Saturday, August 26, 2006

Redefining marriage

“It’s not natural.”

“The traditional family will be destroyed”

“Children will be harmed.”

These are some of the arguments that were raised during an informal debate on gay marriage that arose during a management course I attended a few weeks ago. It arose from a discussion that focused on managing diversity in the workplace with regards to race, religion and sexual orientation. I took part in the debate by making a few points in support of gay marriage. Most of the group argued against homosexual union, while two of us voiced support for the idea. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate for all of us.

Where does South Africa stand with regards to gay marriage? In December 2005, the South African Constitutional Court (analogous to the Supreme Court in the United States) ruled that South Africa’s Marriage Act was unconstitutional on grounds that it discriminated against homosexuals. Last Thursday, Cabinet voiced its support for this decision. The result of this is that from December this year, homosexuals can legally marry and share all the legal benefits that heterosexual unions enjoy.

I am excited about this decision. I could never understand why Cori and I could easily marry and enjoy legal benefits of such a union, while gay friends of mine - who were in committed relationships with their partners - were barred from those same benefits. During apartheid, mixed racial couples were not allowed to legally marry in South Africa. Fortunately, this changed after the advent of democracy in 1994. The South African constitution, which was drawn up in 1996, prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. It is only logical that if South Africa repealed laws that discriminated against couples of mixed racial groups, it would also have to repeal laws that discriminate against gay couples. The amendments suggested by the Constitutional Court for the Marriage Act was a positive step in this direction.

Some conservative Christian groups have naturally reacted negatively to these developments. Listening to some the arguments raised during the debate, I can understand their concern. However, South Africans live in a secular society that is characterised by many different cultures, races, religions and beliefs. To enjoy the benefits of secular society (e.g., to have the freedom to worship one’s religion of choice) one has to make various sacrifices (e.g., to be subject to limitations that restrict one’s ability to impose religious beliefs on others). Conservative Christian groups should realise that they cannot force society to live by some of their values, simply because there are many individuals in society who are not Christian.

I look forward to attending and celebrating the marriages that will eventually take place between my gay friends. It is a freedom that should not be taken lightly because it is a freedom that was hard fought for.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (1): what is atheism?

This is part 1 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. I’ve written this to provide answers to those Christians who I know personally and who wonder about my position with regards to my unbelief in god(s). I don’t speak for all atheists, so corrections to what I've written are welcome. Sam is a fictional character. Thank you to Cori who provided ideas for this dialogue as well as constructive criticism. Enjoy!

Kevin: Hello Sam. How are you doing? Why do you look so down?
Sam: Hi Kevin. I just came back from a church meeting. We had a discussion about atheists and atheism. I can’t understand why so many people don’t accept the fact of God’s love, and why they have such anger towards God. I feel such an incredible burden for those people.
Kevin: Sam, I know we’ve only known each other for a few weeks, and we’ve hit it off really well over this time. But, I don’t know how to break this to you … I am an atheist.
(a moment’s silence)
Sam: An atheist? But how can that be? You are such a nice guy!
Kevin: Well, I try to be (laughs). Look, its okay. Despite the much maligned label, I’m not a Christian bashing kind of person. I’m your normal, average guy. I just lack belief in God’s existence, that’s all.
Sam: I’m sorry, but I’m completely surprised. I never knew that about you. I assumed that you were going to your own church. Wow! I can’t say I’ve ever met a self declared atheist before. I’ve got so many questions to ask you, if you don’t mind.
Kevin: Sure, I don't mind at all.
Sam: If you’re an atheist, why do you say that God doesn’t exist, and why are you so angry at God?
Kevin: These are good questions! Firstly, I don’t make the claim that God doesn’t exist. Secondly, I’m not angry at God at all; I mean, how can I be angry at something I don’t believe exists?
Sam: Let me get this straight: you lack belief that God exists, but at the same time you are not claiming that he does not exist? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Kevin: At face value it does seem confusing. But look, I think that to effectively answer all your questions, we have to start at the beginning. We have to ask: what is atheism?
Sam: Rejection of God and his love?
Kevin: That is an interesting definition, but it is not the one that I subscribe to. Do you know what the word “theist” means?
Sam: A theist is a person who has some belief in a god. I am a theist, for example.
Kevin: Yes, you are. So are Muslims, Hindus and any other individual who believes in some supernatural deity. Well, the “a-“ prefix in the word atheism simply means “non-“ or “not”. Simply put, an atheist is “not a theist”. In its basic form, atheism is not a belief; it is an absence of belief. It is an absence of belief in the existence a supernatural deity or deities. That is all.
Sam: I see.
Kevin: The word atheist has become falsely associated with immorality and arrogance. Despite what many may claim, I believe atheism says nothing about the personality, moral status, political affiliation or character of a specific person. It simply refers to their lack of belief in gods.
Sam: This is fascinating! I’ve got so many questions to ask. If you don’t believe in God, what moral system do you use? How can you find meaning in life? What do you believe will happen to you when you die? Why don’t you believe in God?
Kevin: Gosh, those are good questions! I’ll have to answer them one at a time. It’s going to be a long night, though. Coffee?
Sam: Please!

To be continued. . .

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Aliens are among us! (or not)

Okay, I will admit it here. I once believed in alien abduction. Dar’s comment in response to this post brought back memories of my adolescent years, when I spent hours in the local library (the internet was not that big then) devouring every book I could find on accounts of alien abduction, stories of Roswell, and the many newspaper accounts of UFO encounters in South Africa.

Oddly enough, my eventual rejection of Christianity had an impact on other spheres of belief. The skeptical thinking that eventually resulted in my rejection of faith also spilled over onto my beliefs regarding the paranormal. I eventually had to question the whole subject of UFO’s from a skeptical point of view, and I found that evidence was severely lacking. To cut a long story short, I don’t believe any longer that we are being visited by actual alien beings. My disbelief in alien visitations and abductions was further reaffirmed by the following arguments put forward by Carl Sagan in his book, A Demon-Haunted World:

  • It is telling that most alien abductions occur mainly on falling asleep or waking up. This is consistent with sleep paralysis, as well as with experiments done by Canadian scientist Michael Persinger, who can stimulate or stop such hallucinations using chemicals and electrical impulses to the brain (pg 105).

  • Alien abduction stories are mostly local (i.e., they are mostly concentrated in America and Europe). Moreover, different aliens appear in different countries, and they seem to follow our current ‘view’ of what aliens should look like (i.e., alien’s have changed over the decades in line with our culture!) (pg 126).

  • Many abductees claim that aliens provide them with general warnings about man’s destructive use of the earth’s environment. The problem is that many of these warnings are about dangers that we already know about: in the 1960’s aliens warned us about nuclear war. In the 1980’s they warned us about CFC’s. Why not warn us about something in the future we can strive to prevent? It would have been very useful for aliens to have warned us about CFC’s or HIV/AIDS in the 1960’s (pg 95).

  • On government conspiracy: if the truth of UFO’s and aliens are covered up by various governments, hundreds of employees should know about this. Why hasn’t a bona fide whistle blower come forth with sufficient evidence yet?

  • Many American homes have sophisticated burglar alarms and cameras. Of all the millions of alien abductions, why hasn’t there been one authentic video tape of one of these encounters from a burglar or security system (pg 174)?
Maybe the experience of alien abduction tells us more about the human mind than actual extraterrestrial beings from outer space.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    Can evolution cause God's extinction?

    Does God’s existence depend on the validity of biological evolution? I believe that evolution does not prove or disprove the existence of God (or gods). On a recent post of mine I was asked to clarify this belief.

    To begin with, one might argue that evolution disproves the literal account of the creation story as found in the Bible. This is true, but the literal account is held by only one group of Christians living in a world where there are many other Christians (as well as other theists) who don’t necessarily hold the same view. I have the privilege of knowing some Christians who accept the idea of an old earth and biological evolution, but who still have a personal and meaningful relationship with their god. For them, evolution does not necessarily close the door on faith; they feel no threat, they see no conflict. Ultimately, the threat of evolution is only a threat to the theist who holds a literal view of religious text.

    After all, a supernatural being could have started the whole process of evolution billions of years ago, as many theistic evolutionists believe. To see evolution as part of a god’s creation can be a wonderful insight to the theist who seeks understanding of the natural world around us.

    For example, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), who made incredible contributions to our understanding of evolution in the context of genetics, was himself a Christian. In his essay, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, he wrote:

    "I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way... Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology."

    And what of the deist, who believes that a god (or gods) created the universe and then took a back seat? It is possible that the deist’s god can exist, even if life was not predestined or created by supernatural means.

    So I don’t believe that evolution disproves or proves the existence of a god (or gods). At best, it only provides a possible god with a less defined role in the development of life on earth. For me, my non-belief in supernatural beings has nothing to do with biological evolution; it has everything to do with philosophical, and other, problems that I have with religion.

    Update: 12/08/06
    Francois Tremblay was kind enough to bring my attention to a counter argument to what I've written above (see here). If I understand it correctly, the argument is as follows: the only mechanism that we know of that produces intelligence is natural selection. In other words, intelligence is a product of biological evolution. The conditions that cause biological evolution did not exist before the existence of the universe. Thus, intelligence did not exist prior to the universe. Therefore, the universe did not have an intelligent creator. Read it through and let me know what you think.

    Saturday, August 05, 2006

    Skeptic in training

    The human mind is prone to error and self-deception: we tend to believe in stories that lack evidence, such as urban-legends; we have the strong desire to believe what a strong leader or most people around us believe; and we tend to remember things that never occurred, as our memories are not perfect. The human mind is definitely fallible, and therefore prone to suggestion and manipulation.

    Skepticism is a philosophy that attempts to mitigate these weaknesses of the human mind. It holds the belief that absolute knowledge is not achievable and thus one should measure the ‘truth’ of various claims by employing doubt. The goal is not to obtain absolute knowledge, but rather relative knowledge of the world around us. The modern day form of skepticism is popularised by writers such as Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer. The following are what I think are the main characteristics of what it is to be a skeptic. The first three points listed below are from an article written by the historian Richard Carrier.

    As a skeptic, one should believe that:

    • The mind is highly prone to deception, self-deception and error. We do not know everything;

    • Thus, inquiry and doubt are essential checks against such deception. We need a method, something outside of the confines of the mind, that can provide some kind of truth that we can work with;

    • Logic and the scientific method seem to be the best methods we have at present that can provide us with some sort of truth that we can work with. This is borne from the belief that truth, or some degree of truth, can be realised through constant testing and scrutiny. We can never reach absolute certainty about anything – rather, we can strive to reach some degree of certainty about any idea that has withstood years of testing;

    • Finally, as skeptics, we must never accept anything as ‘gospel truth’, or label any idea as absolute folly. We must strive, against the temptations of the mind, to find faults with ideas that we find highly attractive or that we strongly agree with. On the other side of the coin we must find some merit with ideas that we find repulsive. In other words, we must constantly challenge the beliefs that we hold. For all we know, we could be wrong, and the best way to find that out is to constantly test our beliefs. This is an extremely difficult exercise, to say the least!

    For the conservative Christian, doubt can be seen as an inconvenient burden. For the skeptic, doubt is a virtue. As an old Hungarian proverb states:

    “The believer is happy; the doubter is wise”.

    What do you think? Is skepticism valid? What are the weaknesses?