Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Would Change Your Mind?

Atheists are often asked what it would take to convince us that a god exists.

There are a number of throwaway answers to that question that it might be tempting to give you. Perhaps if the moon were suddenly covered in flaming letters readable in every language simultaneously, or if the stars suddenly rearranged themselves to spell out a divine message, that would be convincing. Perhaps if God himself descended in glorious flames to tell me personally that he was there, I could be persuaded. And really, I could toss any of those out as the answer to the question, but I think it would be dishonest to do so. Because I don’t know that any of them would convince me.

After all, depending how these various revelations might manifest themselves, there could be natural explanations for any of them. These might range from hallucination, to natural phenomenon, to intervention by ultra-advanced aliens, to some explanation that I haven’t yet even conceived.

There’s this concept/joke in engineering: unobtainium (yes, the word existed before James Cameron created his MacGuffin for the Avatar movie). It refers to a hypothetical material that has all the properties you need in order to solve an engineering problem, except for the fact that it doesn’t (and often can’t) exist. It’s called unobtainium because it’s literally not obtainable, and that’s why appealing to it is a joke. I kind of see appealing to God as an explanation for a mystery as being like designing for unobtainium. Except that if I suggest that I can solve a problem with unobtainium, the other engineers laugh and then we go find a real solution. If I suggest that I can explain a mystery with God, large portions of the population not only take that as a real explanation, they will act as if it is nigh criminal to set that aside and go looking for a real explanation.

The thing is, no engineering problem has ever been solved by sticking with unobtainium. Nobody ever built a bridge or flew a rocket into orbit by throwing up their hands and declaring that it simply couldn’t be done until we discover unobtainium. And nobody ever made a discovery about how the world works by throwing up their hands and declaring the mystery couldn’t be solved without a god. All of our experience tells us that it’s irresponsible to declare “God did it,” and stop looking for any other explanation.

And here’s the thing: we will never discover unobtainium. By it’s nature, it’s undefined because it is literally whatever is needed to solve whatever problem you have. If we have a problem, and discover a material that solves it, that material will be something defined. It wouldn’t qualify as unobtainium. And God is the same way: the concept, at least in Abrahamic religions, has evolved to become the being that has whatever properties are needed to solve any mystery (and yes, I do mean evolved – the earliest portions of the Bible don’t really describe the sort of being modern Christians describe when arguing for their God). That means it is inherently undefined, so how would you ever identify it if you saw it?

So what it all comes down to is that I don’t see how I could be convinced to change my mind. I can only imagine it would have to be some sort of experience so emotionally overwhelming that it overrides the sorts of concerns I’ve raised here and elsewhere. I won’t say that it’s impossible that I might have such an experience, because absolute certainties are few and far between in life, if any exist at all.

On the other hand, all Abrahamic religions and many others as well feature rather prominently at least one character who knows absolutely what it would take to convince me: their god. I would think that an omniscient god would know exactly what would convince me that it exists, an omnipotent one would be able to do it, and an omnibenevolent one would want to do it. So maybe that’s in my future.

But I don’t think it’s likely.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is the Constitution Based on the Ten Commandments?

One of the more ridiculous claims one sometimes comes across in church/state separation debates is that the US Constitution is based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. This is one of those claims that makes you wonder how anyone can confidently make assertions about the content of the documents, when those assertions make it plain that they haven’t read either of them. And that’s leaving aside the question of what the Ten Commandments actually are; there are multiple different versions based on which version of the Torah/Bible you’re reading, aside from the fact that the collection we think of as the Ten Commandments aren't actually what the Bible identifies as the Ten Commandments. But put that aside, and let’s take a look at how the Ten Commandments are reflected in the Constitution, shall we?

Commandment 1: I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

No portion of the Constitution names Yahweh, or any other god, as an object of religious devotion, and it acknowledges only “We, the People…” as the source of authority for the government. In fact, there’s only one mention of any religious subject anywhere in the Constitution. It appears in Article VI, and it reads like this:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

That explicitly forbids the government from requiring a particular religious profession from any of its members. In other words, any member of the government is explicitly allowed to place other gods before the Biblical one if they so choose, or to have no god whatsoever. They don’t even need to know anything about any religion, much less a specific one. But what about the rest of the people?


Well, the Founders took care of that one, too, with the First Amendment which reads:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


That explicitly forbids the government from requiring a particular religious belief or practice. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States explicitly gives its citizens the right to violate the First Commandment. Government enforcement of the First Commandment anywhere in the US is absolutely illegal. Clearly, the First Commandment has no support in the Constitution whatsoever, so we’ll move on to the second.


Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This one forbids the practice of idolatry. It is clearly contradicted by the First Amendment as well, which denies the government the ability to limit either your religious beliefs or your speech (which is usually interpreted to cover artistic expression). The US government employs many symbols embodying “images or likenesses…” of things that are “in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (e.g. the Great Seal of the United States), and none of this is even remotely suggested to be forbidden by the Constitution. So we can only conclude that the Second Commandment is also entirely unrepresented, and its legal enforcement forbidden, by the Constitution.


The Ten Commandments are now zero for two. Let’s move on to the third.


Commandment 3: You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

What does this even mean, to “take the name of God in vain?” Some people toss the phrase around as if it refers to any direct verbal reference to God (whether by name or by title), whereas others seem to treat this as violating an oath sworn to God. If we’re talking about that first sense, quite clearly that’s First Amendment territory once again and the government is forbidden from enforcing it. The second sense is a little more complicated, in that the Constitution does require things like oaths and affirmations for certain offices and treats these as legally binding promises. Bear in mind, though, that everywhere that the Constitution requires an oath, it explicitly allows the alternative of affirmations. Affirmations are secular promises, and are always treated in the Constitution as legally equal to oaths to God. So the Constitution doesn’t seem to treat “taking God’s name in vain” in the promissory sense as being any different or more serious than violating any other legal promise. So I’m gonna go ahead and score this one as a zero in the Constitution as well.


Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Yeah, this doesn’t get even a mention in any way whatsoever. Zero for four.


Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your god is giving you.

Also not mentioned in the Constitution. Zero for five!


Commandment 6: You shall not murder.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the Constitution does not forbid murder. There’s a good reason for that, of course: the Constitution does not define the behavior of the citizenry so much as define the structure and powers of the government. While it does give the government authority to pass laws for the common good (and forbidding murder is obviously in the interests of the common good), the Constitution itself does not forbid it. So believe it or not, zero for six!


Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.

Also not mentioned in the Constitution. Zero for seven!


Commandment 8: You shall not steal.

Finally! One that sort of gets a mention without being outright prohibited! The Constitution gives Congress the authority to raise a navy for the purpose of preventing piracy. Piracy is a form of theft. So for the first time in the Constitution, we see that something the Commandments forbid is actually mandated to be prevented. Of course, piracy is really only a narrow subset of theft. We’ll be generous and score this one at half a point.


Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Perjury! Perjury is bad! Perjury is… not mentioned in the Constitution.


Commandment 10: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

This is what’s called a “thought crime.” As in, it tries to directly forbid a certain kind of thought: namely, coveting. Not only is this not covered in the Constitution directly, it is utterly unenforceable. Indirectly speaking, it must clearly also be contradicted by the First Amendment, since in order to have the right to speak any idea you must also have the right to think any idea. Also, coveting what other people have is a major motivation behind the US economic system. Once again, a big fat zero.


Total score for the Ten Commandments versus the Constitution? 0.5/10. If I’m being generous. I actually don’t think it would be out of line to score those Commandments whose enforcement is outright forbidden by the Constitution as negative numbers, rather than the zeros I gave them. And in that case you’d be looking at a total score as low as -2.5/10.


I hope by now that it’s clear that the Constitution is not based on the Ten Commandments. And don’t just take my word for it; read them both for yourself. Most of the Commandments get no mention at all, and the majority of those that get addressed in any form are specifically forbidden from receiving government backing. They do fare a little better when you get into the body of law that has grown up around the Constitution, in that those laws do forbid murder and theft, recognize parental sovereignty over their children (within limits), and view adultery as valid grounds for divorce (but not for the death penalty, as the portion of the Bible containing the Ten Commandments does). Of course, that’s true of pretty much every society that has ever grown large enough to need laws, whether or not they’d ever heard of the Bible. Any honest observer can only conclude that the Constitution has absolutely nothing to do with the Ten Commandments.