Sunday, November 19, 2017

IF (Deity=Y) THEN (Goto 500)

I have a lot of if/then beliefs.  For example, I don't believe in ghosts.  However, if ghosts are real, then I believe that cats can see them.  The second statement in no way softens the strength of my conviction of the first.  I don't think I could ever be convinced that ghosts exist. Even if I saw one, I would find another explanation.  But it's a quirk of my mind that if somehow I were convinced, I already have side beliefs that go along with it.

Religion's a bit easier. I've probably never believed in ghosts, but I've been Christian before.  So those side beliefs are already there, lying dormant, waiting to be activated in case my primary theology ever changes.

I've been an atheist for more than ten years, and I doubt I'll ever go back.  I'm not sure I would even know where to begin at this point.  According to Wikipedia, there are at least 4,200 worldwide religions.  Christianity alone has at least 30,000 denominations.

I like to think of it like a hotel with thousands of rooms, each room representing a different religion or denomination.  If you're currently in a room, then it seems black and white - everyone's either in your room or they're not.  But for those of us in the hallway, there's a seemingly infinite number of doors to choose from.  There's not much to indicate which one is the "right" door, they all look the same from here.

For every bit of evidence you have that your hotel room is the right one, I guarantee you that hundreds of other hotel rooms are offering the same evidence.  Your religion may use the cop-out, "We don't need proof because faith is what gets you into Heaven," but again, your opposing religions are saying it too.  Being in the wrong religion might be just as damning as being without one, so I'll just stay out here in the hall.

Yet despite my unwavering atheism, I have some strong ideas about the nature of God.  Do not take the following list as any indication that I'm warming up to religion again.  These are just my if/then beliefs.

IF God exists:

Basically, I believe God is both a scientist and an artist.  He's playing the ultimate game of SimCity, and after a lot of effort he has created a world that is both beautiful and scientifically sustainable.  More than anything he simply wants recognition for all the hard work he put into it.

I believe God wants us to study science, in order to understand and fully appreciate his work.  It's like the authors notes in some books, where the author tells us where they got their ideas.  God wouldn't have made science decipherable if he didn't want us to peek under the curtain.

I believe evolution is real, and that God guided it.  I believe the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that the "7 days" mentioned in Genesis are written in God-time.  The dinosaurs may have been an early experiment at creating life, but when that was unfulfilling, God wiped them out and started again, multiple times, until he finally decided to try his hand at a sapient species capable of actual civilization.

I believe the Bible was written in such a way as to be understood by the people of the time.  It was not meant to be taken literally 6,000 years later.  Why hasn't he given us an updated version?  I imagine he was hoping our moral code would evolve along with our scientific understanding, so that we wouldn't need to keep following an outdated instruction booklet.

I believe that a lot of the sins in the Bible were actually listed to keep people safe.  Certain animals were declared unclean because they had to be cooked thoroughly to prevent disease.  They were later made clean because humans were better at cooking.  In a similar vein, monogamy was encouraged at the time because sexual promiscuity could spread disease and could result in unwanted children.  Since the invention of the condom, God probably has a more relaxed view of sex.

I believe that a lot of the time when the Bible talks about the world, it actually means the universe.  I believe we are meant to eventually spread out to other planets.  I believe that God has put other civilizations elsewhere in the universe, and he hopes that we will eventually meet.

I believe God wants us to appreciate the beauty of the human body, rather than being offended by it.  While nudity can certainly be exploitative and sexist, people should not be outraged by nursing mothers and other natural nudity.  I believe that the reason we find nature so beautiful is because God wants us to preserve it and protect it.  The way humans carelessly destroy our planet probably angers God greatly.

I believe God is opposed to sexism.  A lot of misogynists think the Bible supports male domination, but I think that's just a sign of the times.  Back then the world was a much harsher place to live, and it probably made sense for the physically strong to make the rules, while keeping their weaker partners safe from harm.  In modern times, this power differential is no longer necessary.

I believe God is fine with homosexuality.  It's a natural human variation, like hair color or left handedness.  God may have even thrown it in to slow down population growth.  Yes, there are six verses in the Bible that supposedly condemn homosexuality, but those are misinterpreted, taken out of context, and/or only apply to people who lived 6,000 years ago.

I believe God is fine with abortion.  If God truly knows the future, then he knows which fetuses are going to be aborted, and therefore he wouldn't bother to put souls in them.  To claim otherwise is to admit you don't believe God is omniscient. Therefore, being pro-life is blatantly sacrilegious.  You might think I'm stretching there, but my logic is no more ridiculous than a lot of widely believed religious doctrine.

I don't believe the Second Coming or other apocalypse is meant to happen any time soon.  I'm absolutely horrified that there are people in positions of power who believe the world will end soon.  How are we ever going to save the planet if the world leaders believe there's a rapture coming up?

I believe most of the world's religions are really the same religion.  The same way urban legends change as they spread, so does religious doctrine.  Any religion that says, "be good, worship the creator, and you'll be rewarded after you die," is probably talking about the same deity.  People are willing to wipe each other out for worshiping what is essentially the same god by a different name.  I seriously doubt God wants anyone to kill anyone in his name.

I believe God disapproves of the rich.  That's a no-brainer, the Bible is pretty explicit in is disdain for wealth.  A rich person is someone who had the opportunity to help the poor, and chose to buy themselves more stuff instead.  It's pretty obvious they're not bound for Heaven.  But conservatives have convinced themselves that the poor deserve to be poor, and therefore it's okay not to help them.

I believe that Hell is just separation from God.  I simply can't believe that a good-aligned deity would punish people with eternal suffering.  The entire point of punishment is to correct bad behavior; there's just no logical reason to inflict everlasting pain on anyone.  Frankly, it sounds petty.  I believe that following God's moral code earns us the right to join his kingdom in the afterlife.  Those who fall short will be left on Earth, and their souls will simply cease to exist when they die.

I believe that a large majority of modern day Christians are doing it all wrong, and are going to pay the price.  The world is full of sexist, homophobic, racist conservatives, who somehow believe they will make it to Heaven by worshiping the rich.  I believe they will be quite surprised when the end comes.

Or Maybe...

Okay, now let’s change gears.  Above are things I would almost definitely believe if I believed in God.  The following are speculations - things I would think might be true, but only if I believed in God in the first place.

If there is a God, then I'm not sure he's actually magical.  I tend to lean towards more "sufficiently advanced alien" theories, or that this world is just a simulation.

If this is a simulation, maybe the history of the world came about in an attempt to bring about a smarter AI, one that can mix compassion with logic.  Perhaps those who pass the test have their minds copied to a higher folder when they die, while less useful AIs just get deleted.

I wonder if maybe Heaven is just what we're meant to turn the Earth into.  Those who follow God's teachings will make this world into a utopia, while those who embrace hatred will die out.  Perhaps we will eventually cure aging, fix world hunger, and create a world where nobody is ever poor or sick.  Maybe society will split into science-lovers and sun-worshipers, the former building giant bio-domes while the latter die out in the open from climate change.

Or perhaps we really will find a way to transport our minds into computers, and the biblical heaven actually describes a hard drive that "saves" our souls while our bodies are destroyed by some future apocalypse. 

Assuming God has a gender at all, I wonder if God might be female.  It honestly makes more sense to me for the Great Creator to be a woman. Letting us think she's a he, maybe that's just a test.  Maybe the ultimate final test will involve how society treats women.  I have this fantasy where the second coming occurs, and Jesus is an olive-skinned lesbian, ready to mete out judgement for all the racism and sexism by those in power.

Back to Reality...

But again, the above beliefs and theories assume I believe in God, which I don't.  In the real world, I believe that God is a myth that started with ancient people trying to explain things they didn't understand.  It amazes me that religion is so prevalent in 2017, and shows no sign of slowing down.  It also amazes me that despite most religions preaching about love, so many people use their religion to discriminate and hurt others.

Bottom line: I firmly believe there is no God, and we're destroying each other in the name of an urban legend.  But if there is a God, his followers are greatly distorting his teachings, and they're going to be very surprised when they get to the afterlife.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jury Duty

Last year I served on the grand jury.  For those who don’t know the difference – when most people think “jury duty”, they imagine getting sequestered for a couple of weeks while attending a single, drawn-out trial.  But the grand jury simply decides which cases go to trial at all.  We would hear about 30 cases a day, over the course of a few hours.  We didn't decide guilt or innocence, just whether or not there was enough evidence that a crime really happened.  The vast majority of the cases we heard did go to trial, but there were a few that we ruled would have been a waste of the court’s time.

I can’t talk about any specific cases.  Well, technically I probably can, as any cases I heard are likely public record by now.  But I’d rather not risk it.  More generally, I saw a lot of examples of just how evil people can be to each other.   Some of the crimes were funny, in a “world’s dumbest criminals” kind of way, but most of them were depressing.  I saw cases of theft, forgery, domestic violence, gang activity, murder, rape, child abuse, and so on.

We also went on a few field trips, and had a few guest speakers.  In order to help us understand just where we’re sending people, we visited a prison.  In order to understand how hard an officer’s job really is, we tried a “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” field training program.  We also got to watch K-9 training, tried on goggles that simulated being drunk, got to meet Nashville mayor Megan Barry, and even rode a helicopter around Nashville. 

The prison was pretty scary.  After going through several checkpoints where we had to surrender all personal items including phones, wallets, and even belts, we visited the building where they kept those who are in for life.  We got to go into a typical cell, which was small and efficient.  One of the inmates (in for murder) spoke to us for a while about his experiences in prison, mostly complaining about how bad the food is.  Then we got to see death row, and we were even allowed to sit in the electric chair. 

I was on the fence about that last one.  Before I sat down, I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons.  I didn’t want to be one of those callous jerks who makes light of such a serious machine.  I’m not a fan of the death penalty, and sitting in that chair almost feels like an endorsement of the process.  I finally decided to do it because it was probably my only chance ever to do so.  Maybe someday I’ll be glad I had the experience, maybe I’ll even write a story from a condemned inmate’s point of view.  So I made sure to note everything about the room, how the chair felt, and any other details I might want to remember later.

The “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” program was an eye-opener.  They give you a gun or taser, both of which were originally actual weapons that had been converted into harmless training weapons.  Then they show you a first person video of a dangerous situation an officer might face.  These videos had points at which they could branch into separate videos, like those old laserdisc light gun games (“Mad Dog McCree” for instance). 

For example, there was one where you go into a warehouse at night, and encounter a guy who shouldn’t be there.  He’s standing behind a table with a box on it, keeping his right hand behind the box.  He attempts to explain why he’s there, but he’s just talking to keep your attention of his hand.  Then he suddenly pulls his gun-wielding hand out from behind the box and shoots you… sometimes.  Other times it’s the same video, but he pulls out a stapler instead.  Less than half a second passes between the time you can see the gun, and the time he shoots you.  That’s how quickly you have to decide whether to shoot.  Too slow?  You’re dead.  Bad aim?  You’re dead.  Guess wrong?  You’re a murderer.

It really makes you think about how dangerous it is to be an officer, and you find yourself a little more sympathetic towards officers who have accidentally killed innocent people.  It doesn’t excuse a lot of the cases, but at the very least stepping into an officer’s shoes is enlightening.  And, I hate to say it, but it’s fun.  If they released that program as a video game, I’d buy it.

Nashville by Helicopter
The helicopter ride was my favorite part.  I had never ridden a copter before, and I really enjoyed seeing Nashville from that angle.  The copter was open on the sides, so the only thing keeping me in was the harness.  I was allowed to take pictures as long as I used the wrist strap – dropping a camera from that height could be deadly.  This was easily the high point of jury duty, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity.

All in all, I’m glad I was able to serve on the grand jury.  It was emotionally taxing and I don’t like being too familiar with the dark side of Nashville, but it’s something that has to be done.  I even hope I get the chance to do it again someday… but maybe not for a couple of decades.