The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Highly Religious Societies v. Highly Irreligious Societies

Ask yourself, which of the following countries would you rather live in?

Bangladesh or Estonia
Niger or Sweden
Indonesia or Denmark
Democratic Republic of the Congo or Norway
Malawi or the Czech Republic
Morocco or Hong Kong
Somalia or Japan
Sri Lanka or England
Djboutti or Belarus
Egypt or Finland
Mauritania or Vietnam
Sierra Leone or France
Burundi or Australia
Afghanistan or Albania
Guinea or Russia
Zambia or New Zealand
Jordan or The Netherlands
Laos or Belgium
Myanmar or Cuba

If you find yourself largely picking the countries on the right hand side, there is likely a reason for that.  The countires listed above represent the 20 Most Religious Countries on the planet and the 20 Least Religious Countries on the planet.  Can you guess which side is which?  If you guessed that those on the left represent the 20 Most Religious Countires, you are correct.  One would think that the Creator of the Great All, be he represented by the Christian faith, the Muslim faith, the Hindu faith, the Bahai faith, the Jewish faith, etc., would bestow his blessing on those people who seek to follow his divine will.  One would think that the Creator of the Great All would ensure that His people are rewarded for their faithfulness.  As becomes rapidly apparent, even if one does not explicitly argue that extreme religiosity CAUSES societal misery, extreme religiosity certainly does NOT act as a panacea to prevent it.  Indeed, the economic, political and social situations of Highly Religious and Highly Irreligious Countries could not be more diametrically opposed.

The top 20 Most Religious Countries on the planet contain somewhere on the order of 599,370,000 people according to the United Nations.  The estimated per capita income of these countries varies between a high of $5,416 per person per year in Egypt to a low of $328 per person per year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Altogether, the approximately 600,000,000 people living in the 20 Most Religious Countires on the planet earn approximately $1.7 Trillion dollars.  This averages out to aproximately $1,200 per person per year.  While approximately the same number of people (604,555,000) live in the top 20 Least Religious Countries on the planet, their living conditions could not be more different.

The estimated per capita income of the 20 Least Religious Countires ranges from a high of $58,141 in Norway to a low of $2,785 in Vietnam.  Altogether the approximatley 605,000,000 people living in the 20 Lease Religious countries on the planet earn approximatley $14.4 Trillion.  This averages out to approximately $23,956 per person per year.  In other words, those individuals living in the 20 Least Religious Countries on the planet earn almost TWENTY TIMES MORE per year than their counterparts in the 20 Most Religious Countries on the planet.

Again, the point is NOT that Religion necessarily causes societal, merely that Religion is wholly unnecessary for material well-being, that indeed, it is inversely correllated.

Not only do citizens of highly irreligious societies live lives of far greater material comfort, their lives are much longer.  This is likely due to the alarming persistence of hunger and starvation in the 20 Most Religious Countries.  The United Nations and the Global Hunger Index have conducted a statistical sampling of countries around the world.  Of those countries where there was enough internal stability to conduct the sample, the 20 Most Religious Countries scored as follows:  1 was listed as having a moderate problem with hunger.  7 were listed as having a serious problem with hunger.  5 were listed as having an alarming problem with hunger.  3 were listed as having an extremely alarming problem with hunger.  One can only assume that those countries too unstable to even conduct a proper sample are likely suffering even more.

Of the 20 Least Religious Societies, only 1, Vietnam was listed as having any problem with hunger, and it was listed as a moderate problem with hunger.  Unsurprisingly then, the average life expectancy of a citizen in one of the 20 Most Religious Countries is 63.88 years.  The average life expectancy of a citizen in one of the 20 Least Religious Countries is over 12 years longer, at 76.04.

In addition to lack of food and money, the citizens of highly religious societies suffer in innumerable other ways as well.  Literacy in the 20 Most Religious Countries stands at approximately 59.12% of the overall population.  Literacy in the 20 Least Religious Countries stands at approximately 98.3% of the overall population.  The Press enjoys far greater freedom in the 20 Least Religious Countries than in the 20 Most Religious Countries as measured by the United Nations.  Indeed, under the United Nations Human Development Index and Prosperity Index, composite measures of individual Nations' wealth, access to healthcare, longevity, personal freedom, political freedom, etc., consistently illustrate the very trend illustrated above - that Highly Religious Societies suffer in almost every conceivable way.  the 20 Least Religious Countries scored almost twice as high as their highly religious brethren on the Human Development Index and nealry three times as high on the Prosperity Index.  While these are composite measures and involve a certain degree of subjectivity as to how individual categories should be weighted, the overall trends are stark.

Even setting aside prosperity and material well-being, the health of a Nation can also be guaged by its ability to adhere to the law.  All religions, especially those in the Abrahamaic tradition profess a deep fealty to the law.  They place a great deal of importance on adherence to the social code of conduct.  Indeed, the admonition to refrain from murder is one of the few tenets of religiosity that is shared not only by all faiths, but by all secular legal systems.  If one were to take the position that Divinity is a necessary precondition for morality, it would necessarily follow that those societies that are consciously steeped in non-belief would be far more likely to engage in murder than those societies that follow the divine path.  This is manifestly not the case.

Murder rates are notoriously difficult to obtain in states with significant internal turmoil and as a result of the ongoing strife in many of the 20 Most Religious Countries, only 12 even report basic government statistics.  Of those, the average murder rate stands at approximately 9.7 people per 100,000.  Given the civil unrest and outright warfare in many of those countries not reporting, countries like Afghanistan, Congo, Myanmar, etc., and given the strained resources of law enforcement in those countries that do, the actual murder rate is likely far higher.  Even if one were to assume a murder rate of 9.7, however, such a rate is still nearly three times higher than that in the 20 Least Religious Countries whose combined murder rate stands at approximately 3.39.

By nearly any conceivable metric, Highly Religious Countries fare far, far, FAR worse than Highly Irreligious Countries.  The point is NOT that Religion necessarily CAUSES societies to fail, causes hunger, poverty, disease, starvation, illiteracy, murder.  The point is that Religion does NOT resolve those problems.  The point is that those who argue that societies steeped in Religion are more just, more fair, more moral, are quite simply wrong.  Theists, when presented with the irrefutable fact that the most Highly Religious Societies are uniformly unpleasant, especially when compared to the Most Irreligious Societies, respond that such comparisons fail to take into account colonialism, fail to take into account the importance of poverty, and reflect nothing more than the fact that as Countries grow wealthy and stable, they have the freedom to abandon faith and abandon God.  That Atheism is a selfish and narcissistic response ot our material well-being.

Indeed.  Because what the unmitigated success of godless societies indicates is that society does not need God.  Society doesn't require God.  Not for material well being.  Not for health.  Not for wealth.  Not for literacy or education.  Not to maintain social cohesion.  Not to minimize crime.  Not to minimize violence.  What the incredible success of godless societies proves is that God is NOT necessary.  That when we are accountable to one another, we are just as capable of functioning as a society as we are when we pretend that we are beholden to some manner of divinity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Religious Societies Are More Violent, Dangerous, and Unstable than Irreligious Societies

One of the most common arguments put forth in favor of religion as the provider and arbiter of human morality is that without religion, humanity is incapable of any manner of social coherence or moral code. Without God, all values become meaninglessly relative and that without some manner of divine scorekeeper, there is no code of ethics upon which humanity can possibly agree. Some variation on this central tenet of religiosity emerges in every debate between theists and atheists and is present in nearly every discussion of morality from the pulpit. So prevalent is this assumption, that any discussion of the morality begins with the presupposition of correctness of this premise.

Given that the divine is supposedly the source of all morality, and that the divine enables humankind to act in a more moral and ethical fashion, it would be logical to presume that those regions of the world where religiosity is highest would possess citizens of the highest morality and would, as a result, have a cultures with the highest levels of domestic tranquility and peace. Certainly, one would assume, those societies where a divine code of ethics guide the hands and fates of men, would have greater degrees of domestic tranquility and peace than those societies of the godless.

Individual piety, let alone the the heart of an entire nation is, of course, difficult to quantify. No person can know the mind or heart of another, let alone those of an entire people. In the absence of that kind of personal knowledge, however, there are a number of proxies that can be used to measure the overall religiosity of a society. The percentage of citizens who attend worship services regularly. Per capita donations to religious organizations. Property ownership by religious organizations. Religious self-identification of the citizenry. Religious makeup of the political class. The distinction or unification of religious and civil courts.

Based solely on self-identification, the ten least religious countries in the world are Sweden, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland, France, South Korea and Estonia. The ten most religious countries based solely on self-identification are Bangladesh, Niger, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Morocco, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Djboutti and Egypt. Self-identification, of course, is generally based on polling data, specifically, questions like “How important is religion in your daily life?” While self-identification against the importance of religion tends to correlate very strongly with a lack of religious behavior, self-identification with the importance of religion tends to correlate much less strongly with actual religious practices, such as church attendance, donation to religious organizations, etc. Self-identification, therefore, needs to be analyzed in conjunction with actual religious practices to obtain a more robust picture of a society's true level of religiosity. More on this in a moment.

When one begins to compare societies with high levels of self-professed religiosity to those with extremely low levels of self-professed religiosity, several trends become immediately apparent. First, one would think that those societies with the highest levels of religiosity would have far higher levels of domestic tranquility than the societies with low levels of religiosity. In fact, the EXACT opposite is true. Domestic tranquility is, of course, a rather nebulous concept, so to meaningfully engage the topic, it is necessary to make some basic assumptions about human nature. First, one would assume that violent crime such as assault, battery, rape and domestic violence represent a breakdown of domestic tranquility. Second, one would assume that the murder rate would represent a similar breakdown of domestic tranquility. Third, one would assume that incarceration rates signal at the very least a discernible measure of those who cannot or will not abide by the social or moral contract. Fourth, and finally, political assassinations, and or significant civil strife and armed conflict between competing political or religious factions strongly signal a lack of domestic tranquility. Domestic tranquility is an important concept, because it represents the citizenry's ability or inability to adhere to its own moral and legal standards.

Given the presumption among theists that God is the source of morality, and given that there are at least enough commonalities among the various societies of the world, I believe that we can make the following fairly broad assumptions. Neither God nor man sanctions or encourages violent crimes such as assault, battery, rape and murder. One would only assume that God, whom most theists claim represents the better angels of human nature, and is commonly associated with peace would be similarly opposed to civil strife, political assassination and internecine warfare. Given the foregoing, one would assume that those countries with the highest levels of religiosity, who clearly crave the authority of their God and expressly state their intention to follow His will, would be those states with the LOWEST incidences of violent crime, murder, rape, torture, civil strife, internecine warfare and those with the least need to incarcerate large numbers of their population for failure to abide by His guidance.

This assumption is completely and utterly backwards.

Those countries with the highest levels of religiosity are almost uniformly the countries with the HIGHEST rates of violent crime, the HIGHEST murder rates, the HIGHEST rates of incarceration, the HIGHEST incidences of civil strife, political assassination and internecine warfare. Conversely, the countries with the LOWEST levels of religiosity, presumably those with the least morality, actually have societies in which the EVILS god and man purportedly abhor are least common. Indeed, those societies with the highest levels of religiosity are almost uniformly, among the most violent, crime ridden, dangerous, and unstable regions of the planet. Conversely, the least religious states rank anywhere near the top in ANY of the foregoing categories. Indeed, they rank nearly last in every single category. In other words, the least religious states, those states which expressly DO NOT seek to follow the moral path allegedly set out by God, actually do a MUCH MUCH better job at actually fulfilling that moral path than those allegedly fulfilling it for the greater glory of their God.

To be sure, correlation is not causation, and it is impossible to say with certainty whether high levels of religiosity cause societies to become beset by crime and become more violent and unstable, or if the political and civil instability in those regions causes the increase in religiosity as a way to cope with the deteriorating condition. The correlation itself, however, should send a wave of doubt through any who want to seriously argue that God is a necessary precondition to morality. Indeed, as one begins to look through the comparison between highly religious states and irreligious states, it becomes readily apparent that religious states not only correlate very strongly with domestic criminality, violence and instability, but also with poverty, with illiteracy, with infant mortality and with foreign aggression and hostility. Even when one controls for variables like the specific religion at issue, population density, natural resources, GDP, population homogeneity, etc., the correlation between high levels of religiosity and a whole host of societal ills remains inexplicably high. Statistics coming tomorrow!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Religion and Social Stagnation

Europe and the Middle East and their respective eras of rapid social, technological and civic advancement as well as their respective eras of social, technological and civic decay exemplify the fact that societies where religion dominates social and political life are vastly inferior to those societies where religion is nothing more than a matter of personal taste. Without exception, those societies where personal piety is a matter of state control are among the most socially repressive and technologically backward regions on Earth. The only regions more benighted than those where religion is a matter of state are those where the state itself has crumbled.

Highly religious states routinely rank among the most oppressive states on Earth. The rulers of these benighted lands claim that their authority is a mandate from God. And in each of these states, the majority of the populace lives in desperate poverty. Disease and illness are rampant. Illiteracy and lack of education, basic infrastructure, basic social services, are either non-existent, or woefully inadequate. Technology by any measure lags far behind that of their secular counterparts. These states are the modern analog to the European states that persisted for so long during Europe's dark ages.

During Europe's thousand years of darkness, the Christian Church held a stranglehold over the levers of power. They dominated and controlled literacy, utilizing one of mankind's most amazing gifts, the gift of preserving and disseminating knowledge in the most selfish of ways. The Church used literacy almost exclusively to preserve its own institutional power. Controlling information to maintain the records of their vast property. Rather than educating the populace and teaching them the virtues of reading, the Christian Church actively worked to prevent the spread of literacy, lest some upstart use their knowledge to question the Church's hoarding of wealth and power, or question the tenets of the faith.

To be sure, after the fall of Rome, the Church was one of the few remaining bulwarks of civilization left. Indeed, it may have been the only remnant of a more civilized time. The Church, however, quickly parlayed that authority into vast political and economic power which it used to further entrench its power and subject continental Europe to nearly a millennium of wretched poverty, servitude, and social and technological decay. While the Middle East and Far East surged ahead technologically, the Christian Church actively worked to thwart the betterment of society, condemning generations of Europeans to suffering while the highest echelons of the church, safe in their palaces and cathedrals, plundered the land.

The Church did not even care that the people to whom it was supposedly ministering COULD NOT EVEN SPEAK THE LANGUAGE USED AT MASS. What possible benefit could there be to keeping the populace ignorant of the very mechanisms by which they were supposedly absolved of sin? In leaving the populace unable to understand the scriptures by which they were supposedly saved? The simple fact that the Church did not even care whether its adherents understood what they were worshiping so long as they opened their wallets demonstrates that the Church cared nothing for society or the welfare of its people. The Church cares only for its own well being.

Imagine, for a moment, where Western Civilization could be right now if instead of working feverishly to ensure their own prestige, wealth and power, the Church after the fall of Rome would have worked to educate the masses. If instead of hoarding knowledge and literacy and filling the heads of the populace with a litany of incomprehensible Latin, the churches had become centers of learning. Centers where knowledge was disseminated rather than hoarded. Outposts of education where the agricultural and technological knowledge of the ancient Romans could be used to better the lives of average citizens. Rather than a thousand years of social, economic, political and technological atrophy, the Western World could have started the enlightenment hundreds of years earlier. It is impossible to overstate the decay and societal damage that was done by the Church during the dark ages.

The same situation currently applies to the Middle East. Islam dominates the modern Middle Eastern social and political life just as deeply as Christianity dominated Europe during the dark ages. And the people who dwell in those regions have suffered socially, politically, economically and technologically for it for hundreds of years. While the Church preaches about man's evil nature and ministers to the hope for a better life in some mythical afterlife, it actively works to thwart the hopes and dreams of the man and women it supposedly cares for in this one. It actively works for the repression of women, depriving them of the right to participate as equals in social or civic life. It actively works to prevent the dissemination of information and knowledge that would threaten its power or cause individuals to question its actions. It actively fosters hatred and xenophobia of those with different faiths and values. It actively opposes technological innovation and science that might undermine its worldview.

This is not a problem unique to Islam, it is a virtually universal aspect of the pairing of the religion and power. While it is certainly true that power is a corrupting influence on any individual, the pairing of religion and power is the most vile and despicably unholy union imaginable. Religion by its very nature tends to be backwards looking, distrustful of knowledge, distrustful of science, and wary of social betterment and material well-being because religion by its very nature is more concerned with the next life than with this one. It is this very focus on the NEXT life, that makes religion so uniquely ill suited to possession of any manner of power in THIS life.

The pairing of religion and power leads to misery and societal decay. The separation of religion and power, the differentiation between the secular and civic spheres and the spiritual realm leads to freedom, innovation and advancement, because when humans are freed from the pre-defined 'truths' of long dead civilizations, they are free to experiment and that experimentation and the dissemination of that knowledge leads inexorably to advancement. As we have seen countless times, not all experiments are successful. Some are in fact disastrous. Even advanced civilizations are littered with the remnants of failed social and technological experiments. In the aggregate, however, social, political, economic and technological experimentation is like evolution, those experiments that are beneficial and useful will be adopted and preserved. Those that are malignant and harmful will be cast aside to the judgment of history.

As but one present example of the unholy union of religion and power, look at the current state of the Catholic Church. It is clear from the evidence that the Catholic Church has actively sheltered, facilitated and enabled the rape and torture of countless children. This is a monstrous crime that leaves countless thousands of decimated lives in its wake. The damage inflicted on the innocent is incalculable. Indeed, so vile are the crimes of these men that they represent the lowest of the low in our prisons. These wretched, despicable men are those who would be spit upon and shunned even by murderers and thieves and arsonists. One would think that an organization dedicated to spiritual growth and purity would be the quickest to condemn these vile human beings. One would think such an organization would do anything and everything in its power to purge such vileness from its ranks and actively turn such men over to the civilian authorities for proper punishment for their crimes. Instead, the Church has done the exact opposite.

The entirety of the Catholic hierarchy, all the way up to the Pope, the Viccar of Christ, has actively worked to relocate these predators, moving them to different locations so they can victimize others. They have actively worked to thwart investigations and prevent punishment of their members, actively worked to demonize the victims of these heinous crimes, actively worked to confuse, inveigle and obfuscate the truth. There is a vileness and corruption that has rooted itself deeply in the Catholic Church. It stems from the gross imbalance of power between priests and their charges. The Catholic Church has inculcated a culture of power over the powerless and this hideous dynamic takes its true form in the culture of pederasty that the Church has actively concealed, facilitated and enabled for hundreds of years.

That an organization so dedicated to some form of alleged spiritual purity that it would excommunicate a priest for having consensual sex with an adult male or female or engaging in adultery, neither of which are even crimes, would ACTIVELY work to facilitate and conceal the most vile and vulgar of criminal offenses against defenseless, trusting children is among the most despicable transgressions imaginable. These men are the supposed arbiters of morality. They are the supposed gateways to the afterlife and THEY are engaged in wanton criminality far greater than any of those in their flock. Such imbalances of power cannot stand. They will not stand. It is wholly unsurprising that the Catholic Church is in such disarray, that it flails about like a wounded beast, because without question, the Catholic Church is dying. And its death is well deserved. After holding all of Europe hostage for over a thousand years with its selfish ignorance and willful indifference, dismemberment is the least the Catholic Church deserves.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Highly Religious Societies

Conventional wisdom would hold that highly religious societies would be the safest, most stable and most moral societies on Earth. These highly religious societies, afterall, place a premium on adherence to the divine will.  They profess fealty to the supposed author of morality and the spirit of justice and righteousness that allegedly flows from Him.  It would only be natural to assume that societies in which religious virtues are highly valued would be far safer, more stable and more ethically sound than those societies that eschew the divine path. Given the conventional wisdom that morality is a fruit borne of religion, it seems utterly unfathomable that a society which does not value religious virtue could possibly produce a society more fair, just, safe, equitable and moral than those which highly value religious inspiration.  But that is exactly what the data indicates. Indeed, when one begins to look closely at the countries with the highest rates of religiosity, several incredibly disturbing trends become manifestly clear.

Perhaps the most striking commonality among extremely religious societies is their almost uniformly abject poverty. Societies in which 90% or more of the population claim that religion is an important part of their daily lives, comprise the overwhelming majority of the world's poorest countries. When averaged, the citizenry in these extremely religious societies earn an average of approximately $9.89 per day.  In stark contrast citizens in the 30 least religious societies on Earth earn an average of approximately $70.03 per day.

There are, of course, some rather glaring exceptions to this rule. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are countries whose citizens enjoy both a high standard of living and place a premium on religious devotion. What is notable about Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE and what readily distinguishes them from their desperately poor brothers and sisters of the faith, is that Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are all incredibly tiny city states with very small populations that happen to sit atop incredibly rich reserves of one of the most precious commodities on Earth – Oil. Saudi Arabia, while larger than Qatar and the UAE, similarly, sits atop the largest and most easily accessible ocean of oil on the planet. It should be noted, however, that prior to the development of the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and United Arab Emirates oilfields, those states were almost as desperately poor as their highly religious brethren.

Of the thirty poorest countries on the planet, only two possess populations in which less than 85% consider themselves 'highly religious.'  Of the thirty richest countries on the planet, only seven possess populations in which over 70% consider themselves 'highly religious,' and in total only 48% of citizens in those countries consider themselves 'highly religious.'

It is, of course almost impossible to say whether a state's extreme religiosity is a cause of or a reaction to its abject poverty. As any statistician will be quick to point out, correlation does not equal causation.  To be sure, many of the desperately poor and extremely religious states that persist in Africa were the same states that were plundered by Europeans during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these states continue to suffer from the self-inflicted wounds of civil war.

The woes of the extremely religious states are not limited simply to abject poverty. Extremely religious states not only constitute the overwhelming majority of the world's poorest states, but also possess the lowest rates of literacy and the lowest levels of education. Again, it is impossible to say for sure whether extreme religiosity causes or is the result of exceedingly low education and literacy rates, however, it is notable that many religions, including the Catholic Church in many of the most literate countries in the modern world, actively opposed literacy for many years. Muslim states and clerics often did the same, discouraging literacy in order to maintain their effective monopoly on religious interpretation. Indeed, dogmatic adherence to religious principles is and always has been a powerful militating factor against widespread education and literacy since it enables lay people to determine for themselves what their sacred texts actually say, thereby lessening the power of the priesthood.

Extremely religious states, are not only overwhelmingly poor and undereducated, but also suffer from widespread disease, famine, hunger and perilously low life expectancy rates. Indeed, the average citizen in one of the top ten most extremely religious states, has a life expectancy of 64.45 years, less than 16.18 years that of the average life span in one of the top ten least religious states. This discrepancy, of course, is not merely a function of religiosity, but is also strongly linked to poverty and education since poor and underdeveloped countries tend to not only have little or no resources to tend to the sick and dying, but also lack the education and technology necessary to administer higher levels of medical care. Not only is there not enough money, there aren't enough doctors.

In 2006 and 2009, the United Nations conducted a comprehensive survey of the life expectancy, literacy rate, and income of the nations of the world. Its analysis of the data generated what was named the Human Development Index, a composite indicator of the relative level of human development as measured by the education, longevity and material well-being of a state's citizenry. This Human Development Index, when mapped against a society's religiosity reinforces the very same trends that have been set forth above, namely that as a societies' religiosity decreases, the education, life expectancy and material well-being of its citizenry increase. The trend is unmistakable and tracks almost exactly with the religiosity of an individual state. Indeed, with only a handful of exceptions, whose well-being can be readily attributable to their material prosperity as a result of their abundant natural resources, extremely religious states are the worst states on Earth in which to be born.

The exact opposite is true of the least religious states on the planet. Those lucky enough to be born in largely atheistic or agnostic societies, live longer, safer, more comfortable lives and enjoy a level of education and material well-being that is literally unheard of in all but a handful of highly religious societies.

Theists I have debated, argue vociferously that religiosity has nothing to do with the well being of these societies, that the irreligiosity of more wealthy, more literate, more healthy states is simply a byproduct of human arrogance, that since these societies are decadent and wealthy, they are unaware of or do not see the need for God. They criticize affluent societies for their excesses and perceived moral decay. One can hear variations on this theme in he diatribes against American consumerism, against television, against pornography, against sexual freedom, against reproductive freedom, against drug and alcohol use, against the 'coarsening' of culture and our supposed immorality. This theme is so prevalent in religious dogma that one need only watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network or listen to a sermon for a few minutes or listen to the Vatican lament the wretched moral decay of the modern world before one becomes well versed in the iniquity of our craven civilization. Indeed those who eagerly await Armageddon and the end of the world regularly cite those things listed above as signs of the coming apocalypse.

But is the modern world really so immoral? Is it so mired in lust and sin and gluttony and filth and crime? Are irreligious societies truly so morally bankrupt? Once again, the answer is clearly no. Guess which societies are the most generous and donate the most money and time to charitable organizations, most of which are concerned with bringing food, shelter, medicine and economic assistance to less advantaged societies. It is once again, the irreligious nations that donate most generously and most ardently to disadvantaged societies. Who are the recipients of this largesse? The most impoverished, and ironically, the most religious citizens on Earth, are the recipients of massive amounts of aid from those, who, one would think, would have no incentive whatsoever to give anything at all. Afterall, they don't know God. They don't have anyone watching them. They don't have anyone keeping score. They don't have anyone to provide them with morality or ethical guidance. Extremely irreligious societies are the most generous societies on Earth, willingly giving of their own material wealth, not out of a sense of divine duty or a desire to reap rewards in some afterlife, or even for any tangible geopolitical gain, but out of genuine human compassion. Why then do these countries behave so ethically even while they turn their back on the supposed author of morality? How can they possibly justify helping their disadvantaged brethren and giving unto the least of us when they don't have a parable telling them to do so or the threat of divine sanctions if they do not?

Even more distressing than the generosity of the irreligious, is their appalling overall adherence to the rule of law. One can only assume that God abhors crime. Regardless of the religion in question, all religions condemn theft, robbery, rape, murder, insurrection, rebellion, etc.. Violence, except when specifically sanctioned by God, is considered taboo under nearly all mainstream religions. There are of course, exceptions, and some religions treat women and other ethnicities as lesser creatures, but presumably despite the express words of these texts, I believe there is some agreement among even the most religious minded of my brothers and sisters, that rape, robbery, murder and naked aggression are immoral and are to be condemned. One would therefore assume that the most religious societies would be relatively free of such criminal and civil strife, that their adherence to the principles of morality set forth by the Almighty would guide them safely and morally through troubled times. One would conversely assume that those irreligious societies, those that knowingly shun the word of the divine and shun the path of morality He sets out would enter a moral morass and would thereby engender a society filled with violence, crime, rape, robbery, murder, aggression, hostility and horrors.  Such a society, one would assume, would be only one step above the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Again, this is simply not the case.

Far from being cesspools of criminality, murder, rape, robbery and despair, irreligious countries again, fare FAR better than their religious brethren. Indeed, irreligious societies are far safer, suffer far less violent crime, far less rape, far less murder, and far less civil strife and violence than extremely religious societies. Counter intuitive as it may seem to theists who believe morality is impossible without God, allegedly Godless societies place a far higher value on preventing and punishing criminality than extremely religious societies.  These Godless heathens place far more emphasis on engendering civic virtue in their citizenry and as a result, not only suffer far, FAR lower rates of violent crime, but also dramatically lower rates of property crime as well.

Look at the list of countries with the highest levels of religiosity and take note of the first images that come into your mind. Doubtless, poverty will be one of the first, but beyond that, one of the striking images that will pop into the head of anyone that watches television is that each of those countries are known as highly militant, highly volatile, highly violent. Images of men brandishing machine guns, RPGs, explosions, piracy. These societies are largely failed societies, societies where the glue that binds us together has broken down. While it is, as always, impossible to say whether religiosity is a cause of or reaction to such strife, the incredibly high correlation between these extremely religious societies and their abject poverty, lack of education and high levels of internal strife is troubling to anyone who posits the theory that morality is a gift from God – especially when the EXACT opposite holds true in the most irreligious societies.

Beyond even the internal strife and lack of domestic tranquility that plagues extremely religious states, one would assume that a Godly state, one whose people follow the divine path, one that adheres to divine morality, would engage its neighbors in peace, would not engage in acts of aggression or hostility. Unfortunately for the theist, reality rudely dispenses with this theory as well. Compare those extremely religious societies with those who have knowingly and expressly turned away from God and ask yourself which group of states makes war against its neighbor?

The answer should be obvious by this point.

By nearly every metric imaginable, extremely religious societies are far worse off than irreligious societies. Whether one is analyzing gross domestic product, education, literacy, life expectancy, political freedom, economic freedom, individual freedom, freedom from political terror, from hunger, starvation, freedom from disease, freedom from war, freedom from civil strife, the simple fact is that irreligious societies possess these qualities in FAR greater abundance than highly religious societies. Those societies where over 90% of the populace describe themselves as highly religious constitute over the overwhelming majority of the poorest, least educated, least healthy, least prosperous, least free, least safe and most aggressive societies in the world. In contrast the countries with the lowest levels of religious identification, constitute a large proportion of the most prosperous, highly educated, materially wealthy, free, safe and peaceful societies in the world.

Why? Why is it that those Godly societies that should be the most morally upright, the most righteous, the most resistant to the darkest impulses of man, seem almost uniformly to be those MOST susceptible to them?

Why is it that those Godless societies that should be the most susceptible to the siren song of violence and hatred seem almost uniformly to be those LEAST plagued by man's darkest impulses?

It is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Innumerable things are highly correlated by not caused by one another. The fact that the overwhelming majority of poor countries are also extremely religious is not the same as saying that the overwhelming majority of poor countries are poor because they are extremely religious.

What is fascinating, however, is that those countries that are now highly irreligious, were once highly religious. Indeed, several centuries ago, those highly irreligious societies were just as religious as the extremely religious societies that persist today. The rates of baptism and religious tithing in countries like France, England, Germany, rivaled or even exceeded those of the exceptionally religious countries in the modern era. What is particularly interesting, is that during the period of highest religiosity in Continental Europe, literacy, life expectancy, education, and gross domestic product were not only significantly lower than Continental Europe under the far FAR less religious Roman Empire, they were also significantly lower than the literacy, life expectancy, education and gross domestic products of societies in the Middle East.

This period in European history, in the popular vernacular, is referred to as the dark ages. This moniker connotes the fact that written history, which had been rich in the centuries prior and was again rich in the centuries after, was virtually non-existent during the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. While society was not completely stagnant during this period, it is difficult to argue that society had not taken a significant step backwards in virtually every conceivable metric. This same period of time is known in the Islamic world as the Golden Age. During this period, the Islamic world was the center of mathematics, science, literature, art, philosophy, and engineering.

In Europe, religiosity was at its apex. The state and the church were essentially a single entity. Monarchs sought the blessing of the Church and would fight wars on its behalf to obtain it. In most European countries, the Church was the largest property owner in society. And while the Church lived at the height of its power, prestige and glory, the commoner, the peasant, the artisan, lived on the verge of starvation, in abject poverty, scratching out an incredibly difficult living in the midst of the ruins of an earlier, brighter age.

At the same time, thousands of miles away, the Islamic world was approaching its zenith. While Islam was incredibly potent and powerful, it was not inextricably intertwined with the state as it was in Europe. The Islamic world, in contrast to Europe, was remarkably cosmopolitan and secular. It indulged in philosophy in a way that Europe would not or could not for another three centuries.

At some point, however, the trajectories of these two civilizations began to shift. The Crusades would radically alter both the Middle East and Europe and cause the paths of these two great civilizations to essentially switch places. Given the fact that the Crusades spanned two centuries, it is incredibly difficult to ascribe a single motive to them, for there were many different and competing motivations for each subsequent wave. Obviously, interest in the plunder and spoil of war was an obvious motivating force, and just as it had motivated the Gothic tribes to invade the Roman Empire, so it obviously motivated the Crusader armies to plunder the richer cities of the Middle East. And just as the Roman Empire had been dumbfounded by the tenacity of their 'barbarian' invaders, the Islamic world was stunned by the ferocity of the Crusader armies. Forced to expend great amounts of resources defending itself, and culturally rocked by the seemingly endless Crusaders, the Islamic world began a long slow process of religious retrenchment.

While Europe, gradually moved towards a path of greater secularization, greater individual freedom, less interest in the supernatural and religious order that had governed it since the fall of Rome. The Middle East gradually shifted towards a path of greater integration of church and state, greater control of the individual, and heightened interest in following the dictates of scripture. In Europe, this shift led to radical new philosophies of governance, agriculture, art, science, mathematics, metallurgy, this surge of new ideas and philosophies is known as the renaissance, and dramatic innovations in all manner of fields began to revitalize European societies. In the Middle East, the reintegration of Church and State led to the demonization of philosophy and a gradual retrenchment and fear of modernity. The Middle East became increasingly isolated and introspective, gradually retreating inside its borders.

What is truly interesting is that low overall standards of living, of life expectancy, gross domestic product, literacy, art, technology, science, are not simply present in extremely religious societies, but actually follow the spread of extreme religiosity. What is even more interesting is that the reverse is also true, that as societies become more secular and less interested in religiosity, life expectancy, literacy, art, science, technology and gross domestic product tend to increase. This hints that the obviously correlative relationship between religiosity and societal stagnation and decay may represent something more than simple correlation, but may hint at causation.

As I have said ad nauseum, such a position is ultimately unknowable. There are no reliable measures of gross domestic product or literacy rates from any part of the first millennium.  There are few reliable measures of gross domestic product or literacy rates for much of the second millennium either.  The information is of course, a thousand years old and much of it is second hand, hearsay, self-serving and anecdotal. Nevertheless, that information dovetails exceptionally well with the pattern that persists into the modern world.

Regardless of whether the relationship between societal decay and stagnation and religiosity is merely correlative, or causal, the fact remains that the notion that some manner of religiosity and deity worship is a necessity for morality and moral behavior is simply not borne out by the facts. In reality, the MOST irreligious societies on Earth, those that expressly and knowingly state that they DO NOT follow any divine authority are the MOST civil, law abiding, peaceful, literate, well educated and giving societies on Earth. They PRACTICE what the divine preaches – to treat thy neighbor as thyself. The question that remains, is that if God doesn't motivate them, if the divine scorekeeper and the threat of eternal damnation and or eternal paradise doesn't motivate this morality, what does?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Society Doesn't Need Religion

One of the most common complaints theists make regarding Atheism is the alleged amorality of atheists. This mirrors the common misconception that Atheism is either equivalent to or at least a kissing cousin of nihilism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The genesis of this allegation is the notion that human morality is dependent upon the existence of and adherence to a system of morality mandated by the divine. The obvious utility of this allegation is that it means that religion, all religion, is necessary to prevent humanity from descending into the Hobbesian nightmare of the eternal war of all against all.

When asked plainly, however, is it obvious that human morality can exist only within the confines of an externally mandated system of divine rewards and punishments?  Is a divine code of conduct a necessary for human morality?  These canards are not only patently ridiculous, but demonstrably against the weight of the evidence of the entirety of human history.

As a threshold matter, the idea that human morality is dependent upon a divine code of conduct depends first and foremost upon agreement as to the basic tenets of what that code of conduct IS. It should first be noted that over the course of human civilization innumerable human religions that have waxed and waned.  More importantly, those innumerable faiths do not possess any overall consensus as to what code of morality the divine actually intends for us to follow.  Indeed, nearly all express not only skepticism regarding the morality of other faiths, but outright condemn those who practice them.  Given that supposed moral exclusivity, one would assume that within a given religion, at least, that code of morality would be as unchanging as the eternal divinity it purportedly represents.

It is obviously and irrefutably true that the myriad human religions that have dominated our existence for thousands of years do not have any overall agreement as to the code of conduct we are to follow.  Even within a single religion, however, that code of conduct, that supposedly unchanging moral code has shifted over the millennia.

To be blunt, the written code of conduct and ethics that dominated each of the Abrahamaic religions is incredibly barbaric. Chattel slavery was expressly permitted. Women were expressly relegated to second class citizens. Sex outside of marriage and was considered a sin so vile that adultery, let alone any whiff of homosexuality was to be punished by death. God not only authorized, but expressly commanded genocide. The list of barbaric conduct not only permitted, but demanded by the Gods of the Abrahamaic religions is too extensive to list.  Suffice it to say, however, that adherence to such a code would make God a War Criminal if he were human.

Even more troubling, the Abrahamiaic religions were obsessed with what we would probably call Thought Crimes today. Envy, covetousness, lust, etc. Simple human emotions were themselves branded as sinful.

Obviously, the draconian code of conduct demanded in ancient stone tablets, scrolls and parchment, and its demand for the death penalty for ridiculously minor offenses, is somewhat difficult to put into practice.  So over the centuries, Religion gradually filed off some of the harsher edges.  Such softening was utterly necessary if only to ensure that they didn't execute half of their citizenry for having sex and the other half for thinking about it. As the centuries progressed, humans recognized that chattel slavery was itself a moral evil, and that freedom in and of itself is a moral good. This revelation is rather striking in that one would assume that an all knowing, all powerful super-deity would have been well aware that slavery was inherently evil LONG before humans figured that out on their own. One would assume, that had this being had any interest in our code of conduct reflecting its own, that it simply would have added another commandment stating “Thou Shalt Not Enslave Or Own Thy Brethren.” The ancient texts' treatment of women eventually suffered the same fate as that of slavery in that over the centuries, human beings came to understand that females were fully capable of being amazingly productive members of society and that, in fact, they were MORE productive when they were not subjugated to the patriarchal whims of their husbands. The same is presently occurring with regard to homosexuals and their inevitable recognition as full members of society and their entitlement to all of the legal and civil benefits afforded to heterosexuals.

As further evidence of this softening, it is fascinating to understand that many of the heroes of the ancient religions would be considered war criminals in the modern world. Moses and the itinerant Hebrews launched waves of invasions and genocidal warfare against their neighbors and their God commanded the slaughter of the men, women and children of the cities they seized. Imagine the present day reaction to a stateless religious group of men and women who invaded neighboring countries, attacked and razed their cities and butchered their citizens. We would call such people war criminals.  We would label them terrorists. Our leaders would declare that we want them 'Dead or Alive.'  We would hunt such barbarian thugs to the very ends of the Earth and execute them for their crimes.

Theists will argue that the world was different then, that it is unfair to apply OUR morality to a different world, but is that not the very ESSENCE of moral relativism?  Indeed, in defense of their founders, Theists MUST argue such things.  Must argue that Isaac was on the side of light and was perfectly justified as he lifted the knife and prepared to murder his son.  Must argue that Moses was on the side of justice as he and his followers butchered innocent men, women and children and plundered their cities.  Else they must recognize that the moral code, the ethical code handed down to us by the Divine is flawed and has been fundamentally rewritten.

The Atheist is more than happy to accept our moral relativism.  The Atheist, unfettered by endless reference to ancient, archaic and barbaric traditions and codes of conduct, is free to acknowledge the reality that morality is a social construct.  A flexible, malleable and adaptable set of expectations whose reciprocal obligations are enforced through social dynamics such as shame, guilt and ostracism.  The Atheist recognizes and delights in the fact that morality evolves.  It evolves with us, because it IS us, it is our will, our desires, our conception of ourselves and how we should be.  And the Atheist is free to recognize that just as our societies, as our human civilization has grown more egalitarian, more fair, more just, that morality will adapt and evolve along with it - hopefully towards greater justice, greater freedom, greater liberty, and greater acceptance of others.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  May it ever be so.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - The Great Chain Part 10 - Tiny Life

Level 14 – Your Cellular Organelles

Even those individual who become extremely agitated over the loss of one particular kind of human cell cannot be bothered with the constituent parts of those cells, despite the fact that the only real difference between a fertilized egg cell and an unfertilized one is that the nucleus of the fertilized egg cell has undergone DNA synthesis, a process involving cellular organelles.

Cellular organelles are to a cell, what our organs are to our bodies.  Just as our organs are only really capable of meaningful associate with our bodies, our cell’s organelles are only really capable of meaningful interactions with the parent cell.

Frankly, even amongst those who have the smallest possible version of God, who view God as nothing more than an interplanetary Santa Claus actively intervening in the lives of people like a teenager playing the Sims do not argue or claim that God cares about cellular organelles – and small wonder, on an individual level, no humans care about individual organelles either.

Level 15 – Your Amino Acids and Other Organic Compounds

Even further down the chain of existential association are amino acids and other organic compounds.  While these compounds are of absolutely critical importance to our actual existence, we really do not care about them very much unless we are in the business of microbiology or genetics.

The most well known example of one of these organic compounds is DNA, which is the great unifying feature of all life on this planet.  Every living thing, indeed every single cell on this planet has a strand of DNA that tells it how to function.  DNA is, in essence, the fundamental building block of life.  Composed of literally billions of pairs of amino acids, DNA forms the blueprint for every living thing on Earth.  While scientists are intensely interested in DNA, and while unpacking and understanding the human genome stands as one of the greatest achievements of the human race, individual strands of DNA are functionally meaningless.  Every single cell in my body has a strand of my DNA.  As little as I care about my individual cells, I care even less for an individual strand of my DNA.

And while I am intensely interested in the potential ways my DNA might combine with that of someone else, I do not normally think of that in terms of what sequence of organic compounds might be created, but in what the aggregate result of that union would be once that DNA has replicated and specialized a few trillion times.

Quite simply the idea that we as human beings would be able to care about individual strands of DNA or other organic compounds, despite their centrality in the formation of life, is simply laughable.  We cannot even be bothered to care about our individual cells, how can we possibly be interested in the individual organic molecules that make up parts of those cell’s constituent parts?  The links in the existential chain are simply too attenuated.  And if WE cannot be bothered to care about such things even at our lowly level of existential association, how can the God of the Great All, possibly be interested in such minutae?


Level 16, 17 and 18 – Molecules, Atoms and Sub-Atomic Particles

Once one enters the atomic realm, all connection to any recognizable human scale world ceases.  Atomic radi are measured in picometers, which are 0.00000000001 meters.  It is difficult to overstate just how truly minute the atomic realm really is.  Atoms exist on such a small level that there are over 200,000,000,000 in the period at the end of this sentence.  It takes billions of large and incredibly complex organic molecules to make a single strand of human DNA.  As stated before, there are 60,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules in less than a teaspoon of water.  If you were to take a single drop of water, you would have to make that drop of water larger than all of New York City to see a single atom with the naked eye.  If an atom were the size of a 12 ounce can of soda, the number of atoms in your fingertip would cover the entire surface of the earth three miles high.  The numbers are simply staggering.  They are too large for any human mind to really comprehend.

Atoms do not even have color because color is bequeathed by the reflection of different waves of light and atoms are too small to reflect a single wave of light.  It is only in the aggregate that atoms can have ‘color’ as we would define it.

Few would argue that God has any interest in individual atoms.  Certainly humans have no interest in individual atoms.  While we <i>do<i> have a great interest in aggregations of atoms, specifically in those kind that we can manipulate into harder or stronger materials, or those we can bombard with other kind of atoms to create fission or fusion or exotic materials, our ability to meaningfully associate with individual atoms is utterly non-existent.

Our ability to meaningfully associate with protons, electrons, and neutrons, or sub-sub atomic particles like quarks, bosons, and leptons is utterly impossible.


By now, those of you who aren’t terribly interested in science are probably wondering why I bothered to make such an exhausting inventory not just of the Macroscopic Universe, but the Microscopic and Atomic Universe as well.  For those of you in that boat, I apologize, but it is critically important to understanding where we fit in the great scheme of things and it is the Chain of Existential Association that I personally found most influential in realizing that the existence of the God of the Great All, even assuming that the Big Bang was an act of conscious authorship is irrelevant to our lives.

Recognize that the God of the Great All occupies level ZERO.  The God of the Great All, assuming that it exists, on a level ABOVE our Universe as a whole.  Indeed, the God of the Great All may well exist on a level ABOVE an infinite multitude of other Universes floating within some even larger Multiverse.  Such speculation is utterly unnecessary as even if we are to assume that ours is the ONLY Universe, the God of the Great All still exists on a level that is infinitely higher than our own.

Assuming that the Big Bang was an act of conscious authorship, the being that presides over our Universe is separated from us as an entire species by 10 levels of existential association.  This is the same number of levels of existential association that separate us as individual human beings from sub-atomic particles.  Think about that for a moment.

I have often heard adherents of religion use the analogy that trying to understand the mind of God is like asking an Ant to talk to understand a human.  The reality is far more stark.  Ants actually exist on the same level of existence as humans.  To have a closer approximation, one must ask a quark or a lepton or a boson or some other sub-atomic particle that isn’t even visible with the strongest microscope ever made and whose existence can only be inferred mathematically to understand the mind of a human.  In comparison to the God of the Great All, we are far more analogous to sub-atomic particles.  Which leads to the obvious question, do you care about your sub-atomic particles?  If you are even remotely intellectually honest, the answer is quite simply no.  None of us know or care about cells or atoms or sub-atomic particles.  They are simply too small, too numerous and too unimportant to associate with us in any meaningful way.

How arrogant, how egocentric, how narcissistic, how self important, then, is it to assume that the God of the Great All, even if it exists, is interested in or cares about us as a species, when in the Cosmic scheme, we are no more important than a humble atom.  Do you ponder the moral or ethical dilemmas of atoms?  Do you judge them based on adherence to some scale of atomic behavior?  Do you punish or reward individual atoms or even massive aggregations of them for transgressions of the atomic code of conduct?  Of course not.

And the God of the Great All doesn’t do that to us either.  The God of the Great All DOES NOT CARE.  The God of the Great All is not interested in your moral or ethical dilemmas.  The God of the Great All is not judging you.  The God of the Great All is not condemning you.  The God of the Great All is utterly uninterested in your level of adherence to some book written by some man who has been dead for thousands of years.  The God of the Great All quite simply does not care about any of this or any of us because we are utterly and completely irrelevant to it.  We simply do not occupy a level of existence which would concern that kind of being.

You are FREE!  God isn’t judging you.  God isn’t condemning you.  REVEL in the fact that we are free, that we are beneath the notice of the God of the Great All.  REVEL in the fact that we can live lives that are full of joy and light and love and meaning REGARDLESS of whether the God of the Great ALL is even aware of us.  Take Heart in the simple fact that despite our insignificant place in the cosmos, our lives can be full and meaningful and filled with purpose.

God doesn’t need us.

And more importantly, we don’t need him.  Even if God exists, even if he created the Great All, we don’t need him.  As far as we are concerned, His work was done 13,700,000,000 years ago.  While such a being would certainly deserve our gratitude, recognize that we have NOTHING to offer such a being.  Such a being would not notice, desire or require our obedience or adoration any more than we notice, desire or require the obedience of individual atoms or clusters of bacteria.  Indeed, a massive colony of bacteria living in my colon might be profusely praising my name right now, showering me with adoration, pleading with me to intervene on their behalf and save them from the nasty white blood cells that are mercilessly slaughtering them – unfortunately for them, I am blissfully unaware of their please or adoration and utterly disinclined to intervene on their behalf.  And they are only TWO levels of existential association beneath me.  How much more disinclined must God be to answer the pleadings of a pack of whiney monkeys who live TEN levels of existential association beneath him?

We do not require God.  We don’t need him.  We don’t need him to have meaningful lives filled with joy and peace and love and beauty.  We don’t need him to save us.  We don’t need him to remove our faults.  We don’t need him to intercede on our behalf or forgive us for our transgressions, because NOTHING we can possibly do can possibly transgress against the God of the Great All because we are not accountable to him.  We are accountable only to one another and to ourselves.

We don’t need God.  Because we have one another.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - The Great Chain Part 9 - Beyond Humanity

Level 11 - Pieces of You

It seems highly likely that you care about your organs.  It is equally likely that you also care about the organs of those people with whom you meaningfully associate.  I know I care about my organs.

The human body is composed of an incredibly complex and magnificent system of specialized structures that work together to allow us to do all of the things we want to do and about a million other things we are completely unaware of but are nevertheless necessary to keep us alive.  Our organs clearly associate with one another in myriad meaningful ways, from transmitting data, to transmitting fluids, to supplying energy, to supplying oxygen, the various systems of the human body are a marvel of both complexity and simplicity.

Our organs are also capable of meaningfully associating with us insofar as their successful functioning will cause us to feel a sense of pleasure and well being while their failure will cause us all kinds of problems, ranging from discomfort to pain to death.

Our organs are also capable of meaningfully associating downward to the levels of the specialized tissues that comprise them in the sense that acid on the specialized tissues of the stomach will create an ulcer which will effect the stomach which will, in turn, effect the unfortunate human who has too much stress in their life.

Now, depending on the specific tradition, some religions actually tell their adherents that the God of the Great All, the Great Author of everything is actually interested not only in humanity as a whole and the specific religious community in particular and personally interested in you as an individual, but also in your internal organs and that the God of the Great All will actively intervene on behalf of your heart or kidney or gall bladder and will actually expend the effort to notice and fix whatever ailment is currently afflicting the troubled organ.

Some traditions are SO certain that this is the case that they actually FORBID their members from partaking in the fruits of modern scientific medicine.  Some are so crazed, and I do not use the term lightly, that they will actually refuse treatment even when doing so will mean certain death for themselves or their loved ones.  While that kind of resolve might be admirable under different conditions, under such circumstances that kind of resolve is monstrously and horrifically misguided.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that the God of the Great All is not only obsessively interested in your moral adherence to the tenets written down on a piece of parchment several thousand years ago, but is also interested in and will actively intervene on behalf of our poor benighted organs.  One must assume then, that as our organs are made up of specialized tissues, that God is interested in them as well.

Level 12 - Specialized Tissues

While you may actively consider the well being of an individual organ, it is highly doubtful that you spend much of your consciousness energy on your body’s individual specialized tissues.  If you are aware of them at all, it is likely that your awareness is a dim memory of a long ago biology class rather than any sort of present-day awareness.  Indeed, we are normally only concerned with our constituent parts when something goes awry.

Nevertheless, the specialized tissues that make up your individual internal organs, your skin, your eyes, your muscles, your heart, your stomach, your bones, your central nervous system, everything, are all capable of meaningful association both with the organ they comprise and your body as a whole.  Indeed, most diseases are actually begin by damaging or destroying portions of these specialized tissues.  Diseases like Cancer are essentially conditions where the cells comprising specialized tissues undergo some manner of mutation that causes rapid growth and replication of mutated and useless cells.

While specialized tissues are capable of meaningful association upwards to the level of organs and the organism as a whole, in an organism as large as a human, specialized tissues do not normally associate in any meaningfully way with the individual cells that comprise them because of the colossal number of cells involved.

So let us assume, for at least the next few moments, that God is capable of caring about your specialized tissues.  Not only yours, but everyone else’s as well, or, if you are a member of some incredibly narrow minded religious tradition, at least the specialized tissues of those members of your particular community.  Is it possible that the God of the Great All actually cares about your individual cells?  Is it possible that the God of the Great All could actually care about something as insignificant as an individual cell?


Far below our specialized cells, lives a microscopic world.  And entire ecosystem dwelling on each one of us.  A menagerie of strange, wild, wonderful creatures crawling on our skin, coating our eyes, filling our bowels, reproducing in our mouths, festering in the air we breathe.  We are scarcely ever aware of this world.  Indeed, individual existences in this world are utterly meaningless to us.  It is only when those individuals aggregate in the billions and attacks us in come concerted way that their existence impinges on our consciousness.

Humans dwell on the 10th level of existential association.  It is necessary to use a microscope to even be aware of the denizens of the 13th level of existential association and necessary to use an electron microscope to see anything on the 16th level or below.  Indeed, humans were largely unaware of the existence of the microscopic world and its potential effects on our health and welfare until the mid 1800s.

Even today, most humans are completely oblivious to the microscopic world except on those relatively rare occasions where millions or billions of microbes that have replicated themselves in our bodies make us sick.  Even then, however, our interest in, and ability to associate with individual microbes is virtually non-existent.

Once one goes below the level of a single celled organism, our ability to meaningfully associate with anything smaller is virtually non-existent.  Individual cellular components, amino acids, individual molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles are so incredibly small that they simply do not register with any of our senses in any meaningful way – it is only in the aggregate that any portions of the microscopic world is capable of being known or felt on our level of existence.

Do you care about your individual cells?  It’s okay if you say no.  Understand that simply by rubbing your eye or taking a shower you are killing thousands if not millions of your very own cells, condemning them to certain death without you.

I would like to think that I care about my cells.  They are ME after all, but I confess that I regularly murder millions of my cells without a sparing even a moment’s thought for their well-being.  I rarely, if ever, consider whether my cells are good cells or bad cells.  I rarely consider whether they have behaved admirably or poorly and never bother to ask them whether they have adhered to whatever manner of code of ethics cells have.

Why would I bother to care about my individual cells when I have 50,000,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000,000 of them?  How can I possibly be expected to care about such a trivial and meaningless organism, even when in the aggregate, those organisms comprise ME when there are so many of them?

It is highly doubtful that you care about your individual cells any more than I do.  We can’t be bothered with worrying about their welfare because quite frankly they are beneath our notice.  They are irrelevant to us as individual because of the sheer number of them and because we simply dwell on an entirely different level of existence.

How much less do we care about such cells when they are NOT our cells, but those roaming out in the wild, or congregating on our skin, or our teeth, or our bathtub.  Indeed, the videos below capture in stunning detail, the microflora and microfauna that inhabit the world right in front of our eyes yet are utterly beneath our notice.

In the same way that such organisms are beneath our notice, is it not possible, nay plausible, that the Creator of the Great All, who is sovereign over the entirety of the Universe would view us in the same way?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - The Great Chain Part 8

Experiential Association - Man vs. Wild

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Gen 1:26.  "He (Allah) it is Who made you vicegerents on earth." Surah 35:39.

Religious understanding, especially those stemming from Abrahamaic traditions, places a great deal of importance on man's separation from nature and man's dominion over it.  It is worth noting that the entirety of what is commonly considered 'nature' all falls within the same associational level as humankind.  Cats, dogs, flowers, trees, lions, tigers, wheat, corn, bears, elephants, grass, weeds, grasshoppers, fleas, ants, all of these organisms exist on the same associational level as an individual human.  All of them are capable of meaningful interactions with us.  They can feed us, their smells can entice or repel us, they can bite us, eat us, amuse us. We can associate with the plants and animals of this world in countless ways.

"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"  Matt 6:26.  "Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praises are celebrated by all beings in the heavens and on earth, and by the birds with extended wings? Each one knows its prayer and psalm, And Allah is aware of what they do." Qur'an 24:41.  According to Abrahamaic traditions, God not only cares about humans, but all of the creatures of the Earth.  Presumably, this would indicate that God would also care about the communities of bacteria that thrive and crawl and 'creepeth' across the Earth.  Simply because ancient peoples were unaware of the existence of the microscopic world would certainly not hinder God's awareness.  One would also have to assume that if God cares about all of the life on Earth, he would similarly care about ALL life spread out throughout the Great All.

It is at this point that one must begin to ask whether such a belief is reasonable.  To be sure, as many theists have pointed out, we cannot know the mind of God.  Assuming such a being exists, this is manifestly true.  Indeed, one cannot state that God cannot or does not care about each and every spark of life in the Universe.  Clearly, any being capable of causing the Universe to burst into being has capacities that dwarf any human conception.    Clearly, such a being COULD care about every living thing in the Universe.  Such a being obviously COULD intervene in their existences, COULD love each one individually.  The fact that such a being COULD, however, does not make it likely, or reasonable or even plausible.  Indeed, when one looks not only at the size and scope of the Universe, but at the incredible violence inherent in the Universe, the idea that such a being actually cares begins to look incredibly fanciful.

Our own small planet has been pulverized by asteroid impacts and decimated by volcanism numerous times in the past.  Indeed, catastrophic geological and extraterrestrial events have wiped out virtually all life on this planet at least twice in the past 500,000,000 years.

The impact event that almost certainly wiped out the Dinosaurs left behind a crater 110 miles across, spread a rare element, irridium, across the entire planet and caused fires so massive that the fossil record immediately afterwards contains tens of thousands of times the normal levels of soot and ash.  The conflagration was so massive that nearly all complex life on planet Earth was incinerated.  Recovery from the impact took tens of millions of years.

135,000,000 years before Cretaceous-Tertiary asteroid described above wiped out the Dinosaurs, a supervolcano covering approximately 2,000,000 square kilometers with lava helped to bring about the largest mass extinction on record.  Approximately 96% of all marine life was killed and over 70% of life on land.  The damage was so severe that it took 30,000,000 years for the Earth to recover.

And these are simply two of the five mass extinctions we can track over the last 500,000,000 years.  It is highly likely that many more such extinction events have taken place in the Earth's 4,500,000,000 year history.  Indeed, in addition to the five recognized mass extinctions in the past half million years, over twenty smaller extinction spikes have taken place.

And Earth is merely one planet.

Nearly every single species that has ever existed on Earth is extinct.  The individuals are not merely dead, the entire species is gone.  If God truly loves and cares for the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, one has to assume that God cared about such beings long before the advent of humans.  So why would God allow them to die?  Not merely as individuals, but allow the entire biosphere wiped out.  Why would god allow his beloved planet and the creatures he cares so much about to be annihilated not once, not twice, not three times, but countless times throughout history.  Surely it cannot be because the birds of the air and the beasts of the filed 'sinned.'  Surely it cannot be because God looked upon his creation and was displeased.

Those with Religious Understanding often say that we have no right to question God, no right to ask why.  The Atheist has no such restriction and the Atheist is free to ask why such a being would allow its Creation to be destroyed.  What purpose does it serve?  What reason does God have to allow his precious creatures, whose prayers and psalms He hears, to be incinerated?  To allow new forms to life to take over?  To allow evolution to progress?  To facilitate the rise of his bestest favoritest species of all, humans?

Obviously, if God has the capacity to create life out of nothing, God could easily have simply created humankind out of whole cloth without the need to repeatedly destroy his Creation.  Obviously, an omniscient and omnipotent deity would not have made mistakes.

So why does God's beloved planet bear the scars of such cosmic abuse?  Why were the vast majority of God's beloved creatures annihilated?  Why does God's beloved Universe bear the marks of such profound devastation?

Even beyond our parochial Earthly concerns, God's beloved Creation has always taken and continues to endure incredible, mindblowing violence on a routine basis.  In our own galaxy, a star explodes into a supernova about once every fifty years.  These explosions routinely flood hundreds of star systems with intense radiation even when the shockwave doesn't destroy the planets outright.  If the tenacity and proliferation of life on Earth is any guide, countless star systems are likely filled with life.  And if life on Earth is any guide, this life has almost certainly endured annihilation similar to those on Earth.  To be sure, much of that life is likely simple, just as it is here on Earth, but would a lack of intelligence render it any less precious to God?  Indeed, for virtually its entire existence, Earth possessed no intelligent life.

The Atheist is free to look at the voluminous evidence of Earth's devastating history and conclude that such events are part of the natural cycle of evolution, that while they are unfortunate, they merely demonstrate that life is tenacious and when presented with tragedy and adversity, it adapts, evolves, progresses.  The Atheist can look at the violence in the Universe and see how even the most destructive events provide the raw materials necessary for the evolution of matter to continue, to allow planets to form and life to flourish.  The Atheit is free to recognize the reality that evolution and progress are often preceded by destruction.

Religious understanding must contend with the fact that their God supposedly cares for the organisms he allows to be repeatedly destroyed.  Religious understanding must contend with the fact that such destruction and devastation is almost certainly widespread throughout the Universe.  That God allows life on other planets to be annihilated just as readily, if not more so than He allows here on Earth.  And Religious understanding must contend with the fact that if life here on Earth really is unique, really is special, really is limited to our small blue world, then God has allowed his precious creation, his precious life to be decimated again and again and again.