Life in the Aquarium: Why I am Agnostic

Peter is a good friend and a former business colleague. Having lived in Honolulu Hawaii for 2 decades, he has acquired a license to wear the floral print shirt in this photo.

This week, Peter posted this missive to his Facebook page:

Peter Kay-a

 

Taking the atheist position that there is no God because there is no evidence is like being a fish in an aquarium. You state there is no such thing as an aquarium builder because you, as the fish, cannot find evidence of the builder. You, as the fish, insist that the aquarium just popped into existence on its own for no reason whatsoever. Yes, it’s ridiculous; being an atheist, that is.

 

My response to Peter:

The aquarium analogy is good, Peter. Point made…

I suspect that most atheists—or at least a significant fraction, like me—are more accurately agnostic. That is, we don’t deny that there is design, creativity or purpose to the universe (and to our existence), but we acknowledge that it is beyond our senses—and quite probably our comprehension—to fathom it from within our fish bowl. More importantly, atheists and agnostics vehemently reject scripture and institutional doctrine. These are human concoctions to explain the unexplainable—They are each self-anointing, pompous and righteous.

religious-symbols-squeezeAtheists and agnostics don’t buy into a 6,000 year old universe, a 6 day creation, the idea that man is created in the image of God, and especially, that a conscious god wishes for us to worship him and save others. Finally, we attribute much of the horror on earth to religion: Throughout recorded history, the very worst acts of mankind have been prosecuted in the name of God. Individuals of faith are the least likely to be tolerant and inclusive.

Further, we see that religion has been the enemy of science, technology and democracy and personal liberty. In my opinion, of all the acts committed in ‘His’ name, only music, art and architecture have beauty. Clearly, whatever is the purpose of our design and creation, man has completely screwed up the interpretation and fulfillment of his religious obligation.

That said, I practice the religion of my parents, and I employ it to mark life’s events. It connects me to a people and a community. I even strive to study its codes of conduct. There is no contradiction in doing so. I recognize that the wisdom of eons can be a greater force for good than my limited experience. But I do so through the lens of scientific reasoning, an agnostic psyche, and a willingness to edit sections that undermine domestic tranquility.

Related

Is Islam a Religion of Tolerance?

In my armchair observation of the world’s major religions, they each have scriptures, righteous examples or commandments that seek the destruction or subjugation of other races, infidels or non-believers. In short, among all the talk of love, peace and coexistence, there is inevitably a doctrine, which—if interpreted literally—espouses hate or the smiting of people who are different. Is this the case for every religion? Perhaps an exception is Buddhism and other religions that are associated more with spiritual or political philosophies rather than a deity (e.g. Confucianism is not really a religion).

islam_385x261But here’s the thing: Despite holy scripture that places adherents spiritually or morally above their neighbors, few individuals believe or act on scripture that suggests burning neighbors, cutting off their hands, or raping their daughters. They also leave their neighbors to establish and administer their own political and cultural practices, according to their own set of beliefs. That is, most cultures accept the universal maxims: “Live and let live” and “Treat others as you wish to be treated”.  Adhering to these two simple golden principles of non-interference and cooperation are the keys to living in a multicultural world. Everyone understands this. Everyone lives it! Well, not quite everyone…

islamThe problem with Islam, as I see it, is that a large fraction of followers actually implement an “interference doctrine”. But when an institution combines a nihilistic philosophy with growth and evangelism, it takes the form of a cancer: Constantly pushing out its boarders and consuming anything in the way. Many Islamic adherents (how many?) refuse to accommodate tolerance—at least for those outside of its beliefs, even when an Islamist community is a minority in the homeland of other cultures and philosophies.

I believe in tolerance. Given a connected world with a great many cultures and beliefs, it is the only way to foster peaceful and productive coexistence. The concept of Sharia Law—practiced against non-believers and especially outside of an Islamist homeland—is not only intolerant and abhorrent, it is impossible to reconcile within any framework of coexistence. Therefore, the only philosophy or practice of which we should be intolerant is intolerance itself.

Islam-10

I honestly don’t know the fraction of Islamists who teach hate and who seek to spread intolerance. But I can see that the absolute numbers are staggering. It’s not just growing in the Arab world, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali and Timbuktu. It has taken root in France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland and even in North America. While I cringe in response to some reader suggestions (“We must destroy Islam. We need to institute a genocide”), I honestly don’t see how to contain a cancer by any means other than destroying it. As with any cancer, there is an urgent imperative to prevent spread and the consumption of surrounding tissue.

Is it possible that Islam can be gently prodded to correct the extremism within its many sects and among its zealous Mullahs? I don’t know. And I don’t know if we have time to engage on such a benign level. Despite my disdain for intolerance, I keep returning to my own maxim: The only thing of which we can be justifiably intolerant is intolerance itself. I believe that if we do not quickly squash intolerance, the haters will consume us.

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That’s my opinion on the growth of a very destructive force from the dark side. My father had a considerably less tolerant plan… He died before there was a western acronym for ISIS [ISIL, Daesh, The Caliphate], but he once wrote that captured Taliban and Hammas fighters should be killed and a video sent to their families. The video would show the corpse of a religious extremist as it is buried alongside open carcasses of pigs, including intestines and pork brains. He figured that the graphic display of eternal damnation might persuade the next generation from spreading their hate and killing across other cultures. I hold out hope for a more civilized and humane way to encourage tolerance among neighbors.

In response to the titular question: Is Islam a religion of tolerance? It doesn’t appear to promote tolerance at any level. Not from religious leaders and not that I can see from the adherents. If Islam were tolerant, we would see swift condemnation of terrorist acts. We would see acceptance of other cultures and practices. We would sense an acceptance that women can be educated and treated as something other than cattle, and we would see a peaceful and productive coexistence with the greater communities, both religious and secular.

All 4 photos: http://enriqueiglesias.com

Did US voters elect a Wingnut to Congress?

To our friends in America—For just a moment, put aside the coming presidential election. Rise above politics, skin color and debate polish. Focus, instead, on this question: Exactly how does a guy like Paul Broun get elected to your national congress? As these Palinesque characters proliferate in your high offices, the esteem and importance of America in world affairs gradually erodes. Do the views of this man represent what they teach children in your country?—Your adult voters apparently agree with his position on science and technology. By God! It’s the devil’s work…

U.S. Congressman (GA-R), Paul Broun, is a trained medical doctor and serves on the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Recently he spoke at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. He told his audience that the Earth is about 9,000 years old, and that the Big Bang Theory and Evolution are “lies from the pit of hell”.

Let’s assume that constituents elected an individual who represents the religion of the majority. But most adults are reasonable to basic truths. They understand that religion and science needn’t be interpreted as contradictions. One is a set of moral constructs backed by customs, ethics and a long history of tradition. The other is a gradually improving knowledge of the universe, through the analysis of evidence, specifically, the observation of measurable properties and laws. Even if we let the unbalanced religious interpretation go, how can the citizens of Georgia appoint such an ignoramus to the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology? Do you suppose that it baffles elementary school students In Europe and Asia. It certainly baffles my 11 year old daughter. She is incredulous. Wake up Americans! It’s not like Congressman Broun hides his whacked out beliefs. Ignorance is displayed with pride on his sleeve. The problem isn’t his devotion to scripture. It’s the empty-headed, literal interpretation.

Congressman Paul Broun on  Evolution, Embryology & Big Bang Theory:
“These are lies from the pit of hell”  [Full speech: 47 minutes]

The first 24 minutes of the congressman’s speech are about his great hunting prowess. Europeans might overlook the Yahoo factor…After all, he is an American and he is speaking at a sportsman’s banquet. But then, as he begins to speak about his religious re-birth, he explains that modern science is filled with lies. To bolster this arguments, he emphasizes that he is a medical doctor and a scientist. Clearly, he has no clue what is a scientist. How disappointing that Broun chose to serve in congress rather than preach on a street corner. His neandrathal view raises doubts that he can serve citizens who don’t share his head-in-the-sand, southern, born again revelation. He certainly doesn’t represent non-Christians in his district and cannot possibly lend substance or credibility to his role on a legislative body for Science, Space and Technology.

In the above video, he boasts of his credentials as a scientist, and explains that “evolution, embryology, and big bang theory are all lies from the pit of hell.” (Geez!) He also says that the Bible is the “manufacturer’s handbook” and that as Congressman he holds the Holy Bible as a directive for all of his votes and decisions in Washington.

This is precisely the type of nut case that Bill Nye refers to in this video: Creationism is not appropriate for children:

Bill says to adults:

“If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that is completely inconsistent with everything that we observe in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them! We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff and solve problems.”

It is sad that the phenomenon of confusing religion and science is unique to the United States. The rest of the world is devoid of whack jobs like Congressman Broun, with the possible exception of Muslim regions under Taliban and Al Qaeda influence.

Ellery Davies, freelance columnist and editor of AWildDuck, focuses on the intersection of technology, politics, law, privacy and social phenomena. He is a frequent contributor to Yahoo, Amazon, Engadget and The Wall Street Journal.

Is Fox News Fooling Anyone?

After years of rumors, high-profile CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper, acknowledged his sexual orientation last month in an editorial at The Daily Beast. A most eloquent analysis was offered by Huffington Post contributor, Chuck Gomez.

Today’s point of view has nothing to do with Mr. Cooper or sexual orientation. But it has a lot to do with network news and—like the Anderson Cooper revelation—it deals with the inflection point between an unacknowledged fact and one that is acknowledged by the subject, or at least, universally recognized.

Today, the inflection point involves Fox News. Once and for all, this Blog uncovers what so many readers already know. Let’s please not make this political! This posting has no conservative or liberal agenda. It doesn’t question the quality or value of Fox News (Well, at least not as a biased, editorial Blog with celebrity entertainers). It’s not meant to be inflammatory. It just shines a bright light onto an unspoken truth. A truth that many Fox insiders, friends, foes and viewers already know.

Bloviation? The Spin stops here? Do you take us for idiots, O’Reilly?!

Does Fox News strive to be neutral, balanced, fair and unbiased? (O.K. These are synonyms. But it is the key question). Is Fox News a mouthpiece of the Republican Party? Does Bill O’Reilly really believe that his popular editorial show is a “no spin zone”?

To better understand how a special interest operates, it helps to understand a little bit about media, entertainment, News, and the Fairness Doctrine. AWildDuck is not an expert on all of these things, but we allude to each and you can take it from there…

Consider the World Wrestling Federation. They refer to their stage craft as “professional wrestling”. Yet, in a dispute with the World Wildlife Foundation, they changed their name and website to ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’ (WWE). This pleases linguists and anyone who cares about truth-in-advertising. After all, they are hardly professional and the entertainment nomenclature fits…

To be fair, the definition of a ‘profession’ is that participants get paid. For this reason, most Olympic athletes – no matter how good – are not ‘professionals’. That term applies only to the ones that compete for money apart from the Oympics. But by any common definition, there is nothing ‘professional’ about television wrestling (aka: WWE or “rubber wrestling”), because it is not a sport. It provides choreographed media entertainment with slapstick antics. Wrestlers bounce off ropes, flip opponents into the air, whip them into body slams and then jump on faces. Performers are rarely hurt, but actors with names like Hulk Hogan and Mad Dog yell into the camera about crushing skulls and rupturing internal organs.

At first, organizers denied that these fights were choreographed for entertainment value. It took Geraldo Rivera to push the group into more truthful packaging. Of course it is rehearsed and structured. It’s all play acting in the guise of a professional sport. But hey! Entertainment can have just as much value as a professional sporting event. Fox News is no different…

Fox may have evolved from a pure journalistic credo in its early days. But anyone who watches Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” understands that it’s all about spin…and a pervasive religious undertone. Even journalists and editors within Fox news have gradually begun to acknowledge that the broadcaster has taken on a role of unofficial spin doctor for conservatives.

Off camera, they no longer deny the far right perspective of their ‘news’. They represent family values (at least for white, Christian families), a Republican/Tea Party perspective, and an agenda that is slightly pro-military, anti-pluralism, and somewhat redneck.

When they were disguising the agenda in a cloak of balanced journalism and the Fairness Doctrine, they thought it might win the hearts and minds of viewers—or at least undecided voters. Now that the horse is out of the barn (and the Fairness Doctrine is no longer the Law of the Land), they still serve a useful purpose. Their talking heads help to explain and interpret the Republican platform and contrast candidates from one corner of the ring. But they certainly aren’t a balanced news organization. They are a reasonably good editorial platform and a spokes piece.

For the past 6 or 7 years, the winks and nods were all too evident. They are one sided and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t agree with them or simply want to learn another perspective, tune into Bill Maher or read The Huffington Post. We live in a world of balance through choice. Fox news is an extreme proponent of the far right. My only beef with the organization is that they masquerade as a legitimate news organization.

I was once a Republican. I respect Fox News. But Republican or Democrat, Black or White, Jew or Gentile, Resident or Immigrant, let’s just call a spade a spade. Anderson Cooper finally came out of the closet because rumors were beginning to interfere with his job. It’s time for Fox News to come clean, so that legions of viewers can move them back from the Entertainment column to the News & Commentary column. Face it, Bill: Fox News is biased as all get out! No disrespect intended. We’re just nudging the organization toward truth in packaging.

» Ellery Davies is a frequent contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABCNews
» and The Wall Street Journal. He is also editor of AWildDuck.com.

Christmas Trees & Menorahs: No place on Public Property

In 1990 and 1991, an atheist organization filed suit against cities and towns in Illinois, including Rolling Meadows, Zion and Palatine. It argued that a religious symbol in the official city seal constituted government recognition of a religion and caused harm. A city seal appears everywhere that official business is conducted. It is emblazoned on permits, forms, stationery, recycle bins, police cars, and even street signs.

At first, the towns fought back, arguing that a Latin cross in the corner of a city seal, an angel or a reference to God represents an aspect of town heritage and history. In fact, some towns were settled for religious reasons during colonial times. They also pointed out that US currency displays the words “In God We Trust” and that religious motifs are enshrined in government documents, buildings, history and even cited by our founding fathers.

Although decisions were split, the plaintiffs won their case on most counts and in most cities. Religious icons were stripped from the seals and eventually the court houses of many towns. Some civic leaders considered appealing the decisions, but after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the initial action, most towns gave up the fight and agreed to remove religious symbols.

How is it that a religious symbol can cause harm? For an atheist, I am a bit puzzled. To them, I would think that it should be no different than an artifact of fables and legend. But for people of other faiths, I certainly understand the problem. In one case that gained brief, national attention, the wife of a Rabbi covered the seal on her recycling bin and on an automobile windshield sticker. But this small act of protest had repercussions. The municipal government blocked her trash pickup and fined her for not displaying (or perhaps defacing) a required vehicle permit.

Before this post attracts all sorts of rants from the right, please consider this. Asking a devout Jew to display a crucifix in front of her home, even if it is small, is no different than asking a devout Muslim to wear a Star of David for the purpose of gaining access to the town dump. Preposterous! Even if the effect is unintended, the incorporation of religion into government – even if symbolic – is not harmless. It is intimidating, unfair and a form of bullying. It says that the town recognizes and serves this citizen, but not that one.

Some will argue that in a democracy, “Majority rules”. But this cliché is a bastardization of democracy. This type of thinking leads to Fascism. A true democracy protects the rights of individuals and never forces citizens into acts that benefit no one and isolate individuals. Rather, democracies actively protect diversity. For this reason, I stand with the Rabbi’s wife.

But let’s move forward 20 years. It is now Christmas 2011. Why, today, do most towns still decorate Christmas Trees on public property? I have no idea! Christians should be even more outraged than atheists and people of other faiths. Having government usurp a matter of family and personal faith is trite, insulting and nauseating. It is far worse than the commercial exploitation of faith that we see in malls and on television.

The issue is reaching a boiling point in the town of Evergreen Colorado, in which I have a friend. The town offered local Jews “equal access” by placing a giant menorah next to the town Christmas tree. The pendulum is swinging wildly this week. Early this week, newspapers reported Evergreen Bans Menorah, Keeps Christmas Tree, but just as abruptly, the two sides reached an accommodation. Now they are again saying “Let’s drape our court house in both faiths.”  If I were a local Jewish leader in Evergreen, I certainly wouldn’t want a symbol of a minor children’s holiday placed next to a Christmas tree. For God’s sake, get rid of both!

Do you really want equal time and equal space for Jewish symbols amongst Christian symbols?! Doesn’t that open a can of worms? What about Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and Wicca? Does each minority get a symbol on the front lawn of City Hall?

Rather than “Equal Time” for flaunting Jewish holidays & symbols. I would much prefer that governments get out of the religion business altogether! It’s trite, bigoted and incredibly insulting. I have never understood why governments like to erect Christmas trees. I would rather teach my children that faith is expressed by the faithful and within their respective communities. Let us please end state funding or any state recognition of religious holidays & events. Let the tree to Christ go up on private property and let the Menorah go up on Mr. Levine’s front lawn or in front of Weinstein’s Deli (I made up the names, but you get the point).

Why not display a religious alphabet soup to assuage all residents?

What about the The Salvation Army? Projects of missionaries, and some self-help groups. Should they be granted meeting rooms in schools or donation pots at the post office? Of course not! Let them find donors in a church parking or at the entrance of Wal-Mart. (I am not arguing against retailers making their own decision). But wait? Is the Salvation Army a religious organization? Many people believe that their motives are as benign as the Girl Scouts. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems reasonable to ask what the “Salvation” Army is trying to save?!

Should there be exceptions to my rule?

Sure! Every restriction should accommodate facts on the ground and be applied within reason. Even though Hanukkah is a minor children’s holiday blown out of proportion because of proximity to Christmas,  I accept that our national holidays include Christmas, Easter and the Gregorian New Year (I won’t even call that last one ‘religious’). The plurality of Christians is a fact and it seems reasonable that major holidays convenience the largest group. Likewise, I appreciate the fact that towns with a large Jewish population (like Brookline and Sharon in Massachusetts) structure the school calendar to accommodate Passover and Yom Kippur. I wouldn’t demand that the holiday be recognized (not even locally), but on the other hand, I bet families in these towns appreciate that teachers accommodate individual students who cannot attend on those few days.

What about the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Fortunately, the Girl Scouts are not religious at all (they are not affiliated with the Boy Scouts). However, the Boy Scouts credo and pledge includes an oath of anti-atheism, and of course, they tried hard to block gay scouts and leaders. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world. Personally, I overlook the subtle and non-pervasive remnants of intolerance and religion in the Boy Scouts as long as their regional outposts are inclusive and accommodating. Their record is mixed, but religion is certainly a very minor footnote in their activities.

I have no problem with a school giving after school meeting space to scouts, as long as the on-site affairs are completely nonreligious and as long as the donation of space and service is treated like any other non-profit (e.g. the Red Cross or a local food drive).

So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.