Sunday, July 30, 2006

Iron Chariots

If you haven't heard about it already, please go take a look at my new counter-apologetics site, Iron Chariots. Iron Chariots is an atheist wiki, meaning it is a resource that anyone can edit once they have a membership. We've announced it on The Non-Prophets, and I posted a link on the atheist board at The Motley Fool. So far the site is off to a great start, with 17 editing members and 134 pages of content. We need more! Browse the wiki and become a contributor today.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

30 Days

Morgan Spurlock's TV show, 30 Days, has just started its second season. On an upcoming episode, airing August 9 at 10 PM on the FX channel, an atheist will move in with a Christian family for 30 days.

I actually heard about this episode last year through the ACA and sent an audition tape, but didn't get the part. They wanted an atheist to go live with a Christian family for 30 days. The money sounded pretty good. However -- and here's my sour grapes rationale -- it would also have been my first semester of college, so I don't know how difficult it would have been for me to keep up with my first couple of months of classes.

I know atheists are probably feeling burned by reality TV after the Infidel Guy episode of WifeSwap, but I got a pretty good vibe from the producers of this show. I did, however, question their motive in having an atheist live with a Christian family rather than the other way around. It seemed to me from the episode I watched on the DVD they sent (a straight, uptight Christian lived with a gay San Franciscan for 30 days) that the show usually puts "normal" people in unusual living arrangements.

They assured me that they weren't looking for an atheist revelation and conversion, and they were hoping to get a very insulated fundamentalist family and give a wider perspective. I think part of the reason they didn't reverse the situation was because they didn't think they would be able to showcase a "typical" atheist lifestyle.

In the meantime, I watched the season premiere on Thursday. It was only the second episode I've ever seen, but I'm now officially hooked.

In this episode, a Cuban-American, anti-immigration Minuteman volunteer went to live with an undocumented Mexican family in Los Angeles for 30 days. When he arrived, there was a definite undercurrent of hostility, and they got into some real table-pounding arguments. By the end of the month, he had truly come to think of them as some of his best friends. He actually visited their former home in Mexico and brought back videos of their family, whom they could not visit themselves, because they would not be able to return. Some of their kids were young enough that they had never met their own grandparents.

As a general rule, I don't like reality TV. Wait, let me qualify that. I like the first month or so of American Idol, when Simon Cowell is eloquently crushing the dreams of talentless hacks. But it's a guilty pleasure. Those shows don't uplift. Shows like Wife Swap are usually a freak show: we took one insane family and switched them around with another insane family, now let's watch the sparks fly! It reminds me of how Jerry Springer the radio host often says of Jerry Springer the TV show: "Don't watch my show. It's garbage."

But 30 Days seems different to me. They didn't dehumanize either the family or the minuteman. In fact, the minuteman got plenty of chances to air his opinions, and they weren't completely crazy. Immigration is one issue where I'm very ambiguous; I understand both sides. I do think, however, that tramping around the border toting guns is more about feeling manly than about accomplishing anything constructive.

But with this guy -- they put him in a new situation, and he learned something. They couldn't have given him a better character arc if it was scripted. The family came off as very sympathetic. They understand his arguments against immigration, although he angers them. But they don't feel like they have a choice, and this feeling is strongly backed up when you see what are the living conditions that they left in Mexico. There is also a side story about the teenage daughter trying to be the first in the family to go to college. The end of the show implies that she got accepted, but she'll have a hard time figuring out where the money will come from.

When I sent in an audition tape, I seem to remember that they were going to pay $15,000 to whomever they selected. That should help.

The show was very uplifting in the end, which is something I can't say about very many reality shows.

I'm still very anxious to see how the atheist episode plays. So far, in both shows that I've seen, the person who moves out of his own environment is the one who is the most sheltered and closed minded. I REALLY hope this isn't what they're trying to get from an atheist living with Christians.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jesus the Judge

There is an analogy that I have heard for Christianity which I think bears discussing. I heard it a few times on radio sermons, and I recently had it presented directly to me in an email exchange that I had with a Christian acquaintance.

It goes like this: Imagine an honest judge in a state with a "3 strikes" law, who has his daughter come before him for the 3rd time (ignoring that he'd have to recuse himself from the case). His beloved daughter has had warnings to change, but she ignored them. Though he loves her, he has no choice but to sentence her, and apply the "wrath" of the state to repeat offenders.

But wait! Then the judge finds a way out: "I must sentence my daughter to prison, but I don't want her to go because I love her. The law demands that the sentence be carried out. Therefore I will go to jail in her place."

The point of the story is that you are the criminal, and God is the judge. By law, you deserve death for your sins, but Jesus came down to carry out the sentence in your place.

This story also tries to deal with the common question, "Why would a loving God send people to hell?" With God cast in the role of a just but sympathetic judge whose hands are tied, the "angry god" image is softened a little.

The story about the judge and his daughter is very cute and heart warming, except for one little thing. Once you stop to think about it, it doesn't make an ounce of sense.

In the first place, the law -- and I'm talking about real world, American law -- doesn't recognize the validity of one person being punished in another person's place. And it's a good thing, too! Just imagine if a serial murderer was brought to trial, and the judge sentenced him to five consecutive lifetimes in jail. But then the murderer's mother steps forward and says "Hold on! Don't put my boy in jail! I'll serve the sentence for him!" The judge would have to be COMPLETELY INSANE to allow that sort of thing to happen. Suppose the guy goes and kills again, then how good an idea was it to put the mother in jail? In principle, we don't punish crimes just because we believe in "eye for an eye" retribution. We put people in jail because it stops them from committing more crimes, and deters others from committing crimes as well.

Which brings me to the second point: Once the daughter is set free, there is no purpose for the judge going to jail, other than symbolism. Who is benefitted by having the judge locked up? Certainly not the judge. Not the daughter. Not the victims of the crime.

No, part of what makes the story sound superficially reasonable is it uses an unjust law as the example. Let's face it, "three strikes" is ridiculous. A kid who is caught possessing marijuana for her third offense has no business going to jail for the rest of her life. Whereas if the crime had been murder, or grand theft auto, the story would make you go "Hey, waaaaaait a minute..."

So if the judge decided that the law was unjust, then there are a few simple solutions: Just let her go! Strike that law from the books! Get her off on a technicality! Find her guilty and then help her appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping they'll rule the law unconstitutional! But the judge actually serving in her place? That's not noble, it's silly.

The bigger problem is that when you apply the analogy to God, you realize that the judge also created the law. Then it makes even less sense. Why does the judge "have no choice but to sentence her"? If the law has a really good reason behind it, then she should fulfill her own sentence. If she girl shouldn't be serving the sentence after all, then maybe it's time to rethink the law.

I'm reminded of Iolanthe, a comic play by Gilbert and Sullivan. In this play, a fairy falls in love with a human judge and marries him. According to fairy laws, the penalty for marrying a mortal is death. There is a dramatic scene in the end, where the fairy queen agonizes over her decision because she loves Iolanthe and doesn't want to kill her. But Iolanthe's husband, bragging about his legal expertise, has a brilliant solution: Why don't they just add a word to the law, so it says: "Let it stand that every fairy shall die who DOESN'T marry a mortal"? So the law is changed, and all the fairies scramble around to find husbands and live happily ever after.

Now that's a hilarious story. But it doesn't seem any more hilarious to me than an all-powerful being who decides that he has to subject himself torture in order to avoid carrying out a law that he wrote himself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An atheist goes to church

This past Sunday, I went with my friend Matt and my wife Ginny to attend a late morning church service.

It was Matt's idea; I just went based on a whim. Matt was looking for new material for The Atheist Experience, so he called me on Saturday afternoon and told me he was thinking about going to church. I immediately said "I'll go!" The truth is, I've been thinking about giving it a try for years now - just walking in on a service to see what it was all about. I don't think I've ever just "gone to church" before. Being of Jewish heritage, I've been to plenty of temple services. I've sat through Christian weddings in church, and sung with various choirs in cathedrals that have some great acoustics. But I've never actually sat in on a Sunday preachin' session.

So really, I was ready to go and all I needed was an excuse. Having Matt along made it sound that much more fun; if it was boring, I wouldn't be bored by myself. Ginny wasn't going to go originally, because she goes hiking with a friend every Sunday. But the hike was rained out, so she drove back from whatever remote location she'd picked and showed up just in time for us all to get seats together.

Matt already talked about the experience on the 7/2/06 episode, and if you already saw or listened to that episode then much of this will be simply a retread. But I like to write things down.

Matt decided we were going to the Gateway Church, a location Matt picked primarily on the basis of a massive advertising blitz wherein they presented themselves as a very laid back, hip, young people kind of church. There's one billboard featuring a blue jean-clad pair of legs, with an electric guitar next to them, and next to that is one of their slogans like "Come as you are." For the sake of getting the FULL experience, I might have preferred a full on fire-and-brimstone Baptist church, but this is what Matt decided on this week.

The church was a great big auditorium with stadium seating. There was a big jumbotron type screen overhead, and before things got started, there was a countdown to worship time. There were three cameras to capture all the action. The show opened with a live band, and then there was a rock hymn with the lyrics displayed on the overhead screens, karaoke style.

Then IMMEDIATELY after the opening music, the collection plates came out. The lights went dim and some guy started playing a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his bass guitar. He was a good guitarist, or at least Ginny thought so. I was a little too distracted by the blatant manipulation of patriotic fervor while they were collecting money. In addition to the song selection, the screens were displaying a big ring of stars on a blue background, superimposed on a waving flag. Needless to say, we didn't contribute any money.

The lights came up and a skit started. The skit involved a cranky, bitter young woman who feels that her life is empty. She comes home and talks to herself. It seems that she's got everything she wanted when she was young: marriage, kids, a good job, a nice apartment... so why does she feel so empty??? She doesn't feel satisfied with her life, and she makes herself depressed by looking at women in magazines whose body she'll never have, and she doesn't feel satisfied with the fact that she achieved some goals.

Then some more music played. Part of the conceit of the skit was that the woman lives next door to one of the guitarists and yells through the walls about how much her life sucks, so he soothes her with pretty music.

Then finally we got the pastor. The pastor was a young man in his twenties. He was casually (but hiply) dressed and his arms were covered with tattoos. He had a good crowd voice and generally came across with the air of an accomplished motivational speaker.

The theme of the sermon was "sand castles." It's based on a Bible verse that says, in a nutshell: "Build your life on a foundation of Jesus. Because if you build it on anything else, it's like building a castle on sand." ("The other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em! It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So, I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!")

So the pastor started by telling an anecdote about building sand castles when he was a little kid. The ocean washed it away, so he built the next one on the hood of the car. But at the end of the day, they had to drive away and that castle fell down too. The way he told it was very cute and entertaining, but the whole story was so contrived that I had a strong suspicion that it didn't really happen to him, even though he told it very earnestly in the first person. It seems more likely to me that there are books of these sermons that pastors are supposed to "borrow" but personalize.

Anyway, the sermon continues the theme of the whiny woman in the apartment: all your accomplishments are irrelevant, because life sucks without Jesus. To drive the point home, the pastor went through a checklist of some things from which people might derive pleasure and satisfaction, and proceeded to knock them down and ridicule them. "What should you build your life on? The approval of OTHER PEOPLE? Huh? Well guess what, other people aren't always gonna approve of what you do. My wife doesn't even approve of me all the time! But God will always approve of you!"

Wait a minute. Now I may not be up on my salvation lingo, but I thought the whole point of the Jesus story is that God DOESN'T approve of you. God FORGIVES you, because Jesus covers your sins through his sacrifice, but you're still a sinner, and that still pisses God off.

And no, as an atheist, I don't seek approval from all people all the time. However, I do find it consistently more rewarding to be on good terms with most people, some of them being close friends, most of them maintaining a basic level of civility, and nearly all of them just agreeing not to kill me thanks to social order.

To continue: "What are you gonna build your life on? Your ACCOMPLISHMENTS? Huh? Well I've got news for you, your accomplishments are a waste of time. You think you'll be happy if you get that promotion, or buy that big TV, or lose that weight. But you won't! Because when you accomplish something, you're left with an empty feeling... you mean that's ALL?"

Again: that's not my experience. The problem is that this mentality assumes that there is an endpoint to happiness. There will be a certain pinnacle you reach where you are absolutely happy, and then there's no need to strive for any accomplishments ever again. This makes no sense. Striving to accomplish things is part of what makes life fun. When you reach a goal, you search around to find a new goal for yourself. I enjoy getting a new goal. I enjoy working towards that goal. And I enjoy the satisfaction of looking back and seeing that goal completed.

Just because I'm pleased with what I'm done, doesn't mean I'm in some state of ultimate, final happiness. But nor does that mean that I am miserable and my life sucks. Things just are the way they are. You can enjoy things the way they are, or not enjoy them.

My problem is that the sermon was clearly intended to steer you towards the "not enjoy" category. It was a subtle encouragement to look on your own life and find things to get depressed about. Like any good sales pitch: create a void in the customer's life. Then state that the void can only be filled with all-new better-tasting Jesus soda. It was a very cheerful, bouncy, and upbeat presentation. But the message is an astoundingly negative one.

Another amusing point is that while the pastor was talking about empty accomplishments, he said "Now just because your accomplishments don't have ultimate significance doesn't mean that you should just give everything up. If you're the CEO of your company, I'm not saying quit today and walk away." At that point Ginny leaned over and whispered, "Yeah, because they need your money!"

Unlike some churches, there were no Bibles in the seats. Instead, every time the pastor referred to a particular verse, the passage would appear on the overhead screens. Except that the language in the Bible verses was unusual. They were using some weird translation, like the "New International Hipster Version." There was all sorts of modern lingo. Jesus is referred to as "driving" while you're a "passenger". Paul apparently talked about something being like a "house of cards." And there was one verse about a smart carpenter and a stupid carpenter, which I'm quite sure isn't how it goes in King James. Overall, nearly every verse sounded slightly jarring and anachronistic in some way.

It was clear that every aspect of this church was meant as a marketing gimmick to pull in 20- and 30-somethings. The pastor's speech was just larded with references that kids from the 80's would get. At one point, he referred to three or four movies in one quick analogy: 16 Candles, Top Gun, and The Breakfast Club are the ones I remember.

It's a marketing ploy that delivers. The audience was all very young; I would guess that I was in the top half of the age range at 31 years old. And they were all quite casually dressed. I dressed up a little bit nicely, not knowing what to expect: black slacks and a button-up blue shirt. I was clearly overdressed.

I'm not really complaining, as such. If I actually wanted to go to church, this is probably something that I might like and not be intimidated by each week. Then again, the friendly atmosphere doesn't change the fact that the message is so profoundly negative. You are miserable, everyone is miserable, and you are doomed to always be miserable until you accept this meme and start believing in things that can't be shown to exist.

Of course, another interesting question that the new hipster churches raise is: what about Pascal's Wager? Is it actually good enough to go once a week in your grungy clothes, sit and watch a rock show, a skit, and a kid who gets you jazzed up about the 80's? If it is good enough, then why do so many churches bother with the stuffy atmosphere and the fire and brimstone "believe or die" mentality and the behavioral commands? And if it's not good enough, then won't all those so-called "Christians" be surprised when they find themselves in hell, or left behind at the rapture? Hmmmm...