Speak Truth To Power

Question from Danielle:
I am about to partake a debate for our school. Right now, I am currently doing bunch of research but I feel like there’s more to know especially that I still have a lot of questions and even though I’ve already asked some people, I still couldn’t get it because most answers are just too surfaced and somehow shallow or biased.
Anyways, our debate is all about the current events in our country, Philippines. Right now we are facing issues about our government and how our new president is somehow violating human rights to the eyes of others especially to some religious groups headed by bishops and priests. Right now, both teams are on the verge of disrespecting both parties.

*CONSIDER THESE, our president’s administration; WAR ON DRUGS is actually doing great; its actually making a difference and sense, and somehow making the country better. If the WAR ON DRUGS is stopped, there are theories that everything will be back to what it was before, in a state of corruption and manipulation.

*WAR ON DRUGS- Operation capture drug syndicates, pushers, users.

Are the church’s criticism and warnings against our president beneficial for all? Should religion stay out of it?
And can you explain, religion and politics? Or what makes them different from each other that these two must not interfere.

Faith vs Politics/Science/Reason

Your response would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
I was in Manila last year for work, and I do know how much weight the voice of a high-up Catholic carries among the population. From the perspective of an irreligious person like me, just because an opinion is given by a religious person or organisation doesn’t make it wrong. Furthermore, in a country with freedom of speech religious figures should have the freedom to give their opinions on current events just like anyone else. In this case, if the Philippines’ war on drugs is leading the government to work outside the law, to the extent of assassinations and essentially murders, I hope that Catholic authority figures are not the only ones speaking out. Indeed it seems that the opposition to the violence has some numbers to it.

More generally, the issue between religion and politics is that when religions gain political power (either directly in a theocratic sense or through the election of zealous representatives) they almost invariably legislate in their own favour, at the expense of anyone who is not an adherent to the specific dogma of those in power. This was for instance demonstrated in the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, where an Islamic Republic was established and a strict form of law based on sharia was imposed on the entire population.

This is why many countries maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state. Laws cannot be made favouring one religion over another or religion in general over lack of religion. Relevant to your upcoming debate, religious organisations cannot endorse political candidates and still maintain their religious tax-exempt status. So while religious figures speaking out against the war on drugs is acceptable, if the same people were to call for Duterte himself to be ousted it would be a step too far in terms of church-state separation. Apparently calls like this have happened in the Philippines before, so I applaud the restraint of the Church after the departure of Marcos and Estrada.

Miracles for the Masses

Question from Daniel:
Hi. I wanted to know if there is any mass revelation/miracle in The Vedas (i.e Miracles that were performed in front of many people)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I was a Christian once but I was never a Hindu, and never discussed religion with my few Hindu friends in school. Right off the bat I invite any Hindus reading this to comment right away and set us straight.

From what I can gather after some brief research is that the Vedas are not written as a history or a narrative like most books of the Bible are. The four Vedas mostly consist of hymns to the various gods (most intended to be heard in song rather than read), descriptions of rituals, and discussion of philosophy. There are bits of history woven into it all concerning the people from whom the texts emerged, but if they were ever intended to be taken as literal accounts of major events, Hindus tend not to take that view nowadays.

Your question is often used to advance an argument for the truth of Judaism, sometimes known as the Sinai argument, which claims that the supposedly uniquely mass-spectated nature of the miracles in the Torah supports their veracity. Christians sometimes argue along the same lines based on the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to five hundred people.

I’ll leave it to followers of other religions to make their own claims of mass revelations, but the basic problem with all of these stories is the same: accounts of witnesses are not witnesses. Each of these stories is still just one account, with only one source to believe or disbelieve regarding the number of people present. Contrast it with a big event happening in the middle of a city today; tweets and Facebook posts from hundreds of sources or more can flood the web, arguing over details but collectively leaving no doubt that something major went down. An account is an account even if it contains emojis.

Quick Questions for a Project

Question from Mercadez:
Hello, I am doing this host-a-conversation project for my religions class. I was wondering if you would answer the following questions…
1. Why do you not believe in God(s)?
2. Who do you think created the world, specifically things science cannot explain?
3. What exactly do you believe in? Like, do you believe in karma?
4. Do you believe in an after-life?
Thank you in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
Search for some keywords and you’ll find plenty of material on each of these. For the benefit of your project, though, I’ll answer them all concisely in one place.

1. Because I stopped thinking about God seriously for over a decade. When I did come back to the subject my emotional attachment to the concept had faded and I was able to see clearly that the arguments and supposed evidence for the existence of a god are far from sufficient to justify believing in one. There’s a good chance that if I’d kept regularly going to church I might not have seen that.

2. We don’t know what science cannot explain, only what it hasn’t explained yet. I don’t know whether the world was created at all, so it’s premature to wonder who did so. Perhaps it has always existed in some form, like God is supposed to have done. Perhaps its emergence was quite spontaneous, as quantum mechanics are often observed to be. The options are far broader than the false dilemma of either God or something-just-like-God-but-not-God.

3. I do not believe in any guiding entity or energy in the universe, no gods, spirits or mystical energies or forces. Of course the universe has energy but it does not have a will of its own. I believe all kinds of things but they’re all quite plausible or workable in an entirely non-supernatural world, such as that empathy with people of all types will make for a better world, or that pineapple can in some cases improve a pizza.

4. I don’t believe that one’s identity can survive the death and subsequent rapid disintegration of the brain. After you die there is no you for anything to happen to, so nothing is experienced after death.

Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

Possible technical issue, content returns shortly…

Question from Patti:
I wondered how to cite your website? Hyperlinks don’t take me to your site! ­čÖü

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Some hyperlinks do work, I’m notified when people use them to come here. See Ask The AtheistS for an example: in my response there’s a hyperlink in the words “other site”.

If that one doesn’t work for you, you might have some kind of domain restriction at your end. If it does work, comment and point me to a link that isn’t working so I can help find out what’s up. Thanks very much.

Hollywood Hokum

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back with more questions and stuff particularly about the portrayal of the supernatural in the mainstream media, for example Hollywood ghost or demon movies like The Exorcist. Another thing that followed some of these are curses or strange phenomena surrounding them, like in the case of The Omen some of the cast during production died. and one guy supposedly crashed near a sign in the Netherlands that said Ommen 6,66. Upon further investigation that turned out to be an exaggerated claim although, he did crash in the area but not near the sign. also not surprisingly after movies like the exorcist came out more people reported demonic signs. it would seem that Hollywood would do everything in their power to make people believe this baloney. Nevertheless there is a large pseudo-acceptance of these things. Now recently some guy on The Thinking Atheist posted something about a sun miracle. i would appreciate it if you could help me debunk or explain these things.

Answer by SmartLX:
The supernatural is very, very common in Hollywood fiction. If it’s a movie where ghosts are real, or magic is taught in school, or demons are literally clawing to the surface from underground, then we accept it and view the rest of the movie in that context. IF ghosts were plainly real, we think to ourselves, how would these people behave? How would the world be different? Between our own imaginations and where the movie actually goes with the concept, we can arrive at a rough understanding of this hypothetical state of affairs, and ponder and discuss it for a long time afterwards. (For instance, at some point nearly everyone reading this has probably talked through the physics and practicality of a lightsaber while not watching a Star Wars movie.)

It’s a fun mental exercise to imagine alternative realities and contrast them with ours, and fiction helps us do this by inspiring concepts of alternative realities. If people believe these supernatural phenomena are real simply because they’ve seen them in a movie, then we consider them to have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, and generally encourage them to get it straight or get help. Stories surrounding movies, like the idea of The Omen being cursed, do tend to be exaggerated as you say, and skeptics have made a meal of that one in particular. Here’s one discussion. Hollywood publicists do nothing to stifle or correct the stories because they’re happy with anything that gets people talking about a movie, which means more ticket sales.

As for the “sun miracle” at F├ítima, I did a piece on that one a short time ago at your request, so I hope you got to read it.

Church and Community, City and Country

Question from Ghevi:
Hi, I’m 20 years old from a small town of Italy, so maybe the arguments that I will write here will be a little nonsense for someone that lives in a big city or in another country.
I don’t wanna argue by a “logical” position on God etc., as i think that is pretty obvious how religions were “made” by men reflecting values of a certain region. I don’t wanna say that religion wasn’t necessary either, for the development of art, geometry, architecture etc (I’m not educated on this, is just a “guess” based on what I learned in school).

So my question is about the future in an atheist reality, as I think new generations are rejecting religion. The fact is that celebrations like funerals, weddings etc. bring people together that normally are just on their own, my parents for example go to funerals of someone of my town even if they were not very connected, but as respect and for staying near the family that lost the person. Even on Sunday, going to church celebration is a way to see people you never see during the week. I have to admit the town feels very “alive” on Sunday, people then go to the bars, and it’s kinda nice.

So as you can see, I don’t argue about god, I think the celebration itself and what you say, repeat, read is just something very far away and disconnected from today’s problems (well, gospel celebration instead is funny I guess). I’m not saying that it could be a bad thing either, if we remove religion from society and create a “hole” we will replace it with something else to connect more as a “community”, but maybe for those who live in cities this is just nonsense and it’s not needed. Sorry for the messy question, I just wanna know your thoughts on this point of view.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m a lifelong city boy but I do see what you’re getting at, mainly because I think having some kind of community is terribly important for most human beings. In a small town you’re more likely to be surrounded by more of the same people each day or each week, whatever you do with yourself. A community builds up around whatever it is you all do together, and if you’re churchgoers then religion becomes a big part of the weekly rituals. It’s a practice tailor-made for building a routine because it demands weekly action, and practically takes attendance as if it’s a classroom. If you miss church, someone notices.

If church went away, there would be nothing else with an arbitrarily fixed schedule that everyone could participate in, except perhaps for a regular sporting event. That’s the main thing that strikes me about this issue: religion’s efforts to be ubiquitous are not matched by anything in the secular world, so a community without religion (or pseudo-religious worship of the state, a sport, some charismatic figure, etc.) has to bond over more things and smaller things. It’s worth the effort in my opinion, because if you can get the community of a church congregation without the church that’s win-win.

In a big city, generally speaking, though your life intersects with more people the group you interact with regularly (by choice) tends to be smaller. Church can be a part of this more intimate, insular community, but it’s easier for some other pursuit to be the central excuse to get together. If you all drink beer and play video games once a week, that might mean you see each other more than you see anyone else socially. Maybe that’s all you’ll need, or all you can manage with the free time you have.

O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at F├ítima. An crowd of about 70,000 people saw it; I should note that nobody saw the same thing and thousands saw nothing at all. The Vatican said it’s worthy of belief. Now 70000 people can’t hallucinate at the same time, can they?

Answer by SmartLX:
If thousands saw nothing at all at the so-called Miracle of the Sun that gave rise to the incarnation of the Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of F├ítima, then 70000 people didn’t hallucinate at the same time. It doesn’t mean none of them did.

A multitude of people with beliefs ranging from fervent to non-existent crowded into an empty field with high expectations of something miraculous happening, but no idea what. As soon as exposure, overlong gazing at the sun, rare weather effects like a parhelion (check the Miracle link above for a picture) or pure zealotry drove someone to declare that they saw something strange in the sky, thousands more looked up instead of around them, and were far more prone to have a similar experience. Afterwards, there was much discussion among the lucky subset about what they had seen, which would have resulted in much greater consistency between accounts once they went to write it down. Once stories got out, the crowds got bigger, the expectations were higher and the chances of strange perceptions only went up, until it all peaked on 13 October 1917. The initial stories mentioned the sun, so later you had thousands of poor sods staring right at the thing far longer than they should, which would have played havoc with their eyes.

Several specific explanations have been suggested over the years, but I just look at the circumstances and I think I would have been amazed if no one had had a strange experience. It was a strange thing to do, and to be told to do by three Portuguese preteens.

Atheists and Assets

Question from Fahim:
How do atheists distribute their assets justifiedly? I was brought up in a Muslim family and have learnt the Islamic Assets distribution method. I want to know if atheists have any such methods.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not familiar at all with the distribution method you refer to, though I’ve now read a bit about the rules attempting to apply Islamic teachings to economics and inheritance in particular. It won’t affect my answer, but if you have a good primer you can link to I’d appreciate seeing it in a comment.

Atheists distribute their assets according to any number of different systems and philosophies, because atheism itself teaches nothing about asset distribution. There’s no rule that says anything like, “There are no gods so give 10% to charity.” Some learn economics and manage their assets for the maximum profit and benefit to all. Some study various philosophies and use that to justify either spreading wealth or hoarding it. Many simply work from their own sense of fairness and honesty, which is easily tested because you get some pretty harsh feedback if you’re seen as unfair or dishonest.

I answer a similar question by Christians all the time; they ask where atheists get their morals. If you’ve been told all your life that one book is the only place you need to look for guidance in any aspect of your life, I realise it can be a strange-sounding idea that there are people who have no such book and yet find direction, meaning and clear intellectual justification for their actions, regarding assets or anything else. Nevertheless, it is another perfectly decent way to live your life. You just have to look a bit farther afield to find solid frameworks to build on.

Akita and the Incorruptibles (if that were a comic book I’d read it)

Question from Jacob:
Hello. Recently I stopped believing to a small degree, probably class 4 or 5 on the Dawkins scale (ATA Note: this indicates neutrality tending towards disbelief), mainly from reading the Old Testament. None of the mainstream Christian arguments are really that great like morality and so forth. But there are 2, well I would not call them arguments, more like paranormal activity. They are incorruptible bodies and the statue of Akita. They are the 2 main things that are still part of my chains of religion. My question is how do you explain them or brush them off at least? I heard atheists had high levels of intelligence.

Answer by SmartLX:
I can save myself some work here because I wrote about the so-called incorruptibles for a similar site: Ask The Atheists. I was SmartLX on that one too, just scroll down a bit. Since I’ve become acquainted with the power of Google Images in the 8+ years that followed, I’ll simply add that the examples available to us today do not exactly look natural or as fresh as a daisy.

As for “Our Lady of Akita”, much is unexplained about the events that brought it to the world’s attention but the most damning factor is the Catholic Church’s own reluctance to hail it as a miracle. See the Wikipedia article: though the local Bishop endorsed it, the Archbishop of Tokyo dismissed it completely in 1990, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who would have made the call at that level within the Church, made no call at all. If those with the most to gain from a miracle by the Virgin Mary won’t get behind it, what reason do you have? The Church all but abolished the office of “devil’s advocate” in 1983 so they don’t even actively try to debunk these things anymore, and they still didn’t give this one the rubber stamp.