reported by the AP? Ten year old Colby wanted very much to see Pixar’s latest movie “Up.” Her parents would have been happy to take her but Colby was far too ill to leave home. You see she was diagnosed with vascular cancer when she was six years old.

A family friend contacted Pixar and the company sent an employee to Colby’s home with the movie on a DVD for a private showing. He also brought with him stuffed dolls of the main characters and other movie memorabilia. Colby was so weak she couldn’t even open her eyes to watch. Her mother had to describe each scene to her. Yet she enjoyed the movie immensely while the Pixar messenger and other family members and friends could only watch helplessly with tears in their eyes.

If any of the onlookers had the power to save Colby do you imagine that anything in the universe could have prevented them from doing so? They were helpless but what about this so-called God?

He’s supposed to be all powerful. Christians tell me that he helps them find their car keys when they lose them. He’s supposed to have created man from dust and woman from the rib of man. He’s supposed to have created everything. So WTF was this God thinking when he created a cancer that can destroy innocent little girls who just want to be able to watch the movie “Up?”

Please tell me what greater purpose could possibly be served by this child becoming deathly ill? A man, any man, would have cured this child if he could. A God who supposedly has the power to cure this child chose not to.

So who is morally superior, the God or the man?

At least Colby got to enjoy the movie she so badly wanted to see. She died later that same night.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Iranian Elections

I don’t know what the hell is going on in Iran but we should keep our noses out of it. I don’t know if there were irregularities or not but I sort of doubt it.

Regardless, it’s an internal affair that we should STFU about and let them work it out. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is something of a chowder head but we elected George Bush twice! I sort of believe the numbers to be honest with you.

I like Iranians. All the ones I’ve met are good people. I suspect Americans and Iranians have a lot more in common than our respective governments are willing to admit. I think if given the chance they’ll work their way out of their current aberration. We got rid of the Republicans didn’t we? At least temporarily.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The sixth Harry Potter movie is scheduled for release in about a month. I’ll probably go see it in the first couple of weeks because I think Harry Potter is cool and a lot of fun. I’ve read all the books.

I got started when my wife, an elementary school teacher, bought and read the first book out of curiosity. She told me to check it out and I was hooked.

I thought the whole concept was wonderfully creative. It was something new in a society that seems happier to rehash old successes rather than constructing new ones.

The Harry Potter series made kids excited about reading. Everyone was happy. The kids were happy, their parents were happy and teachers and school administrators were simply tickled pink.

Did I say everyone? Well, not quite. Fundamentalists Christians weren’t and still aren’t. Why? Because the heroes of the stories are wizards and witches that flew brooms and cast spells. To their confused medieval mindset this somehow equated to evil.

Doesn’t the bible say in Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?” Well, maybe. According to the NIV Exodus 22:18 says “Do not allow a sorceress to live” which I guess is sort of the same thing right?

Let’s look a little closer. The Hebrew term for witchcraft is “keeshoof” which means sorcery or magic. The word for a female that practices magic, or what we would call a witch, is “mekhashah” which is derived from the verb “mekhash” which means “to bewitch.” A male who uses magic would be a “mekhashef.” So Harry Potter is a “mekhashef” in Hebrew.

But the word used in Exodus 22:18 is “kashaph” which, regardless of what Strong’s Concordance says, may not mean sorcerer or witch. A better translation might in fact be “herbalist” or one who has a knowledge of herbs or one who administers herbs.

Some folks claim that this implies that Exodus 22:18 condemns “poisoners,” but someone who knows herbs isn’t necessarily a murderer. I have a darker explanation. I think this is a warning against the budding science of pharmacology and those capable of using herbs to help fight sickness. Such knowledge would infringe upon the province of the gods and the priesthood.

It’s just another example of the stupidity of religion. Imagine where we’d be as a civilization if we hadn’t had religion holding us back for 3,000 years or more.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Letterman’s Palin Joke

I have no patience for Sarah Palin. I think she’s a fundamentalist yahoo without half a brain, but making sexist jokes on national television about her daughter is definitely not acceptable.

Public figures are legal targets for criticism and comedic jabs whether those jabs are tasteful or not. But the children of public figures most certainly are not.

What you did was very uncool Little Davey.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

I make no secret about the fact that I distrust Islam. Despite arguments and protests to the contrary by some Muslims, the recent history of that culture displays an appalling tendency toward violence, intolerance and ignorance.

On the other hand, people are people and maybe if we stopped fighting and talked about it honestly, we would find more common ground than expected and perhaps learn better how to get along.

Hey, you never know, it’s possible. So I guess I applaud Obama’s attempt to reach out to the Muslim world. If I sound less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic it’s because I’m still suspicious that there is some endemic characteristic of Islam that makes it more amenable to fanaticism than even other religions.

As much as I like to equate fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalists Christians, they’re not really the same. They’re both nuts but the Muslims somehow seem to be even further over the edge into la-la land than the Christians. At least Pat Robertson isn’t pushing for honor killings and Ray Comfort isn’t screeching that apostasy should be punished by death.

Who defines what is sin?

Religious types are always ranting and raving about what they call sin. But who gets to define what is sin and what is not?

In Romans 3:20 Paul says “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his (God’s) sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

I suspect that if you asked Christians what comprised “The Law,” many would say The 10 Commandments. But this wouldn’t be correct. The law is the law of the Hebrew Torah which consists of a lot more than the 10 Commandments. The Torah contains 613 Mitzvot or laws.

As a matter of fact, The 10 Commandments aren’t even laws or commandments. In the original Hebrew of the bible they are referred to as the Aseret ha-D'varim. One could translate this to mean the Ten Sayings, the Ten Statements or perhaps the Ten Things, but not The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot.

The Ten Commandments aren’t individual laws; they are categories of laws. There aren’t Ten Commandments plus 603 other laws. There are 613 laws which fit into one of the ten categories derived from the Aseret ha-D'varim.

Nor are any of the 613 laws considered more or less important than any of the others. All are equally sacred and equally binding. Perhaps this is why the Epistle of James states in James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”.

The problem is these laws are 3,000 years old. Some of them have clearly been overtaken by events and are no longer meaningful. Others would be considered repulsive in modern society and still others are open to wildly varying interpretation.

So who decides which laws if not followed result in sin? Which laws can be safely ignored, and how different laws are to be interpreted? This is sort of especially important if they were all originally thought of as equally binding or if in breaking one you break all.

The Catholics have it easy. They have a hierarchy and an infallible (within the sphere of faith and morals) Pope. What about everyone else? Who’s the authority and who decided he was in charge?

I guess fundies don’t care. They need to grovel on a regular basis and declare they’re miserable sinners that don’t deserve any mercy and then ask poor Jesus to forgive them anyway. They don’t need to keep track of which sins they’ve committed; they just need to admit they’ve committed them even if they can’t figure out exactly what they may have been.

As Christopher Hitchens points out in “God is Not Great,” a fundamental principle of Totalitarianism is a system of laws that is essentially arbitrary or impossible to fully comprehend. What makes this an effective controlling mechanism is one can never be sure if one is breaking, or has broken, the law. This means you live in constant uncertainty, uncertainty leads to fear and frightened people are so much easier to control.

Therefore one can make the argument that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a Totalitarian system that substitutes a heavenly leader for an earthly one. Or, in reality, Totalitarianism is a religion which substitutes an earthly god for a heavenly one. This is why I don’t buy the Hitler and Stalin arguments people throw around when they try to convince me how useful religion is.

But none of that answers my original question. Who decides what constitutes sin? Each man can’t decide for himself because that would be moral relativism and don’t religions claim morality is based upon Divine Authority? So who speaks for God?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

And Then There Were Six

With the signature of Governor John Lynch, New Hampshire becomes the sixth state to legalize Gay Marriage. I salute Governor Lynch for signing the bill into law despite personal opposition to Gay Marriage.

The next up are New Jersey, New York and Little Rhody, the sole holdout in New England.