Friday, March 7, 2014

How Do You View the Bible?

I got a pamphlet from Jehovah's Witnesses left stuck in the crack of my door the other day.  I, being the open-minded person I am and willing to change my views if evidence is presented, read it carefully.  What if this pamphlet contained some evidence to Christianity's veracity?! I had to know!  It was titled with the same title as this post and asks three questions on the front page.

Would you say it [the bible] is a book of human wisdom?  Well, so far my answer is "No, not really."  Sure the bible contains some wisdom, I'll give it that.  It says we should not kill one another.  Then again, we've known that we shouldn't kill each other for thousands and thousands of years before the bible was even a thought.  On the other hand, the bible also has some monumentally unwise stuff such as a quote attributed to Jesus, "But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you, for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (Matt 5:27-28) It can be argued that the second part of that quote is metaphor, but that raises the question of who decides what is metaphorical and what is literal, doesn't it?  On the other hand, that first part troubles me, because it is not wise at all.  I put it to anyone reading this that almost no one outside arranged marriage ever got married or fell in love without looking at someone with lust.  It does not make sense to try and control a person's thoughts, which is what that verse is essentially doing.  Now, let's not forget all the other unwise things the bible says.  Bats aren't birds and insects don't have four legs, just to name two examples.  By the way, each of the claims I make here can be clicked on to see the relevant passage of the bible to show you I'm not making this up. So, the bible is a fallible book written by humans that does contain some wisdom and some fantastically stupid stuff that is most unwise.  The work of humans we can expect to contain errors, but so far, it does not look like the infallible work of an all-knowing, all-powerful being.

Would you say it is a book of myths and legends?  Let's define what a myth is, first.  A myth is a traditional story, especially concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.  A second definition is a widely held but false belief.  Both of these definitions apply to the bible.  I'm not going to do the work for people this time.  If you don't know the creation myth of Genesis, then that is a good place to start.  It's also reasonable to read the creation myths of other faiths, if you consider yourself open-minded.

Would you say it is the Word of God?  Presumably, they mean the work of the Christian god, Jehovah, Yahweh, etc., so I'm going to roll with it.  Anyone who has taken the time to honestly read the bible can see that it is a book written by humans who make mistakes.  See above for evidence of that.

On the inside of the pamphlet, it asks, "Can we really believe what the bible says?  Yes, for at least three reasons:

"Amazing harmony: The Bible was written over a period of 1,600 years by some 40 different people. Most of them never met one another. Yet, the entire book is harmonious, with one central theme!"  I wonder if the author of this pamphlet ever heard of the Council of Nicaea, where the books of the bible were hand picked in order to form a semi continuous story.  If I had a bunch of scrolls, I bet I could make a harmonious book out of them by piecing them together by theme!  Now, I do have issue with the fact that the pamphlet says there is one central theme.  I wonder what theme they mean.  Is it the theme of an angry, vengeful, racist, homophobic, tribalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, cruel god character of the Old Testament or the one who is all kittens and rainbows in the New Testament?  It is worth noting that no matter how cruel the Old Testament themed god is, it is not until gentle Jesus meek and mild arrives in the story that the idea of eternal torture comes into play.  Is the theme "love thy neighbor" or is it eternal damnation for finite sins?

"Honest history: Secular historians seem quick to cover the defeats of their people. In contrast, Bible writers candidly recorded both of their personal failings and those of their nation."  These people want to talk about honest history?  I don't even know where to begin!  Noah's flood never happened, no one spent 40 years wandering the desert, the Garden of Eden obviously isn't honestly historic, and the exodus from Egypt did not happen.  If they did, no reliable historian has ever found any evidence for any of these  historical claims.  It seems that the Jehovah's witnesses need to consider that whole, "Thou shalt not lie," bit of the bible or educate themselves.

As likely as the Exodus from Egypt

"Reliable prophecy: The Bible foretold the destruction of the ancient city of Babylon some 200 y ears in advance. It revealed not only the manner in which Babylon would fall but even the name of its conqueror!"  Again, it is really easy to piece these things together at a council where hundreds upon hundreds of copies of scrolls and books are conveniently together and cherry picked to form a semi coherent story.  I could very easily write about how in the 1940s, a man named Adolf Hitler will rise to power after writing a book called Mein Kampf and in 200 years, a scholar might find it and say, "Look!  This guy got the Nazi leader's name down to a tee!"  What I'm really trying to get at is that if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick.  The bible gets a few things correct here and there, but the overall message of hate and violence and inaccuracies kind of overwhelms the whole "Word of a Loving God" business.

In short, the Jehovah's Witness' pamphlet did not hold up to scrutiny.  This is no surprise to anyone who has honestly read any of the bible that was not spoon fed and carefully interpreted by someone who arbitrarily decided what is metaphor in the book.  The burden of proof remains on the Witnesses.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Religion and Mental Illness

Being an atheist in the mental health field offers a unique view into those living with and recovering from mental illness.  For those of you who do not know, I work as a mental health paraprofessional (MHPP) now and plan to go on for a license in therapy and a doctorate in psychology.  To protect the confidentiality of the people I help treat, any and all names will be changed.

I am on a treatment team that serves those who are recovering from a mental illness.  Nearly all the people I help treat are working to recover from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar I disorder.  Anyone who has taken even just a general psychology class should be able to tell you what these three mental illnesses have in common.  They all share the common symptom of delusions.  What is a delusion, though?  A delusion is a strong belief that persists despite strong or overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  For example, one person I'm helping recover has strong delusions.  Let's call her Mary.  Mary believes she was in the Vietnam War as an infant.  She calls herself the Baby on the Battlefield.  Mary also believes she is married to Steven Seagal.  Another delusion Mary holds is her belief that she has a license to kill, but it is locked up at the Pentagon where the government is holding her VA benefits.  She believes that while in Vietnam, she was shot several times and has a bionic body.  Her legs are made of granite, her lungs made of glass, and she has steel plates in her head.  Mary was not born until after the Vietnam War ended, infants do not fight in wars, she has no license to kill, and because she was never in the service, Mary does not have VA benefits.  There is strong evidence to the contrary of all these delusions.

What does any of this have to do with religion, though?  Religion by its very nature is a delusion.  The DSM-IV-TR, however, has a specific clause excluding religious beliefs from the criteria for mental illness.  The idea behind it is that for something to qualify as a disorder, it has to cause marked distress, dysfunction, or be deviant.  If one person believes she can close her eyes, clasp her hands, and have a conversation with the creator of everything, we'd probably call that a delusion.  If a million people do this, it's perfectly fine.  Usually, religion doesn't cause distress or dysfunction in the same way delusions Mary has, but their nature is the same:  Grandiose and unsupported by evidence.

The reason I bring this up is that delusions are hard to overcome.  They're hard to overcome due to the fact that religion is not considered a delusion.  How is it we ask for evidence for Mary's claims, but if she turns around and says, "So, I was talking to God....," that's perfectly fine?  Mary's belief that she has a license to kill may be a problem for her.  Suppose she attempts to kill someone.  Given that people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim than the aggressor, it is unlikely Mary will try to use the license to kill, but suppose for a moment.  That would cause marked distress and dysfunction, because she would be in jail.  It still poses and interesting issue in the treatment of mental illness.  "You need to show evidence that you are a veteran, Mary.  You don't have to show evidence that you were talking with the creator of everything."

Religious beliefs don't always cause any distress.  Granted the innate prejudice that most religions promote does cause distress in followers.  The religious people who accept homosexuality and don't treat women like inferior beings will not be distressed by those things.  They understand that homosexuality is not an abomination and women are equal to men.  They have overcome a delusion.

Of course, that raises a new question.  If you understand that your religion is wrong about homosexuality, slavery, rape, murder, genocide, and women, how do we know it's not wrong about the rest?  Why not toss the religion aside and create a secular moral code that is based on an understanding of reality instead an assertion of authority?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Religious Apologists

I haven't posted in quite a while.  For those of you who enjoy my writing, I apologize.  For those who are uncomfortable with my topic, you're welcome.  I've been inactive for all this time for several reasons:  school, work, etc.  Graduate school requires a lot of time to do the projects and papers.  Sure, I have fewer classes, but that does not make it easier.  Work has been interesting, and I intend to post about that in a confidential way, but that's not the topic today, is it?

Today, I'd like to discuss something that's been on my mind lately, which is -- you guessed it -- the religious apologist!  Now, the word "apologist" comes from the Greek apalogia, which is essentially a formal speech or rebuttal of an argument.  When referring to religious apologists, typically it is a defense or push back against other religions or, in my case, secularism.  Current apologists tend to offer arguments for Christianity or Islam.  Sure, there are other apologists, but the Christians and Muslims are the most prolific.  Let me be clear, before I move on.  When I say that apologists offer arguments for their religions, what I mean is they rehash the same ones over and over.  Really, go watch any debate by William Lane Craig or any other apologist.  YouTube is full of them.  You'll see the same arguments repeatedly.  They'll be the Ontological Argument by St. Anselm, any of the five arguments for the existence of a god by St. Thomas Aquinas, arguments from ignorance, authority, and so on.  They're all arguments that have been thoroughly torn down over hundreds of years, but the apologist just keeps beating that dead horse.  Now there was that one time that Ray Comfort tried to disprove evolution by saying a banana was designed to fit in the human hand.  He really said that.  Google it.  When you type in "Ray Comfort" the drop-down suggestion box has "Ray Comfort banana" in it.  That's how well known this "argument" is.

Okay, that's enough bashing the banana man for now.  It still seems interesting that the devout must still have these apologists who try and sway people their way using arguments that have absolutely no credibility any more.  I think that is a pretty strong case for the other side:  Secularism.  Why?  Well, do you see any apologists for Mount Everest?  Of course not!  If anyone tried to argue that Mount Everest existed, you would let them make their argument, then go, "Yeah, and here's a picture.  You didn't need a philosophical argument for that, friend.  We have conclusive evidence it exists."

Consider the same for Christianity.  An apologist says, "Look, here's what you should believe."  The unbeliever is likely to say, "Sure, but the bible is full of holes and contradictions.  The Genesis story has been conclusively discredited, Noah's Ark was never a thing, and slavery is morally wrong.  The believer may attempt to say any of the following:

"If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"
"Where did we come from?  Where did that come from?  Where did that come from?  You don't know?  God.
"Why don't you believe in God(TM)?  What if you're wrong?  Isn't it better to believe and be saved than not?" 

There are countless examples of this happening.  I experienced all three of these just last year when the SSA group I work with had a fund raiser on the same day as a Christian organization.  Never mind that the answers to the questions are, "We didn't evolve from monkeys," "If everything needs a creator, so does your god," and, "What if you're wrong about any of the countless other gods and goddesses?"  So, back to topic.  What would you, my religious readers, say if someone came to you and said they had conclusive evidence that Mount Everest existed?  What would you say if someone tried to debate the existence of the Minotaur?

I'll give a hint.  The reasons for believing in the Minotaur are exactly as credible for the reasons you believe in your god.  There is a reason why Minotaur and Mount Everest apologists don't exist.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Year Ago, I Lost a Friend

One year ago, today, I lost a very good friend.  I wasn't alone in that loss, obviously, but even still it was a loss to me.  Chris did so much good while he was here that I don't even know where to start.  I guess the incident that stand out most to me is the time just after my fiancee and I split.  Some time went by, and Chris was the first one of my friends to reach and out check up on how I was holding up.  That small gesture was incredibly meaningful to me, and I'll never forget it.  You see, that's just the kind of guy Chris was.  He was always selfless and neutral between friends.

A year ago, I posted a note on Facebook.  I didn't have this blog set up yet, but I do now!  It seems fitting to post in a, hopefully, more visible part of the internet.  You see, each time I write an entry here, I hope that someone shares it.  I hope it gets passed around.  It's about information, because I don't get a single dime for my writing.  This one is especially important to me, because it deals with something that too few people seem to understand:  Death as an unbeliever.  Often, we concede the comforting of survivors of deceased loved ones to the religion.  The religious have the comfort of saying, "Your friend is in a better place."  At the surface, those of us who don't believe in an afterlife, let alone a perfect paradise, seem to believe life is short and ends with us being devoured in the ground, decomposing.  While we are perfectly aware that when life ends then it's lights out, there is far more to life and death than that.  There is way more beauty to be observed in the life than any fictional storyteller could ever fabricate.

With that in mind, I'd like to remember Chris in a way I think he would see fitting.  He wouldn't want us to be sitting at the house moping about.  He wouldn't want us being torn up that he was gone.  He’d appreciate the display of love I’m sure, but ultimately, I think he would appreciate us celebrating his life.  Therefore, I’d like to say a few words to remember him by, which illustrate the grand beauty of life:

 Things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful.  We have fleeting moments that pass into oblivion that mean the world to us.  The first time someone said to you, “I love you.” Maybe.  A huge laugh you had with a friend, perhaps.  I’d wager the first time any of us rode a bicycle the first time without training wheels will never be forgotten.   I may have had an experience so profound that I’ll never forget it, yet I acknowledge I’ll never go through it again.  Does that make it less meaningful?  Of course not!  That moment will live for the rest of my life in my memories!  Chris is the same.  I’ll never forget him, and he’ll always live on through me.  He’s impacted me, whether I know it or not.  He continues living through each one of us.

Humans have existed as we know it for approximately 120,000 years. Chris was here for roughly 0.00025% of that.  Consider for a second the sheer probability that he was here during the time we were.  I can’t even fathom how lucky we were to be touched by his presence.  To know that no matter the time of day he’d be there for any one of us in an instant if he was able.  We should consider ourselves lucky to have known him for the brief moment we all were in this time and space together.  And of course, this goes for all of our loved ones.  Don't take the time we have for granted.  In the grand scheme of time, it's a blink of an eye.

I fully intend to use the life lessons that Chris taught me to better myself and the lives of those around me.  He taught me that friendship is one of the most important parts of life.  I will be there for my friends if I’m able.  The fact that he was sick and dying, yet was always able to come to the aid of someone who he cared for speaks volumes to me.  If Chris can do that, so can the rest of us.  I plan to live by his philosophy of love and selflessness from here on out.  In the year since his death, I have done this to the best of my ability.  I've yet to turn a friend away who needs or wants my help, and I hope you haven't either.

I’m sure some of us have thought this before, but I thought it necessary to say here, in light of his passing.  To acknowledge how much he impacted our lives is the greatest service we could ever to such an amazing human being.  Selflessness in the face of personal problems over selfishness in the face of personal gain is a much more beautiful way to live.  With all this in mind, I remember a wonderful human being.

I'll enjoy a delicious beer tonight.  It just seems wrong to remember him without raising a mug.

To Chris Clarke...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Peace Without God

My university's newspaper recently ran a piece talking about how peace is not able to be achieved without the Christian god.  It is awash with quotes like:
"This world can sell you protection?  God will grant me protection, forever, for free."
"Sure, a crazy gunman can take me from this earth.  But so can a car wreck, a severe storm, a war and the flu.  I do not have to worry about who can walk in and out of my door when I know I will never be taken from the hand of God. If you do not believe God sent Jesus Christ to earth to die for our sins so that we may receive the Holy Spirit, fulfill his purpose on earth and return to live with him in heaven in the future, then you cannot have this peace and protection that the offers.  The world would be scary without that promise of a hope and future.  I can count on the peace and protection that my God offers, especially in a world filled with insanity and evil.  The world with firearms versus the God of all creation who offers peace and protection.  I know who would win that duel."

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, those of us in the godless community mourn the taking of lives that day.  Our hearts went out to the friends and families of the victims.  The majority of us in the blogosphere had nearly the exact same thought:  "Today, we mourn; tomorrow, we discuss."

It has been over a month since the tragedy occurred, and it's time for discussion.  What should we discuss, though?  There are those who say the shooting happened, because God was taken out of schools and children are no longer allowed to pray there.  We'll set aside the question of which god was taken out of schools and the fact that children absolutely can pray in school, privately, if they want.  The article in the ArkaTech on the 24th was of similar sentiment.  The author expresses "the world with firearms versus the God of all creation who offers peace and protection.  I know who would win that duel."

There are many things that could be said about that idea, but I want to point out how the whole article contributes absolutely nothing to the discussion on firearms.  "I do not have to worry about who can walk in and out of my door when I know I will never be taken from the hand of God," says the author, implying that she can and may leave her front door unlocked with no threat.  She has the promise of heaven to look forward to.  She need only relinquish her personal responsibility of taking part of the discussion about firearms, because God will take care of people.  We nonbelievers do not share that sentiment.  The responsibility to reduce conflict in the world is our specie's job.  We cannot sit back with clasped hands and wait for our job to be done for us.  Instead, atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and so on ask ourselves what should be discussed.  Gun laws?  Access to mental health?  Stronger background checks?  These are the things that will curb violence.  Praying will not.

There was a lot of talk in that article about how there can be no peace without the Christian god.  I, respectfully, must disagree.  I see extreme joy on the faces of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists every day on campus.  Christianity does not have a monopoly on peace and happiness as it would have us believe. We atheists understand this is the one shot we have to be happy.  We have one life with which we can use to better the world around us.  Atheists have a profound respect for life, because of this.

Some may think that atheists believe life to be empty and pointless since there is no great beyond.  On the contrary, there is comfort knowing that we left behind something other than a body.  We left a legacy, however small.  We live on in the sense that the lives we touch will go on to touch others.  We live on in the DNA of our children.  Life is not meaningless to us.

I leave you with a final thought in response to two sentence that stood out.  "The world would be scary without that promise of a hope and future.  I can count on the peace and protection that my God offers, especially in a world filled with insanity and evil."

Make no mistake here.  The world is a scary place filled with evil.  We cannot, however, sit and hope to be protected from it.  Let's stop the praying and start contributing to the solution.  Join us on Wednesday nights at 9:00 in RPL 300B if you want to make an actual difference in the world.

Friday, January 4, 2013

I Went to Church

On Christmas Eve, I had to take a client from work to church for midnight communion.  I had the option of dropping her off or staying through the service; I chose the latter.  I have to say it was a lovely service.  As we walk in, the first thing I notice is the building itself. The building is beautiful. The vaulted ceilings are nothing short of impressive, which I suspect is to give the churchgoers a humbling experience.  Moving on through what I suppose we could call an entrance hall, we are greeted by a polite man handing out bulletins and candles in cups.  My candle was bent, probably due to sitting in a box for a full year.  We then enter the sanctuary, which is stunning.  It's enormous.  Two PowerPoint screens high on the wall, which is a pale golden color in the light, make hymns easier to sing, I suppose.  Red poinsettias are plentiful, which contrasted nicely with the gold of the walls, which have some nice looking wood carvings set into them.  The carvings were interesting.  They were a cross, naturally, but you know those optical tricks that ask you how many triangles there are, but as you look, more and more pop out?  That's what these carvings did.  All in all, the sheer building itself is a bit awe inspiring.  It isn't hard to see how some people might mistake that for the presence of a Holy Spirit. Or Jesus.  Or God.  Or somehow all three.

Like this, but with Bronze Age torture devices.

As we take our seats, the pastor gives a welcoming speech.  He's not a bad orator, overall.  His voice is lovely.  It's the kind of voice that a child might enjoy reading a bedtime story.  His accent was off, however.  I couldn't quite place where it was from, and that distracted me.  His welcome speech was nice.  It had draw to it, which I suspect is part of why the church was so large.  Once his welcome was over, the congregation stood and sang "Joy to the World." Even an atheist such as myself must appreciate the church music.  The song is lively and harmonious.  I'm sure, to believers especially, the lyrics are powerful, but I find them silly.  "Joy to the world! The lord is come?"  I'm sure the lord is considered many things, but somehow I suspect come is not one of those things.  Anyway, moving on to "The Lighting of the Christ Candle." This was, appallingly, done by high school seniors.  It was wild to see the conviction on these young ladies' faces as they took part in the symbolic ritual.  I always wonder, as I'm sitting in the pews, how many people believe and how many are there out of routine or societal pressure.  Here, with these girls, there was no question.  The reverence on their faces was apparent to me even in the back of the church.  With that devotion to the church and its teachings, it makes me wonder how educated they are in science and their own holy book.

Following the Christ candle bit, a female pastor read their Old Testament lesson.  I found that interesting, because of so many Christians I've seen denounce the parts of the Old Testament that they dislike as being what it is: Old.  Of course, if the person likes a particular book, chapter, or verse, then it's applicable.  The excerpt the lady pastor chose tonight was Isaiah 9:2-7:
"2. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 3. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4. For as the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5. Every warriors boots used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this."
The language of the bible is always telling of its true intention.  This is a prime example.  It speaks of hope and a new order of peace, but the underlying message is still that the people will be slaves.  "...upholding it with justice...." the text says.  Let's not forget that this king of kings is the very same who orders the killing of gays, adulterers, and so on.  Let's not forget that this prince of peace is the same entity who casts people into eternal torture for insignificant and arbitrary rules.  Of course, it's always to remember that regardless of how grotesque the Old Testament teachings are, it's not until this gentle lamb of god comes that we hear of eternal damnation.  But, I digress.  The lady pastor chose this passage, probably because it sounds superficially inspiring.  Following this, there was special music sung by two very talented siblings.  They sang and harmonized very well.  I was impressed.

Once the special music was finished, the male pastor started telling his version of Jesus' birth.  Before he started, however, he explained that he pretty much said the same thing on Christmas and Easter year after year.  His reason was that it's such a powerful story that it need not change.  The pastor did caution people, though.  He warned that no matter how powerful a message is, it loses strength with each telling.  He suggested that every time they hear the story of Christ's birth, they take pause to let the message fully sink in. I heartily agree with him, because it allows for the holes in the story to become apparent.  To put what I mean into clearer words, I need only to move forward with the service.

The pastor explained that he would only be reading from the books of Luke and Matthew.  To a believer, this may seem reasonable.  These two are the most concise and inspiring versions of the story, a believer may say.  They're absolutely right.  The virgin birth isn't present in the other two Canonical Gospels of the New Testament!  It seems like that should wave red flags to a reader.  The most important event in human history and the four gospels don't agree on the events? No matter, since Luke focuses on Mary and Matthew focuses on Joseph.  The pastor reads Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 2:1-11:
Luke 2:1-20 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  2. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3.  And everyone went to their own town to register. 4.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.  8.  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10.  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  11. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  12.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."  13.  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."  15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethelehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
 So, let's just recap before moving onto the next excerpt.  A bunch of shepherds, the lowest of the low, go to the people and just claim that some kid is a savior?  And they believe the shepherds?  Furthermore, is Joseph really that daft?  His wife comes to him and says she's knocked up.  An angel told her that it was the son of god.  Wait, no.  The authors of the bible have a clever loophole.  Another angel comes to tell Joseph that his wife has been impregnated by God.  Isn't that convenient? No, I'm terribly sorry.  This story absolutely reeks of adultery and a lie to cover it up.  Again, I digress.  Moving onto the excerpt from Matthew:
"Matthew 2:1-11 After jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east come to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: But you, in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the child.  As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."  9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
 Again, the language here is telling.  To say that a ruler, a king no less, is going to make a journey just to bow down to a child is a truly humbling thought.  I digress again.  These were the two sections of the bible chosen for the service.  During the reading, a church member was silently lighting candles.  Each candle was meant to represent a person.  Each shepherd had a candle.  Each "wise man" had one, along with Mary, Joseph, and so on.  It was fascinating, because I could feel people being sucked in.  Call it intuition or what-have-you, but it's easy to understand people mistaking that feeling for the Holy Spirit.

Once these two readings were done, the congregation sang "O Come All Ye Faithful."  This time, more people joined in, but of course that's a great excuse for a person to exclaim, "Oh, well naturally!  That's the Holy Spirit moving people in praise!"  There is, of course, a simpler, more reasonable explanation.  People just get less self-conscious.  You know, like in junior high school dances.  Remember how people would stand around the edges of the gym at the start, awkwardly eyeing each other?  Then, that one couple bites the bullet and starts dancing?  Let's not pretend that things are more complex than they are.  People just loosen up over time.

I'll grant religion that the music it has produced has been rather nice, so I was a little sad when the song ended, and the pastor began reading scripture again.  This time, he chose Luke 2:1-5:

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was the governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of Davit. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Now, isn't it interesting here? Let's look at the timeline.  Matthew 2:1 expresses that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king.  Luke 1:5 expresses the same thing.  But, wait.   Herod the Great died in the year 4 BCE!  So, which is wrong?  History or the bible?  Well, in the case of Christ's birth, let's look again at the words the pastor spoke.  "...census that took place while Quirinius was the governor of Syria."  That's fascinating to me, because according to other, more accurate sources than the bible, Quirinius didn't become governor of Syria until the year 6 CE!  In addition, there is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian, but the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions one that did occur.  The catch is that it did not have the requirement for people to return to their places of birth, and it was six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to ahve taken place.  No matter, historical accuracy must not have been important to the people who wrote the most important books of the Christian bible, so it is easy to ignore, which the congregation gladly does out of ignorance or apathy.  They then join together again for song.  This time, the choice is "O Little Town of Bethlehem," which I must admit was a new one to me.  I'd either never heard it or paid enough attention as a child.  The song was alright, but it doesn't resonate like some of the other songs, which is fine.  The pastor took to the pulpit again once the voices subsided to read Luke 2:6-7 to pick up where he left off:

"6 And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
Now, again, something strikes me as odd.  What kind of inn would turn down a woman who was basically crowning?  Perhaps if that woman was known to be carrying an illegitimate child.  Let's not forget the historical context the Old Testament suggests.  Adulterous women should be punished at the very least.  Another bit of language that fascinates me is present in the passage, though.  "...and she brought forth her firstborn son."  Firstborn.  I have to wonder what life was like for her other sons, having a "Messiah" as a sibling and whatnot.  No matter for the congregation, again.  They move on to sing the famous "Away in a Manger," followed shortly thereafter by the single verse Luke 2:8:

"8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night."
Frankly, I'm not entirely sure why the single verse was spoken.  It seems utterly unimportant.  Shepherds, by their very name, keep watch over flocks at night.  Surely, I wasn't the only person in the pews to wonder the significance of that particular verse, but my thoughts were interrupted by the congregation singing "The First Noel," which was a lovely song.  Once finished, however, the pastor recited a much lengthier block of scripture from Luke 2:9-14:

"9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' 13 And suddenly there was with the angle a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"
Now, I remember in high school how fast word spread of pregnant classmates.  Not only did I hear about them in my own school, but I heard about pregnancies from counties over.  It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that word of an unmarried, adolescent girl claiming to be carrying an immaculately conceived child would spread across the land.  "Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes...."  Yes, naturally.  That's what children are covered with after birth.  Hardly a revelation.  Now, the rest of that is obviously utter hogwash and inconsistent.  For example, the idea that Jesus was born to spread peace is one that is sometimes true and sometimes not, depending on the cherry-picked verses.  The congregation seemingly doesn't mind the inconsistencies, but again, I digress.  Now, the church comes alive in song.  "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is sung.  I don't know about you, but I absolutely love this song.  I think it's extraordinarily pretty.  Though, as a child, I remember my cousin accusing me of singing the parody "Hark! The herald angels sing, 'Glory to the goober king!'" which is still funny to me.  Once the crowd quiets from singing about their goober king, whatever that means, Luke 2:15-17 is recited:

"15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made unto us.' 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made it known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child."
Okay, wait.  Let me translate that incredibly formal, stiff conversation.  "Hey, bros, let's go to Bethlehem and see this 'kid' that is supposed to be our savior."  Then, they get there and see an ordinary child, they (without getting evidence according to the bible) leave and tell everyone that the child is the son of the Jewish god. One might take the time to point out to me that if the angel told them to go there, and they did and see exactly what the angel said, that would be proof.  Okay, fair point.  Let's get some outside stories corroborating the story.  Please bring me the written story by one of the shepherds.  I'll wait.  In the meantime, let's get back to business!  The pastor stopped reciting scripture, and the congregation sang "Go Tell It on the Mountains," which is another rather fun song.  Following the music, the pastor then read his final piece of scripture dealing with the famous wise men, Matthew 2:1-11:

"1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. 2 Saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.' 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was trouble, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor that shall rule my people in Israel.'  7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, 'Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.' 9 When they had heard the king, they departed, and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary and his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense  and myrrh."
Now, we've already addressed the issue of the chronological context of Christ's supposed birth, so I'm particularly interested in Matthew 2:2, which as you see above, expresses the idea that they followed the stars.  Let's don't forget Isaiah 47:13-14, which explicitly condemns astrologists.  Additionally, we can't ignore Deuteronomy 18:10-12, which does similarly.  A believer can reconcile these inconsistencies by pointing out that Jesus came to abolish the old law, which is (to anyone who has read the Christian bible) absolutely incorrect.  It always fascinates me, as someone who studies psychology, how very easily the authors of the bible catered the New Testament to the prophesies of the Old Testament, yet blatantly ignore the laws set forth by the OT.

Moving passed the scripture reading, the pastor gave his very short sermon, which was titled "Good News of Great Joy." It was more or less a rehash of the scripture readings of the whole night, and I won't bore you with the details.  Following that, was the communion or the sharing of the bread and up, which was, of course, the symbolic cannibalism that many Christians groups partake in.  I declined to eat the bread and drink the "wine" in order to observe the ritual.  The people went on their knees in front of the pulpit, and the pastor stood above them.  Of course, this creates a feeling of submission in those on their knees.  The pastor handed them a piece of bread and passed a single cup of "wine" down the row.  I found that to be rather gross.  People dipping their dirty fingers into a cup and eating soggy bread is not my thing.  Once everyone had their fill of metaphorical skin and blood, the pastor led the congregation in the prayer of hope:

"O almighty God, by the birth of your holy child Jesus, you gave us a great light to dawn on our darkness. Grant that in Christ's light, we may see light.  Bestow upon us that most excellent Christmas gift of love to all people, so that the likeness of your Son may be formed in us, and that we may have the ever brightening hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen."
 During the prayer, I unashamedly did not bow my head.  It was at that point, I looked around and made eye contact with another guy who wasn't praying. We acknowledged each other and had a gratifying head nod towards each other.  But let's talk about that prayer.  "Bestow upon us that most excellent Christmas gift of love to all people...." I wonder if that extends towards all those condemned by Christianity.  I wonder if these Christians have taken the time to send a letter or email or even make a quick phone call to the Catholics in Illinois who are fighting against homosexuality, because they say it isn't possible for two men to love each other.  Do they "love the sinner, but hate the sin?"

See, I've touched on the immorality of Christianity in other posts, but this is a whole new topic.  The idea that Christianity can actually demean love. In Sunday school, Christianity begins by telling small children extraordinary stories of creation and life before the "fall."  It offers a glimpse of "perfect" life, of "perfect" love, and of someone who created you to care for you endlessly.  Even if that love comes with a price.  To any bible-believing Christian, the ideal view of love is and always will be God and his love for his creation.  This love is obviously not flawless in that you face infinite punishment for finite offenses.

Now, the prayer above does have a qualifier in it.  "....that we may have the ever brightening hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior."  Yes, let's talk about this savior.  He absorbed all of humanities sin, if I am not mistaken.  What does that mean?  Christ took the punishment for those people who believe he did.  I don't know how people see that as moral.  Is it ethical to believe that if I murder or rape someone, another person could serve my sentence?  On the surface, it might seem reasonable that if someone makes the conscious decision to take my punishment, then that person is free to do so.  Fair enough!  The problem lies with the corollary: Is it ethical to let me, a hypothetical murderer, free on the grounds that an innocent man wants to take my place?  I'll let you, the reader, decide.  In the meantime, we're going to move on to the closing part of the service.

After that prayer was finished, the pastor lit a candle and passed the flame to other members of the church.  This was a symbol of receiving and spreading the "Light of the World to the world."  I have to say, it was very interesting from a psychological standpoint.  Everyone is in the dark with nearly no light save for the candles, and we get to watch that light grow.  Very inspiring to a believer, I would imagine.  After the everyone's candle was lit, the congregation sang "Silent Night" by candlelight.  I can imagine how inspiring it would have been to hear that song while seeing the candlelight exponentially grow, but from a safety standpoint, it probably wouldn't have been smart to sing while passing fire.  I suppose God doesn't protect his house from burning.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.  I went to church.  It was extremely fascinating to me, but ultimately like a magic show after learning how the tricks are done.  The fear-mongering sadism and the inspirational masochism loses its touch once a person realizes what is going on.  Maybe I'll go to another church one of these days, but I don't think anything will change unless the core principles of Christianity change.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Where I Stand on Guns

Anyone who reads my blog can see that I tend to lean liberal on most, if not all, issues I've touched on.  Today, I'll tackle gun control.  In light of the recent shooting in Connecticut, the internet has been exploding on both ends of the argument.  I've seen everything from, "Ban all guns.  No guns at all equals no gun violence," to "The teachers at schools should have guns."  I have one particular Facebook friend who went as far as to say the students should be armed.  Gun control is part of the problem.  Maybe people do have access to overly powerful weapons, and those weapons should be restricted.  Another part of the problem, however, is the mental health issue.  Perhaps we don't have sufficient screening for gun applicants.  And, yet a third issue to the gun problem is education.  Accidental deaths happen.  Now, let me preface this by stating that I am a gun owner.  I have a Mossberg 500 12 gauge shotgun with a tactical, collapsible stock.  Why do I have it?

First, and foremost, home defense.  It's true that I do have years of martial arts training.  There is also quite a distance from my bedroom door to the entrance to my home.  Now, do I ever expect to have to use my gun?  Well, let's consider what is meant by using a gun.  Do I intend to ever shoot my shotgun in the case of a  home invasion?  I doubt it, but I would if I had no other options.  Do I ever intend to smack someone with it? Sure, I'd hit an intruder with the butt of my shotgun if I had the opportunity.  But, let's be honest.  If I can hit someone with something, it means they're too close.  A likely scenario is that an intruder made it closer to my bedroom in a shorter time than I expected.  A third, far more practical purpose for owning a gun for defense is the intimidation factor.  Those of you who have never experienced the sound of a shotgun being pumped have no idea how terrifying that sound can be.  Movies to not do it justice.  I can't imagine the kind of criminal who would hear that and say, "Hmm, that's a shotgun being loaded.  Better not leave."  Any intruder who continues advancing after hearing the warning sound of a shotgun shell being chambered should probably be nominated for a Darwin Award.

A second reason I own a gun is for recreation.  Shooting guns is fun.  There's undeniably a feeling of power when someone obliterates a target downrange.  It's positively awe inspiring.  From a young age, I've enjoyed shooting.  It's challenging, requiring practical application of trigonometry and geometry.  Longer shots require a shooter to be able to anticipate how far the bullet will drop.  In that case, one has to also take into account that shorter-ranged shots will place high on the target.  The longest shots people can make even have to compensate for the curve of the earth.  Yes, I know, I could go to a range and pay to shoot their rifles.  No, thank you.  That would potentially leave my home defenseless.  "But if no one had a gun, you wouldn't need yours to defend against!" someone might say.  An invader may show up with a knife, true, but fuck you if you think I'm going to tangle with a knife-wielding criminal.  No, I'll minimize loss on my end.

My third reason for owning a shotgun is similar to the first reason:  precautionary.  Our country may not always be as stable as it is.  I could lose my job.  The list goes on, but the point is that in the situation where I cannot get food, I'll take myself right into the woods.  I will hunt for my food.  I could use a bow, but it's awfully hard to kill fast moving game with an arrow.  My scatter-shot is much more efficient.  Of course, I'll have the occasional person saying I could just grow my own food and eat that.  That's true, but I can't grow animals like plants.  If I could domesticate animals for myself, then the corporations could too, therefore I wouldn't be in that situation.  Hunting could prove to be an integral part of survival in the near future.  I'll stay prepared, just in case.

So, we've seen some reasons for why people may possess firearms.   I've seen people recommend that we take away all the guns.  They'll point to Europe and exclaim, "Well, see!  It works here!  Countries that have the fewest guns have the fewest gun-related crime!"  Yes, obviously.  The issue I have here is that European countries, from everything I've read, have a better government-citizen relationship.  The USA was founded by a ragtag army of people who wanted to get rid of an oppressive ruling.  I think it is only fair that we have that option today.  It's true that our current government has drones and missiles that can kill from miles away,  but it seems to me that it doesn't mean we should just roll over.  Let's say there are two people about to fist fight.  One of them is 6' 3", 280 pounds.  The other is 5' 9" and 150 pounds.  Both of them have brass knuckles with which to fight, and the larger person is better trained in hand to hand combat.  Would we expect the smaller person to give up the one equalizing factor in the fight?  I think not.  Now, while I can imagine an ideal world where there is no need to fear a government, we live in a country where laws like the NDAA may very well be a problem for ordinary citizens, like myself.  By this reasoning, I find it to be immoral to take away a person's right to defend against a larger threat, whether that threat is a home intruder, lack of resources, or some far-fetched government takeover.

Now that I'm done there, I'd like to discuss the proposed limitation of "assault weaponry."  What counts as an assault weapon?  This question is highly important, because it is a flexible definition.  Is an assault weapon a gun that can hold more than a certain amount of rounds?  What is the threshold for the weapon-assault weapon spectrum?  A standard 9mm pistol holds between 10 and 15 rounds.  Revolvers hold between 5 and 7 usually.  Is the issue of assault the distance from which an attack can be carried out?  A standard 9mm pistol isn't too accurate beyond 15 or 20 meters.  My shotgun?  The same, depending on what kind of shell I use.  I'm an untrained civilian, yet with my hunting rifle as a child I was able to hit a 1.5 inch square at 200 meters.  Think about that.  A person can walk into a building with a 9mm pistol loaded with 15 rounds and realistically expect to hit 10 targets or less.  That person, due to the short range of the pistol, can be taken down fairly easily.  A person with a long-range hunting rifle could assault a public place and be gone before anyone knew what was happening.  Which one of these weapons could be considered an assault weapon?

The problem is the world "assault," in my opinion.  From Google, assault is the act of committing a physical attack.  By that definition, both of my above examples are considered assault weapons.  Hell, every weapon is an assault weapon.  My machete, by that definition, could very well be considered an assault weapon.  I know, I'm being a little extreme with that definition, but I still think it's a problem.

So, what to do?  Banning guns isn't morally sound, because of the volatile state of our country.  Assault weaponry has no clear-cut definition, so it's tough to specify which weapons should be covered under an assault weapon ban.  What about, instead of trying to ban the weapon, we restrict access to it?  It's true that those deemed mentally incompetent cannot legally own firearms, but occasionally, a person experiences a psychotic break that leads to mass shootings.  How, then, do we compensate for that?  When I bought my shotgun, I was subjected to an FBI background check.  That's great!  If I had a history of violence, it would not be a good idea for me to have access to high-powered weapons.  Similarly, if I had a history of psychosis, I probably shouldn't have that access.  

Let's talk mental health.  Some of you know I work as a mental health paraprofessional (MHPP).  My job is to help people recover from mental illness.  I work as an extension of the therapists to help people develop and use coping strategies to counter symptoms of disorganized cognitions, impulsiveness, hallucinations, delusions, and so on.  The majority of the people I help are nonviolent.  A few are there because of violent acts, but that's not the average.  What's the significance of this?  Well, all these people are clinical cases.  The issue is that people who go on shooting rampages may very well be mentally ill at a subclinical level.  We have ways to screen for this.  

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is a tool that has ten individual scales that people can score on.  Hypochondriasis, which most people know is a concern with bodily symptoms.  This scale measures the likelihood that someone will suffer from these symptoms.  The second scale measures depression.  I don't think that needs much elaboration.  The third scale focuses on hysteria, which is an awareness of problems and vulnerability.  Someone scoring high on this scale might have attachment issues, for example.  The fourth scale measures whether a person is a psychopathic deviate.  This can reveal conflict, anger, and how respectful a person is for societal rules.  A psychological examiner could very likely use this scale to see how likely a person is to use their firearms for illegal activities.  The fifth scale measures stereotypical masculine or feminine behaviors and interests, but in the case of firearm safety, I don't see it having much impact.  Paranoia is the focus for the sixth scale, which like depression, I don't think needs much elaboration.  An overly paranoid person may be likely to perceive nonthreatening stimuli as threatening.  Perhaps here is another scale that could be an indication of how safely a person can use guns.  The seventh scale focuses on what is called psychasthenia, which contains symptoms like worry, anxiety, obsessiveness, and so on.  Schizophrenia is the eight scale.  Hypomania is the ninth scale, which is how excitable a person may be.  Last, we have social introversion as the tenth scale.  

Sample MMPI Scoring

Now, people may say that this is an unreliable tool, because people can lie and act "normal" on these tests.  That makes sense, but psychologists anticipated this.  The MMPI in particular has been built with the assumption that people will try to make themselves look like their best possible self.  With that in mind, it has subscales to look for things like lying to make a person sound mentally healthy and malingering to sound mentally ill.  A person with graduate training might be able to skew his or her responses in a desired way, but we have to remember that the questions aren't worded like, "I am paranoid."  In fact, there are even seemingly wildly out of place questions like, "I prefer to do my skydiving in the nude."  Now, over years, this test has been honed to weed out liars and malingerers.  The MMPI is a huge test consisting of several hundred questions.  These questions are often repeated many times, but worded differently.  The length of the test coupled with the repetitive questions catches people trying to fake their results.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to subject people who wish to buy firearms to have to undergo a psychological examination like this.  Additionally, subjecting everyone who buys a gun to a firearms safety class could very well reduce the number of fatalities involving guns.  People should be taught the specific laws for carrying and using weapons in particular circumstances.  

With all this in mind, I'd like to close by sending a message to people on both sides of this issue.  People, it's complicated.  No single person is 100% correct on the right course of action.  What we need to do is sit back and talk this through.  No fear mongering, no appeals to emotion.  Let's find a middle ground.  Both sides want the same thing:  fewer deaths.  We can yell across the room all day, and that's going to get us no where fast.  With that in mind, I'm going to sit back and see how the comments on this go.  My first guess is there will be two camps saying the other is wrong and the conversation will go no where.

I hope that guess is wrong.