Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Alternative Facts

Reacting to side-by-side photographs released by PBS contrasting the massive crowds of Barack Obama's inauguration to the poorly-attended inauguration of Donald Trump (as well as other data provided by crowd scientists), White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared that Trump had the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period." When Meet the Press's Chuck Todd asked Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway why Spicer would "utter a provable falsehood," Conway dismissed Todd and said that Spicer was merely providing "alternative facts."

This little story would be all fine and hilarious, except that "alternative facts" seem to be winning the day. During the Obama administration, we had conspiracy theorists convinced that Obama was a "secret Muslim" (whatever that means) who was born in Kenya, intent on taking our guns and forcing Sharia Law on America. During the Bush years, Stephen Colbert had to invent a new word -- "truthiness" -- to describe the phenomenon of "feeling" the truth rather than relying on facts.

If our newest incarnation of the battle for reality is frustrating to you, then you have a pretty good idea of how atheists feel most of the time.

It's easy to make fun of Kellyane Conway's phrase "alternative facts," but it happens to have essentially the same definition as the word "supernatural," the idea that there can be something beyond nature itself: an alternative to the real world. As Chuck Todd said, "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods." Similarly, super-nature is not nature; it, too, is a another apologetic name for a falsehood.

The supernatural is what we are expected to believe in when the actual facts are stubbornly not available. There is no evidence for God, but he is apparently beyond evidence. He is beyond nature, beyond science, beyond our comprehension. He is not accessible in the same way facts are. We are simply supposed to "feel" God, to "know deep down in our hearts" that he exists. We are meant to have "faith" in him, to go against all reason, logic, and common sense and "just believe."

Trump wants desperately to believe that he had a large crowd at his inauguration. He needs to believe it, similar to many theists. ("I want to believe," as Mulder says.) "Trump is a very popular president" is part of the grand story he is telling himself, the false universe he has created. Because his ego is so large and delicate, he is attempting to force this false narrative and alternate universe onto all of us. He needs us to believe as well. Trump claims that any news (including polls) contrary to his personal belief is "fake news." He tweets out what he wants us to think the truth is, attempting to contradict and circumvent reality itself. To erase it and replace it.

If you are curious what the successful end result of such an aggressive reality-altering strategy is, you could read Nineteen Eighty-Four, I suppose, but that is just a book. For an actual example, just look around you. Religion has already created a functioning alternative reality, often having used (or still using) the harsh methods described by George Orwell in his novel. After these methods are successful, believers -- now feeling that they are only under the influence of their own decisions -- are happy to evangelize so that the false reality becomes self-replicating. Belief in the supernatural becomes so widespread and part of the texture that it becomes "normalized."

But it isn't normal. Nonsense is still nonsense, even if the majority believes in it. We all know Trump is speaking nonsense when he claims that millions of people voted illegally. We wouldn't dare swallow such unfounded statements. Yet we can easily swallow the even more nonsensical claim that humans have inherited this thing called "sin" that can only be removed by believing that a god-man died and came back to life three days later and that we can all go live with him in the sky (or an alternate dimension), in a paradisal afterlife. If we're taking bets on which of the above could be proven first, I'd bet on Trump's claim.

Belief in the religiously supernatural is one of the few delusions humans can have and not be called insane. Even many secular people, who don't "believe" any of this, will accept it as normal human behavior. Many simply prefer not to think about religion at all, even though it affects their everyday lives in profound ways, just as many citizens prefer not to think about politics.

So I do try to think about it, about how weird it is that people are functioning as if invisible creatures are all around us, about how abnormal it is that there's a church everywhere I look in my town, established to promote and sustain these peculiar anti-factual traditions, people singing songs and raising hands to something that -- by all objective appearances -- is not there.

I know what it's like to live in a fake reality, because I lived in one most of my life. Like most people, I was handed my deeply-held beliefs at birth, and it took me over thirty years to claw my way out of the made-up world of gods, demons, ghosts, spirits, and angels. After I escaped, I realized that I hadn't been just living in a pretend world; I was living in someone else's pretend world. At least Donald Trump gets to live in a land of his own make-believe. The fantasy world I lived in was created thousands of years ago by ancient religious cultures, shaped and refined by time and place, saving itself from extinction over and over through adaptation and aggression. This evolving survival machine called "God" found a place for me and tried its best to make me comfortable so that I would never leave it. I nearly never did.

Even after struggle, I didn't really escape religion entirely. No one does. I still have to play by its rules, still have to survive within the structures religious people have created. As the saying goes, it's their world; I'm just living in it. For a harmless example, I am expected to behave as if it is perfectly normal when someone closes their eyes and says they are about to speak to the creator of the universe, when of course no such thing is really happening. I am expected to behave this way, in part, out of politeness and respect. For a more serious example, we all have to deal with those who hate, discriminate, destroy our environment, deny science, misunderstand reproduction, and all the other garbage we have to deal with from the worst segment of religious people, all because of something they "believe," eternal "truths" they "know," based on knowledge that is about as real as the alternative fact that Donald Trump has been on the cover of Time magazine more than anyone else.

Because of Trump (and those who promote and believe his false narratives), we are currently involved in a fight for reality itself. It's pretty serious, and the consequences if we lose the fight are severe. So will we be able to live based on observable facts, or will we give in to a fiction created by the state? Will two plus two equal four, or will it -- as I'm hearing it from a lot of people now, big league -- equal five?

I don't know, but I can't say I'm hopeful. In the meantime, atheists are already used to this kind of gaslighting. Atheists say (often rather quietly) that God doesn't exist, and a majority of the country responds (sometimes lovingly, sometimes not) with "What if you're wrong?" or "You're just thinking about God in the wrong way" and makes every attempt to call us the crazy ones devoid of morality: you know, the ones who don't believe in the invisible guy whose idea of social order was murdering our neighbors with rocks.

If it weren't such a painful experience to be subjected to yet another round of post-factual politics and Orwellian absurdity under Donald Trump (the worst case I've seen in my lifetime), I might even say it's refreshing that someone else gets to experience what a forced alternate reality feels for a change.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Donald Trump and Christianity

Do you know what it tells me about yourself if you say you are a Christian? Next to nothing.

It doesn't tell me anything about your morality or about your politics, and it doesn't even tell me what the word Christian means to you.

Before the election of Donald Trump, Christians were desperate to convince other Christians of who Jesus would vote for and what the proper "Christian" decision would be. Many of the articles one found online were by the Christian Left explaining how the words of Donald Trump do not line up with the words of Jesus. Meanwhile, the Christian Right did what they always did, which was say the word abortion endlessly and drape dead fetuses around their opponent's neck.

The Christian Right certainly had their work cut out for them this time. Most Christians like to think of themselves as nice people, and Trump decidedly was not a nice person. In fact, Trump was a shit person, barely a person at all.

Of course, Republican politicians are often not-very-nice people, but they are better at faking it and codifying their hatred than Trump was. Mitt Romney could have been your friendly next-door neighbor when saying things like (actual quote), "Call me old fashioned, but I don't support gay marriage" Aw, shucks.

Donald Trump, however, as many have pointed out, was the Frankenstein's monster that the Republican party created. He was their pure id, and the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and the rest of the garbage that modern Republicans have always stood for was there for everyone to see: unfiltered, every night, using the most vile vocabulary and imagery we've ever witnessed publicly from someone running for the highest office in the land. "Aw, man, now everyone knows what we really look like underneath these smiling game show host masks," one could almost hear the Republican leaders lament.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Alabama Science

The Alabama State Board of Education has recently written inserts for science textbooks that cover evolution. I have provided the text below (italics), in full, and have also spelled out the subtext for you.

The word “theory” has many meanings. Theories are defined as systematically organized knowledge, abstract reasoning, a speculative idea or plan, or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.

Subtext: Scientific theories may change, but God never changes.

Many scientific theories have been developed over time. The value of scientific work is not only the development of theories but also what is learned from the development process. The Alabama Course of Study: Science includes many theories and studies of scientists’ work. The work of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few, has provided a basis of our knowledge of the world today.

Subtext: It is wonderful that God provides us with scientists to understand his creation better, even if they don't always get it right. God, however, will always be right.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory that is included in this textbook. It is controversial because it states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things.

Subtext: We recognize that evolution explains a lot of things that we previously thought God did, and we're not comfortable with this.

Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed.

Subtext: Rather than reading about evolution ourselves, we got other religious people to explain their understanding of it to us.

Because of its importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories. They should learn to make distinctions between the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.

Subtext: Because studying evolution might make students not believe in God, we want them to distrust science. Any time science cannot quickly and simply answer a complicated question, we want our students to be brave enough to suggest "Maybe God did it?" We want student to feel that doing so is a tough intellectual endeavor fought against mammoth persecution.

There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life. With the explosion of new scientific knowledge in biochemical and molecular biology and exciting new fossil discoveries, Alabama students may be among those who use their understanding and skills to contribute to knowledge and to answer many unanswered questions. Instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Subtext: We can't prove that God exists, but we hope that our future scientists will look for God in everything they study. If they look hard enough and believe hard enough, they will find him. In the meantime, never lose your faith that he exists!

Monday, December 8, 2014

"How To Suck At Your Religion": A Lengthy Rebuttal

The Oatmeal is a web comic that, a couple of years ago, did a piece called "How To Suck at Your Religion." It bugs me. It may seem late to be bringing it up now, but it still pops up in my Facebook feed and other places and -- according to his website -- is one of The Oatmeal's most popular comics, so I need to handle it.

Just so you know, I'm mostly indifferent about The Oatmeal in general. I'm annoyed more by its fans than it itself, since they gush about it a bit more than it deserves. I admit that it deserves something, since it's mostly okay and sometimes even funny or clever. However, even the harmless comics he does -- like ones about grammar (correct use of the word literally or how to use a semicolon) -- seem to only make those laugh who already know these things. I doubt that it actually educates those who don't.

This "How To Suck at Your Religion" comic is similar. It seems to be written to make atheists (or perhaps liberal believers) laugh and share it on their social media walls. It's (probably) not going to teach anyone to not suck at their religion.

There have been a handful of Christian rebuttals written about this comic. These rebuttals contain a mix of valid points (some of which are probably mirrored by me) and they also have stupid points that rise as a result of their religious beliefs (sorry, guys). So one reason I'm writing this is because I haven't seen too many rebuttals from atheists.

Also, mine is incredibly long, and things that take a long time to read is what internet users crave the most.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Great Pumpkin

A Charlie Brown Christmas had Linus reading from the nativity story in order to combat the commercialism of the Christmas holiday. Charles M. Schulz's Christianity was right there on millions of television screens, a quiet and holy and beautiful answer to Charlie Brown's (our our) holiday depression. It was and is a wonderful thing.

But anyone who has read Schulz's comics knows that he can be satirical and even brutal about religion, especially his own. (I highly recommend his comics created for the Christian magazine Youth, a criticism of religion from within its own walls.) The most famous example of this satire is his use of the Great Pumpkin, a holiday deity only believed in by Linus.

One day I'd like to write about every appearance of the Great Pumpkin in the entire run of the comics, but for now the TV special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown will do.

At the beginning of the special, Linus demonstrates his belief in animism when he is horrified that Lucy has stabbed a pumpkin to death and removed its guts in order to make a jack-o-lantern. ("You didn't tell me you were gonna kill it!") Linus's horror is further explained when we later find out about his belief in the Great Pumpkin, Lucy's now-dead pumpkin being -- presumably -- one of its earthly avatars.


Linus, of course, is already at this point in Peanuts history (this is 1966) known by fans as the religious scholar among the Peanuts characters. His knowledge of the Bible, his overall intelligence, and his generally kind nature makes him one of the more positive characters. But he also clings to a security blanket and sucks his thumb. And, it turns out, he is clueless enough to have somehow conflated Halloween and Christmas, pumpkins and Santa Claus.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Literally!

The Three Camps

We've all heard the question of whether or not the Bible should be taken "literally." The answer seems to be "yes" if you are (a) a fundamentalist who believes everything the Bible says no matter what reality it clashes with or (b) an atheist.

The group that wants to say "no" or "not always" are the more moderate believers of the Bible (or liberal believers or mainstream believers or whatever label you prefer), those who recognize that the Bible often says things that do not jive with reality and therefore must be metaphorical in nature. In fact, some of these moderate believers -- because fundamentalist and atheists both tend to read the Bible literally -- declare that atheists are "no better than" fundamentalists for failing to understand the nuances of this special book.

What fundamentalists and atheists have in common is the attempt to honestly face the reality of their world, but the reality of an atheist is the actual world, while the reality of a fundamentalist is what is written in an old book.

So atheists can recognize that the universe is billions of years old, for example: a fact that is proven in the real world with overwhelming evidence. Atheists can then read the literal words of the Bible -- which says that the earth and everything on it was created by a god in six days -- and know that this book is an artifact from a pre-scientific age when then-unanswerable questions were addressed with supernatural stories--which no one faults the ancient writers for writing.

Fundamentalists read in the Bible that the earth was created in six days and believe it, on "faith." When confronted with the fact that this simply isn't true by people who observe the real world, fundamentalists defer to their "reality" (the Bible) and deny that the actual reality exists.

You can, I hope, see the difference between these two camps.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter 12

What if the Bible, instead of starting with the first eleven chapters of Genesis, started with Chapter 12?

This isn't as unusual of a question as it might seem. The first eleven chapters are almost purely "mythological," while the rest of Genesis is "historical." This means that the first eleven are interesting to humanity in a universal way, while the rest of the book (and most of the rest of the "Old Testament") simply isn't. Beginning the book with Chapter 12 would start the book more properly, without misleading us into thinking it's about something that it isn't, and it would help eliminate many of the needless "controversies" surrounding education, science, and the way we think about and live our lives.

As a reminder of what occurs in the first eleven chapters, Genesis 1 gives us the famous six day creation story. Chapters 2-3 gives us an almost completely different creation story involving Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit. Chapter 4 is Cain killing Abel and other murder stories. Chapter 5 (not mythological) is the lineage of Adam to Noah and his sons. Chapters 6-9 is Noah's ark and the re-boot of humanity after the flood. Chapter 10 (also not mythological) is the lineage of Noah's sons. Chapter 11 is the Tower of Babel and the scattering of people and languages, with some additional non-mythological lineage thrown in at the end of the chapter.

These scant chapters of Genesis (only 8 1/2 if you take out the lineages) are some of the main things we remember and care about when we think of not only this first book but of the entire Bible. In these chapters, we learn where the world and humanity come from (two versions: take your pick, or force-merge if you like), where sin and evil and death come from, the notion that the planet -- at one point in its history -- became so wicked that it had to be destroyed by water and begun anew, where rainbows come from, where language comes from, where races come from, and more.

Unfortunately, the book of Genesis -- in a rush to get to what it really wants to talk about (which I'll explain soon) -- rushes through all of these large ideas haphazardly, confusingly, wrongly, ignorantly, immorally, and every other negative "ly" you wish you add. So now we live with the God-given "facts" that the universe (which apparently only reaches to the visible sky) takes a week to make and is only a few thousand years old, evil and death come from a magic fruit that we ate, "sin" is something we're born with and inherit, women come from a man's rib, man is the ruler of woman and animals, a sampling of every species in the world once fit on a boat and were saved from a world flood, different languages are punishment for humanity working together to make a great city and building, and so on.

We're stuck with these idiotic ideas, even after the Age of Enlightenment, even after Darwin, even after we landed on the moon, even in the 21st century where the Bible is proven false while science fiction novels become truer every year. If these unnecessary eleven chapters were gone, we may not have some of these stupid problems and misguided notions--or at least not to such a degree.