Sunday, December 25, 2011
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Here, Jeff responds to some criticism that his last post received from David Driedger. Before you read on, I recommend reading Jeff’s previous post, Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling, and Mr. Driedger’s response to it, A skeptical rant.
Jeff wrote: Why should it surprise anyone that a skeptic can be happy and fulfilled, let alone that there would be more than ten reasons why skeptics are happy? Hell, I only chose the top ten reasons because I didn’t want to bore anyone by blathering on with the zillions of others. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that people of any different belief set or culture can be fulfilled and happy, well adjusted and socially connected. After all, Skeptics are real people, not the simple caricature that others would demand we are. We have hopes and dreams, families and friends. All of which are totally common to most of mankind. Why would you find it a surprise that skeptics would talk about this? Why would you call it “unhealthy”?
The blog post was not meant to be prescriptive, and it is not. Skeptics do not operate by edict as you apparently do. We think things through and decide if we disagree or not. The post merely recognizes what modern skeptics all over the world are saying. The top ten blog post was written by a skeptic for skeptics. The only surprise to me was that a liberal Christian popped in for a chat. So let’s chat.Anyone can criticize the modern skeptical movement, we make mistakes and are open to correction, but I highly suggest any critic attend a conference, seminar or venue where skeptics meet. Sit and listen to the rhetoric, logic, values (hopes and dreams) and you will quickly see that we are indeed a happy group of people. If you lack evidence that skeptics are fulfilled by their endeavor look to the size of the recent national and regional conferences in Europe, Canada, USA and Australia and ask yourself “Why do they return in increasing numbers year after year?” The answer is obvious, “Because it’s fun!” (Can I get a skeptical AMEN!)
Now, let me directly answer a few of your concerns.
You wrote: “Okay I will grant the how we got here but who we are and how to improve our lot, really?”
What we are: We are an evolved species. An overwhelming accumulation of evidence shows how we got here; right from the big bang through to evolution, (as you seem to agree) but it also shows who we are in the context of what we are.
I’ll explain further.There is no tangible evidence for dualism, so answering who we are must be possible by looking to the empirical evidence that comes from the sciences of neuropsychology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, biology and anthropology, to name a few. There is no need for supernatural claims to answer that question. For example, we already know that various human cultures differ greatly but further evidence shows us there are many common factors that make us who we are, including our all too human abilities/traits such as, moral reasoning, empathy, logic, extraversion/introversion, sociability, disposition and neuroticism, humour, and anger. I assert that “who we are” must be definable in the context of a material existence. To define who humans are using a supernatural framework is to exceed the evidence available at this time. J. Anderson Thomson defined this well when he said “We are risen apes, not fallen angels.” If you doubt science has already defined who we are you need only look to the reams of evidence available at any secular university in the western world.
To improve our lot: Skepticism, and in particular, applied and theoretical scientific skepticism, has done more to improve our lot in this world than any other undertaking known to man, including all religions combined. Next time you have an infectious disease I suggest you drop the pretense and admit that you already know to visit a doctor who practices western medicine. If you car won’t start you already know to have it towed to a shop that uses modern diagnostic tools and methods. (neither rolling the bones nor prayer will make it start). All of this scientific knowledge comes from those giants who stood before us and dared to dream about better ways of doing things and better ways of living.
Here are just a few of the greatest scientific advances that have made it possible to live as long and as well as we now do: The germ theory of disease transmission, disease vector epidemiology, nutrition, potable water, penicillin, x-rays, rocket science, evolution and much more. Studies show that when asked, parents display an overwhelming consensus, and will tell you that they hope their children have a safe healthy and long life. Science has shown it is uniquely qualified to achieve that goal. Therefore hope is a term that now has a secular meaning. For many people, skeptics included, we cannot imagine a better world without science and technology in it. Four centuries of the enlightenment through skeptical inquiry have paid off big time.
You also asked, “How does a willingness to change make anyone better? There is simply no relationship here.” I know many skeptics who have renounced their former dislike/hatred of homosexuals because they now find it possible to doubt the writings of Saint Paul and because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows homosexuals are just like the rest of us, and not like criminals and murderers as St. Paul says. I also know many non skeptics who change their diet when evidence is presented showing that they should be getting more of this or that in their diet. Willingness to change ones beliefs (and habits) when presented with contrary evidence is a virtue. Yes, I said it is a virtue. Nowhere in religion have I found an edict that states, “question everything” or “learn and adapt” or “plan, do, check, act”.
With regard to my “laughable” description of a skeptic cheering when the truth is discovered. I remember working with a team of colleagues performing tests on a synchronous governing system for many long nights while we were trying to restore it to service. We were confounded by its inability to control the speed of the machine it was connected to. When we went back to the office we looked at our drawings and each of us developed a hypothesis of why it would not work and then defined the tests we would use determine the fault. When one of my colleagues finally took her turn to run a test she removed and replaced a linkage that transmitted a signal from a compensating dashpot that we later discovered had been installed upside down. The unit immediately began to do its job. Everyone cheered. The only comments made by ALL of those whose hypotheses were proven wrong were, “Mark the lever so we will never have this problem again”, “Update the manuals”. No one else cared that their hypotheses were wrong, they only cared that they now knew the truth. (A one degree difference on the angle of the linkage would upset the whole machine.) We made sure we documented both the symptoms and the solution and moved on to solve other issues with that system.And so it is with most skeptics who are applying the scientific method in a whole variety of ways. These are people who are trying to make a difference in some way. When someone comes along and finds a solution we all cheer, because we are often working towards a common solution with a group of others.Please, laugh at that if it pleases you. Go ahead.
Regarding your reference to “strands of Pentecostalism” I consider such a silly statement ill tempered.Perhaps you were having a bad day when you wrote your response.
Friday, December 16, 2011
This article written by Gem Newman Founder of Winnipeg Skeptics. In it you get to see our entire commentary and find a link to the Christian Post article.
Jeff Olsson and I were interviewed yesterday by Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post (the most Christian of posts) for a piece he was writing on the subject of the Youth for Christ recreational centre that is preparing to open in downtown Winnipeg.
The article, entitled “Humanists, Skeptics Criticize New Youth For Christ Rec Center”, has now gone live. This is what Jeff and I had to say:
Youth For Christ will soon be opening up a rec center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has stirred attacks from residents via the Winnipeg Free Press. Complaints ranged from a preference for a secular facility directed towards helping disadvantaged youth to concerns over it being built via government assistance.
“I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ,” said Jeffrey Olsson of the Humanist Association of Manitoba to CP. “This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use.”
Olsson compared the YFC facility to that of past efforts by Canadian Christian organizations to evangelize aboriginal children, which he said resulted in thousands of disaffected youth.
Meanwhile, Gem Newman of Winnipeg Skeptics said that while he did not oppose YFC establishing their center, he was concerned about the government involvement.
“Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth For Christ a megaphone for their religious message,” said Newman.
Notwithstanding the fact that the author decided to characterise legitimate criticism as an “attack”, I think that the article was fairly balanced; certainly more than I expected. Jeff and I were asked to respond to criticisms levelled against the centre in this Winnipeg Free Press article. Although we were only given a few sentences, I don’t think that our positions were misrepresented in any way. All the same, some of our more cogent criticisms were not included in the final article. For that reason, I’ll include the text of the interview here.
Do you agree with the concerns and criticisms published in the Winnipeg paper?
Jeff: I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ. I will explain below in detail.
Gem: I do. I’m always wary when a sectarian religious organisation is given government funds, because this results in undue entanglement between the religious goals of the organisation and the (presumably) secular goals of the government. It can result in the appearance of government endorsement of the religious or philosophical perspective of the organisation.
Do you know of any connections the rec center has to the state? That is to say, was it built with tax dollars, jointly operated by city council, etc.?
Jeff: The Youth for Christ center was built with federal and city money … and was partially backed by private donations directly to the religious organization. It is completely controlled by YFC, with no city or federal direction being given for day to day operations.
Gem: To my knowledge, YFC has received [much] of its roughly $13.5 million budget from the government.
During the interview Jeff and I ballparked the amount of government funds that YFC received, but as we were on a very tight schedule I didn’t have the opportunity to look it up until afterward. While it’s tough to get an exact number, it appears that the centre received $3.2 million in federal funds and between $3.2 and $4.2 million in municipal funds, for a total of $6.2–7.2 million. The total cost of the project has been variously quoted as $9.6 million, $11.7 million, and $13.2 million. (Source, source, source. If any readers have access to more precise information on this subject, feel free to leave links in the comments.)
Specific details aside, it seems that the project is majority funded by federal and municipal tax dollars.
Do you believe that groups like Youth for Christ have good intentions? Do you believe they do much good for the communities they serve in?
Jeff: Of course YFC has good intentions. The central premise of their mission is that by bringing christ into the lives of youth, they will help to mentor and apostle youth and help them, to become better members of society. There is simply no evidence that this is true. There is evidence that drawing children further away from their parents, and removing them for their traditional cultural beliefs does damage as it divides the house hold on religious lines. Canadians have plenty of experience with this after the tragic residential schools program that forced 150,000 aboriginal youth into christian residential schools. This resulted in thousands of disaffected citizens, thousands of broken homes and a federal class action law suit against the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and United churches, and the federal government costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The law suit was won and payments are currently being made to tens of thousands of former students. Point Douglas residents have politely raised this issue at public hearings for the YFC center, only to be dismissed. Government intrusion into the religious lives of Canadians is just not unacceptable. This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use. They could have built and funded a small recreation center and everyone would have been ecstatic.
Gem: The youth in this area are at serious risk. While I find the idea of preaching to those who are vulnerable in this way to be distasteful, I recognise the rights of a religious institution to attempt to sway those to whom it gives aid toward its philosophical perspective. What I find most troubling, however, is that the government is effectively amplifying Youth for Christ’s message. If the government had spent its [money] to build its own recreational centre, youth in the area would have two places they could go: a small sectarian centre and a large secular one. Instead, they have only a large sectarian centre, funded mostly by the government. Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth for Christ a megaphone for their religious message.
Jeff: A bit of history: Until YFC arrived, there was no recreation complex in Point Douglas, the poorest area of Winnipeg and this YFC center was put forth as an alternative by our Mayor, Sam Katz and federal officials. Area residents had asked government for funding for a small a recreation/sports centre with paid staff and they instead got the YFC center. Community leaders had also asked for more money for youth programs to be directed to aboriginal youth and monies for those programs are being diverted for the YFC center. The youth drop in centers I refer to were not religious in nature, anyone would feel comfortable there.
A large number of the residents in this area are aboriginal and follow traditional aboriginal teachings rather than Christianity. Winnipeg has a population of 675,000 people of which 72,000 are aboriginal. Point Douglas has the highest percentage of aboriginal people in all of Winnipeg and is one of the largest urban gatherings of aboriginal people in North America. Aboriginal religious leaders for the areas are very concerned that this center will have an undue religious influence on their youth, leading them away from traditional beliefs. Parents are worried that YFC’s large multimedia stage will be used to send an overtly Christian message to any child who would attend a function at the center.
Meanwhile funding for aboriginal youth drop in centers has been dropped to at least two small organizations since the announcement for the new YFC center was made causing the, to close. Concerns have also been raised at other YFC locations in Winnipeg because the organization evangelizes aggressively, stopping sports events for a paid volunteer to lead “prayer time” and deliver a Christian message. Some youth who are not christian are pressured to participate in the ritual or be ostracized, where they have to leave while the message is being delivered. There is no simple way to opt out of the religious instruction. As president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba I have heard these complaints personally and I take such matters very seriously, especially when tax dollars are being used as a basis for funding.
Finally, there is the issue of tax dollars being used to Fund an evangelistic religious organization. This is a concern from a civil liberties perspective. Canada, is by definition multicultural we are not a “melting pot” as you are in the US.
Gem: I’m glad that the youth in the area have some place to go, but I think that government money is best spent on secular approaches to problems to avoid undue entanglement between religion and government. When I donate money to a charitable organisation, I want to know that it is going toward helping people in empirically demonstrable ways, rather than toward indoctrination. Canada already has a troubled history when it comes to religiously motivated mistreatment of aboriginal youth, and I’d hate to think that we haven’t learned from our mistakes.
So, what do you think? Were Jeff and I totally off base? We’re interested in hearing your thoughts about the article, what we had to say, and about the youth centre itself.
Edit: I amended the second paragraph above to include the title of the CP article, as several commenters had assumed (because of the title of this post) that the title of the CP article was “Humanists, Skeptics Attack New Youth For Christ Rec Center”. I used the word “attack” in scare quotes here because it had been used in the CP article to describe legitimate criticism of the youth centre. Sorry for the confusion!
Sunday, December 11, 2011
While recently reading up on comparative religion I stumbled across the Christ Myth Theory. As it turned out I have already seen some of the concepts within this theory before, even though I had not yet seen the whole academic case that explains how the life and historicity of Jesus Christ has recently come into question.
You probably agree, it's easy to imagine a "doubter" coming up with a conspiracy theory in an attempt to disprove that Jesus was a god. What I didn't expect to find was a well thought out, and documented history of other gods who share the same attributes held by the Jewish carpenter turned son of god. It's the level of documentation that is staggering. You don't need much more than the other stories to see the connection.
There are Christian apologists who have taken the time to defend the biblical story of Jesus Christ, and in all fairness we should read their analyses in order to get a fair and balanced perspective on the subject. The problem that I have with every single defense of the biblical Christ is that we are expected to make supernatural assumptions and jump to heavenly conclusions on the matter of Christ's godliness. You need only to invoke Occam's razor to see that the simpler answer is; the authors of the stories in the new testament have copied some of the major aspects of the life of Jesus from works produced by authors that predate his existence. After all they are good stories! Saying that the devil inspired them in other cultures to disprove the real son of god is just crazy.
I am of the opinion that a man named Jesus actually existed, and that along with other men who claimed to be the christ about two thousand years ago, lived in or near Nazareth and Jerusalem. I do not believe that he said everything that the biblical texts claim. Nor do I believe he was a god. As you will see below, there are well documented stories that hold great similarity to the biblical texts. Consider also that scholars agree that the gospel texts were not written until 40-125 years after the death of Christ.
Here is a quick break down of the stories told about some of the Gods that predate Christ.
Horus: story dates to 3100 BCE. Born of a virgin depending on the version of the story you read, slept in a manger, baptized at age 30, the man who baptized him was beheaded, walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, descended to hell, rose again three days later.
Attis of Phyrga: 1200 BCE. Born to a virgin on December 25th, considered saviour of the world by his followers, his body was eaten by his worshippers (as bread), was crucified on a tree and descended to the nether world. Three days later he rose again.
Dionysus: 1500 BCE. Born of a mortal virgin named Semele on December 25th. Was the son of a God named Zeus. Was placed in a manger, was worshipped in a eucharistic ritual. Was called King of Kings, God of Gods, saviour, redeemer, alpha and omega and only begotten son of god.
Zoroaster: wikipedia states,"There is no consensus among scholars about the period of life, with the estimated dates of his birth range from 6000 BC to 400 BC. The majority of his life is known through the Avestan texts." He was born by immaculate conception, baptized in a river, was tempted in the wilderness by the devil. He started his ministry after being baptized at the age of 30. When he baptized others he baptized with with water, fire and the holy wind. He spoke of the resurrection, judgement and apocalypse. His followers worshipped him in a eucharistic manner and referred to him as the "word made flesh". Casting out demons and restoring sight to the blind were just two of the miracles he performed. His greatest struggle was against the ruling class of priests, and the "ill will" they heaped upon his ideas.
I'll stop there, even though there are a number of other ancient gods whom I could write about including, Krishna, Buddha, Glycon, Heracles, Odysseus and Romulus. Perhaps next week. Besides, I think you get the point the stories in the bible are hardly original.
Sent from my iPad
Saturday, December 10, 2011
The funny thing is that I found this page by reading an article about it in Science Daily, an online science news magazine/website.
Hey, if Science Daily can recommend the wiki page, I know it must be good!
Have a great day, and don't be biased!
From my iPad,
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
This has been a remarkable year for Humanists in Manitoba. As our membership slowly grows we find fresh new faces attending our meetings and asking interesting questions about what humanism is, and how it can make a difference in the world. I enjoy listening to other peoples responses, as there are so many different perspectives about why being a humanist is fulfilling, helpful, interesting or meaningful.
Some like to count the number of people who attend each meeting, while some focus more on each (excellent) speaker of the month and discuss the science or social issues presented by that speaker. Others simply enjoy the camaraderie that occurs at each meeting. No matter which part you enjoy, we are glad to have you in our midst, and glad you take the time to come out and be a part of things.
The upcoming year will present a challenge for all of us: Christians in southern Manitoba have flagrantly disregarded the laws protecting the human rights and dignity of those children who do not have religion in Manitoba public schools by instituting mandatory prayer. Meanwhile the minister of education has washed her hands of the issue stating that those whose rights have been trampled can 'simply' issue a complaint with the human rights commission.
As humanists we know all too well that children don't fare well when issuing human rights complaints against adults. Intimidating adults. This is clearly a case where the government has lost the will to enforce it own laws. Laws written after the the disgusting events that caused abuse and injury to an entire family after their teenaged son refused to stand up for school prayers in southern Manitoba.
It seems like a step backwards to have to fight this battle again, but this issue is the one that will make HAM stand up and speak its mind.
In the upcoming year I encourage you to attend those key meetings where we will endeavor to have speakers address these issues. Be a part of the fight for human rights in Manitoba.
Jeffrey Olsson, President
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Secular Humanism is a dynamic life stance that allows those that call themselves humanists to hold a wide variety of views and beliefs. The central focus on human values is expressed in the ethics and politics of humanist organizations around the world. There are a number of ideas that are generally accepted and talked about in humanist circles that seem to resonate with virtually every humanist I have ever met. Here are the top ten:
1. No need for gods. Humans can understand nature and the universe around us without the need invoke mythologies about gods. As a secular humanist you seem to agree that old creation myths have a certain appeal, and can even help us to learn lessons about ourselves and human nature. As entertaining as they may be that is where their utility ends. The idea that the world can be explained without the need for gods was expressed by Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 - 526 BCE). Thales studied the sun and planets and took the time to measure their size with crude instruments and by developing new methods within Euclidean geometry to finalize his observations. The rejection of the need for a god to explain who we are and how we got here means that for all secular humanists the scientific method is seen as one of the best ways to know ourselves and the world around us.
2.Reason over faith. Secular Humanists prefer reason over faith. As a secular humanists you don't accept faith as a valid way 'knowing' the truth about anything. You agree that it is better to admit we do not know the answer to a question rather than to use faith to jump to a conclusion. There are numerous philosophers who have stated this over the centuries , some as early as 600 BCE, but none said it better than Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1637) who said, "Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith looks for nothing but obedience and piety." It is for this reason that secular Humanists reject beliefs in the absence of verifiable evidence such as those beliefs based on dogma, revelation, mysticism, or appeals to the supernatural.
3.Democracy and free speech. As a humanist you uphold the need for democratic principles in all human relationships. Along with many other philosophies, the concepts of democracy and free speech come from ancient Athens and other Greek cities where people used the democratic process to directly rule themselves. The word democracy comes for the word demos, which means "the people" and the word kratein which means "to rule". When joined together the two words mean "the people rule". With the rise of Christianity and later Islam, democracy died out completely until the scientific enlightenment began in europe in the late 1600's. To be a humanist is to prefer democracy over religious rule and engage the right to free speech and dissent.
4. Equality and dignity. As a Humanist you assert that in order for democracy to work as a system, each and every citizen must be seen as equal, having autonomy to determine their own actions without infringing on the rights of others, and an equal say along with all other citizens to determine the activities undertaken by of their community or government. Equality and dignity are the pillars of any democratic society and are both necessary to ensure that all citizens are treated fairly, with kindness and respect. It is for these reasons that humanists feel The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. Written by humanists from all over the world, this document sets the standard for human interaction like never before.
5. Fair society, including freedom of religious belief and freedom from religion. As a Humanist you look for the improvement of society so that no one would be deprived of the basic necessities of life. Institutions and societal conditions should be improved to provide every person with opportunities that allow them to develop to their fullest potential. It is for this reason that humanists are often advocates of those who are underprivileged or downtrodden. While you pay little heed to various religious ideologies you recognize that if you are to have the freedom not to believe, others must also have the freedom to choose for themselves. Any fair society will allow the basic freedoms and you know that we must collectively protect that right.
6. Reason is Superior. Social and personal problems can best be solved by means of human reason, intelligent effort and critical thinking joined with compassion and a spirit of empathy for all living beings. This seeds of this idea idea were put forth by Democritus ( 460 - 351 BCE) who also asserted that it is unnecessary to invoke imaginary or mystical sanctions to solve our problems. Secular humanists do not feel it is necessary to petition a god, spirit, or any other supernatural entity when problems arise. Humans have what it takes to solve their own problems.
7. We are inseparable from nature. As a secular humanist you agree that we are all completely a part of nature and that our survival depends on a healthy planet that gives us (and all other life forms) the life supporting environment that we need. You also affirm that the process of evolution is the process that has caused us to be who and what we are.
8. Human interdependence. In the same way we are inseparable from nature, we are also inseparable for each other. Humanist (Maslow) and evolutionary psychologists (Hamilton) explain the fact that we are a social, animals, and that human interdependence is absolutely necessary for happiness and fulfillment. Good human relationships and friendships are the hallmarks of good mental health. Why? Because we have evolved to be this way.
9. A sense of responsibility to others. In the same vein as human interdependence, the idea that we are responsible to one another is rooted in evolutionary and humanist psychology. You cannot be a happy and fully functioning human unless you take care of your relationships with others. Healthy humans display empathy and socially responsible behavior. As a result, human nature is not seen in a negative light by humanists, but instead is seen as something to be developed by each individual.
10. No moral absolutes. The idea that any one person, or god can determine what pleasures humans can or cannot enjoy is simply not acceptable. Each person is responsible to determine what life style and what pleasures fit best for them within the framework of equal rights and a respect for the basic rights of others. Sin has nothing to do with our choices, instead, its a matter making choices that are considerate of those around you. As Epicurus said, "No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves". The challenge is to live a full life while respecting others basic human rights as well as their right to live according to their own needs and desires.
Russell, Bertrand (1945). The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
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