Monthly Archives: May 2014

Winning the Game of Life

aztecshumansacrifice

Mayan blood sacrifice

Consider a Mayan soldier before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors and their Catholic faith. He was brought up to worship the Mayan Gods and believed that he was required to sacrifice virgins and rip out the hearts of his enemies as a gesture of good will. OK, I previously said I wouldn’t discuss extinct gods, but I need to show that there probably have been a lot of people who just never found out about the “real” laws of god. So, the question is, does the Mayan soldier go to hell for his sins if he didn’t know they were sins or what a sin even is? For that matter, what about someone who is born with brain damage and is therefore incapable of understanding right from wrong? If he commits murder or other acts in violation of god’s known laws, does he go to hell? On the other hand, if an infant dies before it is capable of learning, does it get a free pass into heaven?

I’m going to give you your first answer to a really big question. No, there are no shortcuts to heaven or hell, assuming that it exists. If you don’t get the message, you have to go around and try again. Yes, you must be reincarnated until you get it right. Chalk one up for the Eastern religions. Anything else just makes no sense and would just allow people to make excuses for doing some very bad things. There may be a lot of exceptions, but there are no loopholes in god’s laws, whatever those laws may be. Unless, of course, god is just another fallible lawmaker who fails to consider the loopholes and unintended consequences of the laws he writes. That would be rather depressing. Congress has a bad enough public opinion rating–one would hope that an all-powerful god could do a better job.

Speaking of exceptions, it has always been difficult to know whether or not “Thou shalt not kill” is really a firm rule or needs to be interpreted loosely. After all, in the Old Testament, god commands the hebrews to claim the land of Canaan (Israel) and to drive out the non-believers that were already living there. This was a pretty clear order to kill the enemy in battle and take their land, and it was not limited to just the males. God made it clear that the Hebrews were not to marry the women and raise their children, since they were unbelievers and therefore enemies too. Since this war order came fairly soon after he issued the Ten Commandments, we have to assume that it was a valid exception to the rule. We know from the bible that the Hebrews didn’t actually kill or drive off all the women and children, to god’s dismay, and had to pay for that mistake later.

So, we can easily see that this commandment clearly has exceptions. Thou may kill when it is in god’s interest. Unfortunately, this pretty much opens the door to any kook who believes he needs to kill for god and has some basis for justifying it from scripture. Since we live in the most heavily armed country in the world, where just about anyone can get a gun, the right to bear arms to defend oneself is looking better and better to me right now.

Some claim that the original Hebrew text was translated incorrectly and should say “Thou shalt not murder.” But what is murder? Clearly it involves the killing of another human being, but the presumption is that you didn’t have a good enough reason for doing so. Today, you might have a perfectly good reason for killing someone, but a capital punishment case requires the approval of a court, which could take 8-10 years in the best of cases. Sorry, duels are no longer legal unless it involves beating each other to death in a boxing ring or killing someone with your car.

Since god already gave his approval, as cited in the Old Testament, to stone someone to death for high crimes such as adultery, it can’t be considered murder. It’s just a form of legal capital punishment. Here’s a list of the other approved reasons for capital punishment, at least according to the Old Testament, and how they compare with what Americans believe to be their god-given rights:

  • Taking the name of the Lord in vain (the First Amendment right to freedom of speech does not apply)
  • Worshiping false gods (the Fourth Amendment, the basis for our right to privacy, does not apply, nor does the First Amendment)
  • Adultery (the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness does not apply)
  • Murder (OK, many of us will agree on this one)

From this I think we can conclude that god is clearly not a fan of the core American values of liberty and free speech. He would rather kill you than hear your backtalk.

Israelites conquer the holy land city of Jericho

Israelites conquer the holy land city of Jericho

Waging war against the enemies of the Hebrew people, including those that seek the conquest of the land of Israel, are of course valid, explicitly approved reasons for killing. I’m sure that will not sit well with advocates of international law and the Arab world. But then again, many Muslims agree that god advocates the killing of unbelievers in order to defend one’s land and people from infidels. In this case, however, it means getting the Jews out of Palestine. So, you can see we have a big problem in that god has apparently told two separate groups that they must fight to the death over that little piece of land known as Israel or Palestine. If it weren’t such a deadly issue to humans, it would appear to be a funny, juvenile prank.

An angel leading the crusaders to Jerusalem

An angel leading the crusaders to Jerusalem

Wait, didn’t he also imply that the Christians had a stake in the holy land too, which led to the Crusades? I can’t seem to find anything specific in the New Testament that orders Christians to fight over Israel/Palestine and kill Jews or Muslims, so maybe that was just a teeny mistake on the part of early Christians. Nevertheless, god is responsible for causing at least three groups to believe they need to fight over the same land. He even apparently predicts that the end of the world will come after a climactic battle for the land at Armageddon. But we’ll get back to prophesy later.

Were the ten commandments abolished?

Were the ten commandments abolished?

Of course, Christians claim that the New Testament changed all the rules of the Old Testament. The Laws of Moses, the founders of the Christian faith argued, did not necessarily apply to them even though they were the acknowledged word of god. Maybe god decided he really didn’t need those rules about kosher food, the weekly sacrifice of animals, and all that other ceremonial nonsense. Instead, the Christians came up with their own whole new litany of ceremonial nonsense. They also decided to keep the Ten Commandments, but there were some new implied rules that could exempt people from the consequences of violating them. When Jesus refused to stone a woman that was clearly guilty of a capital crime (adultery) with a mandatory death sentence, and when he preferred to turn the other cheek rather than fight back against those who attacked him, he clearly signaled a change in the laws. Why the change of heart? Was god finally tired of all the killing? Was it just not working out or was it just time to see what would happen if he mixed up the rules and tried something new?

Religion is a subject that is more about questions than answers. The problem with most people is that they actually believe religion can give them the answers to life’s problems and mysteries rather than more questions. If we spent more time thinking about the questions, we would know that the answers are either impossible to fathom, in conflict with modem ethics and morality, or dependent upon one’s interpretation of an ambiguous and often contradictory holy book.

Of course, if you ask the wrong question, you will most likely get a wrong answer, especially if the person answering the question is just making it up anyway. If you are going to place most of your faith in the writings of a holy book, it makes sense to read the entire book end to end instead of quoting your favorite sayings out of context and ignoring the rest. Many people memorize sayings from the bible and quote them like modem newscasters deliver 10-second sound bites to capture your attention. They write the sayings on little cards and pin them up all over their house or office. They sound good, but their meaning may have been lost or distorted.

If I really wanted to know the answers to some really hard questions, I’d most likely want to see the greatest minds in the world get together and figure it out. Let’s call it the Manhattan Project of Life. You know, intellects like Einstein–people who are really good at studying a problem for years and slowly but surely working out a problem piece by piece. We’d let them battle it out in professional journals, debates, and conferences. We’d give them Nobel prizes when they proved something important. Unfortunately, this will never happen in the world of religion because it isn’t based on rational evidence. This isn’t to say there isn’t evidence; just that the evidence isn’t particularly consistent or rational and the people studying it are even less consistent or rational and normally not very objective. There is only so much you can do if all you are willing to study is a few books and other historical writings and artifacts. If scholars were willing to ask more questions and expand their range of evidence to other historical and scientific sources, the study of religion could become a rational endeavor.

Let’s also face the fact that many clerics and religious leaders are not the most intelligent people we know. They don’t win large bases of support and generate large donations by asking hard questions and challenging existing beliefs. They do so by giving people certain and absolute answers and making people feel either good, getting them angry, or scaring them out of their wits. Popular religious leaders know that their real business is entertainment and marketing and they know there are many ways to appeal to people. What makes you think that these leaders have any real answers or even care?

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A Day in the Life of God

Creation of the Universe?

Creation of the Universe?

What might god have been doing if he’s been too busy to pay attention to the evolution of the Earth over the past 5 billion years? I’ll get back to that question later when I discuss the possibility of alien civilizations. With billions and billions of other stars out there, he really could have been very busy elsewhere in the universe. The bible indicates that creating the Earth took as long as the rest of the stars combined. OK, but who’s to say that he didn’t start making the other extra-solar planets after he was done making us? Even if he spent only one day on each solar system, that could add up to a lot of god-days. Granted, the first few planets might have taken longer than the later ones, assuming he didn’t make too many changes to the design, but what would be the point of billions of identical planets? He had to have at least been making some tweaks to each one. Everything has got to take time, even for god. But let’s get back to Earth.

Olympian gods

Olympian gods

I’m going to stop saying “if you believe in god” and just going to assume that you do, because most of the humans on this planet believe in one form of god or another. Granted, the beliefs vary widely and conflict with one another, so when I need to make distinctions between the various deities of the main religions, I’ll let you know. When necessary, I’ll refer to god as the C-god, J-god, or the I-god for the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of god, respectively. I’ll refer to the Buddhist and Hindu belief systems as the B-god and the H-god even though they don’t really believe in the same kind of god. I think I’ll generally avoid the ancient Greek and Roman gods and most of the other extinct gods, especially the ones that advocated the sacrifice of virgins or the eating of still-beating hearts cut from the chests of their enemies. I’ve got to make some sacrifices or this blog will just get too long and confusing.

So, as you can see, it is possible that god has either been playing around with life and the geology of the planet for several billion years, has created it to appear as though it has, or has been too busy or tired to even pay attention to it.

This leads to a more existential question. Does it matter what happened before humans were here to observe it? Is everything else irrelevant? If only humans have intelligence and/or souls, then maybe I’d be inclined to say yes. If plants, animals, insects and other creatures also have intelligence and/or souls, then of course it matters, or should matter, to god.

Animals worshipping god

Animals worshipping god

In the Old Testament, god is very insistent that humans worship, obey, and love him. If that was all he wanted, I think animals could have been made to do the job without all the backtalk. Monkeys and dogs certainly are smart enough to know that they need to obey the leader of the pack. It would not have taken much convincing to show them who is boss and to give them reason to love him. Occasional thunderbolts for discipline plus abundant food and sex would do it. Hey, it’s good enough for me. There is evidence that even some dinosaurs lived in herds. What better than to have a herd of giant, powerful, creatures that all fear and obey you? I can see that plants just would not do, what with their cult of sun worship and all.

Correlation between IQ and Belief in God

Correlation between IQ and Belief in God

But no, god apparently wanted to give us enough intelligence to allow us to question him and enough free will to be able to do whatever we damn well please and still have the capacity to worship, obey, and love him. But that’s not all. He wanted creatures that were so intelligent that they could find a way to pass on believable stories of him to future generations so that he would not even have to visit Earth for hundreds or thousands of years at a time and they would still be able to remember him. Presumably, he is very busy. And when he did visit the Earth, he must have wanted to be able to limit his audience to a few select individuals who could then pass on the messages. This is curious, because while ancient man did not possess mass media technology or the Internet, god certainly would have been able to appear in the clouds and broadcast his message to everyone loudly and clearly. He could do so now if he wanted to finally settle the constant squabbling about what he really did say and what he meant. Personally, I would recommend god schedule a special show with Oprah, stage a few miracles, answer questions from the audience, and lay down the law, so to speak.

Survey of religious knowledge

Survey of religious knowledge

This problem of having to believe stories that are hundreds or thousands of years old is referred to as faith. It must be a special quality he was looking for or he would not have been keeping his existence so secret for so long. Unfortunately, there is a problem with having too much intelligence and still maintaining a strong faith, especially when your intelligence shows you contradictions and inconsistencies in the stories. Throw in some scientific evidence that undermines them and you have a really big problem. But let’s assume that science is there for a reason. Maybe science is really there to confirm the existence of god, but we’re just not advanced enough to get there yet. Or it could just be something to keep us busy, like sports and TV.

In future posts, let’s investigate the problem of faith in god with some thought experiments. Let’s assume that god expects everyone to happily follow his rules even if they are not told exactly what the rules are, how they apply in special conditions, or even if there are any rules at all.

Universal Questions

Did the universe evolve naturally? Was it created by a god according to an intelligent design? Does god exist and, if so, is there more than one? What is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything? You will find the answers to these and other big questions within the posts of this blog if you are bold enough to continue. OK, if you must insist, they are just hypotheses, but enough of that wishy-washy scientific stuff. If we’re going to answer the really big questions, we can’t depend on either science or theology alone.

Let’s get started with the first big question. If the universe was made according to an intelligent design, doesn’t that imply that the design has to be somewhat intelligent? And how intelligent should it be? In other words, if you came across something that looked like a shelter made of twigs, leaves and mud that was full of holes and was partly falling down, would you be able to claim it was the product of intelligent design? Clearly, if some kind of intelligent being put it together, I wouldn’t think too much of its designer. In terms of the Earth, its weather, its geologic structure, and the species that inhabit it, let’s just say that I’m not too impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Whoever or whatever built this place could have done a much better job, to say the least.

Let’s limit our analysis to that of the Earth, since we haven’t been able to get very far from it yet and can’t really say too much about the rest of the universe. Is the Earth really an example of good design? We can’t answer that question until we first figure out the purpose for which it was designed. You wouldn’t say a car was well designed if you thought it was supposed to have been made to serve as a mobile sex-lounge for adolescent teenagers. It might do the job, but not very well. So, what is the real purpose of the Earth?

To answer that, let’s start with the species that inhabit it. I might be wrong to assume that rocks, water, air and other inert substances aren’t important in and of themselves, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Sure, the Earth might just be part of some enormous creature’s giant rock collection. But let’s propose that the Earth is a testing ground for living species. If you believe what archeologists and anthropologists tell us, the planet has been around for several billion years and has gone through at least millions of different species. Many of these have gone extinct in due course or as the result of several mass extinctions due to asteroid hits, massive volcanic activity, plagues, and/or other hypothesized calamities. If you believe the scientific evidence, humans have not been around for very long. The pre-human models, like Homo Erectus and Cro-Magnon, didn’t arrive until fairly recently either and didn’t last very long before they went extinct. Many species, like the Dodo bird, appear to have been ill suited to their environments and, consequently, it was no surprise that they eventually went extinct. What the heck was the point of the Dodo anyway?

Were extinct species all just bad mistakes or part of god’s plan? If we accidentally kill off some more, aren’t we just doing gods work for him? If we kill off the elephants for their ivory, the salmon for food, or the species of the rainforest as we harvest the wood are we bad? We’re the big dogs on the block now and, besides, god made them for us anyway, right? And if you don’t believe that, you’ll probably agree another mass extinction will eventually wipe them out anyway, so why fret about it? Do we really need elephants anymore anyway? They did a great job for Hannibal when he crossed the Alps and attacked Rome, but now all we can do is go to the zoo and watch them wander around in their cages. After seeing the large, realistic-looking elephant-like creatures in The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King, I think that, in the future, we’ll probably just use computers to make virtual zoos. Since I really enjoy a good dish of salmon or tuna, I’m hoping we don’t kill off or poison the entire supply of seafood. Of course, maybe we’re just another stupid mistake on our own way towards extinction. Maybe our massive fishing of the shark population will eventually make way for Age of Aquarius, the evolution of dolphin intelligence and society.

Even the continents have been shuffled around, causing untold problems for the species that have inhabited them. Earth apparently began with a single giant landmass known as Pangaea that has drifted apart on top of a shifting, fluid outer crust ever since. There are periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as plates shift and pressure is released. Global weather has alternated between ice ages and hot spells. Water levels have covered landmasses and receded again. Deserts and rainforests have expanded and receded. All these events resulted in consequences, good and bad, for the inhabiting species. Does such a place make for a stable, nurturing, home environment? I’m sure the dinosaurs didn’t think so when a meteor arrived and wiped them all out. I’m sure that the species that have been driven into extinction by competitors would not have thought so. I’m sure the thousands of people who are killed every year by earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, cold, heat or disease don’t think so either. So no, of course it isn’t a stable environment. But it does make for a good test lab if you want to see which species can adapt to and survive catastrophic changes.

Remember that episode in the original Star Trek series where Captain Kirk was being tested by a being with god-like powers? The Squire of Gothos. Well, he eventually turned out to be just an adolescent child of another race of super beings who was just messing around. Now, I’m not saying that god is an idiot for making the Earth the way he did or that we were created as part of an alien experiment, but it is something to think about. Could there be more fact in science fiction than we would like to believe?

If you believe in a god, you probably believe that he/she/it created the world as described in the bible but made it appear, for some deliberate reason, as though it’s been evolving on its own for a few billion years. Even though we can measure the fact that the continents continue to drift apart, species continue to die off, and new species continue to be discovered, maybe this process of environmental change and evolution was all a purposeful illusion up until god created man. Then, he really made it work the way it appears to have worked all along. Why would he do this? It’s one of the big questions, so we don’t want to give it away too early in the blog–and no reading the last post first!

Another possible theory is that he created the world with some built-in evolutionary mechanisms and let it run for a few billion years while he was busy doing something else or resting. Resting for a few billion years? Why not? After all, we really don’t know how many billions of years may make up one god-day. Maybe calculating the length of a god-day would make for a good National Science Foundation sponsored research project for Intelligent Design “scientists.” Wouldn’t that be a great way to combine the hard physical sciences of physics, math, astronomy, and archeology with Intelligent Design theory?

I’m not a real physicist, I just play one in this blog, but I’m guessing that a simplified version of the problem would be something like this. If god made both the universe and the Earth in one god-day, then we must be able to create a variable space-time equation that proves the age of the universe is equal to the age of the Earth in god-days. If we can measure the current accelerating expansion of space-time and trace it back to the big bang, we can solve the equation.

My guess is that the length of a god-day is a variable that decreases as the universe expands. So, he had a lot more time to kill at the time of the big bang than he does today. Hence, he was able to make all the stars in one day. Pretty soon, however, he’ll have a hard time getting to even the most important prayers. But that’s just a wild-ass guess. I could be wrong. I’ll leave it up to the “Intelligent Design scientists” to figure it out.