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What’s the point of prayer? May 17, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Responses.
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I recently left this as a comment on Wondering Eagle’s blog post about prayer.  Since I haven’t blogged much recently, and I’m pretty pleased with the comment, I thought I should give it its own post.

I’ve always been puzzled about the disconnect between what evangelicals say about god, and what they say about prayer. They say their god is all-powerful, all knowing, benevolent, and has a perfect plan for their lives. Then they spend time telling god things and begging god to change stuff. If god already knows what people need, why spend time telling him what you want? If god has a perfect plan, then why are they asking him to change it, just for them? And why do they think a request to change his perfect plan is more effective if they have more people doing it? Is god not going to “bless America” unless a bunch of christian politicians make sure to ask him to in their every speech? (This is why I laugh at the whole “prayer warrior” idea. It’s just magical thinking.) They say “trust god” and “let go and let god” and then they spend long hours in prayer not trusting him and giving him advice on what to do.

Back when I was a believer, the only kinds of prayer that actually made sense were things like “Help me understand. Help me be strong to do the things that I need to do. Help me cope with what I can’t change.”

Now the way evangelicals pray would make a lot more sense if they were talking about a limited god, like the ones in the Greek pantheon. Those gods didn’t have perfect plans, didn’t know everything you were thinking, and if you sucked up to them enough, and sacrificed enough cattle, they might be willing to take your advice about what to do. Modern evangelicals often sound like they are preaching about YHWH and Jesus, but then praying and tithing to Zeus.

Fun personal questions February 21, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
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The Shameful Sheep posted a set of questions that are pretty much just light and fun personal stuff. Since I can use some light and fun right now, I thought I’d do them.  If you like substance in your blog reading, you might want to skip this one.

(more…)

Dog ate his homework February 2, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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At a speech about Black History Month, Hair Twitler said this:

“I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

So Frederick Douglass is still alive?  Wut?

And then I realized what this reminds me of.  This is the book report from the kid who goofed off and didn’t bother to read the book.  You know, this:

calvin-book-report

I’m not the first to have noticed this, though.  Back during the campaign there was a marvellous Twitter stream of Drumpf’s “hasn’t read the book book reports”:  https://twitter.com/antoniofrench/status/788928579086217216?lang=en

Of course, we already know that Il Douche can’t actually read.  So no surprise there.

Inner Demons January 19, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Still reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.  I’ve just finished the chapter on what it is about human brains that leads us into violence that ought to be avoidable.  Again, this chapter really could be a whole book on its own.

He sums up at the end of this chapter by re-listing five “inner demons” and I think his list is a good summary.  He didn’t number the list, but I’m going to here:

  1. People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought.
  2. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone.
  3. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversaries’ malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.
  4. People can not only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it; if they indulge it in private, or in cahoots with their peers, they can become sadists.
  5. And people can avow a belief they don’t hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion. (pg 570)

The chapter has a really detailed examination of each of these points.  This is a really interesting book, and I wish it was required reading for every politician before they were allowed to take office.

Self-delusion January 14, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions, Responses.
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I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It’s an enormous and thorough work on the decline of violence.  Each chapter could really be a book on it’s own, and it’s taking me a really long time to work through it.

A day or so ago, though, this sentence jumped out at me.  It’s in a section where he’s discussing why humans tend to think they are more competent, smarter, and luckier than they actually are:

“… Positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff.  In recruiting an ally to support you in a risky venture, in bargaining for the best deal, or in intimidating an adversary into backing down, you stand to gain if you credibly exaggerate your strengths.  Believing your own exaggerations is better than cynically lying about it, because the arms race between lying and lie detection has equipped your audience with the means of seeing through barefaced lies.” (pg 512)

Hmm.  I’ve been looking for reasons why humans tend to be so good at self-delusion, and this idea could factor into the explanation.  But its validity would hinge on humans being reasonably good at detecting lies.  I’m not convinced that they are, especially given recent politics.

What do you think?

What she said November 21, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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I haven’t really been able to post what I think about the election, because I’m still too full of rage and despair to put it together coherently.  But I just found this video on Friendly Atheist, and I think Tess Rafferty puts it very well:

So for my own mental health at the moment, I’m going to keep avoiding newspapers, and newscasts, and pretty much anything political, because I need to cope with the rest of my life at the moment, and if I think about what happened I just shut down and can’t do anything.    Eventually I may be able to dig in and fight.  But, as Tess said “… I may scream when I do and if I start I may not stop.”

 

The Supernatural and “Supernatural” November 7, 2016

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Oftentimes, during a conversation between a theist making a conversion attempt and an atheist, the topic of lack of evidence for the supernatural comes up.  And sometimes the atheist demands, not only evidence that the supernatural exists, but some kind of an explanation for the mechanism by how it operates.  But I don’t need that second part, and don’t think we need to demand it.  If I had strong enough evidence that the supernatural existed, I’d accept that it did.

The theist will then usually protest about how there’s tons of evidence.  Faith healing that’s not statistically better than placebos!  A plane crashed and somebody survived!  Just look at the trees! And other such stuff that isn’t good evidence for the supernatural.

What would a world look like where there was good evidence for the existence of the supernatural?  I’ve found a really good example.  I’ve just finished a binge watch on Netflix of the first eleven seasons of the series Supernatural (go figure).  The basic setup, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is a pair of brothers who travel the country saving people from various supernatural bad guys and monsters.  In their world, this stuff really exists, and behaves in predictable ways.  The brothers are often testing solutions to see what works, and researching into records to see what has been successful for other monster hunters in the past. For example, what works on a werewolf always works on a werewolf, but is not necessarily effective on a skinwalker or a vampire.  The trunk of their car is filled with dozens of different weapons, to be prepared for anything they run into.

I’d like to look at the show’s treatment of demons in particular, since often theists claim that demons are real.

In this show, if someone is possessed by a demon, there’s no vague “I think they’re possessed because they said crazy things” or “I have a bad feeling”.  Nope, in the Supernatural world, if you think someone is demon possessed, throw holy water on them.  If it burns them, and they smoke and scream, there’s a demon.  If they say “what did you do that for?” then it’s not a demon.  (Could be something else, though.  Best to run a few other tests.)

Demons can possess people without their permission, but can be evicted by someone else performing the exorcism incantation, upon which they exit from the possessed person visibly.  No uncertain “I feel better now, so it must be gone” stuff. You can see it leave.

demon-leaving

But if you want to kill it, you need a special demon knife.  And there are specific rules and constraints on their behavior.   They are unable to possess someone who has a warding tattoo:

anti-demon-tattoo

If you trick one of them into standing on a devil’s trap, even if it’s under a carpet, they can’t leave until the trap outline is broken.

devils-trap

If you put specific items in a box, bury it at a crossroads, and say the right incantation, a crossroads demon will appear, ready to make a deal with you.

crossroads-demonAnd if you make a deal with a demon, they will abide by it, no cheating.  But you had better read the fine print first, because they will abide by the letter of the agreement, not the intent.

And there’s a lot more specifics on demons, that I won’t go into here.  Each different sort of baddie in the series also has specific characteristics and weaknesses.  Not some vague woo-woo “I feel a spirit in the room whose name starts with either a C or a J”.  Nope, if there’s a ghost around, the temperature drops, the EM meter goes whoop, the ghost is usually visible and often solid, and they are repelled by cold iron or salt.  You want to be rid of them?  Find out what is tethering them to earth (usually remains of some kind) salt and burn that, and the ghost disappears in a burst of flame.  Usually just in the nick of time, of course.

burn-the-bones

Sam and Dean don’t need to know the actual mechanism that makes all this possible.  They just see it in action, every day.  If theists could pull out examples of stuff like this, that’s predictable and testable and doesn’t line up with the laws of our physical universe, and our most thorough testing was unable to reveal any use of trickery or special effects, then I’d be willing to consider that the supernatural exists.  I wouldn’t need to know how it works, I’d be fine with seeing that it does work.

But Sam and Dean’s world isn’t our world.  The show even made this point by having the characters break through into our world at one point, where they found themselves on a TV set in Vancouver, and to their dismay found out that magic doesn’t work here!

Of course, I would not need a theist to show me exactly this evidence to establish that the supernatural is something more than their imagination.   But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Claiming the existence of an invisible realm full of invisible super-beings that interact with us?  That’s really, really extraordinary.  Show me evidence as strong as the characters are provided with on this show, or don’t bother.

“So You’re Going on a Mission!” Missionaries Behaving Badly October 20, 2016

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Continuing with my chapter-by-chapter review of the 1968 guidebook for prospective missionaries:

Chapter 15.  Skeletons in Missionary Closets

(Content advisory: animal cruelty)

A whole chapter on misbehavior!  Let’s see where this goes.

“While fulfilling a mission is a great privilege, it is also a great responsibility.  Everything you say or do is being recorded in somebody’s mind for good or ill.” (pg 136)

So we start right out with setting an impossible standard that 19-year-old boys really can’t be expected to live up to. And then?

“A tactful missionary will not step over his bounds; he will respect other people’s beliefs rather than argue with them; he will not laugh at quaint or unusual mannerisms or customs but will view them so sympathetically as to adopt them as his own, at least during his mission; he will not criticize the people, the bus system, the food, the toilet tissue which might bear a strong resemblance to either wax paper or sandpaper, nor the beds which he suspects were invented for medieval torture chambers.  Rather, he will admire what these people do have, realizing that all persons are entitled to hold good opinions of themselves and their country, and that they are happy the way they live and are proud of their backgrounds and country just as we are of ours.” (pp 136-137)

Right.  Respect their beliefs, then tell them that they are completely wrong about everything they think about religion and have to change to what you think.  Good plan.

So, as this author usually does, she harps on manners.  She gives us a couple of examples on the necessity of thanking people.  The first story I think really shows how outdated this book has become: A missionary had to be hospitalized, and of course didn’t have the money to pay for it.  A local Mormon paid for his treatment, and the missionary never bothered to thank him.  The author says about the Mormon: “She told herself to forget it since it wasn’t a matter of great consequence…”  Nowadays, there’s no way that a hospital bill could be considered a matter of no consequence, it would be a huge financial outlay and a really big deal.

The second story also includes somebody being extremely rude, but I don’t think I agree with the author as to who the rude people were.

“One mission president and his wife decided to surprise their missionaries with a big Christmas dinner.  Turkey was scarce in this distant land…. His wife worked in the kitchen for days making all the trimmings to go with the turkey, but they both felt rewarded just anticipating the eyes that would sparkle and the mouths that would water as the door of the dining room was opened at the climactic moment to show the festive table.  On Christmas morning the missionaries all arrived for a brief meeting following which the mission president happily announced that they were all to stay for dinner.  Just as he was opening the door into the beautifully decorated dining room, two elders blurted out “Do we have to stay? We were going to hit a flick.” (Go to a show.) With spirits somewhat dampened the mission president said “I think maybe you’ll want to stay when you see what we have planned for you.” Without so much as a single word of thanks, these same two elders complained to their mission president the following day that they got cheated out of their day off…and they had to go over to his house and eat that Christmas dinner!” (pp 137-8)

Somebody was rude here, but it wasn’t the missionaries.  This mission president didn’t think that any of the 180 missionaries in attendance would have already made plans for christmas Day.  Perhaps they were already invited to eat with local friends, perhaps that was the one day in the whole year that they allowed themselves the luxury of a movie and already had tickets, perhaps they had spent the previous week being invited to christmas dinners at other houses, and stuffing themselves each night.  This mission president just assumed that his idea of what a perfect christmas dinner should be would take precedence over the plans of all these other people, and that they should just drop everything they had on their schedule to stay for his dinner.  It’s pretty clear that while these youngsters are expected to take on the responsibilities of an adult, in no other way is the hierarchy treating them like adults.

Now we come to a long section on “don’ts”, and bad examples.

“For instance, two elders in a playful manner placed a rubber band around a dog’s mouth, but they inadvertently forgot to take the elastic off when they went into the house for supper.  For five days the poodle wouldn’t eat and the landlady couldn’t imagine what was wrong (the rubber band had worked down into the fur and couldn’t be seen). Finally she took the dog to a veterinarian who had to perform a minor operation in order to cut the elastic which had become embedded in the animal’s flesh.” (pg 138)

Playful manner? Really?

“In one of the foreign missions, a group of elders found some old American Remington and Winchester rifles.  So great was their excitement at this unexpected discovery that it blurred their judgment and consideration for others: they climbed on top of the church and began shooting at stray cats.  People throughout the neighborhood began saying “What’s the matter with those Mormons?”  Then they began referring to the elders as ‘Latter-day Cat Haters.’ “(pg 138)

So remember, missionaries, don’t be cruel to animals because it makes Mormons look bad.

One lovely member lady actually said to a mission president’s wife “Please don’t send us any more missionaries – wait a few years until the town can forget the last two!’ ” (pg 138-9)

“An elder or sister who is living up to the ideals of missionary work will never do any of the following…”

15. Feel that just because a method works it is right.  For instance, one elder resorted to many different tactics to gain entrance to people’s homes.  When a lady opened her door, he would throw his hat in and then have to go in to get it.  Or, he’d walk in without making any comment and then say, “I’ll get the table ready while you get your Bible.” …

18.  Be impatient with those not ready to accept baptism.  One elder actually pounded the table and said to an investigator, “You are ungrateful.  You should be thankful that you have been called.   You must join now when the call is upon you.”  The woman was offended and has not joined to this day.” (pp 139-40)

So at least there are limits on sneakiness in getting your foot in the door to preach at people.  Bait and switch is OK (as seen in a prior chapter), and cornering your seatmate on a plane, but not overt rudeness.

Next section is back to basics on manners, this time regarding relations with the landlord.  Don’t be noisy, don’t leave a mess when you move out, pay your bills, etc.  All really good advice.

And finally a long section on relations with Mormons who live in the area the missionary is working in.  Mostly it boils down to “yes visit them, but remember to behave like a guest, and don’t take advantage of their hospitality.”  I also think this section is more of a cautionary tale for Mormons living in areas where there are missionaries active.

“On her arrival, one mission president’s wife who sincerely wanted to be like a mother to all the missionaries living in the mission home made the statement ‘I want you to know that this is now your home,’ but it wasn’t long before she had to put little signs all over the house such as the one on the refrigerator which said “Keep out.  For family use only.” (pp 142-3)

That was her mistake.  If you tell a bunch of 19-year-olds to “make themselves at home”, then you should not be surprised if they put their feet on the furniture, eat all the food in in the fridge, leave dirty dishes in the sink, and borrow your stuff without asking.

messy-kitchen

I found this chapter somewhat refreshing.  All through this book there’s been this impossibly high standard set for the missionaries, that they have to be perfect every moment, always smiling, always polite, and must never slack off or relax too much, or stop thinking about pushing their religion on everybody.  Do the missionaries actually live up to this expectation?  From reading all of the “don’t let this happen” examples in this chapter, it’s pretty clear that a lot of them don’t.

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Funeral update October 20, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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Well, I went to the funeral for my friend.  And it was pretty much like I expected.

First, I want to give all due credit for the good stuff, the thoughtful stuff, the stuff that helped us all remember:

  • There was a display of some of his favorite things, and favorite T-shirts in the lobby.
  • There was a slideshow of years worth of family pictures playing on several screens for about an hour prior to the service.
  • There was a terrific reception with tons of food provided, so that all the people there could have a chance to talk afterwards.
  • There was a crowd of more than 600 people.  The seats were filled and there was overflow seating set up in the lobby.
  • My chorus had almost 50 people show up, and we did a really good job singing the piece we were performing.
  • There were several people who spoke about my friend, and his life, and his influence on them, and especially his sense of humor. Some of his family spoke, and some of them wrote their thoughts down and had somebody else read them, which I think is great for when someone is too emotional to speak, or just too terrified of public speaking to speak.

But.

The service was maybe 1/4 about my friend’s life, and how much we will miss him.  The other 3/4 was about how religious he was, how important religion is, god, grace, god, heaven, god, bible, Jesus, and more god.  Yes, he was a religious man, yes he was active in religious groups, and yes his wife’s a pastor.  I’m not saying that their church shouldn’t focus so much on that, it’s their church and they should do their thing, it’s what the congregation expects.

But wow was it awkward for me as a non-believer to sit through all that.

The thing that maybe bothered me the most was the sermon.  It was actually a sermon, not a eulogy.  Instead of talking about the deceased, the preacher talked mostly about the biblical story of Lazarus.   OK, I guess this is appropriate for a funeral, given that it’s about Jesus bringing a dead man back to life.  But the pastor really focused for a bit on this sentence:

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And what I’m thinking is, if their benevolent god actually existed, one that cared about people’s beliefs, and wanted people to be righteous and religiously observant, and to serve their fellow man, then there wasn’t a better example of a faithful follower of that ideal than my friend.  My friend who died in a pointless accident.  My friend who should have had at least another 20 good years.  I’m thinking “If their Lord was real, and cared, this man should not have died.” But no, then he went on to talk at length about Jesus bringing Lazarus back, a thing that in our modern experience never actually happens.  You know, if their god existed and actually wanted to me to believe that he existed, at that point all he needed to do was to have my friend walk into that room, in perfect health, and I’d probably change my mind.

But alas, all we get is talk about grace, and the “arms of god” and “we’ll see him again” and the happy fairy tales people tell themselves to make us feel better.  On the outside I was not showing my annoyance, but on the inside here’s the version of the sermon that was going through my head:

I think my presence there was helpful for my chorus, and I think the chorus’s presence there was helpful for the family.  So I’m glad that I was there for them, even if I hated most of the actual service.

“So You’re Going on a Mission!” Stuff September 30, 2016

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Continuing the series on the 1968 guidebook for prospective Mormon missionaries:

Chapter 14, Extra Equipment – Help or Hindrance?

OK, enough of the motivational rah-rah talk from last chapter, now she’s getting back to useful discussions about preparing for the trip.   This chapter is a discussions about reasons to bring (or not bring) particular items of optional equipment.

Camera

“It has been said that everyone will be able to tell when the end of the world comes because the Mormon missionaries will be there with their cameras!”(pg 124)

She actually has some practical advice about not bringing expensive camera equipment that might be damaged, lost or stolen.  But she makes an assumption that the result of their photography will be slides, not snapshots.  Because everybody will enjoy sitting down for a couple hour slideshow when the missionary gets back, right?  (Uggghhh.)

Flip Charts

“The flip charts replace the use of flannel boards in proselyting…”(pg 127)

flannel-board

Flannel boards?  Are you kidding me?  Are we in preschool?  It’s insulting enough that they send 19-year-olds out to tell everybody else that they need to change religions, but flannel boards?

Radio

“Taking a radio into the mission field is basically discouraged. … Admit that uncontrolled radio listening can make you homesick, and it can be a waste of time as well as distracting.  How does one keep spiritually elevated while listening to very earthy rock and roll?” (pp 127-8)

“Some missionaries also feel that being able to comment on the news, either local or worldwide, is a good “in” when making initial contact. (Of course, this works in reverse too: often a good approach with contacts is to ask them what’s going on.)” (pg 128)

Great, so remaining deliberately uninformed is a strategy for persuading people that you know what you’re talking about.

Tape Recorder

There are several reasons why mission presidents discourage the use of tape recorders among their missionaries, and they all center around the word “temptation”. (pg 129)

Yes, this was 1968.  What was happening in 1968 that a missionary could listen to, that might be considered “temptation”?

stonejoplin

hendrixTheSlowDrag-PeteTownshend-TheWho

sgt-pepper-beatles

Oh right. That.

So what does our author have to say about this?

“…the biggest temptation is wanting to record jazz music for one’s own enjoyment.  One elder even had his mother send him a tape of the Smothers Brothers and he listened to it every time he stepped inside his apartment.” (pg 129)

Wait, this book was published in 1968, and “temptation” was listening to these guys?

smothersbrot

OK, I admit I’m a fan of the Smothers Brothers.  Their TV show was pretty politically subversive.  But their albums were mostly just them mangling folk songs, getting history wrong and arguing with each other.  No screaming, no wailing guitars, just two impossibly cleancut young men telling us about one-humped camel races and the ballad of Big Ben Covington.  Given the music that was happening at the time, the Mormons should have been thrilled for their missionaries to be listening to the Smothers Brothers!

Musical Instruments

“Two missionaries advertised in the local paper that they would give free music lessons to children and baptized ten people in three months.  The one elder gave the musical instruction while his companion talked Mormonism to the rest of the family” (p 134)

That’s not “free”.  That’s “bait and switch”.

“Guitars, accordions, harmonicas and jews harps are useful when working, or rather relaxing, with young people and they are good for your own personal enjoyment on your day off, but they are bad for “goofing off.” (pg 135)

Jews harps are useful?  For what?  Are they going to talk about nose flutes while they are at it?  (For those of you who don’t know what a jews harp/jaw harp is, watch this video.)

Next up, a chapter on missionaries behaving badly.  OOOOH, can’t wait!

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