• new testament

    by stephenpi on December 31, 2009 A few New Testament passages stood out for me. # I liked the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, which portrays real human anguish. It's completely missing from John, whose Jesus has no doubt, indecision, or sense of humor. # The miracle of the Gadarene swine killed 2000 pigs. That's a lot of pigs. Then the people begged Jesus to leave the region. # During the "cast the first stone" incident in John 8, what was Jesus writing on the ground with his finger, and why? # 1John 5:16 is mysterious. You should pray for your brother's sins, but "there is a sin unto death", which you shouldn't pray about. # Acts 19:34 made me laugh out loud. The crowd shouted "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" in unison for "about two hours". The words lose their meaning after about two minutes of shouting in unison. # In Acts 20:5, Eutychus dozed off during Paul's lecture and fell out the window to his death. It's okay - Paul brought him back to life. This story is close to my heart. # James seems to directly contradict Paul on the question of whether faith or deeds are your ticket to heaven. No doubt this has been thoroughly debated. I didn't realise how little of the New Testament is the gospels, and how much is about Paul. It's interesting to see the early Christians struggle with the question of how Jewish they should be. Paul decided the main thing is to believe in Jesus, love one another, and not be gay. However in Matthew 5:17, Jesus says the old testament laws apply forever. I'm sure bible literalists can explain this. Also, some gay Christians take Paul's disgust at "unnatural" homosexual acts to mean that straight people should not have gay sex. To me, Paul just sounded like a bigot. One striking impression I got from the New Testament is that most of the writers sincerely believed Jesus was coming again very soon. There are a few passages that try to explain why He hasn't come yet, but they come across as defensive, as if they were written later. It sounds to me as though the religion went through a transition from being some sort of doomsday cult to being something more lasting. In conclusion, I wasn't on the lookout for direct contradictions, and none really jumped out at me except for a couple I mentioned. However plenty of it would drive you slightly crazy if you tried to believe it is the literal and inerrant word of God. I think fundamentalists are doing a pretty good job, given the absurdity of the task they set themselves. I enjoyed the bible. My favorite parts were some passages from Job, and of course Ecclesiastes. I think I liked the Epic of Gilgamesh better than any books of the bible. It has similar mythical resonance, but a pagan kind of morality that works better for me. So what should I read next? [purpler_spirit recommended Popul Vuh at sacred-texts.com, and quility gave kudos.] No Comments
  • old testament

    by stephenpi on December 31, 2009 [I'm closing my livejournal account, and copying over this biblical entry] I just finished reading the bible, all the way from "In the beginning" to "Amen". It's taken me about a year, on and off. Here are some thoughts. (SPOILER WARNING) First, apologies for anything blasphemous I might say. I'm just a born and raised atheist trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. Also, sorry this message is so long. (Hey, it's much shorter than the bible). On the whole, the bible was a great read. I skimmed through the really boring parts, like the genealogies, most of Leviticus, and the measurements of the temple. There was a lot of blood, and plenty of wackiness. I think that's what makes it so deeply "human" - so evocative of all the brutality, yearning, and confusion of human existence. Many familiar stories had a twist I wasn't aware of. For example, # Lot offered his daughters to a crowd of rapist. Later he impregnated them in what sounds to me like a flimsy excuse for pedophilia. # Samson was really stupid. # What's up with the lion and the donkey in 1Kings 13:23-30? # Elijah was nuts. # Psalm 137 is famous for Boney M's cover "By the rivers of Babylon", but less famous for the vindictive ending "happy is he ... who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks". # After Daniel miraculously survived the lion's den, his false accusers and their wives and children were thrown in to their deaths. # After his fish adventure, Jonah delivered God's message of doom to the city of Nineveh, and soon "every man and beast" was wearing sackcloth and calling urgently on God. Thus God changed His mind about destroying the city, much to the annoyance of Jonah, who felt he'd gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. I couldn't help but like King David. He made some mistakes, but went on with good humor. He liked harp music to calm his melancholia. On the down side, he committed genocide (which God liked) and had Uriah killed so he could marry Bathseba (which God punished by killing the resulting son and having David's wives publicly raped). From about Isaiah on, the Old Testament got a bit wearing. God was really angry with people for worshipping the wrong gods, and kept sending prophets to describe in detail what horrible things He was going to do. The prophets seemed to be ignored at the time, except for the previously mentioned story of Jonah and his spectacular success in converting all 120,000 residents of Nineveh. [New testament next...] No Comments
  • epiphany

    by stephenpi on March 29, 2009 I was looking at the-brights.net. They define a "bright" as "a person who has a naturalistic worldview". I was thinking that seemed a bit circular, when I had this epiphany: everything is "natural". If clear reproducible evidence of ghosts is discovered tomorrow then ghosts become part of a naturalistic world view. What makes me an atheist is not a list of things I do and do not believe, each of which could change with new evidence. The important thing is how we go about deciding what to believe. I'm a big fan of the scientific method. Now I just have to figure out why, how that works, and what to do when it doesn't apply so well. No Comments
  • more certainty

    by stephenpi on November 30, 2008

    In the last post, I said that I believe in evolution, in the same way I believe the sun is bigger than the earth. I should explain that in my mind, I was arguing against one of my friends who told me that evolution is "true for you", whereas creationism might be "true for someone else". She seemed to mean that there is no objective truth about evolution. In my fantasy, my last post completely persuaded my friend that the sun is objectively bigger than the earth, and that I am objectively related to my cat. In reality it would probably only strengthen her opinion that I am being a jerk about this evolution thing, and I should just drop it already.

    Along with evolution, I am almost completely certain that none of the amazing miracles in the bible, or any other holy text, actually happened. I believe that the world is basically made of atoms, or superstrings, or whatever, bouncing around according to impersonal laws of motion. The point of miracles is to suggest that it is also guided by God, who is best understood by concepts like morality and love, not by equations.

    Put that way, my belief sounds rigid, limited and sad. For example, I believe that the beauty of a piece of music is a manifestation of patterns of neurons firing, each following laws of quantum mechanics. I think people find this appalling because I seem to be saying you could write a computer program that would just follow certain chord sequences with certain probabilities and come up with something as moving as Handel's Messaiah. In fact, there are so many neurons involved that it would be stupid to try to understand music in such a reductionist way. I do not consider a high level process emerging from millions of neurons following impersonal laws of physics to be a cheap trick in the same way a simple computer program would be. Ironically, most of the miracles in the bible do seem like cheap tricks to me.

    So here's my personal dilemma. Can I have access to the things I like about religion without any of the false beliefs that are so often a price of entry?

    No Comments
  • What I know for sure

    by stephenpi on November 19, 2008

    Let's start with something non controversial. I know for sure that the sun is larger than the earth. In theory, some shocking new evidence might one day show that the sun is actually very small. Then later it could turn out that we were wrong again for some even more outrageous reason, and the sun is actually very big after all. However I'm certain that no matter what people think, the sun is actually bigger than the earth. People say things like "99% certain", but I doubt that anyone really thinks in terms of percentages. In practice, I feel 100% certain. I could change my mind, but it would take a lot of evidence, and a long difficult process of readjusting my whole system of beliefs.

    It's hard to give direct evidence that the sun is larger than the earth. I have some vague idea of what measurements you could use. However the main reason for my belief is that if our astronomy was that out of whack, then our scientific method would have detected something amiss by now. So I'm deferring to the collective opinion of others. A popular sentiment says that you should figure things out for yourself, but nobody actually has the time or expertese to do that.

    I feel the same way about other scientific facts. For example, I am certain that I am related to my neighbor's cat. It's not obvious, and I'd have trouble proving it, but I know it is a central part of a large theory that holds together and is supported by a massive amount of evidence. Evolution has no direct effect on my life, but I do think about it and I care about it very much.

    I still haven't said anything controversial, except to some fundamentalists. Mayb'e next time.

    No Comments
  • Obama

    by stephenpi on November 13, 2008

    A belated yay for president elect Obama. What a relief to have somebody competent and intelligent in charge.

    Boo for Proposition rip-the-rings-off-the-fingers-of-legally-married-gay-couples in California. A big part of the anti-gay campaign was based on fear of children being taught about gay marriage, and I think they  have a point. As homosexuality becomes more acceptable, it becomes harder to raise homophobic children. This is a good thing, and it's about time. 

    Yay for the failure of the parental-notification proposition. Like most liberals, I am in favor of sort-of killing babies. Pro choice people don't usually think of it that way, but I say just before it's born it is clearly a baby, just after it's fertilized it is clearly not a baby, and in between it is sort of a baby. If morality is logical and clear-cut then abotionists are equivalent to serial killers. Of corse it's not and they're not. Having said that, of course I prefer condoms and sex-ed to abortions.

    A tentative yay for Proposition be-nice-to-chickens. I'm worried that suddenly changing the way we make food could have unexpected consequences. I'm also upset that, as has been frequently observed, many people must have voted to give rights to chickens and take them away from people. Despite being a heterosexual vegetarian myself, I would prefer it to have been the other way around.

    No Comments
  • atheist vs agnostic

    by stephenpi on October 30, 2008 Some people have tried to convince me that I should be an agnostic instead of an atheist. I like the word "atheist" - I think it's a more accurate description of what I believe. Of course if you try to some up your beliefs in a single word then you're bound to lose a lot. By "atheist" I mean I believe there are no gods. However I believe this with varying degrees of certainty, depending on what you mean by "god". Some people define "god" in such a vague and abstract way that the question of belief no longer makes much sense. A better question might be whether "god" is a useful metaphor for some deep truth that is hard to put into words. On this question you might call me an agnostic - I think some such metaphors are probably somewhat useful for some people. However most theists also have some more concrete beliefs. For example, did Jesus get up and walk around after he died on the cross? I say no. If you say yes, or you don't know, or you don't think it's a yes or no question, then I think that points to a fairly fundamental difference in how we think the world works. Maybe later I'll talk about these more concrete questions, and how certain I am of the answers, and whether that makes me just as dogmatic as a religious fundamentalist. No Comments
  • first entry

    by stephenpi on October 26, 2008 This seems like a suitably obscure place for a blog. I want to use this as a way to sort out my thoughts. I don't expect anyone to read it. I don't know why I want to do that here instead of in an old fashioned pen and paper secret diary. Maybe it's the habit of doing everything on the web. Maybe I like the idea that some stranger *might* read this and find it interesting. Maybe I'm a closet exhibitionist. I want to sort out, or clarify a little, my thoughts about religion. I was raised an atheist, and I'll probably always consider myself an atheist. In high school I used to enjoy arguing with Christians about how silly I thought their beliefs were. Nowadays I'm less obnoxious. I hang out with people of various religious beliefs, and nobody tries to convert anyone, and we all get along just fine. Recently, Richard Dawkins and some other prominent atheists have suggested that I should be a bit more like the obnoxious high school student, loudly pointing out how silly religious beliefs are. There is too much at stake, they say. Fundamentalist Muslims are killing innocent people. Fundamentalist Christians are distorting US policy, which is killing even more innocent people. On the other hand, as I get older, I get more interested in people who think differently from me. I'm fascinated by religious people, and what really motivates them, and how much there is of value underneath the more nonsensical or toxic beliefs. So that's what I want to explore. In a future entry. If there is one. Since this is songmeanings, maybe I should mention that at this moment I am listening to The Cure. "The Blood" seems appropriate. No Comments
Back to top