The Roman Atheist

“Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveler,
Lest even while dead I seem talkative to you.”

– Ancient Roman Tombstone (roughly 2000 years old)

The Roman Gods are no more, we’ve replaced them with other religions. Makes you wonder what kind of religious relics will remain, how modern day atheists will be perceived and the kind of religions that would be around 2000 years from now.

Most religious people fail to see that religion, the God(s) they worship are but man made constructs and are at the whim and mercy of what is considered fashionable or sensible (if only!) during a particular period in human history. What is clear though is that there have been those enlightened enough to reject superstition, pointless ritual and mysticism during every period of the evolution of human civilization, often having to bear the difficult task of swimming against an overwhelming tide. We salute them.

 

Found this in a rather enlightening book on the (historical not biblical) Paul and the early history of the Christian church. It’s on page 109 if anyone is interested. http://www.amazon.com/Corinthian-Body-Professor-Dale-Martin/dp/0300081723

A Judicious Hitchslap!

Christopher Hitchens - A judicious Hitchslap

A Judicious Hitchslap

Randy Newman – God’s Song

Randy Newman’s “God’s Song”. Tongue in cheek, satirical and a whole lot of fun.

 

Rhetoric

Religion is institutionalized superstition. Quite simple really. – PravNJ

What are the forms of ritualized behaviour amongst faith systems and why do we hold on to them? asks Pascal Boyer

What are the strange and bizarre forms of ritualized behaviour that humans prescribe to, what are the similarities between the faith systems of the world and why do we hold on to them? Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has extensively researched these questions and presents his findings in this enlightening lecture. A  full treatment of the material discussed can be found in his most recent book – Religion Explained.

Politics Power and Buddhism On The Eve Of The Buddha Jayanthi 2011

Sri Lankan hypocrisy at it’s best – A “gossip” site celebrates the Buddha Jayanthi (in style)

Buddha Jayanthi, Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi call it whatever you want according to the establishment it has been 2600 years since Buddha achieved his ultimate goal. We are the kind of people that gives its politicians and leaders a lot of latitude. Thus we should not be surprised and shocked to witness much silliness – and this is the only way to describe what has transpired- leading up to the Buddha Jayanthi.

Mr Champika Ranawaka and Co. shaved their heads and started meditating. “Observing” the Buddha Jayanthi was what the media called it. I see it as a farcical display of arrogance and inanity on their part. There are no half measures when it comes to “observing” Buddhist principles and teaching, you go all the way or you don’t. Buddhism demands that you sever all attachments and lead a life of ascetic contemplation and meditation. This display of pious “observance” is thus nothing but a farce.

This is nothing but a PR move to lend a veil of respectability to a dangerous and flawed ideology and the sheep-like masses of this country will give these people the respect they so desperately yearn. It really is a pathetic state of affairs. Spewing hatred and acting like cavemen 6 days a week and then observing sil on the last day does not make you a Buddhist.

Former monk and ex-speaker of the house Mr Lokubandara declared today that…ah well see for yourself.  Boggles the mind doesn’t it?  the news has rendered me speechless.

Ah the UNP. Considered by many a “liberal” in this country to be a ration… ah screw it. You see what we have to work with here?

Vesak has morphed into quite a strange event during recent times (more so this year than the recent past). While the monks and the politicians claim that the theme for this year is “the observance of the principles of Buddhism”. They claim that we should create an atmosphere of reverence however the atmosphere on the streets is anything but. The commercialization of Vesak is in full swing. Street vendors will sell you a picture of the Buddha and a Buddhist flag (and throw in a tacky mask from the scream movie series) for a few bucks. Where oh where is the pious mob that protested against the Buddha bikinis and Akon? So commercialization, capitalist consumption and greed is fine while free expression (and that by ignorant foreigners) is a tantamount to “blasphemy”?  They seem to be busy banning the consumption of meat and alcohol in a country containing people of many faiths who differ in opinion regarding how best to spend a long holiday weekend. If you are a Buddhist and want to observe the teachings please go ahead. Don’t eat any meat and stay the hell away from bars and liquor stores but don’t force your bullshit down my throat. In some sense it is a pathetic development that the government has to step in every Vesak to ban the consumption of meat and alcohol in this so called pious land of the Buddha. They seem to have little or no confidence in the Buddhist population when it comes to observing the teachings of the Buddha during the holiest period of their religion.

I claim that this silliness is a direct result of our tolerance of the actions of our politicians and the powers that be. Perhaps you have tolerated these actions out of apathy and indifference or perhaps out of fear but it is high time that we raised our voices against this injustice and cruelty.

I claim that the powers that be are in bed with an asinine evil and diabolical theocracy. Evil not in a biblical sense but a kind of evil that forces its doctrine on the rest of the populace who may not want anything to do with it and belong to a silent minority. It is the stifling of our liberties (what little we have) that annoys me the most while the politicians and monks descend into farcical silliness more and more. Who says we have to do what the majority decrees us to do? Just ask Henry David Thoreau. If you like me feel that this has gone far too far and things are really getting quite silly in Sri Lanka, PLEASE for God’s sake SPEAK UP and SAY SO.

On an unrelated note: Made a comment here. Quite an interesting discussion. 

Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design – Alive and well in Sri Lanka?

Creationism is the belief that the universe and hence life on earth was created by some sort of supreme being. Seems harmless enough right? Christians, Muslims and Jews have maintained this belief for centuries and it is their central explanation and world-view as to why things are the way they are, all their other beliefs are derivative of this central belief. “God created everything we see around us and he has a plan for all of us…”  this pretty much sums up all three of the so called “great monotheistic” religions.

The creation myths of these religions are documented in their respective holy texts and thus is one of the main sources cited by priests and believers. All three versions of the creation myth are quite similar and basically talk about Adam and Eve and the fall from grace.

Mistranslations and confusion aside believing in  the Abrahamic creation myth will lead you to some alarming conclusions like:

(a) The “world” and everything in it (the universe ?) was created in 7 days

(b) The world as we know it is about 6000 years old

(c) Snakes can communicate with humans

(d) Men and women don’t have the same number of ribs… etc

You see my point. The problem with the myth is that (aside from being written thousands of years ago by some contemporary scribe who translated into the written word, a series myths carried down through many generations by word of mouth), well its quite vague. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The “mainstream” view – at least amongst Christians and Catholics was that these  myths are merely metaphorical and should not be interpreted as being a literal account of creation (This position has always been called the “moderate” position, however Richard Dawkins provides an excellent analysis of this position and points out that religion as practiced by the masses indeed does not operate this way).

Serious scientists have always maintained that these are nothing more than creation myths, seen in many cultures around the world from the ancient African tribes to the Polynesians, and thus the Abrhamic myth is nothing “special” and is just another creation myth. The influence of the Abrahamic religions (at least on the educated general public) has been falling over the years (see the British social attitudes survey of 2007)

Thus we get a spectrum of beliefs amongst the religious with regard to how the universe came to be, from the fundamentalist position to the so called “moderate position”.

Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection which he claimed to be an explanation of the empirically determinable fact of evolution (Gregor Mendel established the fact that species evolve over time by careful observation of several generations of fast growing varieties of pea plants) was undoubtedly the final nail on the coffin of the Abrahmic creation myths. Physics and Astronomy had rendered the creation myths obsolete several centuries ago but when life itself (often thought to be mysterious and possessing some ethereal quality) came under the scrutiny of science and could henceforth be explained to some degree by a set of laws, the educated public were made fully aware that the Abrahmic myths were nothing but a feeble (but albeit important in a historical context) account of how the universe came to be and that these myths were constructed based on many superstitious claims and assumptions.

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (notably in the United States) were somewhat threatened by these enlightened claims made by men of science and learning and sought to disrupt the advancement of scientific inquiry into domains traditionally believed to be the domains in which religion was considered to be the supreme authority. Thus the modern “creationist” movement and the “anti-evolutionist” (yes, they somehow seem to deny that evolution, an observable phenomenon  happens at all!) was born. The movement took off in the 1920’s  in – yes you guessed it – the American midwest.

Modern day creationist have attempted to gain some sort of credibility by doing three things:

(a) Engaging serious scientists/intellectuals in public debates and forums

(b) Trying to sound more “scientific” by proposing a “theory” called Intelligent Design

(c) Influencing government policy (especially with regard to policies on education)

As Richard Dawkins points out in the Devil’s Chaplain :

What they [creationists] seek is the oxygen of respectability, [we] give them this oxygen by the mere act of engaging with them at all.   Creationists don’t mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public.

The claims of “young earth creationists” (they interpret the book of Genesis quite literally and believe that the earth is 6000 years old) have been met and challenged by many great scientists and public intellectuals over the years and I won’t go into detail with regard to “the debate” between creationists claims and science. What concerns me is that there have been a number of attempts to bring this kind of pseudoscience to Sri Lanka. The Jehovahs Witness Church (watchtower.org) and the Assembly Of God church in Sri Lanka have been instrumental in spreading creationist nonsense by way of pamphlets, magazines and public events for over a decade now.

Amidst a rapidly declining congregation the Methodist Church (which I erroneously considered to be a little more enlightened than its modern counterparts) has now joined the chorus.

Dr Lalith Mendis (MD) has been visiting schools around Colombo on the pretext of talking about “sexuality and the modern teenager” and has been lecturing students on creationism and intelligent design. He makes all the standard claims made by fundamentalist evangelical Christians (evolution is false – Darwin was wrong, dinosaurs coexisted with humans, homosexuality is a sin etc ).

How does a professional who practices and teaches medicine (yes shocking) reconcile the infantile claims of the creationists and his scientific education? perhaps the late Stephen J. Gould was wrong. Science and religion may not be “non overlapping magisteria”  or perhaps this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance? One could also point out that the inherent weakness in the local education system with regard to teaching science (memorizing facts as opposed to thinking critically) might possibly be to blame. Perhaps it is a result of all of these factors, but my bet is that the education system had a large role to play. A colleague of mind had the opportunity to speak to Dr Mendis and when his creationist claims were challenged by my colleague Dr Mendis resorted to a the classic albeit base and disgusting tactic of reductio ad ridiculum (“are you a medical professional? what authority do you have?”). It may seem counter intuitive but having contradictory viewpoints is not that uncommon amongst professionals and scientists (the vast majority however do not believe in creationism or God for that matter). For example, Bill Lear Jr. (son of Bill Lear – the inventor of the Lear jet ) maintained that the US government researched on “alien technology” until his death and spoke of “anti gravity drives” and the like despite being a pioneer test pilot for the US Air Force. John Polkinghorne – the famous quantum physicist is also a priest, and we all know that Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy!

The lesson to take away from all of this is that the era of engaging creationists is over and done with. When a serious scientist/person engages a creationist he lends undue credibility to a belief system that died (for all practical purposes) many centuries ago. As Christopher Hitchens eloquently puts it:

I am generally tolerant, I love to take part in arguments and teach  but in this case there is no argument – creationism vs evolution, it [the debate] is OVER

I leave you with some Mark Twain and a motivational poster I just cooked up:

Further Reading

1.  With regard to the mistranslations of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek , Latin, English and related questions I refer you to an excellent and thoroughly researched book called “The Uncensored Bible” – however the authors are quite apologetic

2. The creationist museum – makes the extraordinary claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humans – worth a visit!

3. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free – an excellent book examining how the most powerful nation in the world  is being hijacked by crackpots and crazies, deals with creationism and has an interesting take on how so called “experts” in pseudo scientific fields (astrologers,  healers  etc)  come to gain instant  notoriety and how the checks and balances that kept these individuals in check have eroded over time. Quite relevant in the Sri Lankan context. In the same vein perhaps someone could analyze “Idiot Sr Lanka” ?

4. The First Three Minutes by Nobel Laureate Professor Steven Weinberg – One of the chief architects of the successful electroweak theory, Professor Weinberg turns his attention to examine the early big bang universe.  While much has changed since the 1970s (the first appearance of the book) this remains a modern classic and a good starting point if you’re interested in learning more about the current theories on the origin and evolution of the universe. The book starts off with a Norse creation myth and then quickly moves onto examine how far we’ve come since the ancients in establishing how the universe came to be. This book gave me a much more thorough appreciation of the laws of thermodynamics and how they relate to cosmology than all the textbooks on thermodynamics I read during my first year!