Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Letter From A Dispairing Father

Last week an enraged crowd threatened to burn my daughter alive, and in 48 hours a judge will decide whether she goes free or stays in jail. Rimsha is a minor with mental disabilities and often isn’t in control of her actions. Yet local police here in Pakistan have charged her with desecrating the Koran, and we are afraid for her life.

Right now she is being held in a maximum-security jail, and in hours, she will face the court under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, which can carry the death sentence. We are a poor Christian family witnessing mob fury over my daughter’s case, and many other families have faced similar intimidation forcing them to either flee or live in fear. But the international attention on Rimsha’s case has emboldened Pakistani Muslim leaders to speak out against this injustice and forced President Zardari’s attention.

Please help me keep up the global outcry on my daughter’s case. I urge you to sign my petition to President Zardari to save Rimsha and demand protection for us and other vulnerable minority families. Avaaz will share this campaign with local and international media, watched carefully by all the politicians here:



Pakistan court postpones bail decision for girl accused of burning Quran (CNN)

Father of Pakistani Christian ‘blasphemer’ girl appeals to President (Telegraph)

Pakistan blasphemy case Christian girl ‘is 14’ (BBC)

Pakistani Muslim leaders support Christian girl accused of blasphemy (Guardian)

Pakistani Christians, fearing backlash, flee community after girl is accused of blasphemy (Washington Post)

Pakistani president wades into ‘Down’s Syndrome’ blasphemy case (Christian Science Monitor)

Avaaz.org is a 15-million-person global campaign network that works to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people shape global decision-making. (“Avaaz” means “voice” or “song” in many languages.) Avaaz members live in every nation of the world; our team is spread across 19 countries on 6 continents and operates in 14 languages. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter.


What Is Atheism?

Atheism can be summed up in a few short words. Atheism is the rejection of a belief that is called theism by its creators and supporters.

So, what is theism?

Theism is the belief that there is a supernatural entity, intelligent and all-powerful, that created and, most importantly, can intervene in the universe and, especially, in the personal lives of human beings. Theists call this supernatural, supreme entity God and believe that God must be worshipped. To put it concisely, theists believe in a personal god who must be worshipped.

Is theism different from deism?

Yes. Deists believe that a God created the universe and laid down the laws which govern the universe but cannot intervene in its evolution. Deists do not believe in a personal, intervening god so reject theism.

What about polytheists?

Polytheists believe in many gods. For instance, thunder is a god, a mountain can be a god and so on. The gods are usually based on natural objects or events. There are many forms of polytheism and even similar polytheistic beliefs can vary in different areas of the world. Polytheism always involves the worshipping of the gods. An example is worshipping the god of lightning and hoping that by worshipping it, lightning won’t strike you. Theists, while they retain the belief that they must worship their God, reject the concept of polytheism. Because theism involves the rejection of polytheism and atheism rejects theism atheists automatically reject polytheism. Deists also reject polytheism.

Is there any evidence for a god or gods?

Deism is difficult to disprove as there is no evidence to gather. If a god created the universe and all its laws then who can prove it did not?

Polytheistic beliefs in many, natural gods has been shown to be false as science gathered the evidence about natural objects and events and gave them purely naturalistic explanations.

Theism, like polytheism, should also be relatively easy to disprove: if there is a god that intervenes in the universe evidence of that intervention should be observable and measurable. However, even as scientific evidence is gathered and evaluated, theists change the goalposts. Ah, they say, scientists cannot see the evidence because they do not have faith and evidence can only be seen by the faithful. There is plenty of evidence of God, theists also say, because of the personal testimony of believers.

There is no doubt that many humans get a psychological boost from the biological changes that can occur from belonging to a group of humans who hold the same or similar beliefs. Theists often become unstable at any suggestion that their beliefs are untrue. Because of this instability, reason can leave the group completely and normally rational individuals can become violent and aggressive. This violence and aggression can lead to murder and even genocide.

Can we deduce anything more about atheism from this short study of theism?

Well, yes.

  • Atheists are often sceptical of beliefs for which there is no scientific evidence or which cannot stand up to sceptical enquiry and reason.
  • A deist can be an atheist because deists reject theism; however, most atheists reject any belief that cannot be proved scientifically so most atheists reject deism.
  • Polytheism is rejected by atheists because polytheistic beliefs have been disproved by science.
  • Because atheists reject theism, and theistic groups can become unstable and lose touch with reality, most atheists are determined not to allow themselves to lose their ability to reason.
  • Many atheists are against the idea of forming groups themselves because, whether based on theism or any other belief or idea, groups can become unstable.
  • Many attempts have been made to bring atheists together but have failed. One of the reasons for this is because atheism is not a worldview; atheists have many and varied worldviews and they are often incompatible.
  • Atheists often remain intensely individualistic and many form their own worldviews distinct from one another.
  • Atheists’ only common interest is the rejection of theism.

Illness and the Unborn

Death of a young woman in the Dominican Republic

The worst thing is, the story linked above doesn’t have to be either/or. In the UK, we trust science and medicine far more than in Third World countries. I use the term Third World in this instance to determine not economic development but modes of thinking.

  • Countries comprising the First World have rejected religion as a guide to their national medicine and health systems and have completely adopted a scientific approach.
  • Countries comprising the Second World have largely adopted a scientific approach to medicine and health but still have pockets of resistance and a reliance of bronze age thinking as regards health and some elements of snake oil medicine. Countries like America falls into this category.
  • Countries falling into the category of Third World have severe restrictions on the scientific approach to medicine and health. Most of the theocracies fall into this category as do countries where religions are a significant threat to secular government.

The article below shows what can happen in Third World countries. And it is, for more enlightened societies a disgrace. So let me discuss the approach taken in First World countries. I have recent personal experience.

Last year, my daughter announced that she was pregnant. Three months later it was found that she was suffering from breast cancer. Immediately, a cancer team was formed to manage with her personal treatment. It was immediately decided that her life was to take priority; after all, after treatment she should be able to have another baby if she lost the one she was carrying. However, because she had passed into the second trimester, it was felt that the baby could survive a type of chemotherapy that should not pass through the placenta. My daughter was started on the treatment immediately. The baby would have to be delivered prematurely to allow a more aggressive form of chemotherapy to be used but the doctors would continue the first stage of treatment for as long as possible. Six weeks before full term, the baby was delivered by caesarian section and the more aggressive treatment was begun.

The baby spent five days in special care and then was judged to be doing so well that she was released to community care at home. My daughter’s treatment continued and ended when her breast was removed. She is still receiving Herceptin and will have her breast rebuilt later this year. The baby is now beginning to walk and shows no sign of the trauma before her birth. She celebrates her first birthday next month.

Of course economic factors will affect how much science and technology can be introduced in a country but if the First World mode of thinking is not entrenched within the minds of government ministers and the power of religion is not curbed, more distressing stories like that reported above will continue to come to light.

Confusing Religion with Belief

Last night, I watched a programme on BBC4 about the Lambeyeque (Lam-by-eck-ee) civilization of Peru, South America. While the content was interesting in itself, it threw up something even more remarkable about either the archaeologists and anthropologists who are involved in the uncovering of the pyramids of the Lambeyeque valley and the rituals of the people or, more likely, the interpretation by the BBC of the data supplied to them by the professionals.

Many have asked why the civilizations of South America succumbed so easily to the invasion by the Spanish. It is often attributed to their technology, wood and bronze weapons versus the steel and iron weapons of the Spanish. However, there is an even more fascinating reason that was touched on during the programme but then dismissed: the Lambeyeque had not invented the supernatural.

The media, especially when conveying supposedly factual information about archaeology and anthropology, seems incapable of reporting the bare facts. Like the man who destroyed the Channel4 production Time Team as a serious series, Tony “How wonderful, you’ve found a building; Ook, Ook, it must be a temple” Robinson, who seems to have become the true-life reincarnation of his Blackadder character, Baldrick, the media in general seems to confuse religious with non-religious belief systems.

The programme briefly touched on the fact that the Lambeyeque people believed that the gods were living beings but then departed from the facts by invoking an unsubstantiated belief in the supernatural. A religion has at its heart belief in the supernatural; without the supernatural, beliefs cannot be religious and the there is no evidence the Lambeyeque people believed in the supernatural. Rather, their gods were living, sentient beings that walked amongst them. Their kings were gods. Theirs was a political society and their beliefs were extensions of their political world. Lightning and thunder, water and floods were as real as the person standing next to you; the mountains contained spirits that were just as real. Those involved in the making of such programmes seem incapable of understanding that just because a people believed in spirits does not mean those spirits existed in a separate and distinct world called the supernatural.

This is why the South American civilizations succumbed so easily to the Spanish: they believed them to be gods, as real as you or me but with the power to invoke other gods, particularly the gods of thunder and lightning, as became obvious to them when the Spanish fired their rifles and cannons. Yes, the gods were more powerful than human beings but not in a supernatural way. The fact that the Lambeyeque people succumbed to diseases brought by the Spanish to which South Americans had no immunity only served to prove to them the immense power of the white gods.

There is evidence that the people of South America eventually realised that the Spanish were not, in fact, gods but were just ordinary human beings but the realisation came too late. By then, the Spanish had already won. And imagine the culture shock when Spanish ‘missionaries’ started teaching that there was a god who lived in a separate, supernatural world but who could influence living humans beings. The concept would have been mind-blowing. Any hope that the South American civilizations had of throwing the Spanish from their shores was destroyed by the confusion implanted in their minds.

It is easy for us in a modern society to condemn the indigenous South and Mezzo Americans for carrying out human sacrifice. Realising that they believed their gods were living beings who could only be appeased by feeding them with human blood and hearts goes some way to answering those concerns. It may still feel dreadfully wrong to us but we need to try to forget that our society is embedded with beliefs in modern gods that are part of a separate, supernatural world and try to envisage the Lambeyeque beliefs in living, non-religious gods.

It’s something that comes much more easily to atheists who can view beliefs in gods, whether religious or non-religious, from a factual perspective.

Evolution of Belief: Fetishism

It would be a mistake to think that the evolution of belief was like some sort of punctuated equilibrium, one belief being dropped when another was invented. Far from it. It would be more accurate to think of beliefs as memes that act like DNA, gradually evolving and building a genome over time. Animism did not give way to totemism, rather elements of animism and totemism merged as human beliefs evolved. Sure, over time one belief may have eventually been superseded by another but the evolving beliefs invariably incorporated elements of the earlier beliefs. Maybe earlier beliefs were eventually junked but they often remained in the background of people’s minds, reappearing as superstitions, which, while not real, helped humans get through their often miserable existences.

The evolution of beliefs usually went hand-in-hand with the social evolution of a family, eventually the amalgamation of a number of families and the evolution of social structures associated with a tribe. Each family’s beliefs merged or the biggest or most powerful family forced its beliefs on weaker ones. Usually the retention of a belief in its original form depended on a group of families, a tribe, being completely isolated from other tribes and societies.

The evolution of fetishism as a belief is often confused with magic or sexual deviation but it was one of the most important developments in human thinking. A fetish is an object, usually artistic, which has a special meaning. We saw that the artistic elements of totemism probably began as paintings on cave walls or rocks and probably depicted the totem of a family. It is, however, impossible to isolate painting as an art form. Remember that humans were still early in the stone age but were developing ever more sophisticated tools for killing and cutting meat, preparing vegetables, skinning animals for their fur and building living accommodation and modes of transport. Boats. As improved methods of working flint developed, chipping ever smaller pieces of flint became possible. Thin slivers were ideal not only for skinning but also for carving objects from materials like wood.

At first, objects were decorative, often used for bodily adornment. However, humans found that their brains could do something quite remarkable. They could think in the abstract.

Let us not forget that humans, although their societies were increasing in size and complexity, were still hunter-gatherers moving from place to place within an area. Painting a totem on a cave wall or rock meant that it would have to be repeated in all areas the tribe visited and would have become a particularly odious task. So the painting would instead be in one cave or on one rock in a place visited by the tribe. How much easier it would be to be able to carry a family’s totem with them? But there was a serious problem with that idea; if a family’s totem was a wolf but they visited areas where wolves did not roam, how could a model of the totem represent the animal in which their ancestors resided. The totem was a real thing, a part of their world, and as real as their departed ancestors. If the wolf was not in a place they visited before they developed the fetish they knew they would eventually return to the place where the wolf did roam and therefore they would return to their ancestors. Their ancestors were never far away.

Thinking in abstract, however, allowed humans to think of the object depicting their totem, their fetish, as a representation of their dead. But if their dead resided in the totem but not in the fetish, how could they keep their ancestors with them? For some humans it would not have made sense. So maybe their ancestors did not actually live in the totem but instead lived in a different world, a spirit world, and their spirits could coexist in the spirit world and in their fetish? Or their fetish need merely be a representation of the spirits who existed in the spirit world?

The development of fetishism meant that humans had to devise a new way of thinking about their dead. Being able to think in the abstract about their world allowed the invention of a spirit world. The evolution of of abstract thoughts about spirits would eventually lead to the invention of religion. Before then, however, humans found they had a more pressing problem. Their fetishes were all well and good but they couldn’t converse with the spirits of their ancestors residing within them like they could a living totem. The totem need not be able to speak but it could show them the way and protect them. Maybe each family or tribe needed someone special who could communicate with the spirit world and let them know what their dead were trying to tell them that would help them, the living, in the real, non-spirit world.

The True Olympians.

So many people in so many countries, especially the media of those countries, are rightly proud of sports personalities who are exceeding their personal goals while winning medals. However, the Olympics Games are parochial, ultimately individual, even when the sports involve small teams.

There are other, even greater, goals being achieved every day by humans who perform far away from the public spotlight: researchers making new discoveries that will improve public health; doctors, surgeons, therapists and pharmacists developing and testing medicines, surgical techniques and therapies that will aid individuals to live without pain and suffering; members of NGOs helping people in less developed countries to live without the fear of starvation and war, and technologists developing new materials that will aid communications and the ability to cope with global warming. These are just a few examples of the true Olympians of modern society.

There is another team of scientists who are reaching for the land of the other Mount Olympus. Olympus Mons, that is. For them, their excitement is reaching fever pitch as the Curiosity probe arrives and, it is to be hoped, lands on the red planet. For the Mars team of scientists there is little chance of personal glory; science has moved far beyond the days when scientists working in a shed in their backyards made new and exciting discoveries. Today, it is all about teams. Modern science is far too expensive and far too complex for the individual to make much progress. And in just a few hours, the Mars team will be able to gauge the success of their latest project.

New and exciting developments are coming thick and fast. The move from government-funded projects to launch shuttles to travel to and from the International Space Station to privately-funded organisations will allow organisations like NASA to concentrate on exploration. The Dragon vehicle has shown that private businesses can efficiently and safely make the milk-round deliveries. I can foresee the time when mining corporations will develop means of harvesting raw materials from planets and asteroids. I may not be around to see it myself but I can imagine the developments using informed hypotheses.

So, although we all feel the excitement and pride watching competitors in the Olympic Games winning medal and achieving personal goals let us also applaud all those who will not be lauded like athletes but who are ultimately much more important to human endeavour and achievement.

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