Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Free Will: Comply or Die

Imagine receiving in the mail a birthday party invitation from a close friend. As you open it you find the usual stuff: “I’d like to invite you guys to my birthday party, Saturday! There’s going to be great food, great people and great music! You’ll never regret it! If you can’t make it it’s okay but please RSVP if you can.” As you scroll down to the bottom you find a post script, “BUT come Saturday night and I don’t see you I’m going to hunt each and every one of you down, strap you up in my basement and inflict upon you a life-long vengeance of unremitting pain!  Hope to see you guys there! :-D”

A little passive aggressive isn’t it? But I would like, however, to pose this question to the religious: if this scenario is not acceptable to you, or even slightly objectionable within your every day life, then why do you allow this to thrive in your religion? You see, the scary truth about this is that one can identically equate god’s “free will” choice to this tasteless but fitting example.

The Deal
A lot has been discussed about the many quirks in religion systems but it seems to me that many tend to skip over the sore thumb: the fallacious notion of free will. Now beside the obvious flaws we can pick at such as: if god knows everything including the end result then why go through the whole creation, test and judgement deal-e-o; there is a lot of debate in philosophy on the notion of free such as determinism, predeterminism, incapatibilism, and much more. Sam Harris, whose work I greatly admire, wrote on the subject in this respect but with a twist of his own expertise in neuroscience. This is all great and wonderfully complex stuff but what I've chosen to talk about here is the step right before that: the very simple aspect of religion which opens the deal, why we have to choose to begin with and take an offer we can't refuse.

Religion, particularly in Christianity, boasts that its idea of free choice is one of the most painfully beautiful and selfless philosophies in its doctrine, aside from the crusifiction of course. In an askew way it can seem so: god is claimed to have created the multitudes with their own free choice of direction in life and offers them eternal love and reward to those who want it. What a generous guy, huh? It's as sweet as grandma baking cookies for you as a kid for an after-school treat. But that's not quite the truth because there's more to the story. In the end it seems that god's desire for his people to have free choice is greater than his love for their ultimate survival as he will not only kill the non-believers and "lukewarm" believers on judgement day, he will sentence them to eternal torture. It seems as though god places his importance on the interim of choice rather than the end result. Eternal torture for not accepting god's part of the deal is like grandma blowing you away with a shotgun for getting a "B" in science! This sounds more like a control issue rather than a love issue. If this is really all god's design then why set the playing field up that way?

To me free will would mean that you may choose to live your life in any reasonable way without any punishment or reward for either direction- just a different way of life. Punishment and reward are objects of coaxing when used between the two parties. But with the biblical view, when looking at what is actually a clear and immanent threat, one realizes that there isn't much room for a choice, is there? Would you go to my "killer" party as described up top? You'd have to! And what kind of vibe would it have? It would be a group of scared and angry people amongst one victorious dictator. Having forced a person into a particular type of lifestyle under threat of torture for ones own benefit is far from a choice of free will. It's actually an ultimatum. In fact; free will changes its color to a big red flag: duress.

Just to be clear on what were talking about here; duress is defined as “a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat or other pressure against the person.” In Tort Law contracts made under duress can be legally breached and voided because of the obvious bias, unethical practice and undue burden put upon the victim. In this day and age we understand this as logical because we've grown and progressed as a society and we know better than our ancestors did.

The victim of a mugging isn’t going to argue the moral failure of the perpetrator while he has a gun pointed in his face. He’s going to give the perpetrator his wallet regardless of the situation. This is why “God-fearing” people didn't question their religion in the days-of-old and those who perpetrate religion were and still are very much aware of this.

But nowadays the more logically-oriented religious people have started questioning their beliefs because we know so much more about our world through the avenues of science and logical thinking. It has become acceptable or even normal to be non-religious. Illustrating the fact that religion survives by duress doesn’t directly negate the existence of a god obviously (that’s not part of my current argument) but it clearly illustrates the fact that we need to start thinking differently about an ancient way of thinking

The Weapon
So where is the proverbial gun? It takes no detective to find it. It's pretty easy to open a bible and find some sort of verse speaking of a revengeful act against non-believers. For example, Paul, who founded part of the early Christian church wrote to them,

“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord; and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.”

But that’s God talking through Paul to each and every one of us…or is it? Without reiterating what I've already said in the above paragraphs, I ask: can this be justified by a “God of love”? By merely reading the bible it becomes evident that it was not entirely inspired by eternal love from god but by the old brutal mentality of primitive man; the same brutal primitive mentality which prides its tribalism and promotes negative otherism. Kinds like those engage in car bombings and suicide attacks today. When this clear and evident fingerprint of man becomes prevalent, we then have to question the remaining validity of the subject. Knowing the history of religious scriptures or just religion in general confirms this and so I will not go into detail about this here.

Verses depicting god's wrath toward the unbeliever like the one quoted above is merely one out of thousands, if not tens of thousands. It bothers me tremendously to know that there are so many people who claim they are all about god's love but yet take even more pride in the violent destruction and ultimate demise of anyone who thinks differently than themselves. I think those who fit that description indeed reflect a lot about their psychology and they themselves are often ignorant of their own psychology. I despise hearing messages like Preacher Al Martin's which is emphasized with visual and audio effects by a bible-belt church in order to aid in the anger and the fear they want to inflict upon people. With the unmistakable intonation of a condemning preacher, they always leave their flock feeling that if they think they've been good, they haven't been good enough. Every time I hear it I expect to hear a gunshot at the end. It just makes me realize that no matter who they are, more or less crazy than the next, they're just portraying the same condescending and demeaning message. What's the difference?

Where there's smoke there's....hydrothermal vents?
To help better understand god's reasons for threat of torture I thought it would be interesting to find out what believers propose as the authoritative description of hell other than the usual description we've all heard. I then thought the authors of the Left Behind series would be good for this research as I'm sure their ideas are probably widely accepted by the Christian public but I decided that they get enough publicity as it is so I flushed that idea. So when running a simple Google search I was astounded to see the amount of people devoted to illustrating and reiterating those horrid descriptions in the bible. I didn't really find much more than the usual cave-like landscape with fire, brimstone and torture which we're used to hearing but there were a couple ideas I found particularly interesting...

As we know our ancestors devised the notion that hell is down below us in the ground. Though we know now through Earth science that the inner core of the Earth is merely a tumultuous convection of magma at insane degrees of heat and pressure, Terry Watkins, of the Dial-the-Truth-Ministries, amends this fact. After doing the "research" he has exclaimed in the typical  professing-Christian all-capitol letters that “YES! THERE IS A PLACE CALLED HELL!” (This picture is from his website.) 

Terry explains that screams have been heard near erupting volcanoes and concludes that they are from people burning in hell  heard through the volcano. I don't know whether or not he ever considered them being from people living in the communities around the erupting volcanoes. Either way, he concludes that hell is indeed underground. He proposed that for one to physically penetrate the surface of the earth on the way to hell one turns into a giant worm, swims down through the hydrothermal vents deep in the Pacific Ocean and then die. The Riftia pachyptila, or tube worms, as he’s referring to are invertebrates that live near those hydrothermal vents and in his eyes are physically metamorphosed hell-bound human beings. 

I happened to have found more "scientific" descriptions of heaven rather than of hell as the bible paints a mysterious picture which strangely doesn't consider all the laws of thermodynamics. Rich Deem, wrote on his website,

The characteristics of the new creation tell us that it will be vastly different from what we are used to on earth. Probably most noticeable difference will be the lack of gravity. The New Jerusalem is described as a 1,500 mile cube. Structures of this size would automatically become a sphere in this universe, because of gravity. Therefore gravity will either be absent or significantly reduced in the new creation. There will be no Sun or moon. This makes sense, since there will be little or no gravity. Without gravity, the new creation would not be bound to its source of heat and light. The lack of the Sun is not a problem for the new creation, since the Bible tells us that the glory of God Himself will provide illumination. The illumination provided by God is probably not the same kind of electromagnetic radiation (photons) that we call light. The illumination provided by God certainly involves the wisdom and knowledge that He possesses. With this kind of light, there would be no need to visually see things, since this would severely restrict our ability to "see" everything as God sees them. There will be no oceans, which means that there will be no water cycle. It would be difficult for a water cycle to operate without gravity. There will be the river of the water of life, which flows from the throne of God. Given its source, it seems likely that it may not be liquid water as we know it.

“The laws of thermodynamics seem to be absent from the new creation, since the Bible tells us that there will be no heat. In this universe, the second law of thermodynamics controls virtually everything that happens. The law states that heat flows from hot bodies to cold bodies. Stars cannot shine, animals cannot consume food to produce energy to move, and chemical reactions cannot occur, since all these processes require the exchange of heat.”

It seemed to me that there are also people who just cannot wait to die in order to experience these great things. They would claim to be lucky if they just might be able to experience the end of the world. This site provides a counter!* Though they are not sure how the world will end they provide a good list of ideas from aliens to mad scientists and of course my personal favorite: Planet X.

“Others believe that a mysterious red planet, PLANET X: NIBIRU, two thirds earth's size, is heading towards earth right now and will pass through our solar system around 2012 causing polar axis shifts on earth.  Some say that polar shift takes thousands of years.  Others say that Nibiru's presence will cause polar shift to happen quickly. 
“Nibiru (Planet X - the red planet) is one of the biggest December 21 end of the world 2012 predictions.  Some claim that Nibiru is one of twelve planets in our solar system and that it cannot be seen at the moment because it is hidden by other planets.  To find out more about Nibiru and whether it will come near or strike earth in 2012, CLICK HERE (text version - scroll down to see the section on Nibiru) or CLICK HERE to watch a video about Nibiru.”
Clearing the Smoke
So god is “green”, will save you money on your electrical bill and there will be no more need for the Sci-Fi Channel! Of course it would be a waste of time debunking these things as anyone with a basic college education and experience in critical thinking can spot the "hiccups" in what we just read. One would think that a powerful omniscient god who created the universe, floods the world or parts the seas would have provided a clearer understanding as to where we are going and how we will get there.

I honestly didn't want to promote the authors by posting four whole paragraphs of this stuff but I still had to illustrate the fact that people are willing to put so much time and esoteric thought into this stuff without even analyzing the basic structure or foundation of their embellishments. But the strangest fact here is that what seem to be religious fanatics are actually what I would call religious preservationists: they are not only perpetuating fantasy but they are perpetuating the prolonged intentions of belief that religion first held in its heyday. What I mean is that these are not clinically insane people doodling in the sky with these crazy ideas; these are real adults investing their time and research into what many people really believe...or want to believe. 
I can understand that some of these people are just pretending to be research assistants for Indiana Jones’ and they probably have fun doing it too. But researching these fantastic concepts is just as futile as researching the end of the world according to Jupiter, Poseidon or G.I. Joe! As we know, there is a lot more confusion that could use clarification in this realm rather than deepening the ambiguous fantasy. To paraphrase Michael Schermer, most people are more interested in chasing a fantasy or controversy rather than a simple logical explanation.

So Why the Gun?
We've already seen the fact that there is no free choice in religion because of the duress seemingly impinged upon us by god. Taking it a step further back, to the point before god needed to draw his weapon toward us, we would ask why a graceful god of love needs to use a "gun of torment" to force everyone into his final paradisal destination? Why would he need us to be there? To serve us for a change? 

If there was a man who walked into a dog park and placed down two bowls of food and then shot down the ones who randomly chose to eat from the bowl on the left, took home and cuddled the ones who ate from the right, ultimately what is his benefit?  What would be the benefit of this entire filtering-process that a god couldn’t achieve without us? Why create so much life when he knew he would painfully waste so much in the end?

I fail to see the logic and reason, or even the love, in this idea of religion. Torture, within the realm of eternal love and trust, just sets the scale toppling over like Kim Jong-Il, David Koresh, the Phelps, and the father of "drinking the Kool-Aid" Jim Jones of Jamestown. What's the difference between a cult and a religion besides the number of people who follow it? It may seem like a harsh comparison but it is indeed accurate. It illustrates that we are human and so were the creators of world religions. It is part of our inherent nature to be tribal, to group up, to yearn for belonging, to fight for a place and fight to hold that place; but so are the ways of religions as they are "our" creations. Looking at the structure we see in religions we start to see the imperfect tendencies of our own selves surfacing through the eyes of anthropology.

My point being is this: if this is really all god's design then why set the playing field up that way to begin with? We in our sophisticated societies don't even operate this way anymore except in religion. It's like executing the football players of the team who didn't win the Super Bowl! I guarantee you there'd never be a football game again if this was the way it was. Are we now better than god or better than our previous selves? What would be the difference between the god of the bible and "Jimmy" from The Twilight Zone? Jimmy had fun by keeping around him only the people who worshiped him in his utter tyranny, created and destroying strange creatures, banishing free-thinkers to the corn-field, and turning poor uncle Jack into a twisted children's toy for questioning Jimmy's wretched dictation. If this isn't the structure of the "gun" in religion, I don't know what is.

These may seem like silly questions but they all have serious implications. There may be no real answers to them but they stronger as tools of logic and philosophy to help bring to light the flaws that are in the woodwork of our thinking. So why should we allow a dissonant way of thinking continue to exist in our modern world? Logic and rational thinking were the first monkey wrenches jamming up the gears in my past religious beliefs. 

So why the gun? It's because one religion thinks it's better than another religion. It's because of the lingering competition through tribalism or clans which were part of our ignorant past. It's because it was the only seeming possibility of hope and boost in morale for those who would ultimately never get it during their life times like the slaves, the terminally ill and the impoverished. So in the end what we’re dealing with is not a controversial divine authority, ignorant and insubordinate man blinded by gods great glory, riddles in philosophy never to be deciphered, but of authors from times of old. At least in a first world country we no longer need to function in this archaic manner.

Freedom of Choice Operating System 
One last point that I wanted to make is this: religion is a mode of thinking. There is no more certainty in the life of the religious than that of the non-religious except for blind self-reassuring thoughts. I'll illustrate this fact. 

I recently encountered a life-changing career move. It was something I thought I really wanted. A Christian friend of mine told me, "Have faith in Him. He wouldn't have taken you this far if he didn't intend on bringing you all the way." It was a nice thing to say and it's a nice thing to hear. But the fact of the matter is, that's the extent of it. My friend didn't actually know that I was going to get the job, right? It was a process of a semi-reasonable deduction.

Well I actually did finally achieve the goal I was aiming for but shortly realized that it was more of a burden than a pleasure- I regret the entire ordeal. Achieving my goal my Christian friend remarked, "You see! God wanted to bless your life and made it happen!" But my religious friend, an abstinent and highly-devoted Christian, couldn't have foreseen the outcome any more than I could, right? Now knowing my current predicament she says, "The LORD was testing you to show you that life was really better the other way around. Be careful what you wish for." Wouldn't those who are "in-tune" with god be able to foresee things that this atheist couldn't? 
If I hadn't achieve my goal to begin with she would have said, 'The timing just wasn't right for God. Sorry.' On the outset a Buddhist friend of mine would say, 'It all depends on your karma and if you put good energy into your efforts' and another who is an atheist would say, 'so far so good but we'll just have to wait and see what happens.' My Christian friend forgot that I used to be a Christian and I know these types of memorized phrases and self-soothing ways of thinking. With any situation there is a prescribed statement that anyone from any religion would profess. We see through unbiased statistics that religious people have no more a successful life than the non-religious.  I asked this once before and I'll ask it again, have you ever seen a psychic win the lotto? Me neither.

Case Closed
Religious or not there is NO certainty. Some people like Windows, some like Unix. Some prefer paper some prefer plastic. Some prefer hot dogs and some prefer tacos. Quite frankly I take comfort in knowing the reality of the situation rather than fool myself into believing something that just might or might not happen. Being cognizant of reality allows me to strategically plan and be active in my life rather than waste time and energy, praying and thinking I'm actually doing something. This is one reason why I am an atheist. 

We get told, “God’s ways are higher than ours” and “there are some things that we are not supposed to know or understand right now”. My advise to those who say these things is: save it! Those are old phrases used to quite logical minds and to keep curious people compliant. I’m sure a lot of believers find themselves saying it without realizing what they’re doing. But why would any even-minded person utilize logic, reason and critical thinking in every aspect of their lives except religion? People need to stop going to church while leaving their brains in the parking lot!

Atheists are not people who want to be immoral, violent or treacherous. We don’t condone killing, lying or stealing. We know it's wrong to covet thy neighbors ass or thy neighbors wife’s ass! Atheists are atheists because we know that there is room for good people of free thought in the world and we know that we are not going to be punished for it. There is no hell; no proverbial smoking gun. Religions’ role as a social control system prohibited peoples natural-right to experience life freely, but not any more. It is okay to live a life of intellectual and personal freedom! There is an undiscovered universe for each of us to experience through the senses and the keen perception of our intellect. What you're going to perceive depends on what program you're going to run. The fact is you can question what you believe. You can question why you believe and you can “test the LORD thy God.”

Only an open mind is wide enough to take in the beauty of this universe.  

Other Sites not noted above:

* This article was written before but published after 12/21/12. It was quite a kick to see the racing numbers counting down to the "end".