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Friday, Dec. 25, 2015

Atheism, ducks and bananas

Atheists and religious people both need to work on their sense of humor.

T here's a fun quiz about the Bible at the website of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, FFRF. (I would like to see, just once before I die, a freedom from Javascript foundation. What is it with liberals and Javascript anyway? Isn't it racist or something?)

The FFRF quiz claims that the Bible says thinking happens in the heart, and therefore Biblical anatomy rates an F because the word ‘brain’ appears nowhere in the Bible.[1] They also say the Bible says we should be happy when we dash babies against the rocks, citing this verse:

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:9)

Now, I concur there's no excuse whatsoever for not mentioning the brain. It's the most fascinating organ in the body. Every book should talk about it constantly. Heaven knows it's almost all I ever write about.

But really. I'm certainly no Bible expert, but it took me a grand total of two minutes of Ixquicking to find that the part about babies doesn't really mean what FFRF says. It was obviously taken out of context. It makes us all look bad when people write stuff like this.

One atheist blogger wrote:

Even a skosh of genocide shouldn't be acceptable under any sort of worship-worthy higher power.

This kind of stuff makes it look like we atheists not only don't understand the Bible, we are turning into humorless scolds.

Richard Dawkins had similar arguments in his book The God Delusion, and my reaction then as now is that they are irrelevant. The Bible is showing us, quite courageously in my opinion, how their religion evolved. It tells us what the early believers did and how they interpreted things. They weren't all angels and didn't claim to be, and their society often paid a hefty price for their ‘sins.’

Why even atheists should pay attention to bananas.

That word—sin—conjures up images of stern preachers with one hand pointing at the Bible and the other pointing at you, and you, and you, saying things like ‘Ye are ALL sinners!’

Infrared photo of bananas
Ye are ALL bananas!

But frankly, they blew that trope by doing away with Hell. So it seems to me they'd get better results by calling it something amusing instead of sin. As Oscar Wilde said: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.”

Much research has been done to find words that are intrinsically funny. Wikipedia suggests duck, chainsaw, weasel, and prune. But I think ‘bananas’ is a lot funnier.

The most important message in the Bible, insofar as I understand it, seems to be that ‘bananas’, if you will, are whatever causes societies in the long run to disintegrate. The people who wrote it had the opportunity to watch many tribes succeed and fail. So they wrote down the principles in such a way that they could be easily remembered to help their own tribe survive. The fact that their tribe is still thriving suggests that maybe those principles had some validity.

Think about the old aphorism “Break a mirror and you will have seven years bad luck.” If you've ever broken a mirror, you know that no matter how carefully you sweep it up, your feet will be picking up slivers of glass, maybe not for seven years, but certainly for a long time.[3] That qualifies as bad luck in my book. If interpreted fairly, it's not superstition, but wisdom.

Maybe ‘bananas’ doesn't quite capture the essence of ‘sin’, but to dismiss the ancients' accumulated sociological wisdom as meaningless superstition would be to deprive ourselves of the benefit of their valuable experience.

Logical fallacies.

Nothing in the Bible has any relevance to questions of its ethicality or factual validity. Those are attributes readers assign to it. When people do it, whether they are atheists or believers, they are making a logical fallacy.

  1. It is contradictory for an atheist to claim on the one hand there is no God, and on the other to claim that he advocated genocide. The only sensible interpretation of the Bible from an atheistic point of view is that it is a compendium of cultural history, and therefore valuable.
  2. Even if the Bible did advocate genocide, it would have zero bearing on whether God exists or on the ethics of his actions. The Bible claims that he does exist, and that he said this and that; but it could be mistaken, garbled, or lying.

It is a logical fallacy to use statements in a text produced within a belief system to evaluate the truth or falsity of the belief. That's because doing so is a ‘meta’ question. The contents of the belief are at a different level, and unless they address meta questions they are irrelevant to our question.

To bastardize Derrida[2], everything is outside the text and there is nothing within the text.

To see this, consider astrology. You can't use the predictions made by astrologers to disprove astrology, because every astrologer who ever existed could, in principle, have been 100% incompetent or mistaken, or they could all be lying. You must look outside astrology for proof of its validity, if you think proof is needed.

The vast majority of atheists are not anti-Christianity and not anti-religion. In fact, it's no coincidence that this vocal and obnoxious faction of atheism started right after 9/11. Many of them are liberals who want to criticize Islam, but are afraid to do so because of social pressure from their fellow liberals. So they attack “religion.”

The argument on the existence of evil.

Another argument atheists often make is that if there is a God, why is there still evil? Christians have been bothered by this question as well.

Let's do what mathematicians do and consider a change of variables. Change evil to dirt. There are massive amounts of dirt everywhere. The galaxy of Andromeda, for example, contains vast quantities of dirt. But most of us hate dirt, and we spend much of our lives struggling against it, only to have it come back again and again to torment us. Does this mean God should not have created dirt (if we assume, for the sake of argument, that that's where it came from)? Maybe the best we can do about evil, as with dirt, is to create a small part of the universe where it is kept out. We may never be able to keep all the dirt out, even in a perfectly clean world, just as we can never keep all the evil out, and maybe the best we can do is try.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

But enough of this. It's Christmas. I've always argued that religions need good comedy writers as much as they need good theologians. Maybe more so, because there are so few of them.

So here is my small contribution.

Ever since my computer got struck by lightning I've had lots of religious jokes literally write themselves. Maybe it was an act of God, or maybe Zeus, or maybe it's just file corruption. (And maybe, as the atheists would say, those are all the same thing.) But I swear to God this is what the copy of the Bible on my computer says:

And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made 3 1/2 ounces of tomato paste and mix with two teaspoons salt

Oh, I really do need to get that computer fixed. But even in my backup files some of the dialogue in the Bible seems unrealistic. Here's what they probably really said in the Garden of Eden:

Eve: God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

Satan: You will not surely die. You'll just probably get really sick and puke 'em back up.

Eve: Omigod! A talking snake!

Then there are the 35 references to dragons and nine references to unicorns in the King James version. And so far, I've found 44 emoticons. If you open the Bible in Microsoft Word, the software automatically turns “:)” into a graphical emoticon, which makes it look very odd indeed.

(For six months did Joab remain there with all Israel, until he had cut off every male in Edom :) (1Kgs 11:16)

I think at least it should be :( . 😢.

Which brings me to the topic on everyone's mind these days: why the heck is PVC tubing so hard to attach to a washing machine? If the Bible was written today, it would have an answer:

In despair I cried out to the Roto-Rooter guy. I spake unto him, saying:

Observe the washing machine in the field: it toils not, it spins not; and yet I say unto you, that Whirlpool in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these when it was new.

O ye of little faith, replieth the service engineer. If thy clothes haveth stains of grass, which is today in the field, and the morrow they beith cast into the oven, how much more will it clothe you?

Sell that ye have, that ye may pay my bill; provide yourselves with bags to wear which wax not old, neither moth corrupteth. And then buy a new one from that big hardware store that I passed on the way over here.

In some versions of Genesis, God says this after the Great Flood:

I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.

Whew. But notice He doesn't say anything about asteroids, solar flares, black holes, or giant mutant chihuahuas. These two verses appear nowhere in the Bible:

Neither shall I send a solar flare to smite thee, nor a giant asteroid, nor a black hole, nor a worm hole which openeth thereunto like they had in Stargate SG-1.

And lo, two weeks later, begat a plague of giant mutant chihuahuas.

Okay, I guess that's enough of that.

Atheists should be careful what they wish for.

Religion will never die, despite our advances in science and our retrogressions in politics. The more unfamiliar it becomes, the more interesting it gets. Western religions aren't waning just because people don't believe. They're waning in part because they're too familiar. As soon as they become unfamiliar, they become exotic and cool and people feel free to reinterpret them. They ‘rediscover’ them.

I watched this happen in the early 1970s as the Pentecostalist movement swept through my high school. Those kids, many of whom had never gone to church, were incredibly enthusiastic and dragged me to their prayer meetings. I didn't join up, but it was a very interesting phenomenon to observe.

Their parents were utterly baffled, but it's easy to understand. People crave religious feeling. When they're deprived of it, they feel a gnawing spiritual emptiness. If Christianity declines in the West, we won't become an atheist society. We'll become something else, probably a Muslim one.

That's starting to happen. Last year the daughter of a good Jewish friend of mine converted to Islam. I can only imagine how awkward their dinner conversations must be.

So? How was your day?

All right, I guess ... how come everybody else gets a real knife and mine's only plastic?

The friend is a Ph.D. biologist and the daughter is quite smart—not the type to be swayed by propaganda. So why Islam? You might not think of Islam as particularly funny or appealing to the intellectually curious. But kids are genetically programmed to seek things that are exciting and forbidden. As soon as they become boring they reject them.

My fellow atheists, think about the implications of that the next time you get the urge to bash Christianity.

dec 25, 2015, updated dec 28, 2015; last updated feb 17, 2016


1. This is true, but it does appear in the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas where the young Jesus calls somebody a ‘brainless moron’ before killing him, which, needless to say, got him in big trouble. When a teacher volunteers to help, his father Joseph is supposed to have said, “Do not consider him to be a small cross, brother.”

2. Derrida famously wrote in Of Grammatologyil n'y a pas de hors-texte” (there is no outside-text), sometimes translated as “there is nothing outside the text.”

3. Some people claim this saying was around before glass was invented, when all mirrors were made of bronze. But that raises the question: how do you break a bronze mirror?

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