Monday, February 26, 2007

Ben Franklin's Warning

While searching for quotes to use in my previous post from my beat up old college text book "The American Tradition in Literature: Volume 1", I took a moment to read a letter that is believed by some scholars to be a draft of a reply Benjamin Franklin wrote to Thomas Paine, though apparently it is not verified 100%. What struck me about Franklin's letter is how the arguments he made against atheism some 220 years ago are still in common usage to this very day. Let's read what he had to say:

"Dear Sir,

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against the doctrines of a particular providence, though you allow a general providence, you strike at the foundation of all religion. For without a belief of a providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favour particular persons, there is no motive to worship a deity, to fear its displeasure, or to pray for its protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits in the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you have a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a proportion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced and inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and to retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the hottentots, that a youth, to be received into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification from the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be without it. I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours."

In a sense, Franklin's letter is a lengthier and more polite version of Karen Hunter's admonition to atheists on CNN's Paula Zahn NOW to "just shut up." Are we needlessly upsetting the apple cart and exposing ourselves to ridicule and contempt? Will the efforts of secularists and atheists in America to curb religion in the public square and push for a greater secular influence in America succeed and make America a better country, or will it simply result in division and discord? Or as Franklin wrote above, will we end up spitting in our own face?

Now don't get me wrong. I am not proposing that those of us who are atheists should crawl under a log and hide from public sight. But it is interesting to note how little things have changed in America in the last two centuries and it demonstrates how deeply embedded Christian belief is in our country. That being the case, there are clearly issues that are worth fighting for to curb the influence of the Religious Right in America. But it will be neither easy nor painless. In the movie 'The Untouchables', Sean Connery says "Just like a wop, bringing a knife to a gun fight"... No wait, wrong quote. Sorry, I just couldn't resist that one.

After Connery gets riddled with bullets seconds after saying that famous line to the intruder in his apartment, he asks Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness "how far are you prepared to go?" What are we willing to fight for and how far are we prepared to go?

Favorite Quotes

Stardust tagged me with this some ten days ago, but I just did not have the time. So now, belatedly, here are some quotes I like a lot that I was able to drum up in relatively quick order. Most of them come from my college English text "The American Tradition in Literature: Volume 1".

#1. From 'Walden' by Henry David Thoreau, "It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What every body echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehoold tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."

#2. From 'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

#3. Also from Self-Reliance, "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

#4. From H. L. Mencken, "What I got in Sunday-School... was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous... The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a Being, who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced rather than respected."

#5. From Woody Allen, though I can't recall off the top of my head which movie, "Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best."

And a bonus quote that I think Bacon would like, Abba Eban on the Palestinians, "They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Get Right With Jesus Or Get Left In Hell

No, don't worry, I didn't suddenly turn into a Christian.

This morning, I drove in my mom's car to her doctor's office to drop off a list of prescriptions that my mom needs. As I was pulling into an empty spot in the parking lot, I noticed a bumpersticker on the back of the car I was parking next to on my left.

The bumpersticker read "GET RIGHT WITH JESUS OR GET LEFT IN HELL". Needless to say, I did not take to kindly to such a message. I am ashamed to admit it, but I did have a momentarily strong desire to spit on the windshield of this car, but reason got the better part of me. After I had gone into the office to drop off the prescription list I decided that I would respond by writing a brief note.

I looked in the glove compartment of my mom's car and found a small note pad. I wrote something along the lines of "While I support a person's right to believe or not believe in religion, the bumpersticker on the back of your car is arrogant and offensive." I then stuck the note underneath one of the windshield wipers.

I do not expect that the owner of the car will be swayed in any way by my note, but I felt obliged to call this person out in some way on the bumpersticker.

Of course, as an atheist, I do not believe in the existence of some place in the afterlife called Hell. What bothered me about the message is that it contributes to a climate of intolerance and is divisive. If someone wants to have a bumperstcker that reads JESUS SAVES or KNOW JESUS KNOW PEACE, I fully support their right even if I disagree with the sentiment. But a bumpersticker that reads GET RIGHT WITH JESUS OR GET LEFT IN HELL sends a message that people who do not worship Jesus are of lesser value.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Where My Values Come From

I would like to dedicate this post to Karen Hunter and Jesse Peterson. Karen Hunter, as members of the atheist blogosphere will recall, declared several weeks ago on CNN’s Paula Zahn NOW program, “What does an atheist believe? Nothing.” She went on to add that atheists need to just “shut up.” In a follow-up segment several days later, Jesse Peterson accused atheists of “trying to impose their godless lifestyle” on America and challenged Ellen Johnson of American Atheists to explain where atheists get their values from after trumpeting that he gets his values from “God and the Bible.” Well Karen and Jesse, here is my answer to you.

In short, I believe in civilization, liberty, justice, human rights, personal responsibility, accountability ,and the spirit of self betterment. While Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I derive my values from the wisdom and knowledge accumulated by the human race from thousands of years of experience. You see, what Karen Hunter, Jesse Peterson and countless others fail to realize is while they focus on the comings and goings of a collection of semi-nomadic tribes between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, complex and sophisticated civilizations thrived in Egypt, Crete, Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, along the banks of the Indus River and in China. The Israelites and their collection of tales that would eventually comprise the Old Testament had no impact on the development of these civilizations.

The Greek achievements during the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras had a profound influence on Western civilization in so many areas. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the spirit of scientific inquiry exemplified by Hippocrates and Aristotle; the birth of history with Herodotus and Thucydides. The Greeks gave us the Olympics, the Doric capital and the Corinthian column. And of course, as we all know, it was the Greeks who introduced democracy, or rule by the people, to the world.

In China and throughout East Asia, probably no man has had a greater influence than Confucius, who is believed to have lived in the 6th century B.C. ‘The Analects’, the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius, is replete with introspective statements such as “In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say?”, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self,” and “It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.” One of my favorite sayings from ‘The Analects’ is Book 13:13, “If a man manages to make himself correct, what difficulty will there be for him to take part in government? If he cannot make himself correct, what business has he with making others correct.” Those lines should be memorized by every aspiring candidate for political office.

Though Confucius is well known even to Westerners, Chinese civilization produced other great and important thinkers. One of my favorites, who is virtually unknown to Americans, is Mo Tzu, who lived in the 5th century B.C. Hundreds of years before Jesus was preaching to the Pharisees to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Mo Tzu preached the doctrine of “universal love.” By that, Mo Tzu meant that we should regard the welfare of others as much as our own. “When everyone regards the houses of others as his own, who would disturb the others’ houses? One would regard the others as one’s self…is this a calamity or a benefit to the world? Of course it is a benefit.”

In the Gospels, Jesus famously implores his listeners to turn the other cheek. Several hundred years before that, the Buddhist text ‘The Dhammapadda’ had already covered the same ground:

“’He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal. Many do not know that we are here in this world to live in harmony. Those who know this do not fight against each other.” Elsewhere it reads “Overcome anger by peacefulness; overcome evil by good. Overcome the mean by generosity; and the man who lies by truth.”

Another great Indian religious text, the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’, instructs us that people with an evil nature “are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion.” A person with good tendencies, on the other hand, “harms no one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate toward all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. [I wonder if that applies to blogging! :-)] He is free from hatred and from pride."

It was not until I was of college age that I became aware of and read the great works of Eastern religion and philosophy. It had a lasting impact on me by shaping my views about materialism and our attachment to the things of this world. Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, is often stereotyped as being about withdrawing from the world and leading a monastic lifestyle. But for me, it was more about applying the philosophy in a way that was practical and consistent in a Western culture. We need clothes, shelter, transportation and possessions, but we do not need to have the fanciest clothes, the biggest house, the most expensive car, and loads of jewelry and other luxury items. Otherwise we find ourselves drowning in debt instead of saving for a rainy day. As Tyler Durden tells his followers in Fight Club, "The things you own end up owning you."

And not to give the Bible short shrift, but the one book from the Bible that had the most appeal for me was the Book of Proverbs. While there are many phrases in Proverbs about what "the Lord abhors" or "detests", there are also many wise and practical sayings, such as "He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored" which are religiously neutral and echo the teachings of the texts I mention above.

What one begins to notice is that there are certain moral lessons that can be found in virtually all of the great texts of the civilizations of the ancient world. Some Biblical Literalists will argue, as I have seen, that this is evidence that our morals come from God, which of course they mean to be their God. I find this argument to be a pathetic attempt for them to give their religion the credit for all of the moral and ethical advances made by others. Rather, I would argue, as would any other objective person, that as civilizations developed throughout the world, the people who belonged to these civilizations found themselves confronting common problems. With the rise of literacy, the learned and educated people in each civilization developed the means to share their wisdom and observations with others.

It is only very recently in human affairs, say the last two or three centuries, that it has become possible for an educated person to have access to the moral and ethical traditions of cultures outside of his own. Nowadays, anyone can go to a local library or Barnes & Noble bookstore to find books about the Greek philosophers, 'The Analects' of Confucius, the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the Bible and virtually every great work that has been written and published up to the present day. Because we live in a predominantly Christian country, it is to be expected that the Bible will have a greater hold on the imaginations of most Americans. But as the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind" says of the Bible, "It is a good book, but it is not the only book." When considering the collective wisdom of humanity, the Bible is but one of many pillars of human civilization. So, when Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I would tell him that the source of his values is much poorer and limited than mine.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

CNN and the Mouth of Peterson

Taking a pause from its coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, CNN’s Paula Zahn NOW belatedly revisited the topic of discrimination against atheists in the United States. Filling in for the conveniently absent Paula Zahn was guest host John Roberts. The panelists for the evening were Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, Rachel Maddow of Air America, and the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson. Before the discussion with the panelists began, a truncated version of Paula Zahn’s interview of Richard Dawkins was aired.

From my perspective, Monday night’s segment on atheism was marginally better than the previous one with Karen Hunter and Debbie Schlussel. While Dawkins’ 20 minute interview was regrettably chopped down to about four minutes, I thought he presented a positive face for atheism. Unfortunately, the format of the panel discussion that followed did not lend itself to a substantive exchange.

Ellen Johnson, as others have noted elsewhere, allowed herself to get thrown off track by Jesse Peterson’s demand as to where atheists get their morals from. It is a common question asked of and about atheists and Ellen Johnson should have been better prepared to answer it. After the segment was over, I thought about how I would have answered that question. I intend to follow this post up with another one dedicated to Jesse Peterson entitled “Where I Get My Values From”. In short, I would have told him that “I get my values from the wisdom and reason that humanity has accumulated over thousands of years of history. You say you get your values from the Bible, well I draw my values from the moral and philosophical traditions of all the world’s great civilizations.”

As for Jesse Peterson himself, I thought he managed to be worse than Karen Hunter and Debbie Schlussel combined. He pushed all the right reactionary buttons with his references to the “godless lifestyle” and comparing us to “the radical homosexual movement.” The clear message he was trying to get across is that atheists were ruining America for all of the good, decent God fearing people of this country. It was on the train ride to work this morning that the title of this post would be an homage to a minor but memorable character in Tolkien's "The Return of the King".

I don’t know if Ellen Johnson knew enough time beforehand that Jesse Peterson was going to be her nemesis on the program. If she had, it might have been helpful for her to do a little research as to who this guy really is.

Robert’s introduced Peterson as the founder and president of an organization called Brotherhood Organization for a New Destiny, also known by its acronym BOND. The organization’s motto is “Rebuilding the Family By Rebuilding the Man.” I met Jesse Peterson briefly back in 1998 at a conference held in Washington, D.C. for activists in the immigration restrictionist movement. At the time I had never heard of him, but several years later, after I had left the movement, I started to see Peterson as a guest on Fox News, particularly on the Hannity & Colmes program. He could always be counted on to rail against Jesse Jackson, the Civil Rights establishment, liberal, and illegal immigrants. Even on Paula Zahn’s program, in addition to attacking atheists as trying to impose their “godless lifestyle” on Americans, he also managed to berate black dependency on welfare and cavil about college liberals.

As Max Blumenthal writes in The Nation, Jesse Peterson, “with his extremist politics…is merely playing the role of front man for a murky, well funded network of white nationalist activists and right-wing Beltway operatives.” Peterson’s organization BOND, “serves as a platform for Peterson's various publicity stunts. His flagship media event was "National Repudiation of Jesse Jackson Day," timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day…In its five-year life span (it was discontinued last year), Jesse Jackson's "repudiation" was not national (it was limited to a street corner outside Jackson's LA office), and it consisted almost exclusively of Peterson's friends, BOND employees, boys' home residents and small-fry demagogues like anti-immigrant border vigilante Glenn Spencer, who joined the crowd in 2004.”

In perusing BOND’s website, it appears to me that community services take a back seat to promoting Jesse Peterson and his right-wing views. Now don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with African-Americans, or anyone else for that matter, having and espousing conservative viewpoints. No group of people should be locked into just one political party or school of thought. Personally, depending on the issue, my political views are a mix of liberal and conservative. The problem with Jesse Peterson, and others of his ilk such as Roy Innis, is that he does not represent any constituency and his organization is just a shell that, as I quoted from Blumenthal above, provides him with a platform for his advocacy. In return for financial contributions and promtion by the likes of Sean Hannity, he can be relied upon to give them a reliable and controversial mouthpiece in blackface.

Should any atheist spokespersons find themselves facing off against Jesse Peterson in the future, I would advise that they read up on his background and be prepared to give him a good bitch slapping.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Disgrace That Is CNN

By now, those of us in the atheist blogosphere are up in a fury over Paula Zahn's program on CNN the other night about atheists. While I did not watch the first segment about the atheist family, I read the transcript of the second half of the segment (I'm sorry, I tried to watch it, but had to turn it off as soon as I heard Karen Hunter say "What do atheists believe in? Nothing!") in which Paula Zahn had on three guests for a panel discussion. Inexcusably on CNN's part, not one of the three panelists was an atheist. Just imagine if Paula Zahn had a segment on discrimination against gays that comprised Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell and William Donohue.

Regarding the guests that Paula Zahn had on, I was familiar with Karen Hunter. She once was on the editorial board for The New York Daily News and I used to e-mail her on occasion about her columns for the paper. Most of my e-mails were positive, because I saw her as independent thinker who was willing to promote ideas that were more conservative than most African-American columnists. So I was especially disappointed in her opening remarks and engaged her in an exchange of e-mails on what she said. I will not repeat the contents of our exchange here, but interested readers can refer to the comments section of a post on God Is For Suckers where I copied the exchange. Given my past positive contact with Ms. Hunter, I was reluctant to make our exchange public, but in her first reply she complained that television programs often do not allow for more than soundbite opinions, so I decided that I should allow other atheists the opportunity to see her expand upon what she said.

Then there was the ever annoying Debbie Schlussel. Why she gets to be on television at all is beyond me. Media Matters recently highlighted some stupid remarks she made about senator and African-American presidential candidate Barack Obama. The third panelist, an African-American man, was someone I had not heard of before.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, I was pleased to read that Paula Zahn, evidently in response to the torrent of criticism that had been received, was going to have Richard Dawkins on to respond to the remarks by the panelists. So, last night at 8 p.m. I turned on CNN with eager anticipation. But as soon as the channel changed, I knew I was in for a major disappointment. You see, Anna Nicole Smith was found dead in a hotel room in Florida, so naturally Paula Zahn decided to devote the entire hour of her program to the recently departed Anna. Admittedly, my anger stemmed primarily from the fact that they would not air Dawkins' response to the program from the other night while it was still fresh in the minds of most viewers. But it also crystallized for me what exactly is wrong with network news in the United States.

You see, I have this naive notion that the purpose of the news is to inform we the public about things of importance in this world, you know like the war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the federal budget, and yes, giving atheists a voice to speak for themselves rather than giving theists a forum to tell CNN's viewers what they think atheists believe. Instead, we get an entire hour devoted to the death of a bleached blonde druggie with a DD bra size who most people would have never heard of if she had not married a geriatric billionaire. Sure, maybe it would have been worth Zahn mentioning for 5 minutes before telling her viewers to tune into Larry King's show later on. And that is what really kills me. Larry King devoted his entire program, which immediately followed Paula Zahn's, to the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

Like Bacon Eating Atheist Jew, I am contemplating boycotting CNN, or at least Paula Zahn's program, as I do think Anderson Cooper's show at 10 p.m. is pretty good. It's too bad, because I generally liked her. Of course, I will have to tune in to Zahn's program when she finally gets around to airing Richard Dawkins, though the cynic in me suspects they will try to find some way to dilute his remarks.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Getting Killed by the Messenger

Over at the Jolly Nihilist's blog, I got into a running argument a couple of months ago with a Christian commenter about Christianity. One of his odd arguments was that Christianity must be true because so many people in the world, perhaps a billion, are Christians. If Christianity was false, he reasoned, then someone would have pointed out its mistakes centuries ago and the religion would have died out. Apparently, he never heard of things like the Inquisition, the burnings of heretics and those accused of blasphemy and witchcraft, the extermination of the Cathars, and other policies that were not exactly conducive to a climate of free inquiry in Medieval Europe.

But my main counter-argument to this commenter was to explain an important factor that was responsible for Christianity to break out of its largely European confines* to become the worldwide religion that it is today.

As just about everyone knows, in 1492, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, set out to find a passage to China by sailing west across the Atlantic. Coming up short in his calculations of the circumference of the Earth, Columbus believed he could provide his patrons with a path to the riches of Asia that would bypass the hostile Muslim powers and the tremendous geographic expanse of Africa. But as we all know, rather than reaching China, Columbus stumbled upon something unexpected, the Americas. And these lands that made up the continents of North and South America were populated by tens of millions of people, many of whom belonged to sophisticated civilizations like the Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas. It was not long before Spanish conquistadors began to descend upon the Americas in search of gold and glory.

In relatively short order, the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztec and Inca empires. While greatly outnumbered, the Spaniards had important advantages, which included horses, armor, steel weapons, and gun powder. But these factors alone, while important, could not decisively tip the balance in favor of the Spaniards due to the tremendous disparity in numbers between them and their native American enemies. The most devastating weapon in the Spaniards arsenal was one they did not realize they had brought with them - smallpox.

In his book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", Jared Diamond devotes a chapter to livestock and germs. Diamond points out that prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, there was an absence of "lethal crowd epidemics" in the New World. The main reason, he concludes, is that "Eurasian crowd diseases evolved out of Eurasian herd animals that became domesticated." The Americas, on the other hand, were lacking in domesticable animals. Thus, once native Americans became exposed to smallpox and other diseases transmitted to them by Europeans and the African slaves they brought with them, their lack of immunity decimated them.

Diamond cites several examples to demonstrate how catastrophic the spread of disease was to the native peoples of the Americas. Hispaniola, the first largely populated island colonized by the Spaniards and which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, saw a decline in its native population "from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in A.D. 1492, to zero by 1535." In 1520, when the Aztecs were facing off against Hernan Cortes, smallpox "proceeded to kill nearly half [of them], including Emperor Cuitlahuac... By 1618, Mexico's initial population of 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million."

And the devastation was not limited to those unfortunate souls who came into direct contact with the Spaniards. Writes Diamond, "When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast. The Spaniards' microbes spread to the interior in advance of the Spaniards themselves." This included the mighty Inca Empire, whose population was similarily stricken in advance of the arrival of Franciso Pizzaro in 1532.

Now, what does this have to do with the spread of Christianity? For starters, thanks to smallpox and other diseases, tens of millions of pagans died. For the fraction of the population that remained, it was not unreasonable for them to conclude that the religion of the Spaniards must be true, because the Spaniards seemed to be immune to the plague that killed off so many of their kin. A decimated population is much easier to conquer and convert.

While it is purely speculative, it is interesting to ponder how history might have turned out differently if you remove the disease factor from the collision between the Spaniards and the Aztec and Inca empires. The Spaniards undoubtedly would have required greater manpower to conquer and control the native populations. But one must remember that events do not happen in a vacuum. While the Spaniards had tremendous resources at their disposal, they would not have been able to bring them all to bear upon the peoples of the Americas. During the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks and their North African proxy states contested the Spaniards for mastery in the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, the rulers of Spain, the Hapsburgs, also controlled important domains in Central Europe and were frequently embroiled in wars on the European continent that taxed its manpower and resources. If the native Americans were not vulnerable to smallpox, might they have been able to fight the Spaniards to a standstill, leaving the latter only in control of some Caribbean islands and coastal settlements?

Now Christians who take their religion seriously will tell you that unless one accepts Jesus Christ as a personal lord and savior that person will not be able to achieve salvation in the afterlife. Christians will also respond to the argument about why God permits bad people to commit horrible atrocities by explaining the doctrine of free will. In short, God cannot be blamed for bad deeds perpetrated by evil people. Fair enough. But here's the thing. First, the Spaniards who sought to conquer the New World for Christ and King did not intentionally kill millions of native Americans with smallpox. Granted, like the native Americans, they must have looked upon this disease driven holocaust as divinely ordained, but it was not a deliberate act. Secondly, the Spaniards were serious about spreading their religion, Roman Catholicism. Millions of pagan native Americans were on the brink of learning about Jesus Christ, but they never heard the message because they died from diseases transmitted to them by the very messengers of the gospel of salvation. It is a tired, worn-out argument to ask why God permits evil in the world. But if belief in Jesus Christ is necessary in order to be saved, then why would God, this "intelligent designer", create a situation whereby the native Americans would be susceptible to diseases carried by the very people who were spreading the message of Christ?

Of course, I can already anticipate one counter-argument. Evangelicals will argue that Catholics are not true Christians. But without getting into the argument about what constitutes a true Christian, suffice it to say that the Spanish Catholics, whatever their flaws, were the instrument by which the message of Christ was being revealed to the peoples of the New World. Whatever Christian denomination a particular Christian belongs to today, that denomination ultimately has its roots in the Protestant Reformation when various groups of Christians detached itself from the authority of the Catholic Church. For centuries in the Christian West, the Catholic Church was Christianity.

The catastrophic death toll that smallpox inflicted on the native Americans also raises problems for Young Earth Creationists who believe, based on the Bible, that the Earth is less than six thousand years old. According to Genesis 1:25, God made "the livestock according to their kinds," meaning that when God made Adam, there were already animals that were available for domestication. Further on, in Genesis 4:2, we are told that "Abel kept flocks". According to a Biblical Literalist, the native Americans are descended from one of the many people who scattered after God confounds everyone's speech in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In order to believe that the Bible is literally true, a Literalist must accept that the ancestors of the native Americans had livestock. But if this were really the case, then it should be reasonable to believe that (1) the native Americans would have brought some livestock with them to the New World, and (2) they should not have been susceptible to diseases carried by the Spaniards, diseases of which the Spaniards were immune because thousands of years ago their ancestors had been exposed to pathogens transmitted to them from livestock.

Once one gets one's head out of the Bible and looks at the evidence, then it becomes clear why the native Americans did not have livestock and were so vulnerable to the diseases carried by the Spaniards such as smallpox. Archaeologists have dated the earliest human settlements in the Americas to approximately 11,000 B.C., during the waning of the last Ice Age. The domestication of animals in Eurasia did not begin until around 8,000 B.C., around the same time that the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent began to take up agriculture. Therefore, the available evidence clearly indicates that the Americas were colonized BEFORE the domestication of livestock and the adoption of farming in Eurasia. The native Americans were geographically and genetically isolated from the civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe for over ten thousand years.

Thus, in summary, the spread of Christianity in the Americas is indebted to the deaths of millions of native Americans who perished because their ancestors migrated to the Western hemisphere thousands of years before the adoption of agriculture and the domestication of livestock in Eurasia and thousands of years before the Earth was supposed to have been created according to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

* There were of course Christian communities in the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, as well as scattered communities of Nestorian Christians in Central Asia. But with the exception of Ethiopia, Christian kingdoms were confined to Europe, Asia Minor, and the Caucuses.

Monday, February 05, 2007

I've Been Tagged - Five Songs for My Funeral

Stardust has tagged me with the "Five Songs To Be Played At My Funeral" chain.

I threw together a diverse collection below ranging from mournful dirges to upbeat pop music. If I had more time to devote to this post, I might have come up with different songs to add, but I think these will do nicely.

Here in the blogosphere, our contact with one another is often primarily sharing our views and opinions about various issues. By sharing with each other music that is meaningful to us, we reveal another aspect of ourselves. It is a way of communicating to the world our innermost aspirations and feelings.

So, without further ado, here are my five songs, with links to videos for them on Youtube:

1. "I'll Be There" by the Escape Club, dedicated to my wife (assuming I go before her) and to my children. It is the sappiest of my five selections. Of course, I don't really believe that there is a part of us that survives our death to watch over the ones we leave behind, but it is still a touching sentiment.

2. "Return to Innocence" by Enigma. This has long been one of my favorites from Enigma. Besides, I don't think "Sadeness" or "Mea Culpa" would be appropriate for a funeral.

3. "Ghost of a Chance" by Rush. The only video I could find for this song on Youtube was a wedding video. I like it because not only is it about true love, but as an atheist, I love the line "I don't believe in the stars or the planets, or angels watching from above, but I believe there's a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love, and make it last."

4. "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves. When I die, I want to be cremated. To me, it just does not seem practical that my dead body should take up space after I am gone. Just toss my ashes out of the urn at Montauk Point to be scattered into the wind and spread out over the Earth. Anyway, not only is this relentlessly upbeat song at odds with the solemnity one expects at a funeral, but there is something perversely amusing about the idea of this song being played as my body is about to be cremated. Particularly the lines "I'm walking on sunshine whoa oh! And it's time to feel good!" as the flames ignite.

5. "Now We Are Free" sung by Lisa Gerrard during the closing credits of the Russell Crowe film 'Gladiator'. Lisa Gerrard has an amazing voice and I think this song is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. I have the soundtrack for 'Gladiator' and can listen to this song ten times a day. Don't try to make any sense of the lyrics of the song, as they are not actually words that have any meaning. Rather, Lisa Gerrard uses the words to create a sound that conveys emotion. Anyone who enjoys the music of Adiemus will recognize that they do the same thing. The voice of the singer becomes an instrument itself rather than singing a song containing recognizable lyrics accompanied by instruments in the conventional sense.

I hope you enjoy these selections as much as I do.