Saturday, October 13, 2012

You Can Never Have Too Many Unicorns

The unicorn analogy to religion is an old and common one. Many atheists pull out the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU), a fictional deity (well, I guess one doesn't really need the redundant word "fictional") used to point out that any god really isn't any more supported by evidence than one that has been dreamed up deliberately within recent memory. The whole point of the IPU, in my opinion, is to point out the silliness of believing that one god is real just because he is written about in an ancient book and is accepted by many millions of people, while rejecting a similarly made up god (the IPU) which is not.

The IPU has probably run its course in some ways because it is often used in ridicule, something that is not a very productive form of communication (I've never known anyone to be ridiculed out of their religious beliefs). It is also dismissed superficially by the religious without really considering how it relates to their beliefs. Nevertheless, it is an analogy worth repeating, and often.

Today I was listening to the radio and heard a snippet of an interview that was an ad for an upcoming interview with a Christian scholar. The man was talking about persecution of Christians in other places around the world, and pointing out that, by comparison to the genuine and often violent persecution of Christians in various places around the world, North American Christians can't really claim persecution of their faith. But, he objected, North American Christians can genuinely claim to have been marginalized, a trend that he obviously did not agree was a good thing. The interview was going to discuss his views on this marginalization. Unfortunately my car ride ended before the interview, so I profess ignorance to his actual points about the marginalization of Christians in society, but I thought it was an interesting startint point for some thoughts.

Are Christians marginalized in North America? And, if so, is that a good or bad thing?

I would argue that Christians and Christianity is most definitely not marginalized, but I do understand how someone with a Christian bias might think so. Christianity and Christian beliefs are at the forefront of almost every political discussion, particularly in America. We all know that no political leader will ever get elected to high office without professing a personal faith in Christianity. There is a constant battle to introduce Christianity into schools, museums, and legislation in the United States. Canada might be a bit more openly secular, but Christianity runs pretty deep in parts of this country too. The reason many Christians think they are being marginalized is because of a warping of their importance in the past. Their voice has been far louder than other groups, both religious and other. There probably has been a diminishing in this in recent years, or at least an examination of it, with the trend of "new atheism". But, to say that Christianity has become marginalized in society is to way overstate things. Its impact might be decreasing slighly, but it still carries far more weight in societal discussions than other religions or beliefs do. Often more than the facts and evidence that science brings too.

Is it a good or bad thing for Christianity to be marginalized? Well, this is where the unicorn analogy comes in. We don't want a society in which individual people are marginalized. That does happen, of course, but we should strive for a society in which it is minimalized. But, we do want a society in which Christianity is marginalized. Many Christians would initially object and talk about how their religion is the foundation of a civil society. But, they need to embrace the unicorn analogy to understand their position objectively. If there were a group of people who believed in unicorns, and indeed who believed that unicorns talked to them privately, told them how to live, told politicians when to invade other countries, et cetera, would we not want that group marginalized? Surely we would not want a crowd like that to have a loud voice in decision making in society. We would not want people who believed in something that we all know is fiction to be more important in society than everyone else, would we? That is the exact position that the rest of us have with regards to Christians. We think their beliefs are fictional. We think that the voice of God that they hear in prayer is simply in their head. We think that when they make decisions based on their Christian beliefs, and especially when they push them on others, that the result is often disastrous and negative.

When you think that your religion should be afforded more respect, ask yourself how much respect you would give to a group of unicorn-believers. Then expect exactly the same amount of respect and clout in society yourself.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's a Miracle! Oh...wait, nevermind.

This post is aimed at moderate, intelligent Christians (or those of other religions that require the supernatural). Many times the popular media, comment boards, and blogs involve discussions with and about those of the religious who are frankly out of touch with reality and a bit extremist. If you think the world is 10,000 years old, then this post is not for you. But, if you are the kind of Christian who accepts science and evolution, and who also believes in Jesus Christ as your personal saviour, then I'd be happy to hear your comments on this post.

Image courtesy of Google Images

My question is this. Why do you likely reject the "miracles" that some people make in our modern world which are obvious shams. Do you realize that when a grilled cheese sandwich seems to have the image of the Virgin Mary on it, it is just a coincidence of the cooking pattern of the bread combined with our human bias to recognize human faces where they are not actually in existence? If so, then you probably reject the notion that God is speaking through the grilled cheese sandwich as a bit of a silly side of your religion, right? So, if you're still with me so far, then let me ask why you likely don't reject the equally amazing miracles described in an ancient book? Do you believe that the Red Sea physically parted and allowed thousands of Israelites to walk through on dry land? Do you believe that Lazarus rose from the dead to live again? Do you believe that fire came down from heaven and consumed Elijah's offering and the stones that it was built on? Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, died and then came to life again a couple of days later? (Presumably you must believe this latter miracle, since it is part of the basis of the Christian religion). So, why the discrepancy? Why reject the crazy, ridiculous things that people claim today as miracles and yet accept and embrace the stories from the ancients about similarly ridiculous, physically impossible events? Is it only because they are written down in the Bible? Is it because the Bible is the inspired word of God? Wouldn't anyone who wanted to start a religion simply tell you in their book that the book is the inspired word of God and that you should accept it as such?

So, if you are reading this, if you are a Christian, then I would sincerely like to hear your point of view on this matter.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Canadian Theocracy

For several years when current Prime Minister Stephen Harper was becoming prominent in the federal political landscape and then was leader of the opposition, there was a feeling that he had a hidden agenda that was undesirable to most Canadians in that it was regressive socially and dominated by antiquated religious dogma. The best trick Harper managed to pull was to get the public to forget about that worry and actually elect him to the highest office in the country. How he did so was by using two words: "jobs" and "economy". Stephen Harper is smart enough to realize that money makes the world go around. You are not going to get elected in Canada by talking about how gays shouldn't marry, about how abortion is wrong, and about how we should generally be a "Christian nation with good family values", whatever that means. That rhetoric might work in Republican dominated states south of the border, but not in a country like Canada that is dominated politically by the main socially progressive cities.

But, most people do care about money and about having a good job, even if they already have a good job. For some reason, when a politician talks about jobs and the economy over and over and over again like a broken record, even those people who have lots of money and a secure job start to listen and start to believe that maybe he's their best bet in the Prime Minister's office. And so, to make a long story short, Stephen Harper and his gang of religious Reform Party (Americans can read this as Tea Party) wingnuts achieved a small majority government in 2011.

And then, as surely as a leopard that has coloured over its spots with some cheap water based paint, the jobs and economy paint because to wear off and the real spots began to show through.

First, it was the Office of Religious Freedom, purportedly established at great expense to Canadian taxpayers, to promote religious freedom in a world in which religion is under attack from all sorts of places. But, of course, this office was solely intended to promote Christianity. Photo ops with the foreign minister were taken with the pope and not with imams or the Dalai Lama. Comments by readers in the popular media were overwhelmingly against this office on two counts: it was a waste of tax payers money by a government that promised fiscal restraint; and secondly it was pretty obvious that it was a thinly veiled and politically spun attempt to spread Christianity with no regard for other religions, never mind those with no religion.

Now, the Conservative government has boldly cancelled the contracts of any religious counsellor for inmates who is not Christian. Therefore, if you are a federal prisoner and happen to be Muslim or Jewish, you can only expect counselling to come from a Christian counsellor. The Muslim or Jewish counsellor you previously had, to help with your rehabilitation and help get you ready for society again, is gone. Of course, every Christian on earth has the goal of increasing the number of Christians, of converting people to the "good news". There are varying degrees of how blatant Christians are with their proselytizing, but a good Christian can hardly claim to not care that their fellow human is headed of to an eternity of hell. No, whether public or private, they want you to convert to Christianity.

Maybe this is simply a voting tactic. Maybe Stephen Harper realizes that most of his votes come from undereducated redneck conservative Christians and therefore the more of them he can create in the voter pool the better his chances of re-election. Watch next for a new law that limits immigration into Canada to places that are crazy fundamentalist Christian. If you are from the deep south or the mid-west of the U.S., well come on in. If you're from Afghanistan or France, well not so much.

But, all joking aside, this is a very frightening trend. Stephen Harper never grew out of his immature, self-serving, Bronze Aged secret agenda. He just figured out that the average Canadian wasn't going to buy it wholesale and so he had to really bury it until he got elected. Harper stopped making all his ridiculous statments about gay marriage, homosexuality, and abortion for a few years, focused on the economy and jobs in his election campaigns, finally got elected when the 65% of the electorate that hates him divided their votes between other parties, and then brought in his crazy theocratic reform.

This all illustrates a characteristic of Christianity that is absolutely deadly in politics: close-mindedness. Christians all believe they are 100% right. They have been told by God what life is all about and what is right and what is wrong, so when they get in positions of power nothing else really matters. If God didn't mention the environment in the Bible, then anything to do with care for the environment must just be some evil anti-God made-up conspiracy and can safely be ignored. If God tells you homosexuality is wrong, then it doesn't really matter how enlightened your society has become on human rights, you can just plough ahead and try to make it illegal because that is what's right. (See American politics for more examples of this type of bull-headed dogmatic "leadership". George Bush was a walking example of it. Never mind that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that the whole world thinks I'm wrong for invading Iraq, God told me to do it so I'm right). Can you imagine bringing this type of 100% right attitude into any other scenario such as a marriage, a workplace, a friendship? Disaster. Just like when religious people bring their stubborn and ignorant dogma into politics.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Paralysis...It's Actually Your Fault

Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."

Then Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."

The New Testament includes some pretty significant healing stories. Lame men getting up and walking for the first time, blind men rubbing scales off their eyes and seeing for the first time. Even the odd resurection. It's all very wonderful, at least for those fortunate few souls who happened to be around Jesus and his followers at the time and could cash in on the medical miracles being handed out.

But, as is usually the case in the Bible, while initially the stories seem loving, peacful, and happy, the real story is a bit more gruesome and immoral. The story of Noah and the flood, on the surface is all about new beginnings, but in reality is all about death and destruction from an obsessive and vindictive deity. The story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt is, on the surface, a story of peaceful victim slaves overcoming oppression and finding their deserved freedom, but in reality is about innocent Egyptians suffering for simply doing what everyone of the day did. And, the story of medical miracles in the New Testament are, under the flowery surface, equally horrific.

I've known a few paralyzed and chronically ill people in my time. Most of them amaze me with their positive outook on life and their desire to achieve the most they can with their limited mobility. None of them have ever sat around waiting for a miracle. But, think of what the Bible stories of healing really say, deep underneath the fluffy surface. What they really say is this: If only you had more faith, you could be healed. They say that medical miracles are possible, that paralyzed people can simply stand up and walk around and be healed on faith alone.

What a horrific, evil message.

Paralysis cannot be healed. At least not yet. There is much medical research going on in the field of central nervous system neuron regneration. But, to date full healing is not possible. If it ever does become possible, it will be through medical research not through revelation and faith.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Hitch Remembered

Christopher Hitchens was a unique man of immense intellect. All one needs to do is type his name into YouTube and tune into one of the dozens of videos to get a sample of his incredible command of language, his rational approach to any debate, and his wit. Hitchens achieved his greatest fame when he tackled the issue of religion, and it was not until the last five years or so of his life that he became a real household name. As one of his contemporaries describes, Hitchens hated dictators and he gradually progressed in his writing towards the greatest controlling dictator of them all: God. It was his book God is Not Great that really brought him into the limelight, probably due to the negative reaction of so many religious people. But, as they say of The Hitch, love him or hate him, you could not ignore him. Sadly, Hitchens passed away last December.

Martin Amis was by all accounts Christopher's closest friend. Just hearing each of them describe their friendship makes one envious of the strength of their relationship. The following video clip is Martin Amis giving the eulogy at a Christopher Hitchens memorial, in which he attempts to unearth why Hitchens was so beloved by so many. With his characteristic dry humour, Amis recounts a few tales of this four-decade long friendship with Hitchens: 

The previous evening, Charlie Rose spends an hour interviewing four of Hitchens' friends, writers Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Martin Amis. These are the men who knew Hitchens the best. Some of them knew him since he was a young man at Oxford. Though this clip is an hour long, it is a very good window into the character of "The Hitch", it is also very funny at times, and of course sad when they discuss his eventual death. Well worth watching and remembering what the world lost when The Hitch passed on:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Questioning your Faith Part I

Are you a Christian?

If you are, the first question you should probably ask yourself is why you find yourself on this blog. Why are you reading a blog about atheism, written by someone who used to be a Christian? Is there something about your religious faith that nags at your subconscious? Or perhaps your doubts are more obvious to you. Perhaps you have started to have serious questions about your religious beliefs. Either way, maybe you have doubts, and maybe you are wondering...what next?

I thought I would aim my writing towards those who consider themselves Christians or religious but who may be wondering about their religion or their God. Does God really exist? Are there really people who don't believe in Him? Am I alone in having doubts about the religion I have believed for so long?

Firstly, if you don't have any interest in questioning your religion, then there is probably no point in reading any further. Questions, whether big or small, are the key to understanding your religion in a new light. If you still believe that God exists and you have a personal relationship with Him, if it makes you angry when people deny His existence, then these writings are unlikely to be of interest to you. But, if you've ever wondered whether it is OK to question God's existence, please read on.

I've written earlier on my blog about the time when I started to question my religion and my belief in God. It can be a frightening propostition to question the existence of God. You fear what He might think if you question Him and if you wonder if He even exists. You worry where it might lead. What questions might come next. Put aside your fear. If God exists, surely he would want followers who do ask difficult questions. Surely he would want you to ask every difficult question, even the ones that seem to have no answer. Surely your loving Heavenly Father isn't going to strike you down in anger just because you question His existence. On the other hand, if God does not exist, then that is a question you really, really need to ask. The stakes are very high, there is the rest of your life to you want to take the chance that you will waste the one life you'll ever have by believing in something that doesn't exist? After all, hundreds of millions of people from other religions do just that, don't they? What makes you right and them wrong?

Christianity doesn't like difficult questions. Some Christians even teach that questioning God is the Devil's work. See, that's the trick of it all. If you have been taught your whole life that you shouldn't question something, and have fear put into you of what might happen if you do, then you're going to stay in line. Just ask anyone who lived in the Soviet Union. Never question the authority. Just keep your head down and believe, right? No. Put your fears aside and question. Ask yourself the really difficult questions that might have been nagging at you.

If God exists and loves everyone, why did tens of thousands of children die painfully from hunger this week? Is it really all part of his loving plan for humanity? Is it really the result of original sin that entered the world through one man and one woman, and it's just too bad that all those children are suffering as a result? Or is it just the painful and sorry reality of the world we live in, without a God?

If God exists, why has He never once really shown himself to you? Oh sure, you've "felt" his presence from time to time, but there's never been anything conclusive, has there? He's never appeared to you in the same way as another human being does. You've never heard his voice as clearly as you hear the radio out loud, have you? It's always just a feeling that you have that He wants you to do something or to live a certain way. Why?

If God exists, then why is there not a single documented case ever of an amputee being healed by Him? Sure, there are lots of wonderful miracle stories of invisible diseases like cancer being cured, but it's never the obviously visible ones that God tackles. Why? Does he really have a problem with amputees? Or is he really trying to keep himself that hidden, so that only those who really, really, really seek Him will find Him? Or, is it more likely that there are no miracles at all, and that sometimes people are cured of diseases for unexplained reasons but that incurable things like amputations do not happen without explanation?

If God exists, then why were there relgions around before the Abrahamic religions of the Bible? Wouldn't He want His one true religion to be the first documented one? Yet it is not. There were religions in the Americas before the time of Christ. Did Satan really mislead all those tens of millions of Native Americans before they had a chance to even hear the Gospel? Why not just leave them alone and let them have no religion at all? Doesn't make any sense, does it?

If God exists, then why did most human beings in history die young, painful deaths? Before science discovered the incredible finds of modern medicine, you'd be lucky to make it to 35 years of age. Many, if not most, children died in infancy or childhood. Doesn't that sound a bit of a cruel way for a loving God to set up the world? Is all that death really fair punishment just because one man and one woman once ate the wrong piece of fruit?

Why are there so many "paradoxes" (i.e. contradictions) in the Bible? Anyone who has gone to Sunday School must have noticed them. First God tells people to not eat certain foods and to be circumcized, then he says it doesn't matter after all. First God tells you that he is all-loving, but then he lashes out in anger all the time at innocent people and animals. Then there are all the things in the Bible that contradict known facts in our world. In the creation story, why was time divided into day and night before the creation of the sun? A global flood at the time of Noah is physically impossible. There is no way to cover the earth with water to a height of the highest mountains on earth (roughly 30,000 feet). There is not enough water on earth for that too happen. Where did it all go afterwards? Et cetera, et cetera. All of these contradictions can be explained away if you want. Most Christians will find a way to reconcile the Biblical contradictions with their belief in God...but that's not why you are here. You already raised these questions yourself, didn't you? So, why are there so many contradictions in the one book handed to humanity from an all-wise, all-knowing God?

Perhaps the hardest part of questioning one's faith is not wondering about these few questions I've raised. The harder part is accepting that it is OK to question. It is very hard to set aside one's fear of what is going to happen if you question your faith. What happens if you lose your faith? Won't you go to hell?

It is time to ask yourself to answer a question very honestly. If there was no such thing as an afterlife, would you still stick with your religion? If Christianity ended when you die, and you just ceased to exist like a plant does when it dies, would you still be a Christian for the rest of your life? What would be the point? Sure, you might like to think that life would have more meaning being in a relationship with God, and following his lead in your life, but be honest, would you really stick with it? If not, then consider what you are really saying is that you are only a Christian because of fear of Hell. Time to set that irrational fear aside and ask yourself some more questions.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why "Atheist for Peace"?

Image courtesy of Google images.

Why do I call my blog "Atheist for Peace"?

Well, in some senses, I came up with the name in the easiest way: I wanted to write a bit about my experiences and outlook in life as an atheist who was formerly religious, and I also highly value peace - not just an absence of war, but of true peace in the sense of reduced conflict between humans at all levels of society. Personally I believe atheism, a true rational approach to life without the dogma and instructions of religions, is the best way for humans to find peace with each other, and I think that is a common theme in the background of my writings on this blog. I am all for discussions and arguments. I don't ever want to see everyone in the world agree with one another like some sort of robot world, but what I do hope for and aspire to is a world in which those discussions, disagreements and differences of opinion are expressed in a respectful manner and one in which a true understanding of opposing points of view is sought, and more importantly where people admit when their opinion does not make sense, is not rationally defensible, and they have been proven wrong. I long for a world in which people form their opinions based on proven reality rather than on what someone else tells them. Religion is one of the main things that causes people to resist giving up their opinions even when they are irrational and proven wrong. (Patriotism is another such structure that causes irrational thought and inability to accept when one is wrong). In many ways, I think an ideal world would be one in which people did not have "beliefs", because to me a belief is a position you hold that is not necessarily evidence based. Sure, we all believe that the world is round not flat, but would you really call that a belief or simply an acceptance of reality? Sadly, it often seems the world is going in the opposite direction, with less and less understanding between people of different points of view.

It is easy to point at infamous atheists in history and reject the idea that atheism can help bring about a peaceful world. People like Stalin and Mao are obvious examples of those who publicly rejected religion and pursued a society free from religion. The results were terrifying, to be sure. But, that is because they tried to impose their will on people in society, a road to disaster and pain no matter what your will happens to be. Whether you are atheist, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, if you try to impose your views, beliefs, and will on other people by force then the results will almost always be negative. My suggestion as to why atheism can offer peace is that I believe people should take the time to logically and rationally examine the world around them very thoughtfully before they make their opinions or beliefs. And, I believe that when people do so, the ultimate and sole position that makes sense is atheism. Atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in deities. It does not, as some may think, mean you are a liberal, an environmentalist, a hippie, a scientist, or any other label. I do not necessarily think that when someone examines the world rationally they will end up as any of those things. I do believe that it is possible to be a rational, independent, and critical thinker and be a conservative, for example. But, I do not accept that it is possible to be a rational, independent, and critical thinker and be religious. Being religious requires that you accept some things on faith that someone else has told you are true, and which are not independently verifiable - the exact opposite of independent, critical thinking.

When you look at most of the conflicts in the world, they stem from misunderstandings or unwillingness to understand different points of view. I'm not just talking about conflicts that result in wars, but also everyday conflicts in the workplace, in the home, in school, in society in general. When we avoid taking the time to really understand another's point of view, then we risk creating conflict. Sometimes, when we do take the time to understand someone else's point of view there is still conflict because one or the other of us are not thinking rationally. I think this basic feature of human interaction leads to all the major wars in society. The American invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the Cold War, all are basically the result of non-rational thought combined with massive misunderstanding, and a desire to impose one's will on others. If people would avoid those three things, there would be much more peace in this world.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. I have long maintained that the only way there will ever be peace in that region of the world is if children are taught from birth not to hate the other side, to truly understand the other side's position, fears, and desires. It would only take one generation to have peace if that were done. I have met and known many Israelis and some Palestinians in my life. Without exception, every single Israeli I have ever met believes that the entire conflict is the fault of the Palestinians. If the Palestinians would just stop using violence to get their way, then we could have peace. And, without exception, every Palestinian I have met believes that the entire conflict is the fault of the Israelis. If the Israelis would just understand that this was our land and it was taken away from us by force, then we could have peace. To be sure there are many complex issues in that conflict that would take some serious negotiating to resolve. But, until a generation of Israelis and Palestinians are raised not to hate and mistrust, there will never be peace. How many times have we seen Israeli and Palestinian leaders smile for the cameras as they shake hands and claim peace, perhaps with an American politician smiling on? Never has it actually resulted in long-term peace. If everyone in that conflict was educated to think rationally, the Jews would be forced to accept that they are not in fact a special race. The Palestinians would be forced to accept that the Jews do actually have as much of a right to live in the region as anyone else. Or, even better, if people thought truly rationally, they would accept that we are all just human and being Jewish or Palestinian doesn't really matter.

I'm not naive, I know that the world will never be a rational place. Humans, en masse, are incapable of rational thought. But it doesn't stop me from promoting more rational, logical, critical, and independent thought. And, as I say, I believe that the first step when we all start doing so would be to discard the ancient and primitive shackles of religion. Not by force, but by free choice and acceptance of the truth of the world we live in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who is it Worth Arguing With?

C.S. Lewis states in one of his books that the sound of people quarreling is negative. This is one of the few things I would agree with Lewis on, and I think it is because he uses the word "quarrel" rather than "argue". In modern society we often think of an argument as a negative thing, but it need not be. An argument is simply a position taken in which there is some logical consistency in constructing the position, and in which one is discussing this with someone of an opposing opinion. A quarrel, on the other hand, seems to me to be simply a yelling match in which both parties are too proud to ever admit they are wrong and, even worse, have made up their mind before beginning the discussion and therefore are completely unwilling to even comprehend the other person's point of view. I think it is very worthwhile seeking arguments and avoiding quarrels in life. But how to tell the difference?

I think the difference stems from different types of people, not from different circumstances. We are probably all capable of the momentary pride that leads to a quarrel, but I believe there are quarrelsome people who always seek out this form of negative and destructive conversation. I also believe it betrays an immature psyche full of insecurity. If one is a mature, secure, confident person, what has one to lose in listening to and understanding an opposing point of view? One can still choose to disagree. But not even allowing someone to explain their point of view, or worse deliberately misinterpreting their point of view for your own personal gain, has no value. Sadly, it is this latter approach that seems pervasive in modern society, particularly in places such as politics and in the debates surrounding religion.

The people that I think it is not even worth trying to debate or have a conversation with are those who are not interested in hearing another person's point of view. Examples of these types of people abound. The first person that jumps to mind is that crass Amercian TV personality Bill O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly is known for yelling "shut up" at the guests on his show. Even if he doesn't tell them to shut up when he disagrees with them, he certainly doesn't let them actually make their point. Never, ever does he hear someone out and then actually ask them to clarify their position so he might better understand. Perhaps O'Reilly's best example of an inability to even listen to an opposing point of view is his embarrassing interview of Jeremy Glick in which he eventually cuts the microphone and ends the interview, all because he can't stand hearing a position that "offends" him.

So, this video clip is an example of what I would call the first level of a quarrelsome person. Everyone knows Bill O'Reilly has a particularly quarrelsome approach to interviewing his guests. He never lets them finish and isn't interested in understanding their point of view. But, I would argue there is another, worse level of quarrelsome person, that person who not only isn't interested in hearing an opposing point of view, but who actively misinterprets their opponent. Two examples immediately jump to mind. As much as I find Bill O'Reilly quarrelsome and negative, two other TV personalities are much more so: Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter. Both of these people actively and deliberately twist what their opponents say to suit their needs. So in the end they aren't even disagreeing with what their opponent has said, they are in fact disagreeing with a perception fabricated within their own minds. As part of Al Gore's Inconenient Truth message, he famously told audiences that we have ten years left to change our destructive environmental practices before it will be too late to prevent catastrophic change to the atmosphere and the climate. Gore is not a scientist, and he may have grasped the ten years notion out of thin air. I don't think we really know the timelines of change that are needed in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. But, I would think that Mr. Gore's prediction of ten years is actually on the long side. I think most scientists would agree that it is already too late. Ten years is far too long to wait if we are going to prevent significant negative destruction of our atmosphere. We have already been emmitting unsustainable carbon dioxide levels for a couple of centuries. His "ten years" was, in my opinion, a way of demonstring the urgency of the situation to those who really have no idea of the science. If he had said: "It's already too late" then most people likely would have shrugged and figured there's nothing that can be done. So, while Gore's prediction is not particularly scientific, I do think it was made honestly and with the right intentions. Consider how Rush Limbaugh then dealt with that prediction. Since he denies climate change (and science in general), Limbaugh deliberately misinterpreted Gore's prediction and even made fun of it by constructing a countdown doomsday clock on his webpage. You can witness Rush Limbaugh's deliberate misinterpretation of his opponents every day by veiwing his webpage or listening to his radio show. Everything Barack Obama does is evil and ridiculous in Limbaugh's eyes. But, I can guarantee you that if the president called up Limbaugh and asked him to sit down and have an honest converstation so that they can understand one another better, Limbaugh would either reject him outright or turn that conversation into more negative fodder for his deliberate ignorance. There is no desire for argument, only for a quarrel. So, what is an example of a respectful argument that is not quarrelsome? I would offer the example of Richard Dawkins interviewing Bishop Harries. Here are two men of very opposing points of view. Dawkins is, of course, the world's most famous atheist, and Bishop Harries is, of course, a very religious man. Yet, they are able to have a civil conversation and discussion in which they each actively seek out to understand the others' point of view. There is no impatience and telling people to shut up. There is no deliberate misinterpretation, followed by a pronouncement of how silly the other person is based on a ficticious opinion.

Can't we have more of this sort of discourse in society? Can't politicians listen respectfully to their opponents and then decide whether they agree or not based on what is said, rather than disagreeing out of principle before the conversation even begins?

My philosophy is that it is a worthless exercise trying to have a conversation with the Bill O'Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of this world. They are not interested in actually hearing and comprehending other points of view. What they are intersted in is gathering fodder for their quarrel machine. Once I recognize that I'm in conversation with someone of this nature, the conversation ends. There is no point. It is a waste of time, and ultimately it all boils down to people, yet again, putting their conclusions before the evidence.

My last point is that it seems like the overwhelming majority of people who are not interested in hearing their opponents are modern conservatives. I have to admit that this quality is one of the things that drove me away from conservatism and more towards liberalism. Conservatives seem, to me, to be inherently unable to listen to opposing points of view. Is this because of some bias that I myself have, or is it because the messages of modern conservatism (that the free market is the only way to go, that any form of socialism is evil, that environmental sustainability is unecessary, that science is over-funded, that universal healthcare is a waste of money) are all wrong and conservatives who support these messages are insecure about getting into an actual evidence based debate about them? It is much easier to hold your position if you refuse to openly listen to your opponents. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Can't People of Religion Ever Just Admit That They Might Be Wrong?

I've had a lot of debates online with religious people, mostly Christians. Sometimes these debates are interesting, sometimes they are enlightening, more often though they are simply arguments intended to prove one is right rather than trying to learn the other person's opinion or to understand their point of view. One thing that I find really negative and annoying though is what seems to me to be a complete inability for Christian believers to ever accept that they might be wrong. Why is that?

Countless times I've commented on a blog post, engaged in conversation on a youtube video, et cetera and become involved in lengthy conversations about religion and atheism. I try to only engage in these conversations when they are respectful, I have no need for hateful, ignorant conversations. Some of these conversations have been truly enjoyable and enlightening. There is one acquaintance I have with whom I often converse online and I very much appreciate his perspective and his deep desire to make the world a better place. But, I find that almost without exception, someone who has a religious belief is unable, at the conclusion of a discussion, to ever accept that you've constructed a rational, logical argument that comes to a conclusion that cannot be denied. The conversation always ends with something along the lines of: "Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree." Why is this?

My opinion on why this happens is because of the foundation of the belief system that the religious have. Their beliefs are not formed following rational logical thought about the nature of the world. Rather, their primary belief is based on revelation and faith. For example, a Christian is, by the very definition of what it means to be a Christian, unable to ever accept that Jesus did not exist. Therefore, they may enter into an argument about the possibility of the existence of Jesus, but their end point will always be that he existed. Even if you present a rational, logical, and evidence-based case for how unlikely it is that Jesus ever existed (just as an example), the conversation will have to end with the Christian saying that they will have to disagree with you, even if they have no ability to respond to your points. It's either that, or they have to admit that you have made your case and decide not to be a Christian anymore. That's usually not an option in one conversation.

The topics that I encounter this phenomenon more often are those relating to science and evolution. No matter how much evidence you present to a creationist, they will always simply end the conversation with: "Well, we'll have to just agree to disagree" because they are fundamentally unable to change their point of view, even if they've been shown the error of their belief. This is fundamentally opposed to the process of discussion used in science. At a scientific meeting, no scientist will ever simply state that he/she has to disagree with someone after they've been shown conclusively to be wrong. They accept their error and move on, humbly.

To me, this is another example of Christians putting the cart before the horse, of drawing your conclusion before you look for evidence, and of the immense arrogance of their position that there are certain pillars of their belief system that they will never give up no matter how wrong they are shown to be.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is it possible to be a former Christian or a former atheist?

One of the arguments that I find Christians trot out immediately in conversation with someone who left the faith and became an atheist, is to claim that they were never a Christian to begin with. Christianity is based upon a personal relationship with Jesus, so it is impossible for Christians to accept that someone who had that personal relationship can now abandon it and leave the faith. The only plausible explanation is that the person was never really a Christian, that they never really knew Jesus. I have heard Christians make this claim about the most dedicated former Christians, including people who were preachers for decades. The claim is always that the person must have been faking it, or that they must have just viewed their Christianity as a dry religion rather than as a living relationship with the creator. The ironic thing is that, no one ever seems able to point to those Christians who are not real Christians while they are still Christians. It is easy to simply state that someone was never a real Christian after they have given it all up, but if they were never really a Christian, shouldn't that lack of real faith been detectable at the time?

Ironically, I find myself making the exact same statement about some people who claim to have converted from atheism to Christianity. "You weren't a real atheist, or else you never would have become a Christian. If you really understood what it means to accept that there is no evidence for deities, then you couldn't possibly become a believing Christian." I have wondered if I am just being hypocritical in my criticism of Christians for taking the easy way out in disregarding a former Christian and then doing much the same when it comes to former atheists. However, I think that my claim that someone who became a Christian was not a real atheist is fundamentally different for the reason I alluded to above. The person who claims to be an atheist and then embraces Christianity can be "outed" while they are still an atheist. If you walked me into a room full of people who claimed to be atheists and asked me to have a conversation with them to find out the people who are most likely to convert to Christianity, I believe I could do so. I believe I would be able to point out some people who would never become Christians and others who simpy don't get atheism and rationalism and therefore may one day become religious. I don't think the opposite scenario is plausible - that a Christian could do the same in a room full of Christians. I don't think anyone who met me when I was a Christian would  have thought: "That guy isn't going to be a Christian in the future."

A couple of examples to illustrate my point. Take Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame. Everyone knows he is a Christian who had a pretty public conversion during the latter years of the show's production, and he has a fairly public profile as a Christian to this day. But he has claimed that, before he became a Christian in his late teens or early twenties he was an atheist. I don't believe that for a moment. I don't think he was ever a real atheist. I think he simply didn't think about religion or atheism, so he now categorizes himself as a former atheist just because he wasn't a Christian. I think if you had sat down with Kirk Cameron as a twenty year old and asked him why he doesn't believe there are any deities, I doubt you would have gotten a carefully thought through explanation about rationalism and lack of evidence. I doubt he would have outlined how scientific advances have, at every turn, discredited the notion of a personal God. Another example is Alister McGrath. He is a prominent Christian who also claims to be a former atheist. But, I don't think he was an atheist at all. When you listen to him in interviews, he simply mentions that he was an atheist but then became a Christian in university once he started to think for himself. (Ironic that he converted to the religion of the culture he was living in if he truly started to think for himself...notice that very few people in England or America convert to Buddhism once they become religious). An example video interview is found here:

As an aside, it is interesting to note that McGrath states that there are interesting questions that science cannot answer but which religion can, questions such as "Why are we here?" But, he never suggests why religion can answer those questions, or what the answers are. He simply comes up with something that he thinks is outside the realm of science. This is a classic example of someone not liking the answer that science provides and turning somewhere else for a more palatable, though fictitious answer.

In conclusion then, I believe it is very much possible to be a former Christian. While it might be technically possible to be a former atheist, it is very much less likely.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

God-made man, or man-made gods?

Beleif or non-belief in religion ultimately boils down to the question of whether you think a god made humans or whether humans made gods. If you are in the former camp, then you pretty well have to be an atheist or at least an agnostic. There might be a few people in a fringe group who accept that humans made the gods, but who still want to believe they exist and worship them, but that would be an unusual position. If you think that human beings are responsible for creating all the gods, including the Christian god "God", then it is probably only a matter of time until you reject religion and embrace atheism.

So, how do we answer that question? As the old AC/DC song goes: "Who made who?" It's a question which cannot be proven one way or the other, at least scientifically. Since there is no way to disprove the existence of God scientifically, many Christians take that to mean that he must exist or that his existence is likely or even plausible. It is not. The scientific approach to things shows us no evidence for any gods. When there is no evidence for something in science, despite our best efforts to find it, it almost certainly doesn't exist.

Let's think for a minute about the option of God creating humans. While we have to allow that it is technically possible, it is more important to examine the question of whether it is a plausible concept. What would we expect if God had created the world and everything in it, us included? God is love, so say Christians. Above all else he is a loving god. It's all they sing about in their hymns. While sermons and lessons also include a fair bit about judgement and power, Christians almost all agree that their god is loving. Yet, what do we see through history and pre-history in terms of humanity? The vast majority of humans have died a premature, painful, and lonely death. All through pre-history, humans were mostly dying off as infants without a chance to enjoy anything in life. The few that survived to adulthood could expect a primitive, painful existence of hunger, disease, fighting off predators, and a death by age 30 at the latest. Is this really they system of life you would set up if you were an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving god? Imagine you were sitting there with no universe in place yet. You get to choose everything about the universe. You can create it any way you want, and you can fine tune it any way you want. Plus, you get to foresee all the possible outcomes of any universe you decided to create before hand. You would go ahead and create one in which your chosen species, molded in your image, whom you loved so dearly you would sacrifice your only son for, that species would suffer tremendously every day? The newborns of that species that you love would mostly die off shortly after birth through some disease, caused by a microorganism that you also created. Really?

OK, so let's assume that God knows more than we do. Perhaps he knows that dying is actually the easy way out because it leads to heaven. Maybe he's actually doing us all a favour by creating a world where, for most of our existence we've scratched out a meager existence full of pain, disease and death. Doesn't that then beg the question of what about all those people who don't hear about Jesus (i.e. the vast majority of humans throughout pre-history and history). They all just get shuffled off to hell forever. Congratulations, you survived infancy and childhood, you lived to age 18 and then got picked off by a sabre-toothed tiger. But, unfortunately it is the nature of the universe that you now get to spend an eternity of pain and misery in hell because you didn't accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour. So sorry about that. Does this sound like the all-loving Christian god?

Let me pause at this point and state that I am aware that many or most Christians would object to this line of characterization of their religion, that I am focusing on things that are not really relevant or part of their loving god. Jesus is all about love and forgiveness, he brought light and salvation to the very dark and cruel world that I've just described, right? Well, to me that attitude it nothing more than a particular brand of patriotism. I hate patriotism because it blinds people to the objective facts about their country. Patriotism also insists that one's country is better than everyone else's, and it leads to all sorts of nastiness like wars. Patriotism over one's religion is no different. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the darker side of one's beliefs, to the assumptions that must co-exist with your established beliefs, but which no Sunday School teacher really spends any time on. Consider Nazi Germany for a minute. Almost everyone, except for a few punk skinheads, will agree that Hitler was the embodiment of evil, that his Third Reich was a ruthless and evil empire. Yet, it would not be hard to imagine a poor German in the 1930s and early 1940s being quite in awe of Hitler. It would not be hard to imagine a German peasant praising him for re-igniting the German economy into a world power, for re-claiming the German territories that were unfairly taken from them at the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Hitler brought in autobahns, Volkswagen, and gave people jobs (the all important mantra of today's politicians). You might even say he was Germany's saviour. Yet, his evil deeds cannot be ignored or glossed over. All the good he did for Germany came at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity. Similarly with the Christian god Yahweh. He does so much good for Christians, offering them love, hope, forgiveness, and jobs, and yet punishes the rest of humanity eternally. No Nazi concentration camp could come close to the horrors of the Christian hell.

But I digress. The point of this post is not to compare Hitler and God. God wins that comparison hands down. No, rather I am trying to point out how ridiculous the notion is that God made humans. God is so human in character and temperament that he really offers nothing that humans cannot offer. He is fickle, jealous, unforgiving, and ruthless. He is also capable of great love, friendship, forgiveness and hope. What could be more human? We are all capable for such good and such bad. God is definitely made in man's image, both good and bad.

Another thought that must be examined, if you believe that God created humans with the intention of relating to them, of having humans come to know him fully and entering into an eternal relationship. One must consider his communication with humanity. Apart from those momentous occasions in the Old Testament when God actually spoke out loud, appeared as a pillar of fire or a burning bush, or walked about as a human being for a few years in the time of the Romans, God's only realy communication with humanity is through his book, the Bible. So, how effective of a book is the Bible, considering it is authored by an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe? How effective is it at helping humans get to know God and come to love him and want to relate to him? What would you write in a book if you wanted your human children to have a long-lasting and loving relationship with you?

Well, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be the Bible. Imagine you were having a child of your own. You knew you wouldn't be around physically to guide and teach your child as they grow up, so you write a book for them to read, to help them learn about the nature of the world, about your character, and about how much you love them and want to relate to them. Would you spend the first two thirds of the book basically outlining your personal history, complete with all your vindictive little stories about how you screwed over everyone who ever crossed you or made you mad? Would you spell out in intimate details all the little rules that you want your child to follow, including how they should cut their hair and precisely what foods they should and shouldn't eat? Would you point out what a worthless piece of shit they are, and how their whole life is full of evil deeds and sin, and how the only way to really make it up is to try to spend the rest of their lives finding you and asking for forgiveness for being born? Would you pour a huge guilt trip over them, all about how you sacrificed so much for them so that they could have a life, how you basically gave up your life completely just so that they could have a life? How do you think that would go over it you wrote a book like that to your child? Just a hunch, but I don't think once they reached adulthood they'd be setting out on a mission to find you and spend the rest of their lives relating to you (when "relating to you" actually means begging forgiveness on a regular basis and having hope that you'll still forgive and love them, because you did include that part in your book to them as well).

So, the more realistic examination of what kind of person God is really doesn't leave much doubt that he's a human-created phenomenon. There is no god. God is a concept we created in the infancy of our history as a species to help us deal with our fear of the dark, of the unexplained, and of death.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Consequence Free Living

It must be so nice to live without considering any long-term consequences. To make decisions based purely on the here and now, without worrying about your long-term future, or that of future generations. When it comes to many modern conservative governments and the voters that support them, that is the way I think they must feel given their complete disregard for the reality of the environment they live in.

Most species live this way. Most species do not plan ahead to ensure that there are enough resources left for the long-term future. Most species, in fact, aren't even aware that we live in an ecosystem that needs some balance. We humans are unique in that knowledge, but we don't seem very good at applying that knowledge. Biological organisms require an ecosystem. Whether we are talking about the bacteria that live in your gut, penguins in the antarctic, or humans, all life requires an ecosystem which provides the resources upon which that life survives. There is simply no question that humans need water, oxygen, and food for survival, and we also require those things to be relatively clean (i.e. free of heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, high levels of acidity, or other pollutants) in order to have a long, healthy life. That is not in question. What some people have a hard time understanding is that our actions as a species have profound effects on the cleanliness of food, air, and water. When you shrink down your environment small enough, everyone is an environmentalist. Within the confines of their own home, everyone understands the need to keep sewage and drinking water separate, to not run their car exhaust into their bedroom, etc. Yet, for some reason, when we expand that environment to a global scale, many people seem to think that something magical happens: the earth just deals with all our pollutants and they somehow disappear. They don't.

There are consequences to all human activity, especially on the massive industrial scale that we have been engaged in for the past couple hundred years. We are slowly starting to see the effects of these consequences. In the past few decades, "environmentalism" (really just a term to denote the expansion of everyone's understanding of their local environment to a global one) has become an important issue. But, we have genearlly ploughed ahead with almost no concern. Success stories when it comes to preventing environmental destruction are few and far between (e.g. the reduction of ozone-depleting substances in aerosol accelerants). For the most part, we have simply accelerated pollution, carbon emmisions, water contamination, and industrial farming in the past 30 years. This is not consequence free by any means. And yet, many modern governments (and particularly the ones that claim to be conservative) seem to think that our actions are consequence free.

I have read that the estimated global costs of environmental destruction are approximately $50 - $60 trillion annually. This is roughly equal to the entire world's annual GDP. Another way of putting this is that, we are only paying roughly half the cost for everything we do and everything we buy. You might think gas prices are high right now, but the true cost is actually double whatever you pay at the pump. If you go to the movies and pay $30 for a night out, you would actually be paying $60 if the system was set up so as to have no long-term consequence on the environment. Lately, much has been made of carbon taxes and the like. Conservative voters seem to invariably protest them as a leftist sneaky way of socialism, or a United Nations conspiracy to grab even more money for no reason. The reality is, if there were a carbon tax of 5% on everything you buy, we would still be 95% short on the actual amount required to ensure long-term sustainabilty for future generations.

The real dire picture comes when you look at the cumulative effects. If we doubled the price of everything (which in itself would grind the economy to a halt having catstrophic results), we would only be making the change required for one year. We would not even begin to be chipping away at the environmental debt that we've accumulated over the past 200 years. If you're an American and you feel that your country will never be able to balance the budget, let alone pay off the federal debt (and you are probably right on this), then that is absolutely minor in comparison to the long-term issue of environmental debt. To put it bluntly, our grandparents and parents have lived cheap on our future. They have mortgaged the environment, our necessary ecosystem, so that they could have cheap cars, gas, clothing, and food in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and so on. And, we're doing so on an even more massive scale today.

I look at children and I always feel that they should inherit a neutral earth that they can make their own opportunities with. Not an earth in which drinking water is scarce, air pollution is rampant, and food is generally carcinogenic. I will never understand how so many people seem to think those consequences are non-existent. It must be nice living without that burden. Just worrying about when you can buy that next huge-ass screen TV, without worrying about how the half-price discount you paid was an act of direct theft perpetrated against your grandchildren.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Even Have Members of Parliament Anymore?

This past week in Canada, the budget vote went through. Bill C-38 was an omnibus bill, over 400 pages long, that included many issues that really don't traditionally belong in a budget. One of the major changes is a sweeping reduction in environmental reviews for major industrial projects. Everyone in Canada, the governing Conservatives included, knows that this strategy was a way of getting unpopular legislation through all at once in a bill that pretty much has to pass. If it doesn't, then the government falls and the country goes to an election. But, the only way the legislation would not pass was if at least 10 conservative members of parliament (MPs) voted against their party, and that is not going to happen because then those very MPs would risk losing their seat in a forthcoming election. I'd be willing to bet money that there were some Conservative MPs who did not agree with everything in the bill, and who would have voted against certain issues had they been able to in separetly debated bills passing through the House of Commons, as is the norm. But, the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is a very shrewd and ruthless politician. He recognized the opportunity to ram through a bunch of legislation at once, force his party to vote for it, and get what he wanted a whole lot quicker and with less fuss (i.e. informed debate) than usually occurs.

So, the question is, why do we even have MPs? I mean, my Member of Parliament is a Conservative, and he voted in favour of the budget bill at every vote. I knew he was going to do so, he knew he was going to do so, and his party knew he was going to do so, no matter what debate occured in the House of Commons during the process. Isn't an MP supposed to listen to the debate and then vote accordingly? Wasn't there even one issue in there that my MP felt wasn't the greatest for his constituents? Doesn't matter. He was instructed to vote with his party and did so. So, why do I have a Member of Parliament representing me? Why not, in the next federal election, just vote for different coloured pieces of paper that represent each of the political parties in Canada? Then, the party that wins the most coloured pieces of paper can form the government and each piece of paper can sit on a seat in the House of Commons and be assumed to vote in favour of that party at every single vote. It would save a lot of time. It would save a massive amount of money in salaries, benefits, perks, and pensions. And, we'd end up with the same result: a system of government that does not serve the constituents at all, but buys votes once every 4 years with empty promises of "jobs" for peopel who already have jobs, and then does whatever they want (read: raises taxes and spending) for the next four years.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

There's something missing somewhere.

It seems to be a common attitude for older generations to complain that things aren't as good as they used to be. My grandparents were always complaining that society was falling apart, that crime wasn't nearly as bad when they were young. I'm not sure that this is true, there is the argument that negative things are just reported more now than they used to be, but certainly society has changed a lot in the past century, and not all of it for the better. One thing that has changed from the Baby Boomer generation to Generation X is the seeming cost of living. As a "Gen-Xer", most of my peers had only one parent that worked while the other one (usually the mother) stayed home. Single income families were the norm, and somehow people managed to afford a mortgage (at double or triple the current interest rate), groceries, household bills, and vacations. Yet, most Gen-Xers themselves seem to be in a situation where they are married to a spouse that works, and yet with a double income household are still finding it challenging to make ends meet in terms of all those same expenses. Part of the problem is all the crap people buy these days that they never used to. Cutting out consumer electronics alone would probably solve many people's budget problems. But, there seems no doubt that money is tighter than in the previous generation.

The other thing that seems different in my generation compared to my parents' is the reduction in service. Things that my parents took for granted, like mail and milk being delivered to the front door are long gone now. Usually when you check in at an airport these days, you have to do the work yourself and you typically have to pay extra if you take more than one small bag, something my parents' generation would have rebeled at, and refused to fly. Why are things getting more and more expensive and yet the service is getting cut further and further back?

When it comes to private corporations, I think the answer is quite simple: increased profit. Corporations have figured out that they can spend much less on service than they did 40 years ago and still manage to sell the same amount of product. I suspect there has been some collusion between corporations in this regard. In a truly compettive market, no one would fly on an airline that made you do all their work if there were other airlines who offered better service for only a marginally higher price. (Also, notice that the price never decreases when service is dropped, indicating that the claim by corporations that the reduction in service is a cost-saving measure is false - it is simply a profit maximizing measure). I don't like this trend, but it is part of the capitalist way, and you can't really blame a corporation for maximizing their profit, even if it means they are essentially often selling you little more than an expensive dream. But, what about when this happens in government run services?

Governments are not in business to make money, or at least they shouldn't be. They take their citizens money to provide services for those citizens that the citizens themselves cannot afford unless purchased en masse. Yet services seem to be cut regularly without any financial return to the citizens. Take the example above of mail delivery. Almost no new neighbourhood in Canada offers delivery of mail to the front door. Virtually every new sub-division of houses has a centrally located set of mailboxes to which people have to walk or drive to pick up their mail from a de facto local post office box. This is a reduction in service in comparison to the previous generation in which all mail was delivered to the front door. So, one has to assume that this cut back in service has happened to reduce cost. Yet, where has the money gone that was saved by reducing that cost? Do I pay less tax than my parents' generation? No. I probably pay more when you include all taxes including sales taxes. So, how has government revenue (tax) gone up while expenditures have gone down?

Where did the money go?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Conservative Party of Canada Getting it All Wrong So Far...More Science Please

Anyone who reads my writing knows that I am a fan of the scientific process. Science leads us to truth. Not always immediately, nor even as quickly as we may like, but it does eventually lead us to the truth and realities of the world we live in. Hence, the best approach to any and every issue humanity ever faces is to examine the evidence with an open mind and then form your conclusion from the evidence, whether you like the conclusion or not. The history of humanity is full of examples of people going about things in exactly the opposite manner: having an agenda and trying to find evidence to fit that agenda. Religion is an obvious example: no religion would have ever sprung into existence if people had objectively examined the evidence in the world around them without agenda or assumptions. Modern governments appear to take the same flawed approach: they have an agenda, ram that agenda into action, and then find evidence to sell it to voters. Inevitably this leads to decisions being made that are not in the best interest of the citizens of the country. All parties do this. But some parties seem particularly apt at ignorning the evidence and seeking their agenda. Or perhaps another way of looking at it is that some parties have an agenda that seems particurarly bent on ignoring the stark realities of the world we live in, as established by the scientific process.

The Conservative Party of Canada currently in power, has a Minister of State for Science and Technology that does not understand the basics of science. He has openly denied evolution and then when pressed on the issue, has shown that he doesn't understand the most basic facts about the process of evolution. This is the best example of the Conservatives simply ignoring the realities of the world we live in. Evolution happens. It is a reality long since established and overwhelmingly supported by facts and data. Continuing on as if it doesn't happen is to put blinders on and pretend we live in a fairy tale. But more importantly, this is an example of the same attitude of ignoring the facts that the Conservatives take on every other issue. If one denies something so established as evolution, then one can easily also dismiss the notion that humans (and other species as well) require clean water, food, and air for survival, that chemicals introduced into our bodies will cause diseases such as cancer, and that more money and jobs is not the answer to every problem faced by Canadians.

All of this is to say, it is easy to simply disagree with everything a political party does when in power. Seemingly that is the position the official opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada, takes. But, more important is to oppose those decisions and policies that go against or ignore the realities of the world we live in. In that light, let's take a look at some of the decisions that the Conservative Party has taken since winning a majority in the spring of 2011, and examine why they are poor and uninformed decisions based on ignorance of the facts.

1. The new crime bill C-10.
The bill introduced to the House of Commons and labeled colloquially as "Safe Streets and Communities Act" purports to make Canadians safer (from crime) by taking a number of steps including longer mandatory sentences for certain drug related offences, increasing prison sentences for marijuana offences, and increase the power of government in monitoring its citizens through online activity (though this portion has since been reduced). The reality of the bill is that it will increase the provincial costs of incarceration though greater nubmers of convictions. The bill is expected to cost Canadian taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the coming decade, all in an attempt to make our streets and communities safer. But, what is the greatest safety risk that most Canadians face on a daily basis? What is the activit that is most likely to lead to a parent losing a child or vice versa? What do most Canadians take part in on a daily basis that is most likely to cause pain, turmoil, loss of money, and long-term damage to their lives? Traveling in a motor vehicle. Making streets and communities safer from the gravest risk we all face on a regular basis should focus on making the daily commute safer. Most of know someone who has lost a loved one to a motor vehicle accident. How many of us know someone who has lost a loved one to a drug-related murder? Now, proponents of the bill argue that, just because crime rates are at their lowest rate in Canada in four decades, doesn't mean we can't do better and reduce crime even more. That is true, and as a society we chould always strive for better ways to keep each other safe, but the problem is that there is a finite amount of resources to do so. There are only so many billions of dollars to go around. If we spend the money on reducing the little bit of crime that we face, the money won't be there to actually make our streets and communities safer from the biggest risk we all face on a daily basis. Facts be damned though, fighting crime (whether it exists or not) looks good come election time.

2.Northern Gateway Pipeline
The Northern Gateway Pipeline is a proposed oil pipeline to run from northern Alberta to the northern coast of British Columbia (Kitimat, BC). The pipeline will move bitumen from the oil sands in northern Alberta to the coast for shipping across the Pacific Ocean, mainly to China. China is a huge energy market. If Canada is going to continue to access the oil resources available in the oil sands (which undoubtedly the country will), then movement of this oil to China makes sense economically. But, there are significant concerns over shipping it by pipeline across the Rocky Mountians, approximately 7,000 streams, creeks, and rivers, and to the coast where supertankers will travel up one of the most pristine and beautiful fjord systems in the world (and also one of the most violently stormy in the winter) to dock and load their toxic cargo. It is inevitable that and oil spill will occur if the pipeline goes ahead. Enbridge, the company proposing the pipeline, has a massive record of oil spills. Between 1999 and 2010, 804 oil spills occured on Enbridge pipelines, releasing over 168,000 barrels of toxic hydrocarbons. Given that each gallon of oil contaminates approximately 250,000 to 1,000,000 of water, that translates to up to 42,000,000 gallons of water contaminated by Enbridge in one decade. If the average North American human goes through 100 gallons of water per day (which is a reasonable estimate for showering, washing dishes and clothers, drinking, etc.), then between 1999 - 2010 Enbridge was responsible for contaminating the water for 1,150 people for a whole year. This is miniscule in comparison to the damage an oil tanker spill on the coast would do.

So, there are some significant disadvantage to this proposed pipeline. There are also some significant economic benefits. Why look at only one side of the equation though? Why only examine the economic benefits and ignore the ecological downside and risk? We all require clean air, food, and water on a daily basis. That is not negotiable or debatable. Yet, the Conservative government has already decided to support the pipeline before any of the discussion has taken place. Over the next two years, a government appointed committee will hear from all those with vested interests in the proposed pipeline, including a significant number of First Nations people who live in the areas most affected. Yet, even before this government appointed committee has heard any of the issues, the government itself has already made up its mind that the pipeline is a good idea. Talk about putting an agenda before evidence. Maybe the pipeline will be a benefit, maybe it won't. Maybe we should allow it, maybe we shouldn't. But the decision should not be made before the evidence has even been examined.

3. Plans to spend tens of billions on F-35 fighter aircraft.
Canada is a huge country. Defending it from invasion would be a huge and impractical problem for a population of only 35 million. I'm not suggesting that Canadians, like any other nation, would not try to defend their country valiantly if invaded, but I think it is safe to say that Canada is not actually defendable by Canadians for a few fundamental reasons. Firstly, there are only 35 million of us stretched over a huge area. Strategically that would spread any defence forces very, very thin. Secondly, no nation is ever going to get close to invading Canada unless the United States allows it to. America will never allow any country to invade and occupy its neighbour to the north unless it is in American interests to do so. This brings me to my third point which is to look at the only countries that have any hope of invading Canada. Though unlikely, America is at the top of the list. Geographically it would be easy for Canada to be invaded by the U.S. Canada would be completely overpowered by the huge military might of the United States. Due to my second point above, any country that invades Canada is going to do so either with America's blessing (and presumably with their help), or they are going to have to take on both Canada and the United States. In either scenario, 65 fighter aircraft are going to make not one bit of difference in the defence of the country. Yet, Canada wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on 65 F-35 fighter aircraft. The price quuotes have been all over the map. The goverment will never give a real appraisal of what the cost will be. But it is likely to be $25 - $35 billion dollars up front with another $20 - $40 billion in maintenance and ongoing costs over the next 20 years. Crazy money. And all for naught. The up front costs alone would wipe out the entire federal deficit. Yet, the Conservative Party wants to forge ahead with this unecessary and wasteful expenditure that is not based in evidence or facts.

4. Development of the Tar Sands
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to think that Canada is the next Saudi Arabia. We have a massive amount of oil in Canada, some say second only to some large deposits in the Middle East. Canada is now the greatest supplier of oil to the United States, which is surprising considering the magnitude of the oil thirst of that nation. The problem is that most of the oil in Canada is located in Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, mixed in with sand. It is not a traditional oil field in which you can pump the crude out of the ground for processing. The tar sand must be processed at a much higher energy cost and with much greater waste products than traditional oil. In addition the process takes a massive quantity of water, leaving the water impure and unusable. In decades past one could hardly blame a Prime Minister for wanting Canada to devleop its oil resources no matter the environmental cost. The amount of money available to the country is massive. But, we are not in the 1970s here. We know a lot about how the ecosystem is fragile and necessary. We know a lot about how fossil fuel use alters the environment very drastically and dangerously quickly. What should we do? Should we just leave all that oil lying in the sand in Northern Alberta? Perhaps not. But should we accelerate the extraction, build pipelines through the mountains and over rivers to the sea for export to China? Perhaps not. Isn't there a moderate approach that might be a little more carefully thought out? Yet, this Conservative government is trying to accelerate the process of selling Canada's raw resources abroad. No one seems to stop and consider the question of what happens when those resources are gone. Where will Canada be in 30 years from now when most of the oil is gone? We will have a huge economic crash if we don't start planning for that now. Prime Minister Harper will be dead by then (though his kids will be very wealthy), so he perhaps doesn't really care.

Friday, June 1, 2012

An Honest American Election

Imagine if we could get politicians to tell the truth. It's something we all pretend to long for. We all complain about how politicians go back on their promises after they are elected, about how they aren't very honest about what they can achieve while in office, or about their motivations. But, would we really want politicians to be completely honest? Perhaps their dishonesty is a comfortable curtain that keeps the ugly and frightening truth hidden from us. Perhaps we want them to sell us a nice little bed time story about how everything is going to be OK. What are politicians actually hiding from us? What would they sound like if they were forced to be totally honest? Let's fantasize about what the upcoming American presidential election might be like with honesty. Let's imagine a televised debate between Obama and Romney in which they had both been administered a truth serum, forcing them to tell the absolute truth no matter the consequences:

Moderator: Good evening. We are coming to you live from Stanford University in California where President Obama and Governor Romney, the candidates for president in the 2012 presidential election will debate the issues honestly in front of you this evening.

Before the show we flipped a coin to determine the order of the first question and Mr. President, we are starting with you. Mr. President, you have led this country for the past four years. Tell us why voters should send you back to the White House for another four years?

Obama: Good evening. Let me just start by saying I really don't want to be here. I'd rather be chain-smoking in front of the White Sox game this evening on the huge screen in the White House situation room. That TV is just enormous. But you've asked why people should vote for me. I'm smart. I might be the smartest black man this country has ever produced, and I can also give a really good speech. I think people want to know that their president is smart and I think they want to know that he'll read out a good speech on TV when they want him to.

Moderator: Thank you Mr. President, but if you could elaborate a bit more, what policies would you like to continue or implement in the next four years?

Obama: I don't think too many second term presidents think about policy too much. The second term is the time when you really get to pad your wallet. I've put in my time, I've worked really hard for the past eight years to get to where I am, and now I think it's time for me to profit from that hard work. You know, when I came to the White House in 2008, I had a net worth of only $3 million. I'm now worth about $7 million. But by the end of my second term I expect to be worth about $17 million. Once I sit on a few boards after my second term for a while I think I can reach $50 million of personal fortune. The second term is critical to a president's financial success though. That's the time when a president can help out the special interest groups and lobbyists the most since there's no accountability anymore. With no more elections to worry about, a second term president can just take care of all those wealthy corporations, removing regulations and red tape. They profit massively during a second term, and they always kick back a significant sum to the president once he retires.

The other reason I want to be re-elected is for my ego. Everyone knows that an American president's legacy is judged by whether he is a one-term or a two-term president. It's better never to be president than it is to be a one-term president, we all know that. I need that legacy to feel really good about myself. 

Moderator: OK, thank you Mr. President. Turning to you Mr. Romney. Can you tell us whey people should vote for you in 2012?

Romney: Hi everyone. Let me begin by mimicking the President's feelings that I really don't want to be here. I'd rather be back at the hotel surfing the adult TV channels. My wife isn't on this part of the campaign with me, so I've got a few hours of privacy to watch some really good porn on TV. The Mormon religion really confuses the issue of sex. I'm not sure why God gave people such a strong sex drive if we aren't allowed to use it all the time. Anyway, I find that porn is a good alternative to adultery. And, it's much safer politically.

Moderator: The vote, Mr. Romney?

Romney: Oh yeah. OK, well listen, people should vote for me because I'm a white guy and I deserve it. Simple as that. I'm a white guy who people want to vote for. There's a lot of people in America who don't trust a black man in the White House, so they can vote for me and we'll get things back to normal that way. I also agree with Obama that there's a whole lot of money to be made in the White House. I'm worth about $230 million right now, but after a couple of terms in the White House, I'm pretty sure with all my business connections I can get that up over $1 billion. I'd like to be the first billionaire president. Plus, I'm entitled to be president. I've been really good at every business I've ever run, so I kind of deserve this now.

Moderator: Mr. Obama, how do you see international relations developing over the next four years with you as president?

Obama: More of the same. More of the same slow steady decline for America. Listen, America can't compete anymore. Our workers suck compared to the Chinese, the Indians. We don't really make anything in this country anymore, and a country without manufacturing is doomed. Just look at what happened to England 100 years ago. They ruled the world but slowly their manufacturing industries died out and then their economy slouched and they faded into irrelevance. The 21st Century is going to belong to China. There ain't nothing we can do about it. China will do whatever they want in the world in the next 50 years. We can keep ruling the world for a little bit longer because we spend so goddamn much on our military that everyone is kind of scared of us. But the Chinese have got it figured out. They're biding their time and not spending that much on military. They're building economic strength first and buying up debt in other countries, then when they are the economic superpower of the world, they'll start flexing their military muscle and doing whatever they want. We all know they'll take back Taiwan first, then probably unite North and South Korea. They'll take over the oil in the Middle East and all the natural resources in Africa. Basically we're fucked, and there's nothing the president can do about it.

Listen, folks, the Chinese already own America. When you become president they brief you on a bunch of national security issues like how to use the nukes. They also brief you on a whole lot of other top secret information that the public shouldn't know about. One of the first things I learned in early 2009 when I became president, was that the Chinese already own 70% of America's debt. The public thinks it's way less than that, somewhere around 15%, but it's not. They own us. While I remember, the other thing I'd like to say here today is that the government did kill Kennedy.

Moderator: OK Mr. President, I think we're getting a bit off topic. Let me bring it back to Mr. Romney. Governor, I'll ask you the same question. How do you see international relations developing over the next four years with you as president?

Romney: Listen, once I become president, I'll sit down with my good friends the Rothschilds and hear what their plan is over the next few years. Maybe it'll be another war in the Middle East, maybe it'll be just building up the military, that's up to them. Whatever they have on the agenda we'll make sure we get 'er done. See, the president really isn't the most powerful man in the world. The president is just a puppet. Like Mr. Obama just said, we all know what happened to JFK when he tried to flex his presidential muscle too much. He actually thought he could change the world for the better and so they got rid of him. Showed everyone who was boss.

Moderator: OK, thank you Mr. Romney. Let me conclude here by asking each of you to sum up your policies over the next four years if you become president.

Obama: Like I said, a second term president doesn't really have policies. It's all about money and legacy, and a few political favors like pardoning the right people so that you'll get taken care of later on. But I guess if I'm going to be really honest here tonight, I need to let you know that Michelle wants to be the first woman president. That's right folks, I was the first black president and my wife is going to be the first woman president. Now, the Clintons, they tried this hand-off, but they fucked up. We're learned from their mistakes. We've got a plan so that Michelle will be president 8 years after I leave office.

Romney: Is this thing over yet? I really want to get back to the hotel. Well, OK, let's see. Oh yeah, my main things is that there is a ton of money to be made in health care. Everyone thinks it's about oil. Oil is nothing compared to health care for making money. Oil is gonna run out pretty soon and then the money will dry up. But people are always going to get sick. That's why I brought in universal health care in my state. I made a pile of money off that too. If I get elected I'm going to ram in this Obama care thing for keeps, but I'm going to put my name on it of course. Then I'll truly be the richest president ever. Say, does anyone else feel their underwear tingling?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Perfect Religion

What would the perfect religion look like? I would argue that Christianity is the perfect religion. It is a religion that has evolved into a powerful psychological drug that is very, very hard to give up, making it the most successful religion to date.

Evolution is a biological process that involves change in species. There is no goal in evolution. We humans are not the pinnacle of several billion years of evolution. We may be more cerebral than any previous species (to our knowledge), but that doesn't mean that evolution has strived to produce us and, now that it has, we are biology's crowning achievement. Evolution doesn't work that way. It could care less if we are here. We are just one tiny leaf on the vast tree of evolution. Once humans are exctinct, the process will just carry on much the same. The evolution of religion is quite different. This is a manufactured process (though not conscious on any individual's level) of gradual change in humanity's approach to the supernatural. It is a process that has gradually made religions better and better at recruiting people and keeping them locked into the religious belief. The perfect religion would presumably be one that causes all humans to believe in it, and to never, ever leave it. Christianity might not be quite there yet, but it's done a better job of that than most if not all religions before it.

Fear and reward are important themes in religion. There is much to be afraid of in this world. Primitive hominids had to be afraid of being prey, of lightning, of the dark, of death itself (once they evolved the ability to recognize that inevitability). Reward plays a big role in human psychology. We all seek rewards, whether we consciously recognize it or not. Much of our daily lives are occupied with seeking out ways to enhance complex releases of rewarding neurotransmitters in the brain that make us feel good. Some of these rewards are short-lasting and instant such as those involving a cup of coffee or a piece of ingested chocolate. Others are very long-lasting and complex, such as those involving decisions surrounding marriage, career, and having kids. If you have kids, just think, is anything in life more rewarding than your kids? Having a piece of chocolate might feel better for the 30 seconds you are eating it, but then it is gone. Either you have to just revel in the knowledge that you rewarded yourself with the pleasure of eating it, or you become an addict, constantly seeking out your next chocolate hit. But longer acting rewards such as children and career provide you with a deep sense of well-being and satisfaction. A constant background level of rewarding neurotransmitters that make you feel good about yourself all the time, not just for the fleeting 30 seconds associated with a good piece of food or with a drug.

So, something in life that could calm your natural fears about your surroundings and at the same time provide you with a deep sense of satisfaction and reward would likely be very successful with humans. It would be...addictive.

Now, think about what can do that. What could take away all your fears, including the fear of your impending and unavoidable death, and at the same time give you a long-lasting feeling of reward and satisfaction? Well, religion can do that.

In the good old polytheistic days, humans managed to tackle the fear side of things. Praying to the gods seemed to occasionally convince them not to send a thunderstorm or a flood this time. Sacrificing a virgin to the gods seemed to help out with a good growing season. And, if it didn't, then there was always a way to find something that someone had done wrong that must have angered the gods and over-ridden your costly sacrifice. But, the provision of a sense of control did take care of some of the fear. After all, most of us are most afraid of being out of control. Whatever you are afraid of in life, whether it is heights, snakes, sharks, or rats, you're likely much more afraid of them when you are in a position in which you have no control. How fearful it is to children when a bully comes through the playground and forces them to come face to face with a rat or snake compared to just knowing that a rat or snake is traveling by in the playground. When you can't run away, it gets a lot more frightening. So, the appearance of control over the frightening things in life went a long way to helping humans feel better, and in helping to give religions a firm root in the human psyche. But, it wasn't quite good enough. The reward was lacking.

Along came Christianity (and its spin-off of Islam). Christianity offers an absolute repreive from the most fearful human event: death. And at the same time, it offers the huge reward of knowing that you are going to live in bliss forever. Humans can put up with a lot of misery in the present if they know there is a big reward in the future. Animals don't do this on such long time scales. A dog might perform a trick for the promise of a treat in 30 seconds, but no dog is going to do a trick so that it can get a reward next year. But you might. You might work hard for 40 years of your life just so that you know you'll be rewarded with a solid pension decades in the future. If someone you really trusted was willing to give you a billion dollars ten years from now, you might be willing to put up with almost any misery to get there. Christianity offers the ultimate reward: eternal life in heaven. What wouldn't you be willing to put up with in life to get that reward?

Christianity succeeds where some other religions have failed, in providing that perfect mix of fear and reward. There is just enough fear of death (and a fate even worse than death itself) if you don't accept the religion, mixed with the ultimate reward. It is hard to picture a more fearful punishment than an eternity in hell, and it is hard to picture a better reward than an eternal life in heaven. It is the ultimate combination. That is why I am 100% certain that, despite their denials, almost every Christian would give the religion up immediately if they knew with certainty that there was no punishment or reward after death. Take away those key motivators and the whole thing just crumbles into some vague pre-historic attempt at explaining the supernatural.