The question of whether a religious organisation is a church or a cult often arises. In fact I heard two news items this morning where this was an issue. The first was regarding a New Zealand fundamentalist church called the Destiny Church and the second was regarding Scientology in France. To me the difference between the two isn’t that great because all churches have elements of cults and vice versa, so the dividing line is very much a matter of subjective opinion.
According to the dictionary a church is “a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines” and “the hierarchy of clergy of such an organization”. I’m a bit surprised that this definition specifies a church must be Christian so I’m going to ignore that aspect of the definition (that may seem arbitrary but only real Christian bigots would say a church has to be Christian surely).
The same dictionary (the New Oxford American) defines a cult as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object” or “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister”. So a cult either venerates a particular object or figure (I’m sure most people would say religions do this as well) or are relatively small and considered strange or sinister.
Some people (myself included) consider a lot of Christian beliefs strange and sinister so that isn’t necessarily a good indicator of a cult. That leaves the size of the organisation as a significant factor which means all current religions were cults when they started and were relatively small.
So it seems to me that, at the very least, the line between the two is blurred and in many ways a church is just a big, established cult and a cult is a church which isn’t well accepted or very big yet. Those don’t seem like very important distinctions to me.
This should in no way be construed as meaning I support the existence of the Destiny Church or Scientology. I think in general these are cults (in the sense most people use the word) and need to be controlled although I certainly wouldn’t make them illegal because people should have the choice to believe stupid and ridiculous things if they really want to.
The leader of Destiny is either a nutter who is totally out of touch with reality or a very clever, scheming politician intent on using religion for his own personal gain and power. I’m honestly not sure which he is but either way its concerning. A good example of his paranoia or duplicity is a speech at a recent meeting where he likened himself to King David and said: “Who is going to touch my people? Who is going to steer your children? Who is going to try and put a disease upon you if I already pre-programmed, pre-designed it? God. I am God, I am not just some man or spirit, I am god.”
He is God? Really? When people start indulging in this sort of rhetoric, or worst still, have delusions of grandeur to this extent, its time to be worried!
At the same meeting he told the men (not the women, which sounds like classic Christian misogyny) to swear an oath which included: “Always speak of Bishop Brian in a favourable and positive light. Protect him from outsiders who try and get in his face. Tactfully move in on people who do this. When Bishop Tamaki is speaking all others stop. Never openly disagree with Bishop Tamaki in front of others. If seated with Bishop Tamaki at a table wait until he has started eating before you do. In a sign of love and respect for Bishop Tamaki surprise him with gifts.”
So this really shows the requirement of unthinking support for a leader which is clearly cult-like, but is it that much different from the requirement of Catholics to respect the Pope and not question his decisions? I don’t think so, although there are so many Catholics that the Church can’t monitor them all for compliance where the meeting mentioned above only included 700 people.
In just 15 years (from 1991 to 2006) the percentage of New Zealanders identifying themselves as Christian has dropped from 75 to 55 while those saying they have no religion has gone from just over 20% to almost 40% (Wikipedia: Religion in New Zealand). By the time the next census is held in 2011 I would expect that non-believers will be the close to being the biggest group in New Zealand.
This is clearly what extremists like Tamaki fear. In 2003 he predicted that “we will be ruling the Nation” in 5 years. The church’s main attempt at political power was a pathetic failure when the Destiny New Zealand political party gained just 0.6% of the total vote. Why even that number of people would vote for a bunch or corrupt nutters I cannot imagine!
As religion gradually disappears from western society we should expect churches to become more desperate to survive. Maybe that’s all we are seeing with the latest chicanery from Destiny.
Recently I have been commenting on how I don’t totally discount the idea of conspiracies even though I tend to be very skeptical when they are used to justify a political position such as global warming denial. I mentioned a couple of conspiracies I currently subscribe to, including the religious conspiracy which results in the acceptance of the historicity of Jesus as a fact, but today I have found another, more current one which is a classic!
There is a political/religious organisation in the US called “the Family”. Its a conservative, fundamentalist Christian organisation dedicated to using religious ideas to advance a conservative political agenda. There are many very powerful American political figures involved and it has a lot of influence with both parties, although its more strongly aligned to the Republicans, of course.
So these shadowy figures are working in the background influencing American (and international) politics in various nefarious ways. It really does sound like a classic conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? Many conspiracy theories posit the existence of organisations like this who are the real power behind the world’s governments or who even exist at a level above the recognised centers of power. I’m not saying this organisation is quite that powerful but I am suggesting they do have a lot of influence. If that’s a conspiracy theory then I guess I’m a conspiracy theorist!
So what is known about this organisation? I listened to an interview on the subject by an author, Jeff Sharlet, who has recently researched and written a book on the subject and listening to him should lead anyone to a lot of genuine concern. Of course, as I said in my previous blog entry, I think it is important to independently verify the existence and some of the details about this organisation and indeed it all seems true.
The mission statement includes the following: To develop and maintain an informal association of people banded together, to go out as “ambassadors of reconciliation,” modeling the principles of Jesus, based on loving God and loving others. To work with the leaders of other nations, and as their hearts are touched, the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the youth of their country will be impacted in a positive manner. It is said that youth groups will be developed under the thoughts of Jesus, including loving others as you want to be loved.
But according to a lot of the the evidence I’ve seen they don’t really live up to these lofty ideals. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of their operation is secrecy. They make no attempt to be open and actually adopt secrecy as a fundamental part of how they operate. They make no apology for this and (ironically) don’t try to hide secrecy as a major part of how they work. If there morals are so high and purpose so pure I really have to wonder why secrecy is important.
And they have been connected to some very disturbing activities, especially by aiding dictatorial and murderous regimes in countries like Somalia and Indonesia. If these accusations are true – and they certainly seem to be – then they have indirect responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocent people. And why have they connected with these murderers? So that they can use political influence to further their extreme right wing objectives.
Its a classic example of how religions can be warped to mean anything at all. The beliefs of the family are completely contrary to what most people would consider the classic Christian message. It would almost be worth it if Christianity really was true because what these people do has nothing to do with the Christian message and I’m sure God would find a particularly nasty corner of Hell for these totally evil people when they die!
The Family’s current leader, Doug Coe, has encouraged commitment to the organisation and to Jesus Christ by comparing it to the blind devotion of followers of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Pol Pot. That seems like a very strange selection of people because in hindsight they didn’t really deserve the following they had. I’m not sure what that really tells us about the Family’s leadership. Maybe they are so confident in their power that they think they can make outrageous statements like that without fear of condemnation. Maybe they genuinely admire dictatorial regimes, because that’s the way most religions work. Or maybe they are just so out on the fringe that they have no handle on reality at all. I suspect its a little bit of all of those.
One aspect of the regimes I listed above is that they all ended relatively quickly because they just weren’t viable as a long term political solution. Of course Christianity has done a lot better than that but I think the signs of its imminent demise are there. Already it has become a spent force in Europe and that’s gradually happening in the US as well. Its really only in third world countries where the naive inhabitants can be easily exploited that religion is growing. So, like Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Pol Pot, Jesus doesn’t really seem to have much of a future. Its rather ironic really!
Everyone has philosophical perspectives or a worldview whether they explicitly understand that or not. Many people seem so apathetic that its hard to label them with a worldview at all but maybe apathy itself could be considered as one. So what I plan to do here is explore my philosophy or worldview (which I don’t necessarily know myself at this point but hope to discover as this blog entry proceeds).
First I am a rationalist. According to Wikipedia rationalism is “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”, or a method or a theory “in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive”. Many people who aren’t rational will claim to be (I’ve heard people claim that belief in creationism is rational) so it really requires an objective, rational (getting a bit circular there) assessment to know for sure.
I’m also an empiricist, specifically a scientific empiricist. From Wikipedia again we get this definition: empiricism emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. This seems to partly contradict rationalism but let’s not go there!
So I don’t rate ideas very highly unless there is objective evidence they are true. Some people claim I miss out on some subtle aspects of reality this way but I counter that by saying if a phenomenon is so subtle it has no measurable effect on the real universe then it actually don’t exist in any real sense.
The world views above naturally lead to atheism but that is a label I avoid because its more about what I’m not than what I am. I currently see no reason to think there is a god but so what? I am prepared to change that idea if the evidence changes and I also see no evidence for the tooth fairy existing. Should I also be labelled an afairiest?
I am also a political liberal. Liberalism, according to the dictionary is being “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values” or “favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform”. I don’t know how useful that definition is because many conservatives and libertarians would also say they support those views but I oppose a lot of what they believe.
I heard an interesting anecdote about liberals in a recent podcast. A radio producer was being challenged about why he used so many conservatives as talkback hosts. The explanation was that conservatives are better for the job because they have more fixed views and are more likely to cause controversy because of that. By contrast liberals make an effort to consider all sides of the story so they are more likely to have at least partial agreement with others and reduce the conflict and therefore the entertainment value of the program. Of course that higher entertainment value comes at the expense of fairness and accuracy!
Maybe most importantly I am a skeptic. That word has several possible nuances in its meaning. I don’t mean the philosophical skepticism which denies the possibility of all knowledge or the popular meaning of someone who doubts the validity of everything, what I really mean is thinking about the validity of new information or ideas instead of just accepting them. For example I never believe anything I see in the media until I have a chance to verify it on the internet or another independent source.
That doesn’t mean I ignore everything in the media. If the sports news reports that a sports team won a game I accept that because its easy to validate and unlikely to be controversial. If the media reports a UFO was sited I will definitely want to do a bit of research to find out what other perspectives are available on the story, and in every case so far there has been another perspective which inevitably involves a prosaic explanation. But that might not always be the case which is why I research the story instead of just discarding it.
The difficulty with skepticism is not so use it as an excuse for disbelief. A friend I recently debated global warming with (he’s a denier) refused to answer the question I asked which was “why did a recent study show 97% of climate experts accept global warming is real and caused by human activity”. He eventually dispensed with this inconvenient fact by saying “I’m deeply suspicious of all statistics that quote wide numbers of opinions as being in concert to the tune of 97%. It’s truly most unlikely”.
That’s not skepticism, its just pure, blind stupidity. I would be prepared to put a small bet on this: I he received a survey indicating 97% of experts supported something he believed in he would suddenly find that statistic quite persuasive!
So skepticism is great but it must be used fairly and evenly. None of the climate change “skeptics” I have met ever qualify as true skeptics, for example, because they are far too selective about how they apply their skepticism. Unless you are fully skeptical (including poorly supported scientific findings) you really shouldn’t use the tag “skeptic”. I use “denier” in this case instead. They love that!
Which brings me to my last label. I’m sarcastic and a bit of a smart-ass! Yes, this isn’t a formal worldview but I enjoy using humour to make a point and sarcasm to highlight the inconsistencies in other people’s opinions. Unfortunately that sometimes means I aren’t quite as objective, respectful, or careful as I should be but, no one’s perfect and you’ve got to have a bit of fun some times!
One of the reasons I write blog entries and debate people on the internet is so that I can get a reality check on my own beliefs. I don’t like using the word “beliefs” because it seems to put me in the same category as believers such as religious people, spiritual people, conspiracy believers and people with strong political views, but I hope that my form of belief isn’t really the same as that.
Of course no one is perfect and there are sure to be some areas where I have unreasonable biases, but I hope that these are considerably more reasoned than most. Of course, how would I know? Many people genuinely think they are right when they are obviously wrong so I could easily be in that category too.
There are two areas where I think I might be unreasonably biased. First, I think Christianity is based on a huge conspiracy, the greatest the world has ever seen. Considering I criticise other people for following conspiracy theories that is a bit worrying. The other area is in politics where I have an obvious left bias. I don’t take this to any sort of extreme and I think I’m very pragmatic but again, everyone sees their own views that way, even when (in my view) they actually tend to the political far right.
So what about this great “Jesus conspiracy” – what’s all that about? Well I think Jesus never existed which is quite an extreme view because even atheists and other skeptics usually think the Jesus stories are based on some sort of real historical figure. So making Jesus both a real person and a religious figurehead obviously required a huge conspiracy to be created first.
I am prepared to be proven wrong on this and it wouldn’t make a lot of difference to my overall worldview because even if Jesus did exist he was clearly totally different from the character in the BIble. The reason I doubt his existence is that there is just no credible evidence that he existed outside of the BIble and the Bible stories are contradictory and inconsistent as well as being written many years after the alleged events by people who weren’t even there. Believing the Bible is a total joke and no other book based on such obviously flimsy evidence would be taken seriously.
And despite all the challenges I have put out, no one has been able to show me a single record of Jesus’ life written by an actual witness at the time. Other events were recorded in detail so why not those which involved Jesus and were allegedly so miraculous?
So I really think I have good reason to believe the Jesus conspiracy really exists but the difference between me and other conspiracy believers is that I am totally relaxed about being proven wrong. I just want to know the facts. in fact, I think its fairly likely that a historical figure might exist that loosely matches the Biblical Jesus character but I would be totally astounded if there was any evidence of the miracles!
So what about my left political bias? I think that is more relative than absolute. I am certainly to the left of many of the people I debate with – after all that’s why I debate them in the first place – but I don’t think I’m far left in any real, absolute sense.
These are some of my key political beliefs (there’s that word again): I want tight controls over business and have little faith in laissez-faire economics, I think its everyone’s social duty to ensure a decent standard of living for all people even if that involves paying tax, I don’t think long prison sentences or the death penalty is an effective deterrent in most cases, I don’t think the private sector can be relied on to be genuinely innovative in all areas, I don’t think foreign investment and privatisation is the best option in most cases.
Note that I don’t want to do away with private enterprise, I just want to control and moderate it. And I don’t want more leniency in criminal prosecution in every case, just the recognition that it is counter-productive in most instances. And I’m not totally against foreign investment, I just think that key assets are better controlled by people more closely connected with where they have to operate.
Does any of that really sound like extreme left politics? It doesn’t to me but if it is extreme left then I say bring it on! I really don’t care about labels of left, right or center. I do care about what works according to evidence and history, not ideology as it is usually practiced by conservatives and libertarians, as well as extreme liberals and socialists.
Looking back through my blog I can see a few occasions where I have indulged in a bit of rhetoric or hyperbole to make a point, or maybe when I was a bit upset about a particularly egregious incident involving my political or religious opponents. But overall I think I have been quite sensible and offered compromise solutions which are quite easily justified.
So in answer to the question “am I wrong” I would say, I really don’t know. But if I am wrong I still think I am right in having the opinions I do, especially since I am prepared to change them if the evidence is sufficiently compelling.
Some people probably think I’m terribly naive to reject the idea of global conspiracies. After all, if big business, governments, pressure groups, or terrorist organisations have indulged in a conspiracy one of their primary objectives would be to keep it secret. People like me refusing to believe in the conspiracy are just playing into their hands aren’t they?
The problem is that its too easy to stray into the area of paranoia. If you believe in a conspiracy then secrecy is usually a major aspect of it. If evidence keeps appearing to show the conspiracy isn’t true couldn’t that be construed as evidence that the conspirators are successful in keeping their activities secret?
No doubt you will have detected the flaw in this logic. The more evidence against the conspiracy the more believers want to believe it because subterfuge is an inherent characteristic of the conspiracy. The problem then becomes: what could be used as evidence against the conspiracy? If more evidence for it supports it and lack of evidence or evidence against it supports it then it can never be denied. If that isn’t paranoia then at least its a terrible application of logic.
The reason I have talked about conspiracies here is because its usually the only way people who believe in theories which contradict the mainstream can justify their beliefs. Specifically, it is often used by global warming deniers to support their belief that global warming isn’t happening because almost all experts, scientists, and governments do take it seriously. Of course the same criticism applies to believers in 9/11 conspiracies, creationism, and UFO visits.
I have recently been debating global warming with a friend and I have asked him to explain why the majority of experts believe that anthropogenic global climate change is real. He has so far refused to answer the question because he knows that the only explanation is a global conspiracy and relying on that does significantly weaken his argument.
But is there really a consensus? Well yes, there is actually. I admit that it is possible to carefully select statements which seem to counter the idea but looking at the big picture its obvious that practically everyone who has a credible opinion agrees that global warming is real. Surely they can’t be all wrong so that just leaves deliberate deception on a huge scale: in other words a conspiracy.
Here’s a statement from Wikipedia regarding the consensus: A survey published in 2009 by Peter Doran and Maggie Zimmerman of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago of 3146 Earth Scientists found that 97% of active climatologists agree that human activity is causing global warming. A summary from the survey states that: “It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”
To be a global warming denier you must believe in a global conspiracy because the idea that all those experts could be just wrong is ridiculous. But most conspiracies are also ridiculous. No wonder the deniers don’t want to answer this question!
One of the important parts of my job – at least in my opinion because I’m not sure what the management think (and I don’t really care) – is testing new programs so I can solve problems and make recommendations relating to these. An unfortunate side effect of this is that sometimes I install something which messes up my computer pretty badly and that is what happened recently.
Yes, even Macs can sometimes get messed up by incompatible and badly written software or even just by damaged preference files and other components. I would have to say that even though my machine got terribly confused I didn’t have to clear the hard disk, or reinstall the operating system, or even reinstall any software.
But I did have to disable all of my preference files (several thousand of them) and move them back individually until I discovered where the problem was coming from. Its not as bad as it sounds because I use a “binary chop” method where I move half and see if the problem occurs then move half of the remainder in or out until the problem is isolated. That means it takes a manageable amount of time, for example to positively identify one from 1000 entries takes 10 iterations. This is a classic computer science approach in action!
As a side effect of this process I also threw away some stuff I wasn’t using any more. This has resulted in my machine running more quickly. A good indication of the efficiency of a laptop like mine is the temperature it runs at when the fans are off (which is almost all the time). Before the tidy up mine ran at about 52 degrees but now its at 46. This means the machine is faster (because some background tasks must have been using up some of the CPU’s cycles, but they now run at about 2% each when “idle”) and cooler (better when it sits on my knee so much) and the battery lasts longer (that heat has to come from somewhere).
It took a few hours to sort through the problems and figure out the best way to fix things but at least I think I know what went wrong. I think the wireless settings got corrupted which meant the internet connection was in a half-working state leading to the synchronisation process of one of my extra programs getting stuck which in turn lead to a rapidly escalating demand for memory which swamped the paged memory management and made the machine decreasingly responsive until it was almost impossible to do anything.
When I get problems on a client’s computer I would prefer to use similar diagnostic techniques but because I have to charge for my time that’s usually not possible because the client would complain about the charge for the extra time. That means that after 30 minutes of diagnosis I often just have to admit defeat and re-install the operating system. Luckily Macs can have a fresh OS installed (in about an hour) while maintaining the programs and user data, but its still a bit of a waste of time and the next time the same fault happens I still don’t know what caused it.
Because the computer was partly disabled, with no wireless internet access and some other services I commonly use were not working I did get surprisingly behind in my usual IT tasks. Emails piled up, news web sites remained unvisited, and podcasts didn’t get downloaded for almost two days. I guess you really don’t realise how much you depend on technology working reliably until it doesn’t!
Occasionally I get involved with debates involving people who believe young Earth theories of various kinds, especially young Earth creationism. Generally these people think that the Earth is about 6,000 years old because that’s what a literal reading of the Bible gives. They’re wrong, and there’s no reasonable doubt about it.
When I say no “reasonable” doubt I don’t mean there can be no doubt at all because there is always room for that, even from people who accept a theory. What I mean is that anyone who doubts the idea does so for completely invalid reasons. Generally these reasons get back to ignorance or plain refusal to accept facts for religious or political reasons.
So how do I know that the Universe isn’t 6000 years old? Well you could look at just about any branch of science and find that the theories accepted by experts and supported by vast amounts of evidence all point to an old Earth (and an old universe).
For example, geology needs an old Earth for mineral deposits to form, for hydrocarbons to form, for glaciation to occur, for mountain building to complete, for continental drift to happen, and for erosion processes to happen. The list just goes on and on and I’m sure what I have listed here is just a start. You could perhaps debate some of the evidence supporting some of those processes but its almost impossible for the big picture to be wrong. Millions of observations on thousands of subjects in dozens of geological areas of study can’t all be wrong.
And even if they were what about other areas of science? Physics, cosmology, biology, and many other subject areas also require an old universe. How can they also be wrong? Remember that these observations are made independently by different groups of people using totally different methodology yet they still get similar results. Disputing these findings borders on insanity.
If there was one simple way to prove the universe is old I would choose the “old light problem”. Light travels at a certain speed which has been established as a constant in every part of the universe. The light we see from space has been travelling for a certain amount of time. The further the light source is away the longer it has been travelling. So if we see light from an object where the light would take more than 6000 years to get to us that object must have existed more than 6000 years ago so the universe must be older than that.
Conveniently astronomers use a measure of distance called the light year. A light year is the distance (note that its not a measure of time despite the name) light travels in a year. So any object more than 6000 light years away must have been there before the young Earth believers say the universe was created.
So how far away are various objects astronomers have seen? Well the Moon is 1.5 light seconds away (the light takes 1.5 seconds to get from the Moon to us), the Sun is 8 light minutes away, the nearest star (apart from the Sun) is 4.3 light years away, and the nearest large galaxy is over 2 million light years away. The most distant objects so far discovered are billions of light years away.
These observations fit in with estimates of the age of the Earth (about 4.5 billion years) and the universe (about 13.7 years) but they are totally incompatible with the idea that the universe is only 6000 years old.
Of course the young Earth creationists try to deny these facts. First they say the distance measures are unreliable, then they say maybe the speed of light has changed over time, then they invoke some type of relativistic effect, and finally they suggest the light was already travelling when the object was created.
So do any of these explanations have any merit? Well to an insignificant extent they do, but none can really be taken too seriously.
The distance to objects is a surprisingly difficult problem in astronomy and we all admit that the more distant the object is the more uncertain the measurement of its distance. Close objects (a few hundred light years) can have their distance measured directly (using parallax) but after that everything is an estimate. But even if these estimates were off by 100% the age of the universe would still be far too great. For the universe to be just 6000 years old the estimates would need to be off by about 200,000,000% If the measurements were really that bad there would be obvious effects which we just don’t see.
What about the speed of light changing? That would produce obvious changes in various physical effects which have not be seen. And the change would need to be so huge it would be obvious immediately. Even most creationists have now abandoned this idea.
So is there a poorly understood relativistic effect which might explain the anomaly? Well no, there is no evidence for that at all. If time travelled slowly on Earth but quickly in the rest of the universe then it would be obvious both from what we see on Earth and from observations from space. We see nothing supporting this at all.
That leaves light created at the same time as the object. For example, if a star is 10,000 light years away it could be created with a 10,000 light year sphere of Earth around it and it would be seen immediately on Earth. But this doesn’t fit with the observations of red shifts and light reflections and interactions with interstellar media. It just can’t be true.
A final desperate attempt is often made which suggests the Big Bang also suffers from problems of the speed of light travel, usually citing the cosmic microwave anisotropy (warmer and cooler spots in the background radiation of the universe) but these are easily explained by the inflationary universe model which has wide support and also explains other cosmological observations.
So really the debate is over. Anyone who really believes the universe is young is just making a fool of themselves. Even several creationist sources (like the Conservapedia I talked about yesterday) basically admit they have no answer. As I continually say, we never accept anything with 100% certainty but this debate is practically over. If the universe is only 6000 years old (despite millions of pieces of evidence to the contrary) then almost everything we know must not only be wrong but the universe must be conspiring in some way to disguise its true nature. If that’s the case me might as well give up trying to understand anything and just go back to the dark ages when everyone just assumed Biblical myths were true. Of course, that’s just what the creationists want.
If there are two groups of people who I find really annoying its political conservatives and fundamentalist believers. I don’t mean people who vote for conservative parties and have a few old-fashioned views, or people who think religion has some merit and go to church occasionally, I mean those who take these beliefs really seriously and allow them to control their whole lives as well as trying to push them into others.
So if conservatives are a problem and religious people are a nuisance just imagine what the combination of these two in conservative Christians must be like! Truly hideous! Note that I have switched from religious people in general to Christians here. I don’t mean to pick on them in particular – other fundamentalist religious groups are just as bad and possibly worse – its just that the particular incident I’m reporting this time involves Christians.
So what is this incident? There is a group in the US who publish something called “Conservapedia”. Its an encyclopedia specifically for conservative Christians and it is one of the most dishonest, hate filled and disgusting publications I have ever seen. An encyclopedia is supposed to present facts but this one has about as many as the Museum of Creation, in other words is full of blatant lies and misinformation.
But these conservative religious nutters aren’t happy with spreading their self-serving propaganda through that alone, they now want to produce a version of the Bible which upholds their “ideals”. Apparently they believe the Bible is full of socialist and liberal bias. Obviously this is because of deliberate errors in translation because the original world of God would never have had such terrible stuff included!
If you read this blog you will know I have no real respect for the Bible or for Christianity in general but I would have thought that one of the only good things about it would have been the message of forgiveness and tolerance some people see in the (alleged) message of Jesus. By the way, I say “alleged” here because I doubt whether Jesus even existed and, even if he did, I doubt whether the Bible has much to do with what he said.
These are the ten guidelines they say aren’t satisfied by existing translations: a framework against liberal bias; avoiding unisex, gender inclusive language; not being dumbed down; using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; combating addiction by using modern terms for it; accept the logic of Hell; express free market parables; exclude later-inserted inauthentic passages; credit open-mindedness of disciples; and prefer conciseness over liberal wordiness.
The problem is the Bible is almost meaningless already (because it has any meaning the person reading it wants to take) so these people will be able to twist it to fit their sick perspective on life and hide the small amount of good content that is actually there.
So this project would allow the conservative crazies to complete their deluded lives by having a warped Bible to read as well as a warped encyclopedia and other sources. Their delusion will be complete because they will be able to live in a little world where even the religious text they use agrees with their sick perspectives on life.
On the other hand anyone who takes sources like Conservapedia seriously and who might be likely to take any notice of their revised Bible are probably already fairly dedicated to that worldview so its unlikely the conservatives will gain a lot of additional support from this project.
So what is the new Bible likely to include? American comedian, Stephen Colbert, made an interesting suggestion when he said: “The Bible says Jesus fed the poor. It should say he fed the rich and let the loaves and fishes trickle down.” That’s a joke but its just the sort of thing we might see in this new version. Oh, and don’t expect to see anything like Matthew 19:24 (And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God) kept in anything like its original form!
Read the Conservapedia and you’ll get an idea of the incredibly dishonest, misleading propaganda these people are prepared to resort to. Fundamentalists have gained a lot of skill over the years at warping the facts, cherry picking evidence, and presenting quotes out of context. It will be interesting to see how they apply these techniques to their own holy book.
I have read a few opinions and entered into a few debates over the topic of funding for basic scientific research. By “basic” research I mean the sort of stuff which seems to have no real benefit, and what some people call “blue skies” research. Many people don’t want to see this sort of thing funded because there is no obvious payback or financial benefit.
They are wrong in many ways. First, its impossible to tell what will be useful in the long term and what won’t, so refusing to invest in research with no immediate benefit could easily result in important discoveries never being made. Second, science is a cumulative thing and many practical discoveries rely on the less obviously useful ones being made already. And third, who has the right to hold up science, even if it could be proved there would never be a benefit?
Some people answer the last point by saying that the government and other funding authorities who represent the taxpayers and shareholders who are the ultimate providers of funds have that right. Again, I think they are wrong. Science deserves to have a certain portion of its funding available for the type of research that experts in scientific fields want to do, even if no one can see any financial benefit in that. It should be enough that science gives us what it does without having to justify itself to politicians and managers.
People should also understand that there is a difference between science and technology. I’m a technologist myself and work in a university with many scientists (as well as having an amateur interest in science) and the two have different aims even though they very much rely on each other.
I think of technology as applied science although the distinction is a bit imprecise because technology doesn’t have to come from science. I would like to see more “blue skies” work being done in technology as well as science. Google gives its employees a portion of their paid time to work on projects of their choice and it does produce results. Unfortunately most other companies are too focussed on simplistic measures of performance and miss out on that sort of opportunity.
We really need to get out of the capitalist, management-driven mindset or we will be condemned to mediocrity forever. Very little of any value ever arose from a tightly managed, commercially oriented environment. Almost all managers (in my experience) concentrate on taking the easy path because they have to justify themselves to managers further up the hierarchy. Its just too hard for them to try to do anything better than the way it has always been done.
I would also say (perhaps somewhat cynically and perhaps a bit unfairly in some cases) that managers are just naturally mediocre, unimaginative, self-centered people otherwise why would they want to get into management in the first place?
So I think we need to throw piles of cash at people working in the areas of science and technology and just let them do what they think could be interesting. Forget about the grant applications, forget about the management reports, and forget about the formal reporting of project progress. Just wait and see what happens. I suspect the results would be far greater than any micro-managed project would ever get.
I must have been a bit preoccupied at the end of last month because I seem to have missed International Blasphemy Day! I’m always happy to make the effort to offer a bit of blasphemy for a good cause but I was out of town on holiday at the time and I must have just missed it. I have added a reminder to my phone for next year though!
I remember last time I blogged on the subject there was some discussion around what blasphemy really is so I should start with my definition here. According to the dictionary it is “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk”. Sacrilege is “violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred” and profanity is “relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical; secular rather than religious” or “not respectful of orthodox religious practice; irreverent”.
None of these suggest deliberate offense (despite the word being used in an alternative context in the definition) although lack of respect is mentioned. So really blasphemy is just the act of saying something that a religious authority doesn’t like. This could be a thoughtful criticism similar to what Socrates was persecuted for (according to the stories we have anyway) or a humorous but pointed criticism like the famous Danish cartoons. It could also be a robust criticism of religion in a similar way to how politics is criticised.
But what about respect? Don’t believers deserve respect? What about supernatural entities or ideas? Well I think all people deserve some respect but you can’t really respect someone by treating their ideas as off limits for criticism. That is very condescending in my opinion and quite the opposite to respect. What about a god? Does he/she/it deserve respect? Well some, I guess, even if the perspon making the criticism doesn’t think the entity really exists, but no more than other concepts which can be criticised without fear of reprisals. And the same applies to ideas. Religious ideas should get the same respect (or lack of respect) as other ideas. If they have real merit they will survive, otherwise they probably weren’t really worth preserving anyway.
So I think blasphemy is not only OK, its a duty of all free thinking, intelligent people. Of course those people should expect criticism of their ideas (such as atheism) in return and should be prepared to defend them. Very few atheists are too worried about criticism of atheism, maybe because most of them welcome reasoned debate and are confident their worldview is defensible.
So blasphemy laws are really just an admission that religion is weak. As far as I know all successful religions have had them at one time or another in some form, although most have backed away from the idea as modern liberal democracies have taken over from political systems based on religious control.
That seems to have happened almost everywhere except in the Islamic world and that has unfortunately lead to the rise of Islam. Muslims don’t seem to be outstandingly successful in a free competition of ideas and beliefs but threatening anyone who disagrees with them with death, like some Islamic countries do, is a sure way to force people into servitude.
So, although I tend to be most critical of Christianity in my blog posts, I think I would prefer to blaspheme against Islam, just because they take the idea so seriously. OK, so here’s my (potentially blasphemous) thoughts: although I know there are many good people who are Muslims and that there are some aspects to the belief which are undeniably positive, I think Islam is basically a system of mind control based around a non-existant god and has no place in the modern world. I think that is sufficiently blasphemous but I’m sure I could do a lot better if I really tried!