Entitlement and Religious Exemptions

What the New Zealand Herald Refuses to Understand

While driving to work today, I heard a news item about an employee of SkyCity, Tuni Parata, is facing some degree of disciplinary action after being found with a personal book on her. Apparently this is in breach of SkyCity uniform code, which does not allow employees in certain roles to carry personal items such as mobile phones or books. I was wondering why this was in the news, then it was mentioned that the item she was found with just happened to be a pocket Bible. Okay, I thought, that’s probably why it made the news, but no big deal.

Then, when having lunch, I saw this headline on the front page of the New Zealand Herald:

Thou shalt not…
casino bans Bible

I read the article to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood when I heard about the story on the radio in the morning, and two sections stuck out to me:

As a general principle, staff in customer service roles are in breach of SkyCity’s uniform standards if they carry items such as mobile phones, books and other items which might interfere with their customers.

Grainne Troute, SkyCity’s general manager of group services

a union rep told [Ms Parata] it didn’t matter if it was “a Playboy magazine or a Bible, it was not work-related material, therefore should not be with you front of house and certainly not being read”.

Perhaps whoever wrote the headline didn’t bother to read the entire article? Unfortunately, it seems more likely to me that this is indicative of the Herald prioritising getting more readers over accurately representing the truth. If there is anything indicative of bad reporting, it is having a higher priority than accurately representing the truth. This headline is misleading, implying that the fact that the specific object Ms Parata was found with was a Bible was somehow relevant.

The article is available online under the headline Casino worker faces action over Bible at work. I don’t know why the headline is different here, and although it’s a certain improvement on the misleading sensationalistic one used in the print version, it’s still fixated entirely on an arbitrary detail.

Society is overprotective of religion. Religious ideas escape the criticism to which other ideas are subjected in the name of “respecting the beliefs of others”. As a result, when a religious idea is treated just like any other idea (or, like here, when a religious book is treated just like any other book) some people are going to think that the issue is about religion, and attempt to explain the discrepancy from normal behaviour by some prejudice against religion specifically. That’s what this article seems to be trying to do, particularly with its headline.

However, as expressed in the quotes above, that’s not the case. The discrepancy is because religion is not being handled with kid gloves. This woman has been told she’s not allowed personal books at work, and that includes her personal religious book, whether it’s important to her or not. I like to call this being treated as an adult. Instead of treating this woman like a child in the name of “respecting her beliefs”, the organisation is respecting her by treating her like an adult. I applaud them for this, at least. People are more important than ideas – they deserve respect by default whereas ideas should always stand on their own merits.

In reading this story I am also reminded of events like pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions on religious grounds. I realise the scale is entirely different here, but at some level the concept is the same: there is a conflict between one’s job and one’s religion.

I’m going to practise as I preach now, and give Ms Parata the respect of applying the same standards to her religious ideas as I would to her secular ideas. According to the Herald article, she made this claim:

Ms Parata said that carrying a Bible was a vital part of her faith and relationship to God.

Just to emphasise how ridiculous this sounds when we’re not handling religious ideas with kid gloves, I’m going to swap out a couple of words for essentially equivalent ones that belong to a religion that is typically treated with the respect it deserves by non-adherents:

Ms Parata said that carrying a copy of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a vital part of her faith and relationship to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I doubt, however, the Herald or the union would be acting so outraged if this were the case.

EDIT:

It looks like SkyCity is going to grant Ms Parata an exemption from this rule – she will be allowed to carry her pocket Bible with her at work. I understand how this might be seen as necessary from a PR perspective, but I withdraw my statement of support. By exempting her from this rule on religious grounds they are respecting her beliefs over her, and not treating her like an adult. They’re furthering religious hypocrisy and I certainly will not support that.

I also think it might be worth clarifying that I’m trying very hard to make no comment on whether or not I think the policy is a good one. Whether or not the policy should exist or be enforced in the first place is irrelevant to my discussion; it’s the hypocrisy I take issue with.

The Point of Life

Last week, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about a particularly nasty sign outside a church here in Auckland. I asked her more about it and she told me that it was outside Greyfriars Church, which is on Mt Eden Road, and that she walked past it every day and would agree to taking a photo to send me.

Here’s the photo she took:

Without God Life is like a blunt pencil NO point
GREYFRIARS WELCOMES YOU
Without God
Life is like
a blunt pencil
NO point

Or, as I might paraphrase it, “if you’re not one of us your life is pointless”. Gee, thanks Greyfriars Church, I sure feel welcome now. As another commenter on Facebook said:

Might as well said “Life without god is like a blunt pencil, easily fixed with a sharp blade.”

This is the kind of negative message I both love and hate to see being displayed by a church. This sort of thing excites me because I can see how it could be effective in driving people away from the church and generating negative publicity for it by bringing its bigotry to centre stage, but at the same time seeing such anti-atheist prejudice in my own city saddens me.

The underlying philosophy of messages like this is that human life has a global purpose, and that purpose was given to us by the Christian god. Following on from that, you can reach 2 conclusions:

  1. In order to fulfill one’s purpose in life, one must dedicate their life to “God’s plan”.
  2. To distance oneself from God is to distance one’s life from purpose.

This message is basically conveying the second conclusion here. It’s similar to the tactic of threatening people with hell, but a bit less extreme. I imagine those who wrote the text on the sign thought it would sound more like an offer, as in “join us and we can help you find purpose”, but to me it reads more like “never forget you are less than we are”.

I understand that the concept of “God’s plan”, associated with this idea of a universal purpose, is generally considered a comforting idea among Christians. The justification for this, as I understand it, is that the concept of always having a guiding hand over their lives lessens the bad things in life by making them a necessary part of this plan.

However, as I see it, the main function of this concept is one of disempowerment. They are told that their lives belong to another. They are told both that they have free will and that the right thing to do is to renounce their freedom that they might better serve as the hand and the mouth of their god. In particular, this is the core of evangelism.

The concept of a divine purpose to life in general is usually seen as comforting because it is compared with a life with no purpose, as demonstrated by this sign. Of course, one need only look at the world to realise how massively false this is. There are millions of people living lives without any gods who are driven and passionate and, yes, purposeful. The difference is that we are not passively accepting another’s cause for our lives, but determining our own purposes.

This is the truly empowering idea. Your purpose is your own. It comes from within you and from all around you, and it is whatever you want it to be. It never has to be set in stone, and it never has to change, but it depends on you, and while people may be able to take freedom from you, they cannot take your purpose unless you let them. It saddens me greatly to see so many allow churches to take their own purposes away and replace them with the empty plan of an absentee god.

An Imaginary Einstein and the Problem with Faith

If you’ve been on the internet before, you may have seen a story that’s been passed around for several years with titles like “Christian Student Humiliates Atheist Professor” or “Einstein Humiliates Atheist”. I’ve seen this story many times before, and was recently reminded that there are still people credulous enough to share it.

The version of the story I encountered is quite long, but here it is in its entirety for you to peruse:

TAKE TIME TO READ. It’s worth reading it. Trust me :)

Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?

Student : Yes, sir.

Professor: So, you believe in GOD ?

Student : Absolutely, sir.

Professor : Is GOD good ?

Student : Sure.

Professor: Is GOD all powerful ?

Student : Yes.

Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?

(Student was silent.)

Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good?

Student : Yes.

Professor: Is satan good ?

Student : No.

Professor: Where does satan come from ?

Student : From … GOD …

Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?

Student : Yes.

Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?

Student : Yes.

Professor: So who created evil ?

(Student did not answer.)

Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they?

Student : Yes, sir.

Professor: So, who created them ?

(Student had no answer.)

Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD?

Student : No, sir.

Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard your GOD?

Student : No , sir.

Professor: Have you ever felt your GOD, tasted your GOD, smelt your GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter?

Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.

Professor: Yet you still believe in Him?

Student : Yes.

Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?

Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.

Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.

Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?

Professor: Yes.

Student : And is there such a thing as cold?

Professor: Yes.

Student : No, sir. There isn’t.

(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.)

Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.

(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.)

Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?

Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness?

Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?

Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ?

Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.

Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how?

Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.

Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?

Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.

Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?

(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.)

Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?

(The class was in uproar.)

Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain?

(The class broke out into laughter. )

Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.)

Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.

Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.

P.S.

I believe you have enjoyed the conversation. And if so, you’ll probably want your friends / colleagues to enjoy the same, won’t you?

Forward this to increase their knowledge … or FAITH.

By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.

For quite some time this story has been my go-to example of a straw man, and I think it’s a fascinating example of how fictional characters inherit their author’s ignorance and have their demonstrable intelligence bounded by the intelligence of their author.

Now, hopefully I don’t need to tell anyone that not only was Albert Einstein not involved, but this entire tale is all but certainly fictitious. Most absurdly of all, in my eyes, is the idea that the author of this felt the need to pick an recognisably intelligent person as their champion of Christianity, but they didn’t even bother to pick someone who happened to have been a Christian.

While these comments do much discredit the alleged non-fiction status of this story and highlight the credulity of those who have propagated it, I haven’t yet said anything about the arguments it puts forth.

I suppose the most obvious rebuttal to this story is that both characters (and, presumably, the author) share the same catastrophic misunderstanding of how science works. Science is simply not about the traditional “5 senses”. What is seen/heard/felt etc. is generally referred to as eyewitness testimony, and it is the absolute weakest form of evidence.

For example, we can only directly detect electromagnetic radiation within the relatively small realm of visible light and, to a lesser degree, infrared in the form of thermal radiation. However, the fact that no human has ever seen, heard, felt, tasted or smelt radio waves does not in any way imply that radio waves do not exist or that any form of faith is required to believe that they do exist. To imply otherwise is frankly moronic.

It is precisely because our own limited perceptions fail us so easily that we need a tool such as science. Based on such ubiquitous problems as imperfect memory and confirmation bias people commonly come to ridiculous conclusions. If we care about the truth, we cannot allow ourselves to rely on such things.

The obvious issue with drawing an equivalence between “darkness” being the absence of visible light and “cold” being the absence of heat and the idea that “evil” is the absence of a particular god has the obvious problem that it is exceedingly easy for us to measure visible light or heat, yet the presence of absence of any gods has never been measured or detected. This argument that “evil” is synonymous with the absence of a particular god is, more than anything, an attempt to simply define that god into existence.

Even if I were to accept the idea that “evil” is just a word used to represent the absence of a particular god, the only other properties of this god that are implied are that they are neither omnipresent nor evil. In fact, presumably such a god would be incapable of evil, denying as well the property of omnipotence. In my mind, this concept of being incapable of evil would completely disqualify the Christian god from this position, but that’s an argument for another day.

The imaginary student’s comment on death being simply the absence of life is also mistaken, as death and non-life are not synonymous. In biology, death is the aftermath of life – a cell can die but a rock is simply non-living, it is not dead. This is just a semantic issue, though, so I won’t spend any more time on it.

The mudslinging against evolution is also wrong. Not only has evolution been observed in the lab, but the evidence for evolution is mind-bogglingly vast and varied. The existing fossil or molecular evidence alone, for example, would be enough to all but prove evolution. Given how disturbing I find creationism, and how fascinating I find evolution, you can expect to see a post or two dedicated to this topic at some point.

Faith is the opposite of scepticism. Whereas scepticism is a cognitive tool that can allow you to believe only that which appears to be true, regardless of what you may want to believe, faith is a cognitive tool that can allow you to believe only that which you want to believe, regardless of what may appear to be true.

When examining an idea, there are essentially two potential scenarios in which you might find yourself – either you do have enough evidence to come to a conclusion, or you don’t.

If you do have enough evidence to come to a conclusion, then faith is utterly unnecessary. If you don’t have enough evidence to come to a conclusion, whatever that might mean in this particular case, then you simply don’t have a good reason to come to a conclusion and any faith would be entirely unwarranted.

The only case in which faith is useful in any way is when you need to bridge the gap between insufficient evidence and an unjustified conclusion. If you care about believing in things that are true as opposed to just whatever takes your fancy, then this is something you simply shouldn’t do.

To prove that faith can be used to believe untrue things, you need only to look at people. So many people in our world have religious faith, yet many of the conclusions reached by such faith are incompatible with one another, such as the Christian idea that Jesus is the son of their god and the Islamic idea that the same god had no son. I would also argue that conclusions reached by religious faith are also, practically without exception, incompatible with reality.

If you care about believing in things that are true, this is obviously a problem. Scientific scepticism is the best means we have by which we can ensure that we believe only things that are in accordance with reality.

Scepticism is the virtue here, not faith. Faith is abhorrent.

Napier Church Replaces One Stupid Message With Another

Recently, a billboard was put up by the Napier Equippers Church in New Zealand carrying the message “Jesus heals cancer“, later accompanied by a tally of 6 representing those whom the church believed to have had their cancer healed by Jesus. 9 complaints were made to the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority about the billboard, which prompted an investigation.

The executive pastor of the church, Earl Joe, has said:
“We’ve seen, just recently, six people healed from cancer”
“Can Jesus heal cancer? Yes, we believe he can.”
“We’ve actually seen healings in the church, yes cancer, absolutely.”
He also said the church’s members believed that Jesus could “heal cancer, or the common cold, or the headache”.

Since the start of the investigation, the church has replaced the billboard with a very similar one. The new message reads  “Jesus heals every sickness and every disease – Matthew 4:23”

JESUS HEALS
The billboard as of 29th February 2012 (source)

I absolutely loathe seeing any promotion of the dangerously wrong idea that so-called “faith healing” can actually heal, especially in the case of terminal illnesses such as cancer. Faith healing simply doesn’t work, and promoting it in any way is irresponsible. Whoever’s idea this billboard was should be ashamed of themselves.

Even though there were complaints about this billboard, I think it’s a decent example of how criticising religion has become a social taboo. Jody Condin, who spoke to the Hawkes Bay Today about her outrage about the billboard, seemed to feel the need to defend her actions:

“If the church and its members truly believe that Jesus heals cancer, then fine, that’s their view and each to their own”

Imagine if a non-religious organisation had put up a billboard claiming to know that they have a treatment that can heal cancer, but in reality the treatment had no such effect, and it was trivial to discover this.

How does the fact that it would be a non-religious claim make that any more of an abomination than the religious claim put forth by the billboard? How much worse is it to claim that the same treatment can “heal any sickness or disease”? People should not need to feel guilty when speaking out about dangerous lies such as this.

In response to the first message Sue Chetwin, the Consumer NZ chief executive, said “Do we want regulations for this sort of thing? A sensible person would probably ignore it”.

Again, perhaps extending this response to an equivalent claim made by a non-religious organisation will demonstrate how absurd it is, and make the answer seem more obvious:

Yes, claims in advertising about what will and what will not heal sickness and disease, especially potentially terminal illnesses such as cancer, should be regulated. I would have hoped that would be obvious…

On the plus side, I now have a new reference passage that I can use to demonstrate some of the blatant falsehoods in the bible – Matthew 4:23.

(found via Friendly Atheist)