Category Archives: Religion

A transcendent experience

photo (3)Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt totally connected to something larger than yourself? Felt like you were part of a web of caring, that your life was important and that you wouldn’t be let down? Aware that your life had value way beyond your own experience?

I had one of those experiences just a couple of days ago. I was flying through the air, not a care in the world, looking down on houses and trees and roads and people. I was perfectly calm, relaxed even, as my vision was consumed by the moving landscape, and I watched the ground whizzing by.

Was this a dream or meditative moment? Nope. You might have guessed already–I was on an airplane. Yes, it was one of those modern, yet entirely mundane moments when we were approaching the airport, and the plane banked pretty steeply such that the only thing I could see out my window was the ground, and the suburban neighborhood (with depressed home prices because of the flight paths, I’m sure) that covered it. The amateur physicist in me wondered what angle we banking, and how hard the pilot must be pulling into the bank so that we felt more connected to our seats than our arm-rests, despite the enormous pull of gravity to our right.

And it suddenly occurred to me, that without the technology and amazing engineering surrounding me, and the web of professionals guiding that technology, a human body flying at 300+ miles per hour at 5000 feet above the ground would be so terrifying as to be unbearable. To say that’s what nightmares are made of is putting too thin a cliche on it. Without that technology and the skilled professionals guiding it, death would surely be just moments away for a human body in that situation.

But there we were. Calm. Relaxed. Reading, even. And how many people made that all possible? From the pilots and flight crew, to the air traffic control, to the FAA regulating maintenance and safety standards, to the engineers, scientist, computer programmers, chemists, and dozens more professions encompassing thousands of people that are required to bring an airplane from design to lift-off. Why is it safe? Because all of those people valued human life. Safety of the passengers and crew has been the utmost of design principles. There are failsafe systems everywhere you look. The planes could even fly with one engine and no pilot. On every flight, every person is instructed to buckle their seat belt–and the plane will not take off until every passenger has. (When was the last time you buckled your seat belt in the shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal?) Any time anyone dies while in this endeavor, an intensive investigation helps to find the root cause and find ways to prevent it from ever, EVER happening again.

We do this, as a society, because we value human life. We support the idea that people who are alive should be provided the utmost opportunity to stay alive. And we’ve demonstrated through years of improving safety standards in air travel that not only do we care, but we demonstrate that caring through positive action that actually has results.

That, my friends is a transcendent experience–that my life has been entrusted to thousands who took that trust very seriously, and I lived to tell the mundane tale.

Kook Corner

The Lord Is Coming May 21, 2011

There’s an intersection a few miles from my house that have three prominent billboards decorating the crappy Ohio landscape. For the last couple of years, these billboards have almost exclusively been rented by religious groups for various theological messages. For several years a local mega-church had feel-good messages up–I don’t remember a specific message, but I think they were mostly about connecting with a community, friendship, love of neighbor, etc.

This past winter (I took these pictures in January) the “Lord is Coming” billboard went up. Evidently, around 6PM (local time) on the Pacific rim earthquakes will spread around the globe. The Good Christians(TM) will be called up to heaven, the rest of us will wait in fear for 153 days, when the whole universe will then be destroyed–that’s October 21, 2011 for those of us left on the ground. Some people are so convinced of the truth of this prophecy that they’ve quit their jobs, and have budgeted their savings so they’ll have no money left on May 21. I feel very sad for these folks. I dearly hope they’ll be able to file a class-action lawsuit on May 22 against the purveyors of this crap. I’m not sure what the offense would be–I’m not sure this is protected speech and wonder if it borders on dangerous speech like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The news on May 22 should be very interesting–I just hope no one commits suicide as a result.

After you die you will meet god

Turning 180 degrees from where I was standing for the first picture, we see the next one, “After you die, you will meet god”. Its an effective bit of fear mongering or theology-by-threat. It leaves open lots of wonderfully imaginative interpretations, but I think attempts to imply that god will judge you personally then send you to heaven or hell. Lovely.

The final billboard is about 100 yards away, and I’m always driving when I go by it, so I don’t have my own picture. This one is very similar, “In the beginning, god created”.

So at one intersection we have three billboards spouting literal interpretations of the bible: god created you [so worship him], god will judge you [harshly if you don’t worship him], and god will kill everyone who didn’t worship him. And I’m supposed to think the bible is the word of a loving god?

The Wager

A person very close to me, I’ll call her M, recently handed me a printed copy of this sermon. She handed me this sermon because she knows of my recent faith questions and she thought I might find it interesting. It took me a couple of weeks to get to it, but I finally read it last night.

The sermon opens rather poorly for me–with a condescending story about a 23 year-old questioning some tenets of his religion, only to be told “There are lots of things that you don’t know at twenty-three.” Though the statement is absolutely true, there are also lots of things that you don’t know at 43 or 63 or 93. To decline to discuss the issues head on with an adult clearly interested in discussing them is to miss an incredible opportunity. Instead, the priest (not the author of the sermon) chooses to be condescending toward the student. Imagine if I were teaching a class at work on technical topics where I’m an expert, and someone said “I don’t understand, why should I do that step?” If I were to simply respond “You’re too young to understand, just do what I tell you to do” I would be considered a bit on the pompous side.

The sermon touches on a church member, Hoff, who refused to say certain parts of the Apostles creed because he didn’t believe in them. I find I agree with Hoff, and that’s where I started having difficulties in my own church-going. I couldn’t stand in the pews and say words that I didn’t believe to be true. I find the pastor’s argument–” It’s the church’s creed, not ours.”–rings hollow. What is the church if not the members? Can members not choose to change the church as their understanding of the world evolves?

The pastor then makes a serious mistake. He mentions the “new atheist” movement and two prominent authors, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. He then quotes an anonymous reviewer of The God Delusion:

One reviewer of Dawkins’ book gently asks if the author has forgotten that the Soviet Union was an intentionally godless state and culture? Have Dawkins and others forgotten the atrocities Josef Stalin afflicted in the name of secularism? Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot presided over mass murder of millions of people in the name of a new godless, religionless secularism.

It is clear that neither the pastor, nor the reviewer actually read the God Delusion. Nor did they look in the index under Hitler or Stalin. In fact, pages 272 through 278 are dedicated to addressing exactly these concerns. By asking the question rhetorically, the reviewer (and the pastor by using the quote) implies that Dawkins thinks all atheists are wonderful and therefore cannot do evil. This is not the truth. Dawkins fully admits that Hitler and Stalin committed horrible acts. Many people commit horrible acts. The real question is does atheism actually lead people to commit the horrible acts? The correct answer is that there is not currently any evidence that it does.

The pastor moves on to a tone of reconciliation between all the worlds religions which is admirable. The world would definitely be a lot better place if there were less killing of people. If that means convincing them that God doesn’t want them to kill others, fabulous. He then quotes Isaiah 19:23-24 which predicts an alliance between Israel, Egypt, and Assyria. I’m not sure how that is supposed to inspire hope that God can bring us together–its been a few thousand years since that prediction, and Assyria hasn’t existed for over 2600 years.

The pastor then makes what I think is an absolutely absurd assertion: “The Bible nowhere argues for the existence of God.” That’s like saying that my Camry manual never argues for the existence of my car. Of course it doesn’t–that’s one of the founding assumptions in the whole book. The bible doesn’t argue for God’s existence but it sure does claim that all who don’t believe in God will burn in hell.

He then brings up an interesting point that I’ve seen mentioned in atheist blogs: “In the Bible, faith in God means trusting God more than believing ideas about God to be true”. Frequently when a believer says “I believe in God” they really mean “I trust God will do what he says he’ll do or what I think he’ll do” in the same sense as if I were to say to my daughter “I believe in you” as she attempts to ride a bike for the first time. The core of my problem with believing in God is precisely this interpretation. For me to believe in God, I have to see some reason to trust that God will do anything. I believe in gravity even though we have a very poor understanding of the core mechanics because it does something. I believe in electricity even though it feels a lot like magic because I know how to trust it to do work (or provide warmth, or inspiration, or joy).

Finally, the pastor gets to the reason for the name of the sermon–Pascal’s Wager. He doesn’t describe the wager explicitly, but it goes like this: the risk of belief in God is low (religious life), and the risk of unbelief is high (hell); the benefit of belief is high (heaven) and the benefit of unbelief is low (atheist life). Therefore based on a risk-benefit analysis, we should just believe because it makes sense. The pastor seems genuinely unaware (or more likely, unconvinced) of the criticisms of the wager. He ultimately claims to wager on God for two reasons:

  • the highway builder, making a way where there is no way, bringing together antagonists and mortal enemies, his precious children, Egyptians, Assyrians, Jews
  • and that shepherd, with a lost sheep on his shoulders, coming home

So, he chooses to believe in God because of a failed (so far) prediction to bring three nations together in harmony, and because of the lost sheep parable. Its a wonderful parable, and volumes have been written on it. But there are lots of parables around. Sorry pastor, that’s not reason enough for me to believe.

Coffee Prohibited

Today my son participated in a Cub Scout “Belt Loop Bonanza” where hundreds of Cub Scouts spend 3 hours to earn three electives called Belt Loops (so named because they are worn on a belt). The event was held at a church as many scouting events are, but specifically it was at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

On the flier that advertised the event was the following message: “PARENTS AND LEADERS: PLEASE NOTE THAT COFFEE, TEA, ALCOHOL, AND TOBACCO ARE NOT PERMITTED ON THE PREMISES.” (caps, italics, and underlines were on the flier). I was familiar that LDS generally has a prohibition against believers consuming caffeine and nicotine. Their logic for the prohibition isn’t even bad: don’t consume anything that might be unhealthy or cause an addiction. But it seemed odd to me that they would attempt to actively prevent me from taking a cup of coffee into the building. And yes, I’m aware that my own beliefs make the fact that I was even in the building a bit of a contradiction (agnostic atheist Cub Scout leader and parent). I did respect their request (well, mostly–there was coffee inside me!) since they were kind enough to allow the event with probably no cost to the Scout district.

But, what a silly prohibition that is. OK, I understand not wanting people to consume alcohol in the church–but come on, it was at 9AM in the morning. Was the explicit prohibition of alcohol necessary? And smoking is prohibited in nearly all public buildings in Ohio (not sure if that includes churches, but I would think so) so its not like a smoker is going to expect to light up in the multipurpose room. But they didn’t say that smoking was prohibited–tobacco was. Would they have been offended had a pack of cigarettes entered their building through the hands of a non-believer, and left in those same hands, unopened? And they got bent out of shape about non-believers consuming coffee or tea? Could I have brought Mountain Dew?

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely support their right to put restrictions on the use of their facilities. And clearly the Scout organization accepted the restrictions. I’ve even put odd-ball restrictions on people on my property too. I’m not even going to write to them to complain. But I likewise have a right to criticize them. I just think the restrictions were silly.