Saturday, 31 December 2011

"I did not come from a monkey!"

"I did not come from a monkey!" is a frequent sentiment among creationists.  They feel that they have been created "in God's image", and are simply superior to animals in every conceivable way.  We have something they lack: a soul.  I find it extremely ironic that it is among those less educated that this attitude of supreme pride is most prevalent.  Scientists seem to have no problem accepting that we thinking apes (not monkeys, which are a different branch of the primate family).  We are, quite simply, animals.   
Even among the general more well educated population, there seems to be a prevailing perception that humans are fundamentally and orders of magnitude smarter and different from other primates.  There is a memorable quote, I wish I could remember who said it or exactly how it was said.  It says that humans and chimpanzees share 97% the same DNA.  But in the 3%, you get language,  art, music, literature... in short: civilization.

Do we really?  I this where it comes from?  Is it just genetics that make this seemingly gaping chasm of difference between us and chimps?  Is that 3% (or 1% I think is now the more correct understanding), really what makes the difference between an animal and us?  And is the difference as big as we conceive it is? Let's disregard the question of the presence or absence of a soul for the moment and instead focus on nature versus nurture.

Consider two pieces of evidence: Feral Children.  Intelligence, tool use, and cultural transmission among chimps.

Numerous examples exist of children who were raised isolated from other humans.  Some were living alone in the wild.  Some were being cared for by other animals.  Some were neglected and abused by parents and never taught even to speak.  Without the benefit of learning from other humans, these children lacked all culturally transmitted knowledge and behavior.  They lacked language.  Most did not walk upright, or not exclusively upright.  They didn't dress themselves.  They behaved like animals, often mimicking the behaviors of the animals they interacted with.

Chimps live in social groups.  They have social structures and culturally transmitted learned behaviors.  They plan ahead.  They make and use a variety of primitive tools.  They excel at intelligence tests and there are even areas where they surpass humans.  They resemble, to a great degree, what we know of prehistoric anatomically modern humans.

Humans have been physiologically "modern" for tens of thousands of years, possibly as long as 200,000.  This means that these past humans, if they had had the benefit of being brought up in modern society, would likely have been not much different from you or I, if at all.  We have had the capacity for language, art, culture and such for a very long time, but it took many many generations of transmitting learned behaviors and knowledge and developing new behaviors before we even began to evolve what we now call civilization.   The examples of the feral children show us that without standing on the shoulders of our inherited cultural knowledge,  we would be primitive and animal like, much like modern chimps and prehistoric modern humans.  I hypothesize that if a population of humans were raised as feral children, without being taught any language or other skills, and allowed to simply live "naturally,"  and breed and exist for generations without any interaction with any "civilized" humans, it would take them many hundreds of generations to begin to approach a level of cultural sophistication beyond what we see in chimps.  It would obviously be unethical in the extreme to carry out such an experiment.  But as a thought experiment, it is rather intriguing, and would probably make an excellent sci-fi novel.

 Conversely, the examples of apes learning sign language and other complex behaviors shows us just how small the gap between humans and our closest relatives is.  The fundamental difference between us is, to a large degree, a matter of circumstance.  Given the right environmental stimulation and enough generations, perhaps other apes could evolve civilization as well.  We already know there were other branches of the human family tree that had made significant advancements along that path, such as the Neanderthals.

If, as I am suggesting, the difference between us and other apes has much more to do with the transmission of accumulated knowledge from generation to generation, than to do with genetics, or the presence of a soul this should bring us to two important realizations.  Firstly, we should be proud.  We should look with awe on the incredible achievements of humanity that all rest on one fundamental behavior: teaching our children.  Secondly, we should be humbled.  We should recognize how close we still are to our animal selves.  In this lies the promise of evolutionary psychology: by looking at the behaviors of our closest cousins and knowing how we have behaved through history, we can better understand ourselves.  Thirdly, we should look forward. Recognizing we are cultural animals, and not divinely created beings.  Recognizing we are a young civilization only beginning to understand our own nature, not the end product of evolution.  Recognizing that our history, our cultures, values and the conflicts that go with them are not a fundamental part of our nature, but learned behaviors and ideas.  We can reinvent ourselves.  We can do away with historical shackles.  We can accept those aspects of our animal nature that are good, and control those that are harmful.  We can shape the future of our species.  This is of course, much easier said than done.  But it can be done if we do one simple thing: teach our children.  Teach them not to cling to past traditions and accepted "wisdom", but to boldly question and seek always the best answers, supported by evidence and reason.

Friday, 16 December 2011

I am an arrogant atheist!

I am an arrogant atheist.  I am so arrogant that it is greatly offensive to some believers.

I am so arrogant that I feel that if there is a creator of the universe - which is vast beyond my human ability to comprehend - he, she or it probably did not create it specifically for me and my species.

I am so arrogant that I do not believe the creator of the universe has a plan for my life.

I am so arrogant that I disbelieve the idea that a being capable of creating the universe and everything in it  revealed himself to humanity through contradicting prophets and preachers in ancient history.

I am so arrogant that I find the idea that an omnipotent being would deign to listen to my requests and complaints to be silly.

I am so arrogant that I reject the idea that an omniscient deity is concerned with my every thought.

I am so arrogant that I reject the notion that this being is particularly interested in my sex life and those of others.

I am so arrogant that I seek knowledge from a variety of sources, and do not consider any book to be better than any other ever written.

I am so arrogant that I change my mind frequently, as new evidence and better answers present themselves.

I am so arrogant that I often admit that I do not know things.

I am so arrogant that if something is unknown to science, I try to resist inserting an explanation from an ancient source as the answer.

I am so arrogant that I admit that I have been wrong in the past, I probably currently hold some erroneous views, and I am certain I will be wrong again in the future.

I am so arrogant that I believe my thoughts, actions or omissions are neither evil enough, nor important enough, to require that a deity in the guise of a perfect human be tortured and executed in atonement for them.

I am so arrogant that I believe that humanity can determine what is moral and what is not through rational thought without having to receive lists of rules from prophets claiming to speak on behalf of the creator of the universe.

I am so arrogant that I reject the idea that I can direct someone to a path that will give an eternity of infinite bliss.

I am so arrogant that I reject the notion that my thoughts and beliefs might be so vile or wrong as to merit a punishment of unimaginably excruciating torture for all eternity.

I am so arrogant that I stubbornly reject things that have no evidence to support them, no matter how nice they sound, how comforting they may be, or how internally consistent they are.

I am so arrogant that I believe I am an animal, a single member of a species in a very long evolutionary line, and that my life does not have any eternal or cosmic significance.

Yes, my towering arrogance is an affront to humble believers everywhere.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Christians don't really believe in the god of the bible!

One thing I and my fellow anti-religionists often encounter when speaking with Christians is a claim that we don't understand god, or Christianity, or the bible, etc.  Given that most of us don't walk into these discussion without doing our research, and that most of us were former believers ourselves, this claim rings hollow.  But why does it persist?  I think it's because we tend to point at the bad and immoral side of faith - the biblical atrocities, the doctrines about hell, etc.  The average Christian simply doesn't see those things as a central part of their faith.  And neither did I.

God is love.  Being a Christian is about being Christlike, being charitable, praying, forgiving, etc.  The modern day vision of god focuses on a very narrow portrait of "the lord."  Ask most any Christian to tell you about their faith and what they describe will resemble very much an imaginary best friend who is the most amazing friend ever!  Even though I was extremely well read compared to most Christians and especially my fellow Catholics, my own focus was mostly the same.  No one uses the term "God fearing" as a virtue anymore.  I've actually heard sermons about how we should not fear god.  Why would you fear your best friend who loves you infinitely?  No, the modern god is "awesome" not because he is jealous, vengeful and wrathful even though there are literally hundreds of references to these attributes of god in the bible!.  No, he is "awesome", because he's so unimaginably nice and loving.  When you point out the vicious genocidal monster called Yahweh in the old testament, or the hard-nosed Jesus of the new who demands such things as the selling of all your property, and talks of the tortures of eternal hellfire, they push these to side as peripheral minor things that are easily explained away by "context."

Like them, the god I believed in was not a god who would command us to slay infants.  My god would not demand death for minor offenses.  My god would not rejoice in destruction and war.  My Jesus was "the prince of peace."  A benign dictator who was strict but fair and loving.

 But that is not the god of the bible.  No matter how all loving we feel his son is, we cannot dismiss the fact that this is the same god who commanded the deaths of millions, who drowned the entire world, who destroyed cities.  This is the same god who demanded the stoning of women for losing their virginity before marriage.  The same one who condoned slavery.  This is the same god who - in the new testament book of Acts - struck dead Ananias and Sapphira because they "lied to the holy spirit" by trying to keep some of the money of the sale of all their worldly possessions instead of giving every bit to the church.    This "holy" book they carry contains material which, if penned by a modern person, would be deemed hate speech in most democracies (except most of the hate speech is directed at races and tribes that have already been wiped out by the genocidal Israelites... though homosexuals and pagans are still around).  But the Christians do not point to these verses and say "look how great god is that he commanded us to stone people for picking sticks on the sabbath."  They do not say "our god is great because he rejoices when we conquer our enemies and dash the heads of infants against the rocks."  They do not say (anymore), how great their god is for permitting slavery.  No, they hide these passages, ignore them, disregard them, or - when forced to face them - they try and explain them away and excuse god by saying he had good reason, or that it makes sense in the historical context.  They rather wish those things weren't in the bible.

I did an interesting experiment a while back.  I went onto the Facebook page called "The Bible", where people posted their favorite bible quotes.  When someone posts a bible verse that is inspirational about how loving god is, everyone "likes" it, and comments "so true!" and "amen!" etc.  I simply posted this from 2 kings 2:   23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys."  I didn't get any amens, or so trues... no, I got a lecture about how it was out of context and I should do my homework about the historical context... Bethel was a center of calf worship - and how the Hebrew word doesn't really mean boys, but young men... Basically, a reinterpretation of the story as Elisha was being attacked by an angry mob of pagan youths, and he was just defending himself.  I guess that poster is better at ancient Hebrew than every single bible translator out there, since some variation of "boys" appears in every translation I looked at.  Other posters backed him up.  All I did was post 2 bible verses.  I didn't make any comment.  Nevertheless, some felt it necessary to jump to the defense of the almighty lest his acts be misinterpreted.  Funny, no one cries "context!" when someone posts about the loving god.  And in other times they would have not felt the need to defend this verse, either, but might have seen it as proof of god's power over his enemies requiring no explanation.  But morality has evolved, and the pious now squirm uncomfortably when confronted with the unpleasant parts of the bible.

So my question to bible believing Christians is this:  if you really believe you worship the god of the bible, why pick and choose which parts to read?  Why defend and excuse the "crazy stuff"?  These are things done by or commanded by your eternal god, so shouldn't you be proclaiming them as great instead of trying to justify them, minimize them, reinterpret them, or otherwise show how ashamed you are that these things are part of the "word of god."?  Shouldn't I be able to post ANY bible verse or story and get a bunch of agreement from Christians?  

Monday, 12 December 2011

On and on and onanism

The sin of Onan. Self-abuse. Self-pollution...  Masturbation.

This is not a topic many people address openly.  And that embarrassment about the subject cost me a great deal.  Now, right about this point, I'm sure any people who know me personally instead of as an anonymous blogger are starting to feel a little uncomfortable.  Tough.  It's a normal part of life and just about everyone does it.  Adults should be able to talk about this like adults instead of like giggling adolescents, or squirming prudes.  So pretend it's someone else writing this or whatever you have to do.  But if you have any interest in not psychologically traumatizing religious teenagers, please read on. 

From a very young age I was intensely interested in sex.  As a typical adolescent boy, I discovered the pleasures of self pleasuring.  This wasn't much of a problem in those earlier years aside from the fact that I didn't have any idea that I was normal or that other guys did it (they all denied it... bunch of liars!).  I was pretty sure it didn't cause blindness or hairy palms, since I hadn't yet developed either of those troubling symptoms.  Though one friend's claim that looking at too much porn - we were checking out his dad's magazine stash at the time - would lead to a near permanent erection lasting seven years seemed to be pretty plausible.  But when I was sixteen and began the path to extreme religiosity, my little habit began to become a serious problem.  It never even occurred to me to talk to my parents to inquire about their opinion on the subject.  Even if I had, by that time I had gotten far enough into studying the teachings of the church to realize that the average Catholic, my parents included, didn't know very much about the actual teachings and wouldn't be any help.  So I did my own research and naturally found the answer that masturbation, and even more so the lust that precedes and accompanies it, are considered mortal sins that will remove one from being in a state of grace.  For those unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine, salvation is a bit more complicated than the "I'm saved," you may be used to hearing from born-again Protestant Christians.  Basically, if you have confessed your sins and had them absolved, or have performed an act of contrition (which is asking god for forgiveness and resolving to go to confession), then you are in a state of grace which means if you die at that moment, you will go to heaven... after a sufficient time spent in purgatory being cleansed of your sins, of course.  However, if you have committed a mortal sin - as opposed to the more minor venial sins - it removes you from the state of grace.  If you die in a state of mortal sin, you go to hell.  On a side note, if you are in a state of mortal sin, it is an additional sacrilegious sin to receive communion, which means that pretty much 95% of the Catholic population is doomed to hell since the list of mortal sins includes such things as skipping church and using birth control... yep, right up there with murder.  So, from the age of 16 until well into my twenties, I lived in a cycle of sin, self-hatred, guilt and shame followed by repentance and a test of willpower.

Before getting a bit deeper into my personal experience, let's look a bit more closely at what the Church says.

First, the bible doesn't actually say anything directly about masturbation (see my earlier post about how  incompetent god is at telling us about important questions).  The closest it gets is the coitus interuptus of Onan in  Genesis 38:8-10.  This is the origin of the term Onanism.  It's a pretty big leap from Onan being bad because he didn't want to provide a son for his brother, to spilling your seed in general is bad.  What seemed much more relevant to me was the fact even just lusting was wrong.  There are several references to lust in the bible, but there are two verses that when looked at side by side, put it in perspective.  "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  Matthew 5:28   and Mark 9:47-49  "...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire."  

The 1975 Encyclical Persona Humana written by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pretty clear in chapter IX:

"The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. It is stated that there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self ("ipsation"), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.
This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church--in the course of a constant tradition-- and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act."

I hadn't directly read the whole above quote back then.  But I did read the Catechism when it came out.  It was one of the first things I looked up when I got my copy.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices. 


2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

Now, despite that last sentence about the mitigating factors that turn a mortal sin into a venial one, I didn't cut myself any slack.  I reasoned that, despite the presence of "acquired habit" and "conditions of anxiety," I was fully conscious of the gravely sinful nature of my action when I partook of them, so I had no excuses.
 Not only did I know it was wrong, I knew exactly why it was wrong and just how wrong it was.  I even wrote an essay in English class (much to the chagrin of my liberal protestant teacher!) about the evils of birth control from a Catholic perspective.  The theological basis for that teaching is the same as the teaching on masturbation.  In the eyes of the Church, sex is reserved strictly for heterosexual married couples, engaged in it for the dual purposes of love and reproduction.  Oh, by the way, this also means any married Catholics who engage in oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, or basically anything but a bit of foreplay before getting down to the intercourse (without any birth control other than natural family planning, of course) are also committing mortal sins and going to hell.  

So my cycle went something like this... I would go to confession and get absolved.  I would strive to maintain that state of grace as long as possible.  Sometimes I made it months.  Sometimes just days or even only hours.  Most commonly it would be at least a week or two.  I would stay up late to catch whatever R rated movie with a few seconds of nudity happened to be playing on the CBC late night movie.  I would get very pissed when the movies were delayed due to long-running hockey games, since unlike the majority of teenage Canadian boys, I had no interest in the sport whatsoever.  Sometimes I would borrow the Sears catalogue for the lingerie section, or one of my older sister's fashion magazines for the skimpy outfits and the occasional exposed breast.  And let's not forget the National Geographic topless tribal girls!  On rare occasions I might somehow manage to get my hands on a porn magazine.  After I turned 18, getting those was much easier, though still very embarrassing.  After I went to college and got that slow dial-up internet connection that took 10 minutes to load a single nude photo, the temptation became ever present.  It was simply inevitable.  No matter how hard I tried, no matter how strong and sincere my resolve to quit was, no matter how hard or how much I prayed, I just could not escape the temptation.  I even tried lessening the sin by trying to do it purely for the sensation, without lusting. That wasn't a great strategy either.  I just couldn't help myself.  This led to depression and, especially, shame.  I regarded myself as a "pervert."  I was constantly aware of my sinfulness and I was always keeping track of whether or not I was in a state of grace.  The church taught that we are responsible for our own sins, but anything good we do is through the grace of God.  So, when I managed to be good, it was God who got the credit.  When I sinned, I took all the blame.  After I sinned, I would sometimes decide to continue being sinful for a while.  I was damned anyway.  But eventually, I would always repent.  If I had any porn, I would destroy it.  I would soak the magazines in water or rip them up before throwing them in the trash in order to prevent myself from retrieving them later.  If it was on the computer, I would erase it.  If it was a video tape, I'd record over it.  Then I would return to confession - I had the schedule of the Fransiscan friary memorized - tell the priest about what I'd done, do my penance (usually a few prayers, or reading a particular bible passage), and start the cycle again.  I am sure I must have confessed to at least a couple dozen different priests and even a bishop or two over the years.  Despite all of them having themselves been horny teenagers once, and despite having to wrestle with celibacy, not a single one of them ever told me to ease up on myself, that it was a normal part of being a young man, or anything of the sort.  They told me to try sports to get rid of some of that sexual energy and things like that.  I can only wonder how incredibly difficult it must be for priests to suppress their sexual appetites through the long years.  I am so very thankful that I did not end up becoming a priest myself as I thought I would!

At one point, after returning home from several months on an exchange program and finding myself suffering from a great deal of culture shock, I went into a long period of being in a state of mortal sin and not having the strength to break out of it.  I went to mass, but abstained from communion, to the inquiring stares of my family.  I prayed as Saint Augustine did: Lord, grant me chastity... but not yet.

When I was first married, the problem continued.  My wife discovered my porn.  To her it was tantamount to adultery.  I tried to give it up.  I even started attending sex addicts anonymous for a time.  There I met men who frequented prostitutes and strip clubs.  It was actually a good experience to a certain extent.  It normalized my own experience.  Sure, I shared some features in common with these guys, but I wasn't really one of them.  And looking back I think most of them probably didn't belong there, either.  They just needed better outlets for their own high sex drives.

It took a very, very long time, but I have finally completely let go of that cycle.  I am finally accepting of my own sexuality and no longer ashamed of it, and my wife no longer views it as adultery or something to be jealous about.  Since we've bot set aside shame and guilt around the topic of sex, and focused on communication and being honest about our feelings, our marriage has improved tremendously!

  I want to stress that I did not leave the church so that I could sin without guilt... the guilt over this continued long after I had abandoned Catholicism.  I also want to stress that though I now loathe the teachings of the church on this subject, and I am angry at the church's perpetuation of this harmful dogma, that anger didn't lead to my atheism.  Forgiveness is one Catholic lesson I learned very well, and I long ago forgave anyone who directly or indirectly contributed to my cycle.  I do not blame any person but myself.. and I have forgiven myself, too.  The problem lies in the deepest core of Christian teachings about sin and salvation.  Though these teaching are so watered down as to be nearly unrecognizable in most Catholic households and many parishes, they are still there.    

If you know any religious teens, don't let them enter this cycle.  You don't even have to address the topic directly.  A little hint here and there that masturbation is normal and OK will go a long way.

  Peace... and happy wanking ;)