Live A Good Life

Photo Credit: Corie Howell via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Corie Howell via Compfight cc

In response to my article, The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways, I got an email from a reader named Gilbert. My original reply to him was a bit short so I hope to expand on it more here. He makes three points in the letter but in the interest of brevity, I will only be dealing with one and hopefully can tackle the others on another day. Anyway, on to the letter:

Your article today caught my eye. I can understand what seems to be some frustration for the convenient response that doesn’t quite answer our deepest questions about the surrounding realities that bother us.

My own view is that I would need to accept the reality of a Supreme Being who has control over everything in order to approximate some sense in human existence. I share with you the “idea that God is good, just and compassionate.” This also makes me wonder what makes you think so. If God is the Supreme Being, it will be necessary for him to have other attributes beyond what you mentioned to be so. My limited mind tells me that God will have to be eternal; no beginning, no end. He will have to be perfect; incapable of improving or deteriorating. He will have to be all-knowing; in no way deficient in knowledge of every detail of the universe. He will have to be all-powerful; mightier than anything or anyone. And there would have to be other attributes of him that would be beyond my ability to grasp except if it is his purpose for me to understand. It would be difficult for anyone to conceive of a God who had anything less than these attributes. Otherwise, this “god” would not be God at all.

The argument that it is necessary for God to exist to make sense of life is a view I held before as well. However, we have to accept one brutal fact and that is reality does not necessarily conform to our desires, no matter how strong the desire. Positing God’s existence to satisfy one’s longing for meaning does not make it a reality. It may offer some temporary relief and may even appear to answer some problems, but in the end, it is reality that determines what is and is not.

Let me cite a couple of examples from science. When scientists first studied waves and wave motion, they thought that waves needed to have a medium in order to propagate. For example, water waves travel through water. Hence, water is the medium. Sound waves can propagate via air, water, or even solids. But then they encountered electromagnetic waves (like radio waves or light waves) which can travel through space, they were faced with a problem. Waves needed a medium in order to travel — that was the general principle, yet space is a vacuum and there is no medium to speak of, so how come waves can travel through space?

In order to make sense of this, physicists posited that there is necessarily a substance called “aether” which permeates through space and allows electromagnetic waves to travel through a vacuum. This seemed to solve a lot of problems and it seemed to make everything make sense, until an experiment by William Michaelson and Albert Morley provided conclusive proof that there was no such thing as aether.

So scientists who could previously not accept the possibility of waves traveling without a medium were now faced to confront that brutal fact. That was the reality. They could not make it otherwise no matter how much they desired it to be so, or no matter how much it went against their current convictions.

As a more recent example, consider the Higgs Boson or Higgs particle. Since 1964, it had been posited to exist, again to explain certain phenomena in the world of quantum physics. Its existence therefore was only hypothetical until it was proven to be observably real in the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland. So now we can say with better confidence that the Higgs particle does exist.

In the same vein, one could argue all one wants that God’s existence gives me meaning and purpose but until we have conclusive proof and evidence that it is so, it is merely wishful thinking.

Personally, I lean more towards the idea that we create our own meaning, a subject I explored in an earlier article, Death And The Meaning Of Life. Whether or not there is an absolute meaning is something I do not know. Yet I do not let this lack of knowledge stall my life or let me live wantonly. I like this creed based on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 2:11:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

If You Want To Be A Thief

Photo Credit: *sax via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: *sax via Compfight cc

If you want to be a thief in our country, make sure it’s not some petty theft like pickpocketing, robbing a jewelry store or even robbing a bank. Those are quite risky and life-threatening crimes. The potential pay-off of those are in the magnitude of hundreds, thousands or at most, a few million pesos – but the consequences are dire as well – you spend years in one of our overcrowded prisons (like this, this or this), neglected and forgotten except to those very close to you, or if you are unlucky enough to be caught in the act, you may get shot and killed as well.

So if you want to be a thief, go big time. Get close to a politician (and not some two-bit politician either but make sure they are big names) or be one yourself. Do not think about stealing hundreds of thousands or a few million only. Expand your horizons. Think big. Think hundreds of millions, and even billions. The bigger your vision and the grander your scheme, the better it will be for you. Oh, and make sure to make regular and hefty donations to your church, and always maintain an image of outward piety – this will come in handy later, as you will see.

Consider now the consequences if you are caught.

One, you will become an instant celebrity. Your face will be all over the national papers, on television and on the internet. Your name will be on everyone’s lips. You will be the topic of many conversations, tweets and status updates. Never mind that people are cursing your name and damning you to the deepest hell. That is only for the moment. Think long term. Filipinos are a forgiving people. In a few years, their anger will mellow down but you will still be known and famous. Why, you can even run for public office. One only has to think of a certain former first lady with a penchant for shoes, forced to flee from the country three decades ago, only to come back to wield power and influence once more. Heck, one of the accused senators, who thought that a privilege speech is a chance to show off his latest MTV, is even declaring his intent to run for president.

Two, you will get medical privileges. You can avoid going to those nasty prisons and instead opt for “hospital arrest.” All you need is a little skill in acting and a wheelchair. Just make sure to highlight a medical condition you already have and ask to be thoroughly examined. If you’re lucky, the government will even foot the bill for your stay. If not, well, there’s nothing to worry about. Since you had the foresight to steal huge sums of money, you can easily pay for your stay (you will even seem generous for not being a burden on the government). Do you get such benefits as a petty thief? Can you ask for an executive check-up at any of the top hospitals in the country? You should be so lucky if they let you out of your cell to go to the prison infirmary.

Three, your local priest or head of congregation will call for leniency and ask people not to condemn you. This is where your huge donations and friendliness to the clergy pay off. They will quote Jesus who confronted the crowd ready to stone the adulterous woman and say, “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone.” (Never mind that the story does not appear originally in the gospels but is generally thought by scholars to have been added on by scribes at a later point). “Do not condemn the scammers, for you could be just like them,” they will say. But do you hear them uttering those words if you are not a huge contributor or if you are a known critic? It was only a few years ago when a tour guide walked into the Manila Cathedral dressed as Jose Rizal, holding a sign that read “Damaso.” He was later convicted and jailed for “offending religious feelings.” Did you hear the clergy preaching non-condemnation and mercy then, as loudly as they do now? Perhaps he forgot to tithe his ten percent.

Four, you get exclusive accommodations especially built for you. After stealing billions from the government, it now feels obligated to spend a few more millions to ensure that your prison stay is safe and comfortable. Heaven forbid that they throw you into the same jam-packed facilities where they put all other thieves of lesser stature. Surely you deserve more because you stole a whole lot more. In fact, your custom-made “prison” is probably more luxurious than the homes of the “lesser” inmates. Yes, this is where the hard-earned taxes of your fellow citizens go. This is why the government has to work so hard to squeeze taxes from our professionals like doctors, actors, and even small earners like fishermen, sari-sari store owners, and even tricycle drivers. That is how privileged you will be for being a big-time crook.

Five, you will enjoy perks on your birthday, Christmas, New Year and probably other special holidays. Your relatives can come visit even beyond regular visiting hours, or you can take a trip to an outside facility and where you can spend the day with your relatives, as demonstrated by our previous president just last year. Now, try asking for those favors as a petty thief. “Excuse me, guard, it’s Christmas tomorrow. Can I go spend the day with my family instead of my 30 stinky cellmates?” Not likely to happen.

Six, if you’re lucky, you may even get a presidential pardon and be elected to public office again. Hopefully, you will be smarter about covering your tracks this time.

See? Thievery pays, but only if you are a man or woman of vision and lofty dreams, especially in the Philippines, where it’s more fun. Go big time!

Originally published in Sunstar Davao. Also published in Filipino Freethinkers.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Independence Day

decisionAs the country commemorates Independence Day, I thought of writing a short reflection of what independence and freedom means in the context of my religious upbringing.

From an early age, I had been taught that because God loves me, he sent his son to die in my place. It didn’t matter that I was just a chubby kid who loved dogs and reading comics. I deserved to burn in hell because I was a sinner — because I was a descendant of Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit. It didn’t yet occur to me to ask why the Divine Gardener conveniently placed the forbidden fruit right smack in the middle of the garden where it was easily within reach.

Anyway, because of this, I was born with a fallen nature — that was why even as a child, I could lie, think bad thoughts, and disrespect my parents. Now, we may think these are small faults but an infinitely Holy God supposedly could not tolerate even the tiniest speck of sin. The usual Sunday school example was that if you take a pristine white tablecloth and put a drop of black ink on it somewhere, it wouldn’t be considered clean anymore. So because of that, my soul deserved to burn in hell for all eternity and there is no redemption for it at that point.

Yet, if I decided at this point, to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, then I would be saved from this eternal fate and instead of roasting in hell, I would be feasting in heaven (though hopefully not on the flesh of those roasting in hell).

This decision was posed an exercise of freedom, that I was free to choose my own destiny — that of eternal bliss or of eternal torment — and I had to do that at an age when if you asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer, “Batman” — but I had to decide at that moment, because one never knows when death would come calling (child deaths are a grim reality) and by then, it would have been too late.

Even to adults, this decision is posed as an exercise in freedom. “You’re free to choose,” is the standard line of many preachers, “but know that if you make the wrong choice, then it’s off to hell you go.”

That was the doctrine I was brought up with, in a nutshell, and as an adult, I find it absurd.

Any court of law will tell you that a decision made under stress or threat is not one that is made freely. If, for example, a person holds a wealthy man’s family hostage and threatens to kill them if he doesn’t sign a contract handing over his business and properties to the hostage-taker, the man can always contest the validity of the contract later on, if he can prove that it was signed under duress and not of his own free will.

In a similar fashion, I would say that a decision made for Christ under the threat of unspeakable, everlasting torture, cannot be one that is freely made. The “choice” is no choice at all for what lunatic would choose otherwise? And even if a lunatic did choose otherwise, we would seriously question that person’s sanity and mental health.

Of course, I am aware of various theologies which try to explain this. Some would say that God simply respects your decision to not be with him. Fine, then, so why the eternal torture? If a man courts a woman, asks her to marry him, and she says no, can he say, “All right, I respect that, but as a consequence of your decision, I’m going to lock you up and torture you?”

Oh but hell isn’t torture. Hell means “separation from God” and that softens the blow a little because compared to the Bible’s graphic depiction of hellfire, it is now some fuzzy, abstract concept of separation, like being in a limbo in some dark space — but I would argue that this is not what the book says.

Some would say that God is simply handing out “infinite punishment for an infinite offense” — said offense being not recognizing him as God. My response would be, does it have to be that way then? Does God have no choice but to mete infinite punishment? Why not finite punishment? He could just make you disappear and that’s that — there’s no need to keep torturing you forever, is there? Or he could just simply spank you on the butt and forgive you. Why does this omnipotent being seem so limited in his choice of actions? Surely there are better alternatives to throwing one into hell for all eternity with no chance of redemption.

As a father, there are numerous ways for me to teach my kids a lesson but never one that harms them for life. Even the mother of a convicted murderer still cries and pleads for mercy as he is led to the lethal injection chamber. Is her love greater than that who is supposed to be the father of us all?

There is meme going around on the internet with a picture of Jesus saying, “Love me, so I can save you from what I’m going to do to you if you don’t love me.”

But is that really love? And are you really free to make that choice?

Happy Independence Day.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways

Photo Credit: an untrained eye via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: an untrained eye via Compfight cc

I had the pleasure of meeting one of my readers this week. His name is Edgar. He wrote me the longest response I ever received for my article, Irreligious. That started a brief email exchange which culminated in a book exchange and a pleasant chat over coffee.

Edgar is a Christian.

In one of my emails, I mentioned: “I do not reject the idea that God is good, just and compassionate. It’s just that if he really is all that, then that’s not the God being described in those books because the God there seems like a petty, immature spoiled brat who goes on a rampage if things get too much for him.” In this sentence, I was referring to several instances in the Old Testament where God goes on killing sprees (think Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Saul and the Amalekites, etc.)

Edgar responded by giving a hypothetical situation where I’m in a safari, looking at some magnificent elephants when suddenly I see a couple of people shooting and killing them with high-powered rifles. Of course, I get outraged and demand that they stop what they’re doing.

It turns out, however, that one of these people is the park master, who explains to me that they are practicing a system called “culling” which balances the ecosystem in the park. The elephant population has become so large that it was endangering many of the other species in the park. It was a drastic measure and one they found no pleasure in doing, yet it had to be done for the good of the park.

The point then, was that God may have reasons for doing what he did, but I just don’t understand them, that I don’t know enough to judge the situation. In his words, “our perspective is limited. We don’t see enough. We don’t see the whole story, the larger perspective, the bigger picture.”

I am not unfamiliar with this line of thinking. I call it the “The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways” argument. Its flaw, however, is that it doesn’t really explain anything. It can be used as sort of a magic formula answer to every possible situation.

Why did God, at certain instances, command the Israelites to wipe out an entire race — including the women, the elderly, children and infants? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow natural calamities to wipe out entire families and deprive people of their lives and livelihood? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow charlatans to preach in his name and amass wealth by spreading lies? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Why does God allow supposed faith healers to do real harm to people by promising healing and giving false hope instead of offering actual, life-saving medication? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Saying that we can’t really understand how God works doesn’t really improve the situation much. In other fields of study, we do not accept that answer. Science strives to always understand more and more. Not knowing enough is not an excuse not to work towards knowing more, or inventing reasons and preaching them as fact, which is what some do.

In the given example, the park master was on hand to give an explanation, which calmed me down and made me understand. Yet, where is the divine “park master” to explain what is going on in the world? I do not hear any explanation save from secondhand sources who have themselves not heard from the park master himself.

A better example, perhaps, that more closely matches our reality, would be that I see the elephants drop dead one by one. So I don’t know why they’re dying, and neither does anyone else who sees them. Some of the observers offer conjectures — for example, that there is a hidden park master shooting the elephants with a silenced rifle for the reasons given in the original example. Some of these arguments are silly, but I also grant that some are intelligent arguments worth considering (and I do consider them seriously, which is why I even have conversations with people like Edgar, otherwise, why bother?) — but however intelligent these arguments are, they are conjectures nonetheless, and I have yet to hear from the sniper (who may or may not exist and who may or may not be the park master — who knows?) himself.

Yes, there are many things we do not know, and many things our reason can’t grasp, but that doesn’t mean we shut it down and stop trying to understand. History will attest that reason, logic and the scientific method are by far the best tools we have developed to ascertain truth and reality.

As we were about to part and shake hands, Edgar told me about how C.S. Lewis (best known for the Chronicles of Narnia as well as being a stalwart Catholic apologist) described his own conversion: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God, eyes darting left and right for some means of escape.” What he meant to say was that at the end, he was seemingly left with no choice. He didn’t want to believe, but he had to, because for him, that was the only logical thing to do.

I have not yet reached that point, and still see some logical and reasonable alternatives worth pursuing and worth attacking to see if they will really stand the test of reason. And if I am to once again recover my faith, it will most likely in a manner similar to Lewis’ own kicking and screaming. My commitment to truth demands no less than an honest and brutal appraisal of the best arguments on either side.

What will happen in the end, I wonder? Who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Originally appears in Sunstar Davao.

Also published in Filipino Freethinkers.

Want free coffee? Send me your thoughts and I might just treat you to one. Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

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