Too old for this shit?

In Lethal Weapon, actor Danny Glover has a recurring line that has since become pop culture:

I’m too old for this shit.

The line is funny by itself, and works on so many levels. I was reminded of this when a while ago I discussed the concept of age of majority: the age at which a person ceases to be a minor and legally becomes an adult. Where I live, that age is 18 (as in the majority of countries), in the US and some other countries it’s 21. Historically, in Judaism that age was as low as 13 (for males) and 12 (for females). So the age of becoming an adult seems somewhat arbitrary.

While we discussed this, my friend argued that indeed setting a chronological age for maturity is arbitrary, but there is reason behind it. She contends that the reason behind setting a fixed age is one of applied probability (of course she would say that – she’s a mathematician): at age 18 you can expect the vast majority of people to be smart enough to act responsibly; that they are too old for some shit.  

A few days ago I realized that although my fried was probably right in her assessment, the underlying assumption is completely wrong. When we assume that with age people get too old for some shit, we imply that they become smarter as they age. In other words: we assume that there is a minimum age for being smart. Turned around, this could imply that we believe children to be stupid and, more importantly, that there is a maximum age for stupidity. Once a person crosses that age, so we assume, they become smart.

Both are obviously wrong. Stupid children do exist, but they grow up to be stupid adults. Most children aren’t stupid, they are merely young. When they do something stupid, what they do is stupid only from our adult point of view. Smart children do stupid things for smart reasons. Children are relentlessly trying to optimize their surroundings for themselves: they want to get the most pleasure out of the least effort. Their strategies are often stunningly brilliant. The reason most of these fail is because they lack experience and knowledge how the world really works.

But if they are so smart, how come smart children are so gullible? Whenever I tell my godson a tall story, I see his eyes go wide as his chin drops and he believes every word I say. Now, after looking into that little brat’s alive, but coldly calculating eyes, I know for fact that he’s not stupid.

My godson believes what I tell him for a number reasons:

  • He lacks experience. We usually can tell truth from fiction based on what we have encountered ourselves. He hasn’t yet experienced much.
  • Worse: his experience is tainted: in the few short years he’s lived so far, he has encountered many unlikely stories. Fairytales are a big part of childhood. And not to put too fine a point on this: the exceedingly unlikely and silly stories that priests and believers have told him have wreaked havoc with his sense for reality.
  • Evolution has programmed children to believe adults. That way children can pick up important knowledge without having to experience potentially lethal situations themselves.

So when my godson believes an outlandish story it’s not because he’s stupid. It’s because he trusts me. While it’s sometimes fun to tell tall stories to little ones, you always have to remember this: you are lying to them, and when they believe you, it’s not because you are such a good storyteller. Neither because they are stupid. They are smart: they believe you. You are the idiot. You tell them stupid shit. But, admittedly, it is also fun.

So, coming back to the original question we find that there is no minimum age for being smart. Which is good: most of us are smart from the get-go.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also untrue: too old for this shit is something that should, but doesn’t exist. If people became too old to do stupid things when they reached the age of majority, religion wouldn’t have a chance past the age of Kindergarden.

Word!

Deeply religious Christians claim that the Bible is the perfect, unerring and true word of their god. Devout Muslims state the same about their sacred texts. Their God, of course, is omnipotent, benevolent, and omniscient. However, said deeply religious people never see the contradiction of their assertions with reality that become glaringly obvious in discussions. When quoting their own holy text to such a believer, atheists often hear something like this:

  • “You took that quote out of context” (a Christian favorite, and corollary to “you need to read the whole bible to understand it”.)
  • “That [the quote] only makes sense in its original language” (a Muslim favorite)

What they seemingly don’t understand is that you should never use these arguments if you think that your sacred texts are the true word of god because of a simple fact:

An omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent being’s true, perfect and unerring word would be impossible to misunderstand.

Also, such a word would not, at least in theory, require any means of interpretation – everyone would instantly recognize and understand its message. The direct, true word of a supreme being transcends traditional communication and coalesces in our thoughts with its full meaning perfectly intact, impossible to misunderstand or misrepresent. An omnipotent being would get its message across.

Now, since not everyone agrees on the same interpretation, let alone same sacred text, something must be wrong. A truly sacred text would not allow a belief to fracture into denominations, nor would it allow factions to go to war over the correct interpretation (orthodox vs protestant vs catholic Christians or Sunni vs Shia Muslims): there would only be one interpretation. Such a text would unite and convince instantly. It would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind.

Supposing, of course, that this god is truly benevolent. It’s entirely possible that a malevolent God seeds many convincing yet contradictory, deliberately imperfect holy texts throughout the world to spread the mayhem, distraught and death we see today.

But if we assume that god is benevolent, and not a prankster, any true word of his or her would pass a very simple litmus test – it must be universally understood.

So here’s an easy test that you can apply to something allegedly holy: if that text required any kind of translation, it’s not His true word.

Selling Religion

Some people have said that the Ten Commandments represent the crown achievement of morals. Obviously, these people are mistaken. The majority of Christians, after a short, perhaps brutal discussion will agree that the commandments could have dramatically improved humanity had, for example, the first two commandments (I am the Lord, and Don’t blaspheme) been thou shalt have no slaves and thou shalt treat men and women as your equal instead.

So why aren’t they? Is God a moral lightweight? Why did the Ten Commands fall short? Believers say that the Commandments reflect the time that they were created; they were a political compromise. Had they been phrased more ethically aggressively – for example had they held imperatives to abolish slavery and institute gender equality – that would have prevented the belief from spreading. It was important to first get the people into your belief; afterwards you could then improve the standard, making everyone more moral.

Indeed, forcing men to give up slaves and treat former property (women) as their equal is a hard sell. From a political view, this makes sense. Creating a more moderate code of conduct would increase the likelihood of acceptance, and raising the bar afterwards is a sensible approach to improve society.

Yet that doesn’t make sense in a religious frame of reference. The very context of how the commandments were given, as narrated in the Bible (in Exodus) makes it abundantly clear that God could have demanded anything from his followers. Let’s look at this through the eyes of one of the Israelites in Exodus:

I had just witnessed God’s might first hand – a few days ago he parted the sea to let me through; then he drowned the entirety of Egypt’s army. That’s powerful stuff. So, I’d do my best to get on His good side. What’s that you say? He’s uncool with me selling my daughter into slavery and treating my wives as property? No worries, he’s bossman; I’ll play ball! After all, those were also pretty nasty plagues he visited upon that Pharaoh guy a couple weeks back. So, hell yeah, I’ll release my sex slaves and be nice to women. Hey, I see reason in the form of vastly superior might…

Arguing that after such a display of might it would have been politically unwise to demand ethical conduct from your subjects doesn’t make sense. God had just proven beyond any doubt that he was willing to enforce his word. Arguing that God tempered his commandments so more people found them palpable makes sense only under two assumptions: the story never happened, and you assume that God would not enforce his commandments – the very story that presents the commandments be damned.

Therefore, if you argue that the Ten Commandments reflect the time they were issued you also argue that there is no god to back them up. You admit that you have to sell your belief on the merits of the rules, not the might of your deity. Plus: hoping to increase the standard after the fact may work in modern day democracies. It doesn’t work in theocracies that rely on written scripture – scripture that can’t be changed after it was written. After all, the Ten Commandments haven’t changed much in three thousand years (except changing thou shalt not murder to not kill and don’t covet thy neighbor’s wives to wife, singular).

So this is what it comes down to: the Ten Commandments are not divinely inspired. They are a simpleton’s sales pitch.

Priestly dilemma

Here’s a strange dilemma: Every once in a while I read a report or see a brief video clip of priests from different religions meeting. Of course, I think it is always good when people meet in a friendly way. However, while watching priests smile and greet each other, I can’t help but wonder what they are thinking of the other guy.

After all, if each priest truly believes what they preach their flock, they must be equally confident that their opposite is full of it. In that case, their friendly face is nothing but an empty front; no-one ever agreed to something meaningful while talking to an idiot.

But perhaps these priests have legitimate doubts with regards to their gods and the veracity of their scripture. In this case, a meaningful and intelligent conversation is possible with exponents of other religions that are equally unsure. The problem here is that the priests then go back to their flock and pretend that their faith in gods was absolute.

Of course a third alternative remains: both sides know they are con artists, and afford their opposites all the courtesies of professional charlatans.

Of Unicorns

Many Christians are somewhat irritated when atheists bring up Unicorns. Atheists do that mostly to show that in general, logic can’t prove a negative: the fact that atheists can’t disprove god’s existence is not proof of his existence; the way to show this to the believer is to ask them to disprove the existence of unicorns.

Because everyone knows that unicorns don’t exist.

Except that Isaiah 34:7 does mention unicorns.

Well, believers usually don’t know that fact either.

Red vs Blue

The first time I watched The Matrix, I was stunned. For more than one reason. The story was original (although Carpenter’s Dark Star covered the basic premise when protagonist Doolittle debates Bomb #20) and I especially liked how they realized the two worlds – the way how Neo could bend some rules in the illusionary world: very much like I sometimes do in a lucid dream.

One scene in particular struck a chord and has stayed with me since then; when Morpheus offers Neo two pills: a red and a blue. Take the blue pill, and stay in your world of comfort. Take the red, and see how far down the rabbit hole goes.

I always liken my becoming an Atheist to taking the red pill. Far less heroic than Neo’s, my journey through a world that is dictated by edicts from imaginary beings is as strange, frightening and surreal as anything that Lewis Carroll or MC Escher could imagine.

It’s only after you clue in to the fact that there are no gods that you realize almost everything that people do somehow relates to beings that don’t exist:

  • the year is 2015 – counted from the alleged birth of Jesus, an important figure in the Christian mythology
  • where I live, all shops are closed on Sundays; many other countries have similar restrictions on other week days, e.g. Saturdays or Fridays. It’s because a God allegedly mandates that no one should work on the holy day.
  • the names for most days of the week are named after Gods: Monday (day of the Moon, not a religious but astrological reference), Tuesday (Týr’s day, the Nordic god of glory in combat), Wednesday (Woden’s day, the Germanic version of the roman god Mercury), Thursday (Thor’s day, the God of thunder and recent Avenger super hero), Friday (Frigg’s or Freia’s day, Nordic goddesses), Saturday (Saturn’s day, a roman God), Sunday (day of the Sun, not a religious but astrological reference).
  • much of the food I buy is certified to comply with various silly religious dietary rules: most likely Islam (Halal), Jewish (Kosher) and Hindu. Most US-american schools serve only fish on Fridays (a Christian rule)
  • few people know this, but many magazines and newspapers you read or games you play are also certified to comply with various religious rules, usually Abrahamic.
  • the economically most important period in the year revolves around a bizzare Christian ritual called ‘Christmas’ that cobbles together a multitude of pagan beliefs into a major event where people spend up to 25% of their year’s allowances and some companies generate more than 40% of their annual revenue.
  • our language itself is riddled with innumerable idioms from religious belief: eye for an eye, bite the dust, forbidden fruit, scapegoat, reap the whirlwind, fly in the ointment, …

Silly beliefs have, and have had, incredibly strong influence on our everyday lives. It’s from this perspective that I can sometimes relate to Cypher’s desire to go back to the illusion and forget that the real world exists. It’s so much easier to believe simple stories and be told what to do.

And also boring.

Atheist Xmas

It’s the time of the year again. The time where an important question comes up. A question that – so it would seem – has the deeply devout deeply confused (note: I didn’t write ‘deeply devout, deeply confused confused’):

Why are Atheists celebrating Christmas? 

Good point. Better point: what are believers celebrating?

If you are a Christian and think Christmas Day is the birthday of Jesus, remember

  • he wasn’t born on December 25th (well, there’s a 1/365 chance he was born on that day if he existed)
  • December 25th is winter solstice, a day pagans have been celebrating for at least 4000 years, much longer than Christianity existed  
  • Santa Claus’ origins are the Norse God Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. The midwinter sky-riding itself is a reference to aurora borealis (Northern Lights), also known as the mythical ‘wild hunt’.
  • the Christmas Tree is a north-european pagan tree-worshipping tradition that survived christianization 
  • so’s the Advent Wreath

So before you ask me why I’m celebrating Christmas, ask yourself why your celebration is defined by symbols of religions that you do not believe in. Because I celebrate for exactly the same reasons:

I don’t celebrate Christmas because of some superstition.

I celebrate Christmas because I’m happy that you exist.

Christian Love

Muslims will tell you that their’s is the religion of peace. And Christians state that Christianity is the religion of love. In both cases, we’ll have to take their claims with a few rather large grains of salt.

Since it’s currently no challenge to disprove the ‘peace’ thing, let’s look at Christian ‘love’:

Many devout christians tell me that I have to let Jesus into my heart – by which they mean that I have to believe their preposterous claptrap and behave in their homophobic, misogynic ways. If I believe in Jesus, so they say, I’ll be saved and go to heaven when I die. If I don’t, I’ll go to hell.

Now, let’s look at the endgame. Let’s say you accept Jesus, I don’t. You are now in heaven, I’m in hell. You’ll experience bliss and happiness, I’ll be eternally tortured. Now what does that tell us about your moral standard if you can be happy in heaven, fully knowing that I’m suffering in hell?

Pretty much the same that it tells us about Christianity.

Pagan Robertson

Scotsman, priest, and designated head of the Free Church of Scotland, Reverend David Robertson, like so many of his profession, ventured out onto the thin ice of reasoning, only to promptly slip and slide.

Worried about the children at school, the good Minister contends that the SSS (Scottish Secular Society, an acronym that can be delightfully enunciated like the hiss of a serpent, no doubt) wants nothing less than

impose an atheistic philosophy on children

Well, perhaps. Others may say that they merely want to remove hate-filled ideology from classrooms, but let’s not quibble over semantics. After breaking through the ice of reason, Robertson is delving deep into the abyss of stupidity:

Could we not have a more tolerant and Christian view of science? And could we not encourage children to think about the issues for themselves, rather than just tell them what to think?

Wow. Don’t let this guy near a school board. There is only one view of science, and religion does not have a say in this. There’s no Hindu Science, nor Buddhistic Science. Facts aren’t subject to religion. Nobody, neither child nor adult, gets to decide what a fact is. Facts aren’t democratic. Didn’t you watch Penn & Teller’s routine [at the 10:25 mark] where they tried to decide the sex of a white rabbit by voting? No matter what they voted, that vote did not change the rodent’s sex. It’s the addled-minded condition that priesthood and too much burned incense induce that makes you believe that you can impose facts. Everyone else knows that facts are not up to vote nor personal decision.

Worse, Robertson – obviously not a man to read much outside the bible – also overlooks the problem of practicability. If we really were to teach creation myth alongside science, the year would not be long enough to teach the 1200 historic creation myths known in Eurasia alone – not to mention those from Australia nor the Americas. So I suspect that Robertson doesn’t really want children to choose from a broad range of myths. He wants their intellect to be drowned in the Abrahamic blood-fest called ‘Old Testament’.

Robertson indignantly continues:

It is desperately disappointing that secularists believe the key danger in 21st-century Scotland is apparently creationism, not the 20% of Scottish children who live in poverty, nor the many thousands who have faced the ravages of sexual abuse and drug addiction.

Perhaps. But why is the Reverend wasting his time on this issue rather than helping the impoverished 20 percent? His ways, it seems, are as mysterious as those of his god. And please note that I refrained from an all too obvious snark involving the church and child abuse… ah, bugger it.

Robertson’s distress and disappointment may also have been heightened by a speech the day before from his Vatican competitor, astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, who went on record likening creationism to ‘a kind of paganism’.

Ouch.

Crosswire logic

Computer science knows a special case called ‘Short-Circuit evaluation’ that – despite its misleading name – allows computers to correctly evaluate an expression more quickly. For example, if you evaluate ‘a AND b’, you can stop evaluating if a is false; the whole expression will be false no matter what b evaluates to.

It seems the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has demonstrated another kind of logic that – since ‘short circuit’ is already taken – we should call ‘Crosswire Logic’: no matter what either side of the expression evaluates to, the result is always what you want.

In an interview with the BBC Welby admits candidly that he sometimes doubts the existence of God, yet he is certain of the existence of Jesus.

Welby’s comment is strongly reminiscent of what the Swiss believe of their national hero and freedom fighter William (Wilhelm) Tell: They aren’t sure if he ever existed; it is a fact, however, that he killed Imperial Vogt Gessler.