Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sabbathh School 28/01/12 - Wishing ain't gonna make it so

So my parents were playing last week's audio Sabbath School lesson last Friday. It could not be avoided - I had to stick around and listen as well. The title for the lesson was "The God of Grace and Judgment", and it had so many things wrong with it I simply could not pass it up. They did creation/evolution two weeks ago, but they said the same old doo-doo they always say about it. I've covered that before, and I don't want to sound like a broken record criticising the same crap over and over again.

Anyway, the lesson began with an illustration which went thus:

A soldier stood next to an old man about to be executed. He was guilty of being the “wrong” race and religion, nothing more. As the soldier raised his gun, his victim said, “Do you know that there is a God in heaven who sees all this, and who will one day judge you for your actions?”

The soldier then shot the old man dead.

This is, in many ways, a prime example of a secular society. Not a secular government (a government that does not promote one religion over another), but a secular society, one in which there is no higher standard than the rules of the society itself. It’s a society with no sense of transcendence, no sense of a higher authority, no sense of God or of a moral standard greater than anything human. It’s a society where humans take the place of God, a society where the only judgment one faces is the judgment of one’s peers or of one’s own conscience (whatever’s left of it, anyway).

According to the Bible, however, the old man was right: there is a God in heaven, and He knows all things and He, indeed, will bring everything into judgment.

I don't know about you, but I was personally offended when I heard this. I do not see how a person shooting another person who said there is a god is in any way illustrative of a secular society. What if the shooter was serving his own - wait, that is the crux of my argument against this idiotic, piece of crap illustration, I'll get to it later. Let me pick on this first:

It’s a society with no sense of transcendence, no sense of a higher authority, no sense of God or of a moral standard greater than anything human. It’s a society where humans take the place of God, a society where the only judgment one faces is the judgment of one’s peers or of one’s own conscience (whatever’s left of it, anyway).

Well, I suppose anyone who's read this blog before should know where I stand on this - no, there is no transcendence, no higher authority and no god! There is no evidence for any such thing, and sincerely wishing for them will not make them true. That "humans take the place of god" line is a meaningless cheapshot, and the fact is that the only judgement we can ever face is that which society hands down upon us.

I understand why one would wish for more. Some may find it impossible to face each day without the assurance that the injustices of this world are ultimately going to be repaid in kind. Human beings can’t see everything, and not every wrong done is going to be revealed and punished, and it’s tempting to want to believe there is some entity that exists outside the timeflow that notices everything and will mete out the punishment mortals were unable to. But no matter how hard one may wish for it, no matter how hard one may clap their hands, there facts of this reality will still remain. Instead of throwing your hands up in the air and running to the insubstantial comfort of imaginary entities, why not resolve to stand with your fellow human beings and resolve to work together to root out the injustices and bring the collective judgement of society down upon them. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, standing in the way of the progression towards a more just society.

The sort of “only God can judge” mentality fostered by the mindset shown in the above excerpt (note: I am not saying that that is what is directly espoused in the excerpt, only that it is a natural progression of it, one which is followed all too many times) has some directly harmful consequences too. Deep Thoughts catalogues numerous cases every week of sexual abuse by so-called holy men: pastors, youth leaders and the like. Nearly always, the most damning thing about these cases is the reaction of the churches these criminal excuses for human beings led. Instead of co-operating with authorities, condemning the offenders’ behaviour or even simply apologising to the victims, they most often choose to maintain total silence, sometimes even expressing their outright support for the offender and wilfully hindering the authorities. And this isn’t just the already very well-known and widely publicised Catholic clergy scandals and subsequent coverups I’m talking about: most of the cases Mojoey covers are mainline protestant denominations(including Seventh-Day Adventists. Read the comments section of that link). But it’s all good, hey? God is going to judge them, so what does it matter if they escape Earthly retribution?

Now comes my real sticking point over this particular illustration. The author gives the story of the old man being shot for being “the wrong race and wrong religion” as an example of a secular society. Question: in which secular society has this ever happened? Each and every time in history people have been killed for being the “wrong race and wrong religion” it has been at the hands of another group of religious people who themselves believed they were doing the bidding of their god. More particularly, the most prominent example of this which has happened during the time since firearms were invented is most obviously the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Even if it was not the example the writer wished to put forward, the Holocaust no doubt sprang to the fore of most peoples’ minds due to the widely spread misconception people seem to have that the Nazis’ philosophies were atheistic. And yet, as most skeptics and anyone who has properly studied the history of Nazi Germany will tell you, the Nazis and Hitler himself were, if not directly religiously motivated, made use of religious propaganda and the churches to stir up hatred for the Jews, the Roma and other “undesirable” minorities.

The fact that the Sabbath School Study Guide’s writer, Cliff Goldstein is himself Jewish only serves to exacerbate the scale of this example’s error. It sounds to me very unlikely that Goldstein was unaware of the facts of what happened during the Holocaust, or of the obvious link to it people would draw regardless of whether or not he was directly referring to it. Whichever way one cuts it, this example is, consciously or unconsciously, slanderously dishonest.

The second issue I have a problem with comes in the study section for Thursday. In this section, we see this being said:

Looking around at the world, we shouldn’t have a problem understanding the idea of judgment and condemnation. One doesn’t have to be a believing Christian to realize that something is radically wrong with humanity. Who can’t see what a royal mess, even disaster, we’ve made of things? Maybe we cry so hard at birth because, instinctively, we know what’s coming. “I cried when I was born and every day shows why,” a poet wrote. Who can’t relate? Who hasn’t himself or herself been the victim of just how greedy, selfish, and mean people can be? Or who hasn’t at some point been the greedy, selfish, and mean one?

You know, all sorts of people, from friends to strangers, Christians, Muslims, so-called “agnostics” and less strident atheists ask me all the time why I’m so vocal in opposing religion. Simply put, it’s attitudes as expressed in this excerpt, and various overtones laid throughout the lesson. The vibe you get from reading it is one of defeatism, of ultimate unfaith in one’s fellow human beings, the feeling that society is in a downward spiral from which it can never pull up. Well, first of all, this view of humanity is factually wrong. Humanity is now as it has ever been: capable of both good and evil. The decay envisioned by many religious conservatives is in equal parts imagined and the consequence of greater connectivity and communication. News travels fast nowadays, and shocking news is by far the most popular and therefore we tend to hear more about it. We think murder, rape, violence and sundry other crimes are increasing in frequency because the frequency of which we hear about them is increasing. And yet, per head, there are fewer people dying violently today than in previous eras.

The media’s sensationalism is causing the rise in alarmism,...yet I welcome it. I welcome that we get to hear about the crimes which were so studiously hidden and never spoken about in ages past. I welcome it, because it brings them to the light, gives us reason to be outraged by them. I welcome it because it enables us to see our enemy, so that we can work to defeat it and to change our circumstances.

And yet, that excerpt tells us that we cannot change them. It forces on us a spirit of defeatism and complacency, for if only God can change us, what reason do we have to even try? Why should we work for global peace and unity if some magic man in the sky is going to wiggle his fingers and do it for us? That is my greatest gripe with religion, that it breeds malignant mistrust in those it infects, and that it turns them into the biggest stumbling block to ever changing the situation we find ourselves in. I’m not saying that once religion dies the path will be clear, no. Other sources of herd-mentality intolerance and alarmism will remain, as well as humanity's own capacity for both good and evil, which we probably will never be able to fully banish. But the mountain in our path will have been worn down and we will be able to glimpse the brighter future that lies ahead of us.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy new year!

Alright, I know I'm over a week behind the curve, but I have a good excuse, which I will choose to keep to myself. Be still and know that I am Joe.

I had a very eventful last week of 2011 - I attended a youth camp in Durban, South Africa organised by the Botswana Union of the Seventh Day Adventist church. I was initially reticent about the prospect of going when Mother first asked me about it, but I later figured "fuck it, it's Durban, why the hell not?" In the end asides from all the Jesus-ness, the horrible rooms we were staying in and the all-veg diet, it really wasn't so bad. I got to see the sea for the first time, managed to buy a few books I've been yearning for while there and generally got to relax, unwind and refresh.

As for the content of the camp...well, it was your usual revival seminar fare. There were daily sermons and prayer sessions, as well as a few workshops scattered here and there. The workshop I chose to attend was "Destined for excellence", which was chock-full of meaningless slogans, catchy mnemonics and sweet, inspirational nothings. In other words, it was just like every other motivational routine in existence, only with a lot more biblical references and perhaps more uniquely, quotes from Ellen White's works, "Spirit of Prophesy". The workshop presenter was as cute as a button, though, so not all was lost.

There was one young preacher there about whom I found myself thinking that phrase so many of us freethinkers have heard applied to us at some time or other: "what a waste". He was one of the most eloquent and entertaining speakers I have heard in a long time. His anecdotes and analogies in particular, which dealt with things almost everyone in the audience could relate with, were absolutely priceless, and had me chuckling regardless of whether I agreed with his point or not. I found myself thinking about how far the cause of freethought and even science literacy would advance if we had just one speaker like him here in Africa and an organised platform for him to use. And it got me thinking even further: if it were not for his religious upbringing, would he have turned out to be such a good speaker? For a lot of us - many, perhaps even most (myself included), our first and sometimes only experience of speaking in front of a crowd was in church. Adventists in particular will relate - holding Sabbath School, preaching on children's day - these were a big part of our growing up. The same goes for music - it is no mere coincidence that many of the most successful secular musicians of our day testify to having started singing in church.

Now, I'm not about to say religion is all good and wonderful and we should all appreciate it because it gives kids such confidence and nurtures their skills, I am simply acknowledging this fact - this is one of the few things a lot of us have to thank outr religious upbringing for. But, like with all of religion's positive points, there is a better way. The area of discovering and nurturing talent in these areas is one where I believe schools should take a major role. Right from the beginning of Primary education, children should be given opportunities to speak, sing or play instruments in public, in front of a supportive audience. School recitals and talent shows should take the place of church worship programs. The cultivation of talents in an environment where the mind is also learning about the world around it is the best possible environment for producing brilliant, well-informed speakers and artists.

Phew! Good to get that off my chest. Anyway, I survived the whole thing without having a stupid outburst over something blindingly inaccurate or obviously unconscionable that was said (of which there were many), mainly thanks to the patient ear of my one theist friend to whom I am able to talk freely about my worldview regardless of whether we agree - yes, you, buddy. You know yourself. Being able to air my views is a therapeutic experience, without which I would long have snapped. I saw the new year in while in a que for snacks and a terrible looking fruit salad at the so-called "banquet" on the last night of the camp, followed soon afterward by a desultory fireworks show at which I am surprised no one was killed.

So, that's it. That's my recounting of the final week of my 2011. Now, we look to the future. This year, I am refraining from publishing my resolutions thanks to the disaster I made of them last year. Only I know what they are, which will save me some embarrassment. All I can tell you is tat they are a lot more specific, realistiic and within my control than last year's were, so hopefully I will prevail. I'll only tell you what they were if and when I succeed.

Thanks to you all for reading this long ramble, and I wish you all an awesome 2012. I leave you with the awesome music I was listening to all throught the week before last - most particularly I want to highlight Technical Death Metal band Obscura's album Omnivium.

Everyone's Favorite Christian Metalcore Band, from their latest album Dead Throne:


French Deathgrind band Benighted, from their album Asylum Cave

And last but not least, some Obscura. Every single track from this album was a masterpiece. I can credit this band as the one that got me to love the sound of the guitar.