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Death: A Secular Humanist View on the End of Life

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We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones

Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who in fact will never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.  Certainly these unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.  We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.  We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

-Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow:  Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

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The True Origin of Morality

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There isn’t much question that our moral instincts —beginning with empathy—are a product of evolution by natural selection.  Here’s how it works:

Every living organism has self-replicating material called DNA that determines its physical characteristics.  Occasionally the DNA in an organism spontaneously mutates in a way that causes changes in its offspring which are harmful, neutral, or helpful.  If the change is harmful, the offspring is less likely to survive to reproduce, so the mutation eventually dies out.  If the change is helpful, however, the offspring thrive and reproduce more offspring, and the mutation spreads.  Eventually, over long periods of time, the mutant and non-mutant forms of the original organism separate into different species, which is why after millions of years there are so many varieties of life on this planet, from single-celled bacteria all the way up to us incredibly complicated human beings.

I’m no evolutionary anthropologist, but when it comes to morality, I think the most important DNA mutation of all time must be the one that separated the first of us mammals from our reptilian ancestors.  After all, while reptilian brains work just fine when it comes to managing hunger, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, reproduction, and the other basics of survival, they have no capacity for memory or emotion.  We mammals, on the other hand, have added to those reptilian instincts what biologists call the limbic system, which enables us to feel emotions, remember experiences, and cooperate with one another as a survival strategy.  Because more complicated brains take longer to fully develop, however, mammals can’t take care of themselves at birth, and therefore must be nurtured by their mothers.  That is where empathy begins, evolutionarily speaking, with the natural selection of those first females who noticed when their offspring were cold, hungry, or endangered, and responded to their needs in ways that kept them alive.

Evidence for the evolution of maternal empathy—which quickly spreads to other relationships—appears in our heads, where our brains produce and process the oxytocin, endorphins, and other hormones associated with cooperative relationships.  It also appears in the interactions of the chimpanzees and bonobos studied by primatologist Frans de Waal, who points out that human beings are not the only animals that love, fear, share with, steal from, hold grudges against, forgive, miss, and ultimately grieve one another.  On the contrary, many social animals live in highly structured groups where rules and inhibitions, competition and cooperation, and petty selfishness and acts of genuine kindness are everyday realities.  What emerges in such groups is the most basic rule of every moral code:  Behaviors that cause the group to thrive are rewarded with food, sex, status, or some other benefit, while behaviors that harm the group are punished with violence or shunning, or some other immediate penalty.

What sets us human beings apart, de Wall suggests, is the later development of an additional part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, where we reason, think logically, recognize the passage of time, generalize our experiences, and make complex decisions.  Our prefrontal cortexes are what enable us to extend primitive moral intuitions into universal standards of behavior—like the Golden Rule—and combine them with increasingly elaborate systems of justification, monitoring, and punishment.  That’s where religion comes in, of course, when a group gets too big to reinforce its values the old-fashioned way, and must invent powerful supernatural enforcers with eyes in the sky to deep us in line. 

As de Waal put it in his The Bonobo and the Atheist:  In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (2013), “It wasn’t God who introduced us to morality; rather, it was the other way around.  God was put into place to help us live the way we felt we ought to.”

Bart Campolo, former evangelical Christian evangelist, now a secular humanist, in his book, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, pp. 110-112

Dear Progressives: Do not be Discouraged if Roy Moore Wins the Alabama Special Election

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Polls indicate that there is a very good chance that a man who has been accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual conduct while they were teenagers will win the Alabama special election tomorrow night.

Yes, if Moore wins it will be disappointing, but I encourage progressives and moderates not to despair.  Alabama is about as “red” and conservative as a state can get.  Things will get better.  I can’t promise how soon, but things will get better.  It will get better (more progressive) because America is changing demographically.  America is becoming less white.  We are seeing minority populations becoming a larger and larger percentage of the American electorate with each new four year presidential election cycle.  In addition, more young whites are having children/marrying persons of color (in particular, Hispanics) giving rise to a rapidly growing, new, non-white demographic group:  mixed race families and children.

The angry, over-fifty, conservative, white male may see a few more political victories in the next few years (such as tomorrow),  but I believe that his days of possessing a monopoly on the seats of power in this country are drawing to a close.

Thank goodness!  (And I am an over-fifty, white male)

Don’t give up, progressive Americans.  Stand tall and strong for the American principle of equal opportunity for all inscribed in our living Constitution:  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“.  Those cherished ideals are not just for white men anymore.  They belong to all of us.

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Was Jesus the Original Author of the Golden Rule?

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As a conservative Christian, one of the pieces of evidence I was taught which supports Christianity’s claim that Jesus of Nazareth was God himself, was the “fact” that Jesus taught concepts which prior to his birth had never been heard of before, such as “loving your enemy”.  I was told that Jesus authored the “Golden Rule”.  Turns out, that isn’t true.

While some might argue that the Golden Rule itself is a Christian teaching, the ancient Egyptians wrote it down more than five hundred years before Jesus was born, as did Confucius in China and Thales in Greece and Siddhartha in Inda.  Later, but still before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel taught the same precept to his followers in the Holy Land, and versions of it appear in virtually all of the rest of the world’s great religions.  Ironically, none of these faith traditions supposes that any kind of supernatural revelation is required for human beings to know how to treat one another.  When it comes to morality, it seems, virtually everyone knows all we really need is everyday human empathy.

Bart Campolo, former evangelical Christian evangelist, currently an (atheist) humanist chaplain, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, p. 105

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Christians Did Not Read the Bible Literally until the Twentieth Century

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Of course, [modern skeptics’] problems are with what they consider the Bible’s many scientific errors and internal contradictions.  They have compiled a long list of Old Testament verses suggesting a flat earth, a Ptolemaic cosmology, a six-day Creation, and a variety of New Testament accounts that don’t agree with one another, let alone the historical record.

My response to such “problems” is simple:   They don’t really matter.  Sure, if you read it literally, the Bible contains some mistakes and inaccuracies, but that is not how its ancient authors intended it to be read, and that is not how it has been read by Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years.  In fact, the idea that the Bible is literally and inerrantly true is a relatively new one, introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century by a small group of American Protestants in a series of tracts called “the Fundamentals”.  Unfortunately, those fundamentalists and their followers have led lots of people—including lots of skeptics—into reading the Bible the wrong way.

As I see it, the Gospel writers were not as interested in the details of Jesus’s life as they were in the truth of it.

—Tony Campolo, liberal evangelical Christian evangelist, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, p. 102

 

Gary:  What???

First, how accurate is Tony Campolo’s statement that Christians did not believe the stories in the Bible literally until just one hundred years ago?  Let’s take a look at the sixteenth century:

“There is talk of a new astrologer [Copernicus] who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Martin Luther

 

From a Roman Catholic website:  “Though the majority of Church Fathers took the six days of creation as being six literal days, there was not moral unanimity among them on this question. In addition later Catholic authorities (e.g., Thomas Aquinas; see ST 1:74:2) recognized a diversity of permissible interpretations.


 

Hmm.  I think Tony Campolo should have done a little more research in Church history before making such a grossly inaccurate statement.

I’ve heard that Augustine questioned the literal interpretation of the Six-Day Creation Story, but other than that issue, how much of the Bible did ancient Christians read as metaphorical?  Did ancient Christians believe the Virgin Birth Story literally?  Did they believe the Birth in Bethlehem Story literally (both of them)?  How about the story of walking on water, turning water into wine, and feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish???

But these stories are small potatoes.  What about the foundational story of Christianity: the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; with women eyewitnesses discovering the empty tomb and the dead Jesus appearing multiple times to various groups of disciples over a forty day period?  Did ancient Christians believe that this story was metaphorical until the beginning of the twentieth century?

You see, dear Reader, moderate/liberal Christians like Tony Campolo shoot themselves in the foot when they try to convince us that, historically, Christians never read the Creation Story, the Flood Story, the Jonah in the Belly of a Fish Story, etc., etc., literally.  Because if all those stories were never intended to be understood literally, then how on earth can we be certain that the authors of the Gospels intended for us to literally believe a Virgin Birth Story and a Resurrected Corpse Story?

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Evangelical Preacher Tony Campolo Inadvertently gives Excellent Evidence for the “Something from Nothing” Argument for the Origin of the Universe

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In his book, Why I left, Why I Stayed, coauthored with his atheist son Bart, evangelical Christian evangelist Tony Campolo uses Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to support his very convoluted argument that Christianity should not be viewed solely from the perspective of a bloody human sacrifice for atonement of sins.  I don’t buy his argument.  However, while reading his argument, something stood out to me: His argument is excellent scientific evidence for why it is possible that the universe originated from nothing!  Maybe something CAN come from nothing!

“Nonsense!” Christians respond.  “Everything we know of had a beginning.  Something never comes from nothing.  It defies common sense to believe otherwise.”

Well, when it comes to common sense, humans have often been wrong.  Long ago, the ancients believed that the earth was flat.  It looks flat, so it must be flat.  That common sense view was proven wrong.  For millennia, the entire population of the earth believed that the sun revolves around the earth, until Copernicus proved that it doesn’t in the sixteenth century.  After all, we all watch the sun “move” across the sky, “rising” in the east, and “setting” in the west, only to circle the earth and “rise” again in the east the next morning.  Right?  But our eyes deceive us, don’t they?  The earth revolves around the sun.

So what about the concept that “Something can come from Nothing”?  I agree with Christians, it sounds preposterous, but as I demonstrated above, just because something is preposterous, just because something defies common sense, doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Let’s look at a recent scientific discovery that disproved this common sense belief: Time passes at the same speed everywhere.

Whether I am in Boston, Berlin, or Borneo, the seconds, minutes, hours, and days will pass at the same speed.  Whether I live in Chicago or Calcutta, I will age at the same speed.  People in one part of the world do not age at half the speed as people in another part of the world.  And common sense tells you that if you took a rocket ship to another galaxy, time would pass at the same speed as it does here on earth.  Right?  Wrong!

Here is what Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says, in part:

From Space.comAlbert Einstein, in his theory of special relativity, determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and he showed that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels. As a result, he found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.

Evangelical Christian evangelist, Tony Campolo:  “The new physics of Einstein challenges us to understand that time is relative to motion.  The faster I travel relative to you, the more slowly time will pass relative to you.  If I were to get into a rocket ship and travel into space at the speed of 130,000 miles per second relative to the people on this planet, with instructions to travel for ten years before returning, I would, upon coming back to earth, find that I had aged ten years, while everyone and everything on earth had aged twenty years.  With me traveling at that speed, twenty years of your time would transpire in ten years of mine.”    p. 99

Gary:  Isn’t that a mind-blowing scientific discovery?  Doesn’t that seem impossible based on common sense and what we humans experience in every day life here on earth?  Answer to both questions:  YES!  But science has proven common sense, once again, WRONG!  And I suggest that before we write off the possibility that the universe came into existence from nothing…we let the scientists continue to research this issue.