Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Z is for Zoroaster

Zoroaster founded the religion named for him roughly 2500 years ago. His is the only monotheistic religion that deals successfully with what is called “The Problem of Evil.” The problem of evil is most easily stated in question form: Why does an omnipotent and loving God tolerate the existence of the Devil, the supposed source of Evil in the World? Surely an all-powerful God could destroy Satan simply by snapping his Omnipotent Fingers, and, if He Did So, much of the evil in the world would disappear. But since God allows Satan to remain in existence doing his mischief, He must think Satan is okay or, at the very least, a tolerable nuisance.

Old Zoroaster solves the problem of evil. He believed that there are two equally powerful forces in the universe: The God of Light and the God of Darkness. When the God of Light gets his way, things go well and people are healthy and happy. When the God of Darkness prevails, there are epidemics, wars, massacres, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Humans can implore the God of Light for help, and, if he finds them deserving, they might even get some. But the God of Darkness is just as powerful and things go his way almost as often.

Ask another monotheist—any believing Jew, Christian or Muslim will do—why God doesn’t put Satan out of business, thereby greatly reducing the level of evil in the world, and you’ll get a lot of hemming and hawing. They can’t answer this question in 25 words or less. And the answers they do give strain credulity far beyond the breaking point.

So, let’s get straight to the point: Why didn’t God do something about the Holocaust? Was He too busy? Was He on vacation? Did He think the Jews had it coming? Were the Nazis doing His Will? Or, perhaps, if the Holocaust hadn’t happened, something worse would have! This last argument, (which Voltaire had such fun mocking in Candide) is simply too preposterous to be taken seriously.

If you read the Torah, there’s ample evidence all over the place that Jews believe that what happens to them, individually and collectively, is based on God’s willingness or unwillingness to help and/or protect them. Way back when, He saved them from the Pharaoh of Egypt. Then He helped drive the Bad Guys out of the Holy Land and gave it to the Jews. But later he stood by and did nothing when other Bad Guys drove the Jews out of the Holy Land. For a very, very long time Muslims owned it. Why did God allow this to happen? Did the Jews deserve to get kicked out? And, having suffered the Holocaust, do they now deserve to have it back? Or, might they have gotten it back sooner or later without the Holocaust?

Maybe the whole notion of “deserving” is beside the point. Maybe the Jews got kicked out way back when because the Babylonians and Romans were simply stronger. Maybe the strength of the Muslims kept them away for a very long time. Maybe they got it back in 1948 because they and their allies were stronger. Maybe they’ll be able to keep it now because they’re stronger than their neighbors. Maybe they’ll be able to keep it forever. Maybe not. Which is more important—being deserving or having power?

Looking at the foreign policy of Israel, one can only conclude that “might makes right“ has become the state religion. If not, what are all those (secretly stockpiled) nuclear weapons for? For no one can make the claim that nukes are nice. They kill the weak and the strong, the innocent and the guilty, without discrimination.

The evidence that bad things can and do happen to good people is overwhelming. Everyone knows many such instances among their immediate circle of family and friends. Watch the evening news on any day in any big city: Something bad will surely happen to some undeserving people. To go on believing that goodness and justice prevail in the face of this overwhelming daily evidence is touching, but it’s alos irrational. Such a belief has nothing to do with faith and a great deal to do with denial.

Theists come back with arguments like this: Sure lots of Bad Stuff happened today but if God had not intervened the amount of Bad Stuff would have been much worse. Sure that little kid was brutally raped and murdered by that deranged killer, but it could have been much worse. Sure those terrorists demolished the World Trade Center, but thousands of people got out alive. If the people who got out alive were a better bunch of people than the ones who died, this argument might have some perverse merit, but many of the people who died seemed to have been very nice people and some of them were surely heroic. God could have made those airplanes miss their targets but He didn’t. At the time, some well-known theologians (I use this term very loosely) offered the opinion that God wanted the World Trade Center demolished as a warning against homosexuality, blasphemy, pornography and all the other depravities they associate with that modern Sodom and Gomorrah we call the City of New York. New York may be a depraved place, but the people who died on 9/11 were not any worse on average than those who survived. Nor were they any worse than those of us who were not in Lower Manhattan that day.

Old Zoroaster would have explained it more simply: The Forces of Darkness won a victory on 9/11. The Forces of Light are simply not strong enough to win every time.

Y is for YHWH (r)

YHWH, the God of the Original Testament, is an angry, jealous, violent fellow. Once, in a fit of rage, He drowned every human being in the entire world except for Noah and his immediate family. Several times He inflicted terrible punishments on innocent Egyptians, who, as we all know, didn’t exactly elect their Pharaohs. But YHWH really flaunts his Dark Side in the Book of Deuteronomy.

As the Jews approach to the Promised Land, YHWH hands down the Ten Commandments.  Then, only a few short verses later, in Chapter 7, we come to this startling passage:

         When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2) And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3) Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4) For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. 5) But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. 6) For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

Obviously, the Ten Commandments DO NOT APPLY when Chosen People deal with foreigners. You can do whatever you’d like to Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. YHWH then goes a giant step further and commands the Jews to kill these people, to “utterly destroy” them, to make no treaties with them, to show them no mercy, to refuse intermarriage with them, and to destroy their sacred artifacts.

Even the Mongols of Genghis Khan would have hesitated to carry out such orders. And these commands come from the mouth of the very same YHWH who just a few verses before commanded his people not to kill, and not to steal and not to covet. Of course, we now know that he was speaking only of one’s fellow Jews. The Ten Commandments DO NOT APPLY to outsiders. This YHWH is a fierce Tribal God who demands absolute obedience from his flock and hates outsiders who have no right to exist.

One is reminded of Adolph Hitler’s bitter complaint from the early 1920’s when liberal  -minded German hecklers taunted him for his ceaseless, bitter attacks on Treaty of Versailles by shouting “What about Brest-Litovsk?” “What about Brest-Litovsk?” Everyone knew then that Brest-Litovsk was the city where a very harsh treaty was imposed by the victorious Germans on the defeated Russians in 1917. Hitler could not comprehend such people. To him, Brest-Litovsk was a good treaty because it was good for Germany. Versailles was a bad treaty because it was bad for Germany. Hitler refused (or was unable) to see beyond  “What is Good, is What’s is Good For Us!” Our enemies deserve whatever injustices and penalties we inflict upon them because we are Germans and they are not!

YHWH would understand.

X is for X-Rated

If America’s ministers, priests and rabbis are right, there’s one thing we can be sure about: God hates pornography. And he doesn’t care much for sex either, except for the making of babies. Catholics have long regarded “recreational” sex as sinful. And then there’s sodomy: Any sexual act that cannot possibly result in a fertilized egg. Anal and oral sex are clearly out of bounds. Male masturbation, if it leads to ejaculation, is just as sinful because it wastes perfectly good sperm that could be deposited in someone’s vagina leading to fertilization. Sperm is for fertilization, not for fun. After all, why did God give us the power to make sperm? Certainly not for depositing it willy-nilly in or on just any old place. It has only one Proper Destination, and we all know what this is.

Female masturbation is condemned equally, but what exactly does it waste? No eggs are ejaculated. The female sex drive is not thereby blunted. For all the men who run the Roman Church know, masturbation might even make women (and here we speak only of married women, of course) more receptive to the kind of sex God likes. Penetration tops masturbation but only if it makes use of the proper orifice. Obviously ejaculation into any male orifice is wrong. And by wrong, the religious don’t mean badly aimed. They mean diabolical. Evil. Perverse. Abominable.

Let’s make it a bit more complicated: Suppose one partner is a married couple is sterile. They know they don’t need a condom to prevent pregnancy. They also know they can’t possibly produce a baby. Hence, all their sexual acts are purely recreational. Is it okay for them to have sex? Believe it or not, the standard, God-inspired, Catholic answer is Yes. (Unless one of them became sterilized by choice. Had a vasectomy, perhaps.) And why is it okay for them? Because God might perform a miracle and let them make a baby even when modern medicine (a mere human science after all) says it can’t happen. Here’s this happy sterile couple, screwing the night away, and it’s all A-okay!

But one asks, if God can provide a sterile father and/or mother with a miracle baby, why can’t He also give one to a condom wearing sinner? If sterility is no barrier to the Divine Will, what chance does a thin rubber membrane have? Once you’re in the realm of the miraculous, anything can happen. Let us not for a moment forget the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

If God can make a baby grow in the womb of a virgin, He can certainly divert a sperm or two from any of her bodily orifices to fertilize a waiting egg.

Perish the thought.

W is for World’s End

On Saturday, May 21st, 2011 the End of the World was supposed to begin at precisely 6:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. It is now May 22nd, so I write with absolute certainty that this prediction was inaccurate. It seems that a well-known Christian Biblical expert calculated that it was precisely 7000 years to the day and hour since the Great Flood—the one that only Noah and company survived—so we due to get zapped again. The first time it happened God was fed up with the sinfulness of mankind and decided to start over again with the Noah family. God, despite a perfect knowledge of genetics long before humans even knew such a subject existed, obviously picked the wrong guy because human beings seem to have been every bit as sinful since the Great Flood as they were before.

Nor did the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth among for a few years make much of difference. I remember asking in Sunday School why Jesus came to earth when he did and not sooner or later. It was a childish question put to a Catholic nun, but I have not forgotten her answer. It was along the lines of sinfulness. The Roman empire had become so sinful that God decided a personal visit was necessary to straighten out the human race. At the time I, then a pious ten-year-old, accepted this answer. But later, when I learned a lot more about history, I found it very weak. If there is such a thing as “sinfulness” it is very hard to measure. Judging from what we know of the Roman world, things were going fairly well during the long and peaceful rule (27 BCE - 14 CE) of the Emperor Augustus.

And, we are told, The Second Coming of Jesus was supposed to occur at the same moment as the Ending of the World yesterday. How was He to make his Divine Presence among us known? Was he going to commandeer all the TV stations in the world for one Great Final Simulcast? What language would He speak to us in? Aramaic again? And what about all the people without TVs and the countless millions in Europe and elsewhere who just happened to be asleep at that moment? (Interesting that God would schedule things in accordance with American time. North and South America were a heathen wilderness last time He dropped in.)

According to Christian theology, Jesus and God are co-extensive with the Holy Spirit and this Gang of Three, if you will, have been Together-As-One from the Beginning of Time. So Jesus was “in on” (to use a popular colloquialism) the decision to drown everyone the first time around precisely 7000 years ago. How does that square with His reputation for mercy and forgiveness? And what about yesterday when the Blessed Trinity were about to destroy the entire world killing several billion people for the crime of Not Being Christians (NBC) and hundreds of millions of pseudo-Christians for the equally serious crime Not Being Christian Enough (NBCE). And yet many Christians willingly join in regular, frequent and pious denunciations of the “Godless Trinity of Demons” Hitler, Stalin and Mao for merely killing tens of millions of innocents.

When it comes to really big crimes that are not really crimes, you definitely need God.

W is for Weasels

If you want to take an intellectually safe position—to never run the risk of losing an argument over the existence of God*—then agnosticism is the place to pitch your tent. But that’s all it is—an intellectually safe place to hunker down. No one knows for sure whether God exists, even those who claim to talk to Him regularly. “Knowing” isn’t what makes a person’s answer to the God question meaningful. If God’s existence were subject to scientific proof beyond a reasonable doubt, there would be no agnostics. Anyone who claims to know beyond a doubt—one way or the other—is obviously delusional. What matters isn’t knowing whether there’s a God or not, it’s how you choose to live your life.

We have two “as if” choices: (1) We can live as if there is a Deity, or (2) We can live as if there is not. Of course, this is overly simplified. There are many other possibilities. There might be gods who exist but don’t give a damn about us. These Wraiths may “exist” in some passive way and every 15 billion years or so, arise from their slumber and make a new universe. They don’t reward us, or punish us, or care what we do, or worry about what happens to us. They don’t give a hoot whether we believe in them or not, and they don’t legislate morality, give advice, prevent floods, or answer prayers. If gods like these exist, their existence can be safely ignored. As with leprechauns, for example.

An Activist Deity is the type we need to be concerned about. If there’s a God who intervenes in human affairs, and judges all of us at the end of our lives, and then sends our bodies or souls somewhere for eternity, then we’d be stupid to ignore such an Entity. That sort of God might take being ignored as a personal slight—She might want to be worshipped and prayed to five times each day. You’d be smart to live your life paying Her the appropriate homage and respect and doing whatever She wants you to do. To do the otherwise could be Eternally Dangerous.

Atheism then is the dangerous alternative. After all, it could get you sent to a Very Bad Place for a Very Long Time. Is it really any safer to be an agnostic? Perhaps not. For all we know, an Activist God might find agnostics more objectionable than atheists. She might not like weasels.

Atheists don’t claim to know that God or gods exist. Atheists believe, as a working hypothesis, that God does not exist. They run whatever risks that might be entailed in holding firmly to such a mistaken belief. Does it take courage to be an Atheist? I don’t think so, but there are those who find it scary.

* Singular or plural; male, female or both; include any/all the permutations you’d like.

V is for Virtue

Virtue is its own reward. I don’t know who said this first, but it can’t be said any better. If you read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount you will quickly discover that he doesn’t believe it even for a moment. Every virtue has a reward attached to it and every vice a punishment. In many cases the rewards and the punishments are Very Big.

From this it seems to me that Jesus was either a cynic or what some might call a “realist” when it comes to his estimate of human nature. An idealist, and I claim to be one, would argue that virtue is its own reward and that normal people don’t need to be bribed with a payoff for doing the right thing. The fact that it is the “right” thing, is, for many, sufficient reason to do it. And the same goes for not doing wrong things: The fact that such and such is a wrong thing is reason enough to not do it.

If you refrain from stealing money, or vandalizing property, or molesting children because you’re afraid the cops might catch you, and send you to jail, then you’re not really a very nice person. What you are is a criminally inclined person with a yellow streak. Real crooks, vandals and perverts throw caution to the winds. They “act out” and run the (admittedly slight) risk of getting caught. But the difference between criminals and  criminally-inclined wimps is not very big. It’s microscopic compared to the difference between all of them, and the truly virtuous—those who refrain from theft, vandalism, gossip-mongering, etc. etc. as a matter of principle.

One can only wonder why Jesus ignored the possibility that human beings could rise above themselves and become truly moral. Or did he come only to save those who are unable to rise above the selfish level of What’s In It For Me? For truly moral people, Jesus, with his constant appeals to self-interest, through promises of rewards and threats of punishments, is at best a huge disappointment.

Even when he tries momentarily to get away from rewards and punishments, in the end he always comes back to them. Take Matthew 6:5 and 6:6 for example:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Verse 5 is fine just the way it is. Don’t be a grandstander showing off your religiosity in public where other people will be impressed. Phonies do that sort of thing. In fact, that’s exactly what modern phonies do with their “JOHN: 3:16” bumper stickers and their demanding public prayers before football games or at high school graduations.

In verse 6, Jesus abandons the moral high ground and sinks back into the gutter. Pray to God in secret because that way you’ll get a Really Big Reward and what’s more it will be received openly (for everyone to see)!

Why not simply pray to God in secret and leave off any mention of rewards? It’s insulting to be told over and over again by Jesus that you’ll get a reward for doing what’s right. Just Do It! Forget about rewards and punishments! Human Beings are capable of behaving much better than Jesus is willing to admit. And yet countless millions of people consider this man Jesus to be an idealist and an inspired moral and ethical teacher.


U is for Unborn

The unborn and their rights have become a very big political/moral issue in the United States ever since the 1960’s. Most advocates for the unborn willingly admit that theirs is essentially a position that derives from religion. Which leads to the following question: Is God’s assent necessary for a sperm to fertilize an egg? (You’ll surely note that this question has been deliberately framed so as to compel a “yes” or “no” answer.)

If one answers the question above with a “yes” then, logically, one has to oppose any and all abortions as violations of the Divine Will. But since rape and incest victims sometimes get pregnant, those who say “yes” cannot deny that God sometimes allows a sperm produced in the testes of a rapist, or a father or a brother, to fertilize an egg. And, since God knows the future, He [or She or It] also allows sperms to fertilize eggs that will produce severely deformed children. One can only wonder why a just and merciful God would allow things like this to happen. (One possibility, of course, is that God is neither just nor merciful, nor extant.)

Now, suppose one answers the question with a “no.” There is no Divine Sanction for fertilization. The “life” produced by the fusion of sperm and egg is a purely random occurrence fully explicable by the science of biology. This being the case, what valid reason can there be for denying a pregnant woman the choice of having abortion? One might argue that she is incompetent to make such a decision on account of youthfulness. And one might wish that the abortion could be performed during the first 90 days of pregnancy. Or, one might insist that the sperm donor, or her parents, ought to have some say in the matter. But these are all procedural questions that can best be settled by elected legislators.

As a practical matter, many people will say that unborn life is “sacred” but, at the same time, they will wish to make exceptions to save the life of the mother or to preserve the health of the mother, or, if the woman was made pregnant by a rapist or as the result of incest. Very few people want to force a victim of rape or incest to bear an unwanted child. But suppose the woman was not raped. Suppose she consented to having sexual intercourse, but the condom leaked. Or, worse, imagine her lover punctured the condom in order to get her pregnant so she would agree to stay home and marry him and give up her plans to go to college. What about cases like these where a woman got pregnant by accident or through deception. Should an accident or a deception be turned into a baby by the force of law?

Those who are against “choice” necessarily believe that the government should use its awesome power to force a pregnant woman to have a child against her will. And that’s a power the government must be denied.