No Atheists In Foxholes?

There’s a saying that you don’t find any atheists in a foxhole.  I find statements like this glib because they attempt to do multiple things at once – this particular statement attempts to make a factual claim AND ridicule atheism as a pointless intellectual exercise that has no practical value…when the going gets tough, the tough find faith…or something along those lines.

I think it’s incorrect that atheists tend to reject their disbelief when they’re near death.  But even if it was the case that every single atheist renounced their skepticism on their death bed, it still proves nothing, except the fact that humans are weak, and need comfort and reassurance, regardless of the absurdity that comfort and reassurance entails.  Exploiting the death process to convert non-believers is a mean spirited thing to do, and it’s the height of dishonesty to claim proselytization by “converting” a person in that condition.

There is a reason why religion is pervasive, and exists independently across nearly all societies.  It gives people a sense of togetherness, belonging, and purpose in a cruel, unrewarding, and inhospitable world.  But there is a practical reason why religion must be taught to young children, as opposed to delaying introduction until young people can comprehend deductive logic.  Children are impressionable, and they internalize information their parents and elders tell them.  This internalization turns fairy tales into facts in childrens’ minds, and it’s precisely why the most zealous fundamentalists are so persistent in their rejection of facts and reason, and why there is such a doggedly anti-intellectual spirit across so many religious communities.

It’s a challenging exercise to let go of religion as an adult, especially when you internalized so many of religion’s teachings at a young and impressionable age.  This speaks to how difficult it is to truly change as a human being, which is why people will fight wars and kill others who would disrespect or disagree with their illogical beliefs.

So is it any wonder that some atheists renounce their disbelief at their moment of greatest pain and suffering?  I don’t think that proves anything except that brainwashing children is much more effective than anyone could have ever imagined.


Thoughts on Food for the Holidays

It’s my belief that sugar is the primary cause of health problems for Americans, followed by other, more complex carbohydrates, followed by abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids.  Everything else is either secondary, or unimportant in creating a model that describes the relationship between diet and health outcomes.

The thought goes that muscle (and other) cells in the body become resistant to insulin, because insulin always tends to deliver sugar.  Cells don’t want sugar, and therefore become resistant to insulin.  Have you taken a look at the number of foods that have sugar, even when you don’t expect it?  It’s like everything…

I don’t believe meats and other fatty foods are the cause of obesity in America; in fact, I think that in the absence of carbohydrates, it’s actually quite difficult to even gain weight, let alone become obese; the implication is that calories-in-calories-out as a model for weight change is complete garbage.

Gary Taubes describes this quite wonderfully in his books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat”, but the $0.05 version is that insulin (produced in excess when consuming sugar) causes the enzyme LPL to uptake fat into fat cells, and suppresses enzymes like HSL to break glycerol bonds in triglycerides that are stored in fat cells; therefore, fat goes into fat cells, and stays there.

When we drastically cut carbohydrates, the pancreas secretes less insulin, and allows us to metabolize fats (instead of sugar and glycogen).

So go ahead and eat that turkey and ham…but skip the potatoes and try not to overdo it on the dessert.

Santa Claus and God

Even as a teenager, it was easy for me to spot similarities between Santa Claus and God.  Both have supernatural attributes, both live in a grand, theme-park place, both practice an absolute form of justice, and both were invoked when I misbehaved.  Of course, as a teenager, I’d long-since put away the idea that a reindeer-wielding sleigh carrying an overweight, bearded fellow would deliver presents to billions of children over the course of a few hours; but at the time, one idea seemed more ludicrous to me than the other.There is a convenience factor that parents who invoke Santa Claus rely on:  it allows them to disown punishments they dole out.  In the case of the parent who tells their child that Santa will deliver coal if they continue their behavior, they don’t even have to take responsibility for their warning.

The trade-off for this invocation is that they don’t get credit for the presents on which they may have spent hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars.  I suppose that for parents using this carrot/stick approach, the benefit of behavioral control exceeds the cost of the delusions they impart to their child.

I think there are plenty of parallels one could draw in how Christianity has described heaven and hell, and what punishment and reward looks like.  Heaven is a grand place where all sins are forgiven and all doubts are washed away.  Pain doesn’t exist and logical dilemmas are replaced with absolute reverence to the bearded boss.  All one has to do to enter heaven is to give absolute reverence to the parent/church while they’re alive, give it a substantial chunk of their earnings, attempt to behave themselves, and apologize constantly.

The alternative to entering the North Pole…I mean heaven…is achieved by failing to practice the right blend of reverence to God and reverence to the Church…oh, and about 1000 other things, too, including choosing the wrong day to eat shellfish or mixing polyester and cotton.  There are lots of transgressions that will get you eternal coal…erm…damnation.

Using a proxy to extort control is a common theme in human behavior.  This was magnificently described by Orwell in 1984 with the Big Brother character, who was never actually revealed to exist, but who could convict based on thought crime and inclination to individualism.

Secular Morality

The presupposition for many Christians is that there can be no morality without God, and, like-it-or-not, God is the moral compass by which we navigate our lives, and he created the framework within which we exist.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I can’t prove this God character *didn’t* exist, but then again, there are a lot of things I can’t disprove, such as invisible garden gnomes or transparent fire-breathing dragons.  Luckily, I don’t believe it’s my burden to justify my disbelief in those fantasies.

I suppose the best we can do is to put forward the question:  can we define a moral code without invoking God, religion, or any of its byproducts?

There are a lot of people who are more articulate about this matter than I am (eg Matt Dillahunty, Daniel Fincke), but for me, I think that a moral way to live is to try to identify what is best for everyone, in terms of their physical and emotional well-being, and to do our best to maximize everyone’s well-being, while simultaneously minimizing harm.  Details for how to maximize benefit and minimize harm can be demonstrated via empirical evidence, buiding models, comparing inputs and outputs, and identifying best practices.

Of course, this framework creates dilemmas from time-to-time, but last time I checked, we live in a complicated world which is exacerbated by social relationships and competing interests, and this dilemma is not unique to the faith-less.  But the advantage this framework gives is that it has the capacity to identify a conflict of interest when it exists, and it does not create a hierarchy such that one party is always prone to benefit while others are always prone to being harmed, such as the case with various implementations of Christianity.

The other advantage of this agile implementation of morality is that it does not have a rigid ruleset.  It is self-correcting.  It does not presuppose that text in a particular document is an absolute standard for behavior, because behavior is relative to the time and situation.  It always has the capacity to improve or adjust in the event of moral or logical inconsistency.

The hazard of an implementation like this is that models are never perfect – their predictive capacity can diminish under certain circumstances.  For example, a society might conclude that what is most beneficial for the majority is that we should kill minority groups who some claim are detrimental to society.  If there are 95 in the majority, and 5 in the minority, it’s quite clear how to maximize benefit if the majority is convinced that the minority is harmful.  Indeed, various historical figures have successfully convinced the masses that some minority group (or even a majority group) is harmful to the overall well-being of society, and used that argument to justify mass killings.

I have a couple responses to this concern:

1.  It’s not like that claim is isolated to non-theistic societies.  There have been a lot of religious claims put forward over the past couple millenia to justify mass extermination.

2.  In an agile moral framework which forces people to consider well-being and harm for all competing interests, it would be quite difficult to gloss over harm caused by mass extermination, especially when there is no rigid text that condones this sort of thing.  The Christian bible, on the other hand, has several examples that justify mass extermination.  Rigid textual frameworks are the antithesis to secularism’s agility.

People can be duped, and people can be convinced that “the other” causes them harm, even if they’ve never even met “the other”.  This is a human failing, and it’s a theme across cultures, religions, and time.  Humans have a difficult time getting along, and religion often exacerbates this, as does resource scarcity and desire for power.

Secular morality is a better solution, because it doesn’t create a framework that give peoples license to claim themselves “chosen” or more innately good because of their birthplace, tribe, or family.

The Christian Bible and Morality

A person could go their whole life attending church and not come to the conclusion that the Christian bible is an immoral document.  One of the reasons for this is because church sermons tend to cherry pick passages that don’t appear immoral; the other reason is because sometimes it takes a bit of consideration to realize a passage is immoral.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 3, it’s pretty clear the following statement is immoral:  “So the LORD our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all.  We conquered all sixty of his towns, the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan…We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered – men, women, and children alike.  But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns”.

Some excerpts, such as from 1 Peter, may take a bit more consideration: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse”.  To a modern-day westerner, it probably doesn’t occur to them that this statement literally condones and facilitates a culture of slavery.  It’s easy to skim past things like that.

Zechariah 14 gives insight into its authors’ mentality:  “Lo, a day shall come for the Lord when the spoils shall be divided in your midst.  And I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem for battle: the city shall be taken, houses plundered, women ravished…”.

These passages are the tip of a very large iceberg in the Christian bible, and tons of examples of this gross immorality can be found across both the old and new testaments.

Christians tend to cherry-pick the bible and only find passages that seem consistent with their version of faith that was taught to them; however, doing so ignores a logical dilemma:  if the bible is the ultimate source of morality, and the teachings in the bible come directly from God, how could parts of the bible be immoral?  How could the bible have immorality if it is the foundation of morality?

The practical answer to this is that people have a moral compass that tells them if something is moral or immoral.  But then, why do Christians need the bible if they already have an internal mechanism to show them right from wrong?  An alternative answer to the question is that all the depictions of God in the bible are indeed moral.  In that event, God is a monster.

Honestly, this was never a dilemma for me when I was a Christian, because I always saw the bible as part fairy tale and part truth; in fact, the problems of immorality in the bible weren’t even a main factor in my deconversion.  It was always quite clear to me that the most zealous Christians were teetering on, and often falling off, the edge between reason and lunacy.

But I do find it interesting when Christians have to grapple with these questions, because in my opinion, they do not have the upper hand in the argument:  if you have to cherry-pick a philosophy, that means the philosophy is, at best, imperfect.  The more cherry-picking you have to do, the more imperfect the philosophy is.  The only way a person can conclude that the bible (and by extension, Christianity) is moral is by cherry picking, or by rejecting their innate sense of right and wrong.

My Alternative Hypothesis On Religion

I think it’s a reasonable statement that the general position of atheists is that they reject claims made by theists; atheists make no claim in their rejection of the theist’s claim, and therefore, they own no burden of proof to demonstrate their claims.  To put it another way, the burden of proof is on a person making a claim that something exists…not on the person rejecting the claim that something exists.

That seems reasonable to me, even though I think it’s a bit of a cop-out.  I think it’s easy to get lost in logical misdirection when talking about asserting whether a claim is true or false.  Atheists indeed do make claims, but there’s a bigger point and a bigger underlying philosophy that doesn’t lend itself well to easy dialog.  Below is a list of the claims that I feel are easily demonstrable and make it clear why an atheist might be skeptical of the God claim.

1.  We belong to a species that evolved from more primitive species over the course of many millions of years.  Over the course of that evolution, we developed behavioral and social patterns that gave rise to a ubiquitous inclination to provide supernatural explanations for complicated physical and natural phenomena.  These behavioral and social patterns include superstition, hyperbole, social hierarchy, self-reflection, emotional turbulence, and pattern seeking.

2.  Religious institutions, regardless of how formalized they are, are ubiquitous across cultures because they cater to inherent desires of humanity, including socialization, a sense of belonging, and simple explanations of natural phenomena, regardless of whether they are true or not.  They also tend to provide psychological support for a number of psychologically distressful phenomena, including death and disease.

3.  The inclination to invoke supernatural explanations is reinforced by a variety of social and religious institutions, and human beings have historically gotten very little pushback when they have appealed to the supernatural, particularly when these explanations agreed with preconceived notions of God or gods.

4.  Many of the existential questions to which human beings lacked explanations during the rise of modern theisms have now been answered.  These questions include:  How did we get here?  Why are we here?  Why does the sun rise?  Why does the weather change?  Why do people I care about die?  Why do babies die?  Why is there suffering?

These questions are answered in our understanding of various fields including medicine, biology, evolutionary biology, germ theory of disease, chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, and sound deductive logic.

5.  Answers and explanations provided in various religions, specifically Christianity, tend to be very simplistic, and are appealing to people who are poor and uneducated.  This would have been particularly true for people who could not read, which would have represented the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the late-1800s.  Subsequent discoveries that reveal religion’s profound failures to accurately explain natural phenomena have given rise to the rejection of its claims.  The writing was on the proverbial wall beginning in the 1400s, after western Europe was reintroduced to Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.   In 1633, Galileo Galilei was put on house arrest for the rest of his life for heresy because of his assertion that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun.  Other Renaissance and Enlightenment figures who, sometimes inadvertently, introduced skepticism towards supernatural explanations include Leonardo da Vinci, Giordano Bruno, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Baruch Spinoza.  Interestingly, the amount of Catholic Church pushback increased around the same time as natural understanding of the world began to increase.  This is demonstrated by examples such as the Spanish inquisition, which began in 1478, and witch burnings, which killed tens-of-thousands of people across multiple contents over the course of several hundred years, from 1450-1750.

6.  There are natural phenomenon that are not well-explained by science, including events that gave rise to the big bang, and abiogenesis.  Our lack of clarity about these specific phenomena, along with a fiercely anti-intellectual population who reject well-supported scientific claims, are the engine of perpetuity for modern religions.

These supporting facts and claims support my hypothesis that religion is man-made, and is therefore an instrument people use to explain the world.  There are a lot of reasons why religion fits well into human models of the world, and this explains why people are slow to let go of those ideas, even in the presence of better explanations for the phenomena that gave rise to religion in the first place.

19 Kids and Counting

Evidently, there is a movement to get TLC’s show “19 Kids and Counting” cancelled because of statements the Duggar family made about the LGBT community.

I’ve long since stopped watching TLC, mostly because they air trashy shows like “19 kids and counting” (I think it’s horribly unethical to have that many kids, but I’ll skip the diatriabe on that).

There’s a point to be made in terms of how fundamentalists view LGBT people, and I think the point is that religion, and in this case Christianity, facilitates irrational hatred and bigotry.  In fact, this hatred is celebrated within some denominations.  And this theme of intolerance is not reserved for the LGBT community – it’s directed at anyone who holds different beliefs.

I think it’s interesting that religion facilitates this sort of distrust of “the other”, because it’s such a common them across humanity and with animals.  If evolution is real (which it is), irrational fear of people that are different is exactly what you’d expect – it’s how evolution would manifest, because fear is a survival tool, and fear helps animals protect themselves and their community.

Animals exhibit fear-based behavior towards other animals, especially if the other animal is as big or bigger than them.  It is only after the other animal has exhibited benignity that fear decreases.  Consider your neighborhood squirrel.  Squirrels can be trained to take food from your hand.  Similarly, this is how dogs were domesticated from wolves.  Clearly, humans must have experienced this at some point as well, considering that 2-4% of the human genome comes from Neanderthals.

Most people who have irrational fear towards LBGT people have never even met an openly gay person, although it’s quite likely they’ve met closeted gay people.  So they don’t really know what they’re talking about, except to say that their bible told them that gay people are immoral.

I don’t really have a conclusion here – I think TLC, and most of the original shows on it are awful, and I think people like the Duggars are close-minded bigots who’ve really found the perfect symbiosis with a TV network as trashy as they are.