Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

August 9, 2010


Filed under: Religion,Social — cec @ 11:19 am

My local paper kindly reminds me that tomorrow’s moon rise begins the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and that the associated fasting and prayers begin on Wednesday.

Recently, I was talking to my neighbor, the very kind, interesting and extremely conservative Glenn Beck viewer. While we were talking, he brought up Muslims and his fear that they were trying to take over the country (apparently, religious appropriation of a country is only okay if it’s Christian – but that’s another story). According to my neighbor, no religious Muslim could ever possibly be up to any good. I don’t explicitly recall him calling Islam a false religion, but he very much believed that you couldn’t trust “them,” that they were all radicalized and out to destroy “our” way of life.

At the time, I countered by noting that while in graduate school, I knew several Muslims that were all very good people, moreover, I would be surprised if any of them have converted to a fundamentalist form of Islam. My advisor was a (I believe non-practising) Muslim. One of the best and kindest professors in my department was a practising Muslim – on his office wall, he had a discrete prayer calendar reminding him of the appropriate times to pray. Moreover, there were several Muslim graduate students in my research group, including a gentleman named Hakan.

Hakan was a great guy (presumably he still is, I just haven’t seen him in several years). At the time, K and I lived in a town house a couple of miles from my office, in a part of the city that was growing. Because of the population growth, the city decided to put in a new water pumping station just down the street. Unfortunately, we had plastic piping in and leading up to the town house. When they first started testing the new station, a pipe burst in the front yard. We had a plumber come out, dig it up and fix it. Shortly thereafter, a new spot went and I did the digging and repairing myself. Finally, after the third time, I had enough. I was going to (hand!) dig a trench between the water meter and the house and put in copper piping.

Well, I mention this to my officemates, and Hakan volunteers to help dig the ditch. He came out on Saturday morning and we spent several hours in the sun, digging the trench and tunneling under the sidewalk. After a couple of hours, I asked him if he wanted some lunch or something to drink. He said that he couldn’t – it was Ramadan and therefore, forbidden. I was horrified that I had him out in the sun, digging a ditch while he couldn’t eat or drink. It wasn’t the middle of summer, but I recall it being hot enough that I was worried about his health. Regardless,  he persevered and we got the copper piping installed. Thinking back on it, my understanding is that a part of Ramadan is service and in taking his beliefs more seriously than many people I know, he was both abiding by the fasting requirements of Ramadan and helping his officemate, even if it was physically taxing.

I do understand why people would be concerned about fundamentalism in Islam, I’m concerned about it too. But I’m also concerned about fundamentalism in Christianity and most other religions for that matter. But those who think that all Muslims are radical or that all of Islam is somehow tainted by the radicals, need to spend some time with Hakan or any of the other Muslims that have positively affected by life.

November 11, 2009

Mr. Deity

Filed under: Funny,Religion — cec @ 9:18 pm

For all of your theological questions, the deity is now on YouTube.  Two of my favorite questions are the problem of evil and how do you explain the trinity.  Respectively answered in the “Mr. Deity and the Evil” and “Mr. Deity and the Identity Crisis,” below:


June 13, 2008

Louisiana, setting the standard in science education . . .

Filed under: Personal,Religion,Social — cec @ 8:58 am

It’s things like this that embarrass me when I tell someone I’m from Louisiana.  The Louisiana House has voted overwhelmingly to pass the Louisiana Science Education Act which allows science teachers to use supplemental materials when teaching controversial subjects.  For those who haven’t been there, in Louisiana, controversial subjects include: evolution, global warming, Keplerian astronomy and the round earth theory.  Okay, I made the last one up – at least 85% of Louisiana households do believe that the earth is round.

Supporters of the bill say that it will promote critical thinking in science classrooms.  Well, hey, who couldn’t be against critical thinking?  Well, since the bill is supported by creationist Discovery Institute, I guess me.  But at least I’m in good company:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the bill would promote teaching creationism in public schools and said some teachers might use supplemental materials produced by fundamentalist Christian organizations.

“It’s time for Louisiana to step into the 21st century and stop trying to teach religion in public schools,” Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Laws like this are an embarrassment.”

In essence, the bill allows science teachers to inflict their own opinions and beliefs on to students instead of teaching actual science.

Maybe I’ll start claiming to be from a more respectable state, like Mississippi. :-/

April 12, 2008

The problem of evil

Filed under: Personal,Religion — cec @ 9:18 pm

One advantage of being in IT is that you often at least hear of cool things before other people do. You may or may not choose to adopt them, but at least you’ve got a choice. Thanks to Mr. Icon, I got an early gmail account, Great, unfortunately, I don’t have an uncommon name. Starting about a year ago, I began receiving email for a moderately important newsman. Last week, for a pastor in Michigan. In both cases, people apparently know the person has a gmail account, but they can’t remember the permutation of the person’s name. I always let the sender know that they’ve got the wrong person, but now I’m starting to think that either: a) I need to create a disambiguation auto-response that goes out if I’ve never seen your email address before; or b) we should just give up and form our own knockoff of the Village People. We’ve got an engineer, a newsman and a minister. Now we just need a fireman and a cowboy. Any volunteers?

So far, the email to the pastor is from just one person. A woman, about my age who seems to work at the church. Even though I’ve let her know that she’s got the wrong person, I’m still getting emails from her. They aren’t personal, they seem to be generic inspirational messages, perhaps sent out one email at a time to a distribution list. The one I received Friday took me back to junior high church youth groups with it’s pop religious sentiment and included the following story:

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed.

As the barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation.

They talked about so many things and various subjects.

When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the barber said:

“I don’t believe that God exists.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the customer.

“Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn’t exist. Well me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children?

If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can’t imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things.”

The customer thought for a moment, but didn’t respond because he didn’t want to start an argument.

The barber finished his job and the customer left the shop.

Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard.

He looked dirty and unkept. The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the barber:

“You know what? Barbers do not exist.”

“How can you say that?” asked the surprised barber. “I am here, and I am a barber. And I just worked on you!”

“No!” the customer exclaimed. “Barbers don’t exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man outside.”

“Ah, but barbers DO exist! That’s what happens when people do not come to me.”

“Exactly!” affirmed the customer. “That’s the point! God, too, DOES exist! That’s what happens when people do not go to Him and don’t look to Him for help.

That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in the world.”

Now, I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but this is just silly. It’s the kind of argument that you would fool a 5 year old with. Normally, I would just ignore it, but it hits a bit of a nerve for me. The first part is the problem of evil, inelegantly expressed.

The problem of evil has interested me for about 20 years now. In fact, it has interested me since before I even knew what it was called. The typical formulation is how can an all knowing, all powerful and all good god allow evil to exist in the world (or more harshly, how could evil exist without having been created by god)? The fact that there is evil is proof that either god does not exist or that he is not all knowing, all powerful and all good – which essentially amounts to non-existence. There are several standard answers to the problem of evil, none of which are particularly convincing.

One answer is to suggest that the evil we perceive is not really evil at all, but is in fact a good that we can not perceive. This strikes me as a giant cop-out. It asks us to deny the evidence of our own minds as to the evil of some acts. Moreover, a plain reading of the Book of Job suggests that god did allow the devil to torment Job as a test. Job’s family and children were killed for no other reason than to see if Job would be true to god. That sounds more like some sort of bad, co-dependent relationship than a good deed in disguise.

The second answer is to suggest that a world without evil is impossible, even for an omnipotent god. This is also a cop-out in that it sets limits on the power of a being defined by his omnipotence.

Another answer was put forth by the Jesuits: evil is exists because of a) original sin; and b) free will. This is clever and at least has the advantage of not trying to suggest that there is no evil. There are some problems. Original sin is the sin committed by the first man and woman and pass on to all of their descendants. This bothers me in part because Adam and Eve are clearly allegorical and were not actual people. So in essence, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and falling from grace is a metaphor for giving up the innocence of being an unthinking animal and becoming consciously aware of the world, our place in it and how we have a choice over our behaviors. As an allegory, it’s a good one. But it also means that original sin was not the sin of Adam and Eve as passed on to their descendants, but that original sin is a term given to the basic nature of mankind. As such, you can easily ask why did god create mankind with a sinful nature. The answer to that is typically free will. But that’s really no answer at all. Leave aside that I don’t think that free will can be proved to exist (another topic for another time), giving free will to a creature with a sinful nature ensures evil. Free will to a creature without a sinful nature would not guarantee evil.

I could go on a lot more here, but suffice to say that the problem of evil is a rather interesting theological and philosophical question, so seeing it expressed in the first half of the email above interested me. And then I read the second half which is flat out demeaning to the brain god (or evolution) gave people. In particular:

First, christians should be offended by the statement that there is pain and suffering in the world because people don’t go to god and look to him for help. There is an implication, but not a direct statement, that christians do not have pain and suffering and that if you went to god, nothing evil would happen to you. This is dangerously close to the doctrine of prosperity, which would be considered a heresy if christians concerned themselves with such things any more. Nowhere in the bible does it say that god materially helps people who believe in him. He may help them with acceptance, but then I suspect that belief in anything helps with acceptance so that’s not proof of god’s existance.

Second, the problem of evil is a theological problem because the postulated god is: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) all good, and d) the creator of everything. That evil exists is a direct challenge to the union of these attributes. In contrast, the author does not postulate the same attributes in her barber. I suppose you could do that. I suppose you could say that barbers are: a) all knowing, b) all powerful, c) entirely anal retentive when it comes to hair, and d) response for the grooming of creation. That being the case, an unkempt hippy (like myself?) would be a challenge to the existence of our super barber. So the author’s analogies are inexact and when corrected to allow for an omnipotent, anal-retentive barber, really don’t seem to help the god argument that much.

Finally, the author of our story is making an argument by analogy which is bad logic. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some analogies. I tend to think in analogy. But it’s a bad practice to argue from analogy. In essence, the argument boils down to: you say that object A with attributes A1..An does not exist because of the evidence of X. But what if we said that object B with attributes B1..Bn does not exist because of the evidence of Y. We can see that object B exists. We can’t see object A, but because B exists, then A must exist. Nope. Logic doesn’t work that way.

It’s this kind of fuzzy thinking that used to drive me crazy when I was in those junior high church groups. I guess it still drives me a bit crazy or I wouldn’t have just spilled so many electrons over it. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone involved in religion is a muddled thinker. In fact, I know that is not the case. My one small request is that churches limit the sending of emails to those that can think logically. Probably too much to ask. Maybe I’ll just adjust my spam filters.

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