Sunday, April 22, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

The end of the Note to the Reader by Sam Harris from Letter to a Christian Nation

The truth, however, is that many of us may not care about the fate of civilization. Forty four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves—socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the conse­quences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species - The entangled bank passage

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Sam Harris on Jainism and Martin Luther King, Jr. from Letter to a Christian Nation

Take the religion of Jainism as one example. The Jains preach a doctrine of utter non-violence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition. You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the "true" spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches.

You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently - though isn't it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed? Of course, many Christians believe that a harmless person like Martin Luther King, Jr., is the best exemplar of their religion. But this presents a serious problem, because the doctrine of Jainism is an objectively better guide for becoming like Martin Luther King, Jr., than the doctrine of Christianity is. While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to nonviolence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. In 1959, he even traveled to India to learn the principles of nonviolent social protest directly from Gandhi's disciples. Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence? He got it from the Jains.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sam Harris on Christian Literalism from Letter to a Christian Nation

The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is belied by other indices of social equality. Consider the ratio of salaries paid to top-tier CEOs and those paid to the same firms' average employees: in Britain it is 24:1; in France, 15:1; in Sweden, 13:1; in the United States, where 80 percent of the population expects to be called before God on Judgment Day, it is 475:1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to pass easily through the eye of a needle.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Richard Dawkins on Evolution by Natural Selection from The Greatest Show on Earth

It is no accident that we see green almost wherever we look. It is no accident that we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life; no accident that we are surrounded by millions of other species, eating, growing, rotting, swimming, walking, flying, burrowing, stalking, chasing, fleeing, outpacing, outwitting. Without green plants to outnumber us at least ten to one there would be no energy to power us. Without the ever-escalating arms races between predators and prey, parasites and hosts, without Darwin’s ‘war of nature’, without his ‘famine and death’ there would be no nervous systems capable of seeing anything at all, let alone of appreciating and understanding it. We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random natural selection – the only game in town, the greatest show on Earth.

Richard Dawkins on Death

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sam Harris on Abstinence & HPV from Letter to a Christian Nation

Consider, for instance, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus infects over half the American population and causes nearly five thousand women to die each year from cervical cancer; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than two hundred thousand die worldwide. We now have a vaccine for HPV that appears to be both safe and effective. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the six thousand women who received it as part of a clinical trial. And yet, Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.

We Got Scared by dogmaticCURE

We were born through ingenuity and violence in a world where a brute struggle was encoded in every living being. But we were different. Our sole imagination gave us confidence so we stood up right and we triumphed over our enemies. But we were confused when we opened our eyes. Nature made us masters of survival but didn’t give us the tools to understand the world. All we knew about life was death we inflicted upon others and it reminded us of our own fate. So we got scared and we told tales about another life – the cornerstone of our civilization.
We wandered out into the unknown as proud nomads and the smell of conquer followed our footsteps. We held our chests high and we feared no enemies. But our brute species stumbled into a world full of mysteries ungraspable to our young minds. We started to ask questions but there were no answers to be found. Winds, rains, volcanoes, earthquakes – the rulers of life and death. They seemed to be alive, they seemed to have a will of their own. So we got scared and we surrendered the nature to a higher power; a thing to be worshiped.
We settled down in every corner of the world and we declared dominion over the sea and the air and over every living thing that moved upon the earth. We grew in numbers and our natural enemies feared our presence – we demoted them to fairy tales. We ruled and blessed a land we walked upon but our common heritage was a lost memory. We are turned into neighbours divided by distance and language. We approached each other through suspicion and we saw the reflection of strangers. So we got scared and we made new enemies.
We raised cities and drew borders and we united proudly under our colors and superstition. Wealth and prosperity became the foundation of our great nations and those less fortunate diminished beyond oblivion. Our survival blood nourished our grabbing hands but the grass was always greener on the other side. We were trapped under the color of our banner and the sense of fulfilment was nowhere to be found. Our needs never gave us silence and there were no more lands to claim. So we got scared and brother turned against brother.
We mastered the power of thunder and a spark of enlightenment spread throughout the civilized world. We became masters and servants under the force of technology and those who controlled its power claimed to be gods and ruled upon others. Every breath we took smelled the spring of success but we drained the lands and materialized our societies. And we imprisoned ourselves in boxes of ancestral wisdom. We fell down on our knees and pray and we only saw shadows of ghosts. So we got scared and we found new ways to destroy each other.
Look at us now, we are so scared. We surrender our hearts and minds to dogmatic ideologies and we celebrate death and destruction has our greatest masterpiece. We express our greatest achievements through our fears and ignorance and we catalyse our power through our primitive nature. We seek knowledge through ancient wisdom and we live our lives by doomsday prophecies. We are driven by an ever growing hunger and we’re always scared of not having enough. And the fact we are not going to live forever scares us so much that we seek salvation from this world and a paradise in another life.
But we haven’t always been scared…
Alongside our brute and ignorant nature another force pushed us through the ruthless chain of existence. We have always been an inquiring species and the mystery of nature captured our imagination from the moment we opened our eyes. We gazed at the world and through the night sky and our inquisitive minds pushed us beyond the boundaries of ignorance. We began to use our tools to reveal the forces of nature and we stripped down the fear that had bounded us throughout the ages. We caressed a world with our consciousness and we evolved intellectually and morally. And we reached insights far beyond what our fearful ancestors could ever have imagined.
We Homo Sapiens, we’re all connected to each other by our common heritage and we share the tree of life with every living thing. We have changed through time by the laws of nature and we acquired virtues that ensured our survival throughout the generations. We have fought for our existence against our natural enemies and we have endured the greatest ordeals. Our understanding of the world surpassed all of the living beings and nature rewarded our inquisitiveness with the insight of self-consciousness.
We are the only species in the world that became aware of its existence. We are the first to contemplate the nature of reality. We stand alone in understanding the concept of a better world and we have the only minds that can make dreams possible. We have proven time and again that when we put our efforts together we have the power to achieve greatness. Our unprecedented sense of love and compassion has moved us to found societies on freedom and justice and we have manifested our wisdom and ingenuity in great wonders throughout the world.
We have learned the power of sceptical inquiry and we have found new ways to recognize the poetry of reality. By climbing on the shoulders of giants we got the courage to leap up from our world and we have touched the surface of our celestial neighbor with our footsteps. We have explored distant worlds with our ingenious tools and we have discovered that the stuff we’re made of thrives throughout the cosmos. We have even glanced that the origin of space and time and we are finally beginning to understand our place in the universe.
We have made great progress and we’ve acquired great knowledge but our civilization is still far from its peak where we can live together in peace and harmony with nature. We still have many rivers to cross and we still have much to learn before we reach our full potential. If we want our civilization to survive and flourish then we need to stop being scared all the time and we need to embrace the nature of reality. And we need to stop pretending that we are a part of a divine purpose and that we’re going to be rewarded with eternal bliss.
Only when we accept that we’re not going to live forever will we be able to truly appreciate the short spark of our existence and live our lives fulfilled. Only when we come to terms with our true nature will we be able to divert from our brute heritage and create a society where we can share the world together. Only when we base our knowledge on facts and evidence will we be able to connect with the true wonder of the universe and celebrate the miracle of life. And only when we realize that we are the authors of our own future will we be ready to leap out from our planetary neighbourhood and reach distant worlds and new civilizations.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Christopher Hitchens on the Vatican

Would you care to see my video of the advice given by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez de Trujillo, the Vatican's president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, carefully warning his audience that all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass? Close your eyes and try to picture what you might say if you had the authority to inflict the greatest possible suffering in the least number of words. Consider the damage that such a dogma has caused: presumably those holes permit the passage of other things too, which rather destroys the point of a condom in the first place. To make such a statement in Rome is wicked enough. But translate the message into the language of poor and stricken countries and see what happens. During carnival season in Brazil, the auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro, Rafael Llano Cifuentes, told his congregation in a sermon that "the church is against condom use. Sexual relations between a man and a woman have to be natural. I have never seen a little dog using a condom during sexual intercourse with another dog." Senior clerical figures in several other countries—Cardinal Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua, the archbishop of Nairobi in Kenya, Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala of Uganda—have all told their flocks that condoms transmit AIDS. Cardinal Wamala, indeed, has opined that women who die of AIDS rather than employ latex protection should be considered as martyrs (though presumably this martyrdom must take place within the confines of marriage)."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Richard Dawkins on Noah's Ark in The Greatest Show on Earth

It is almost too ridiculous to mention it, but I'm afraid I have to because of the more than 40 per cent of the American population who, as I lamented in Chapter 1, accept the Bible literally: think what the geographical distribution of animals should look like if they'd all dispersed from Noah's Ark. Shouldn't there be some sort of law of decreasing species diversity as we move away from an epicentre – perhaps Mount Ararat? I don't need to tell you that that is not what we see.

Why would all those marsupials – ranging from tiny pouched mice through koalas and bilbys to giant kangaroos and Diprotodonts – why would all those marsupials, but no placentals at all, have migrated en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia? Which route did they take? And why did not a single member of their straggling caravan pause on the way, and settle – in India, perhaps, or China, or some haven along the Great Silk Road? Why did the entire order Edentata (all twenty species of armadillo, including the extinct giant armadillo, all six species of sloth, including extinct giant sloths, and all four species of anteater) troop off unerringly for South America, leaving not a rack behind, leaving no hide nor hair nor armour plate of settlers somewhere along the way? Why were they joined by the entire infraorder of caviomorph rodents, including guinea pigs, agoutis, pacas, maras, capybaras, chinchillas and lots of others, a large group of characteristically South American rodents, found nowhere else? Why did an entire sub-order of monkeys, the platyrrhine monkeys, end up in South America and nowhere else? Shouldn't at least a few of them have joined the rest of the monkeys, the catarrhines, in Asia or Africa? And shouldn't at least one species of catarrhine have found itself in the New World, along with the platyrrhines? Why did all the penguins undertake the long waddle south to the Antarctic, not a single one to the equally hospitable Arctic?

An ancestral lemur, again very possibly just a single species, found itself in Madagascar. Now there are thirty-seven species of lemur (plus some extinct ones). They range in size from the pygmy mouse lemur, smaller than a hamster, to a giant lemur, larger than a gorilla and resembling a bear, which went extinct quite recently. And they are all, every last one of them, in Madagascar. There are no lemurs anywhere else in the world, and there are no monkeys in Madagascar. How on Earth do the 40 per cent history-deniers think this state of affairs came about? Did all thirty-seven and more species of lemur troop in a body down Noah's gangplank and hightail it (literally in the case of the ringtail) for Madagascar, leaving not a single straggler by the wayside, anywhere throughout the length and breadth of Africa?

Once again, I am sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small and fragile a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 per cent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah's Ark. We should be able to ignore them and get on with our science, but we can't afford to because they control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers, and they include many members of the United States Congress, some state governors and even presidential and vice-presidential candidates. They have the money and the power to build institutions, universities, even a museum where children ride life-size mechanical models of dinosaurs, which, they are solemnly told, coexisted with humans.