Divine Deflection

Photo Credit: cowicide via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: cowicide via Compfight cc

THEIR God changes the path of our rockets in mid-air, said a terrorist.

That was the headline of the World News section of the Jewish Telegraph on July 18, 2014. A photo of the headline has been making the rounds on several blogs and social media — many of them triumphantly trumpeting the fact that this proves God’s power and protection over Israel, or that it proves the veracity of the Bible in proclaiming Israel as “God’s chosen people,” that the suffering of their enemies only shows the “glory of God” even more.

For me, it only proves 2 things: one, that some people are just ignorant and superstitious, and two, that a lot of otherwise decent people become obnoxious in defense of their religion.

Let’s start with the first point. The terrorist believed that God changed the path of the rockets in mid-air.

Since we’re now bordering on fiction, I’ll go ahead and add another character to the mix. Bruce Wayne had it right when he said that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot” — and that holds true for this particular terrorist as well.

Aside from being mentally challenged, he is also oblivious of the fact that Israel has developed an advanced air defense system called the Iron Dome — which detects incoming enemy projectiles and launches a missile to intercept them. Mark Thompson, in his article for Time Magazine entitled “Iron Dome: A Missile Shield That Works,” said that “the lack of Israeli casualties suggests Iron Dome is the most-effective, most-tested missile shield the world has ever seen.”

So there you are. It’s simply amazing technology created by brilliant minds — nothing supernatural about it.

On the second point, if some people think that they are doing good by parading this article as some sort of justification or glorification of the horror going on in Palestine, they are sorely mistaken. They only expose how one-dimensional their thinking is.

I am not anti-Israel. I do not agree with those who paint Israel as the evil superpower intent on killing innocents, the elderly and young children. We humans like to think in terms of black and white -who’s right and who’s wrong. There is neither black nor white here. It’s really shades of grey (not 50 though).

Neither side is completely right and neither is completely wrong, and it is not my place to judge which is which. I am, however, decrying the use of this tragedy as a platform to proselytize or advance an agenda.

It is crass and insensitive, devoid of the love or compassion so often preached from the pulpit.

As my wife says in her Facebook status update, “There is nothing worth glorifying in Gaza.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

Five More Questions For Atheists

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Photo Credit: Samantha Evans Photography via Compfight cc

This is a continuation of last week’s article, Five Questions For Atheists. I saw a website last week which claimed to have Ten “Questions Atheists Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!”  So of course I just had to answer them. Because of space limitations, I broke up my article into two parts. This is part two:

6.       Where did the universe come from?

I have no idea. I don’t even know if it came from anything at all. I can make conjectures and intelligent guesses but that’s all they are and ever will be. I cannot claim these conjectures are truth, as many of the religious are prone to do.

7.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

What about them? Miracles are a dime a dozen — and many have been proven to be fraudulent. If there is anything I have learned from my years in sales and network marketing, it is this — we believe what we are inclined to believe. You are more prone to accepting as reality whatever you fervently believe. In other words, you are very much capable of fooling yourself.

Besides, if you claim to have seen saints or angels, well good for you. However, there are naturalistic explanations for such phenomena such as hallucinations imagination, etc. Also, these events count for nothing unless there is hard evidence to back it up, otherwise it is just hearsay. You can claim to see saints and angels and I can claim to see the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s your word against mine, until one of us provides proof.

Yet, after all these centuries, there is still no conclusive evidence — and by conclusive, I mean something like the evidence for gravity, electromagnetic waves or photons. After all, you don’t see many people debating the existence of gravity or photons do you?

8.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

They are people with some interesting ideas — certainly not infallible and definitely with their own flaws. I personally find them a bit sensationalist and exhibiting extremist behavior, clinging to atheism as a fundamentalist clings to his beliefs. Although I find them entertaining, I prefer using other sources for more scholarly discussions.

9.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Just because every society has a religion is no proof that there is a god. Besides, that statement is not even accurate. There is an indigenous Amazon tribe called the Piraha, studied by anthropological linguist, Daniel Everett. According to Everett, these people have “no concept of a supreme spirit or god” — the word does not even exist in their language. If anything, living with the Piraha eventually convinced Everett (who was also a missionary) to abandon his faith and become an atheist. You can read all this in his book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes.

In a radio broadcast of his story, Everett says, “The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile. And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahas, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live.”

10.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Well, of course you can’t do what you want without reaping the consequences or benefits. We do not live in a vacuum but in a society where there are laws and norms of acceptable behavior. So as much as you like to murder and rape, you think twice because there are grave consequences to those actions. As my friend, Jong, puts it, “Since I live on the assumption that this life is the only one I have, it is very precious to me. I will not do things that will cause me to spend decades of my life languishing in prison.”

You might say that this is a false morality because it is induced by fear, but what do you call hell then? Isn’t that the ultimate fear-inducing horror story?

On good deeds, who says they are unrewarded? When I do good deeds, I immediately feel great and satisfied. I am happy that I have helped some else. What other rewards do you want? A mansion in heaven? Seven virgins in paradise?

Good deeds are rewarded here and bad deeds are punished here as well, in this life, which is the only one we are certain of. In the Christian scenario though, it is perfectly possible for one to murder and rape or commit any other crime, not get caught by the authorities, and then make a deathbed confession. By your doctrine, that person gets away unscathed on earth and even enjoys an eternity of bliss. If Hitler had truly repented and “accepted Christ” right before he died, there is a very real possibility that you would be next-door neighbors in heaven. Is that an exciting prospect for you?

I rest my case.

So have I “truly and honestly really answered” the questions? You be the judge.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

 

Five Questions for Atheists

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Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

While surfing through the internet I saw a site which claimed to have Ten “Questions Atheists Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!” A part-time atheist like me was naturally intrigued so I clicked on the link to see what these earth- shattering questions were, and to see if I could “truly and honestly really answer” them.

Because of space limitations, I will publish 5 questions this week and the other 5 next week. Here we go:

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

In a nutshell, by asking questions about my former belief and not getting satisfactory answers. It sounds very simple like this, but it really was a long, complicated process spanning several years that involved a lot of talking, discussing, reading, thinking, reflecting and (yes!) praying. And it’s not over yet.

So for the moment, I am technically agnostic as I do not claim to know whether or not there is a god or gods. I am practically atheist meaning I live on the assumption that there is no deity. Or that even if there were, he/she/it would pardon my lack of belief due to insufficient evidence. I do not pray to nor ask favors from any higher powers, and I take full responsibility for my life and actions.

2.       What happens when we die?

I have no idea. And if you’re really, truly honest with yourself, you don’t either, and believing with all your heart, strength and mind that you do does not make it one bit true.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

Actually, the teaching of hell is a serious hindrance to my believing in a gracious and loving God. I have heard countless explanations why hell is necessary. None of them make any sense to me so I’ll take my chances. If this God you claim exists is reasonable, he knows perfectly well what I’m talking about. If he is not, well, I wouldn’t want to live with a tyrant anyway.

But what about you? You seem to think that there are only two alternatives — your particular brand of religion or atheism. You seem to forget that there are so many religions. What if you’re wrong and the other guy’s religion is right and you go to their version of hell? Aren’t you scared to be in the wrong faith as well?

4.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

I make my own meaning based on what I find to be of value to me. I like making my family and friends happy. I enjoy teaching and inspiring others to achieve excellence in what they do. I like sharing stories and discussing ideas. I do not need an external being dictating to me what my life’s meaning should be. It is already meaningful now.

5.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

From the basic principle of empathy. We do to others what we want others to do to us. Empathy is not limited to humans. Even animals show empathy, thus showing that it is a natural, and most probably evolved trait that aids species survive better in groups or societies.

But even with God, where do you get your morality from? Does God whisper to you and tell you what is right and wrong? No, you still consult a book you call God’s Word, and you get confused with how to interpret this and that, and you ask your leaders and theologians, who don’t agree with themselves, and you get more confused.

So if even among your own faith, you have serious disagreements between what is right or wrong, how can you claim that you get your morality from God? And yes, I know the philosophical arguments for this and would even assent to their rationality. However, it does no good in practice because in actuality, you basically make moral decisions the same way I do — by being empathic, by thinking things through, by analyzing the consequences, and so on.

Whether or not there is a god who dispenses morality, it doesn’t matter on the practical level because he/she/it has not DEFINITELY told us what the moral rules are — else there would be no arguments about what is right or wrong between different sects and religions.

WIth or without god, we are pretty much in the same boat.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

 

Do the Math

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Photo Credit: gruntzooki via Compfight cc

I almost titled this piece, “Lessons from Factoring Quadratic Square Trinomials” but I realized that would scare off most people from the start, so I opted for a friendlier, 3-word monosyllabic title. Yet I know the word “math” would still make some people wary, though in my opinion, you should be more wary of the news that Kris Aquino is running for vice president and that Boy Abunda is running for senator. I have nothing personal against these people as they have every right to run for office. My issue is with the vast majority of voters who would support candidates simply on the basis of their popularity and name-recognition instead of their qualifications. Don’t you think we should have learned our lesson by now?

Anyway, I digress. Let’s go back to math.

My teenage daughter asked me for help last night with her algebra lesson involving factoring quadratic square trinomials (their book doesn’t call it that — probably to make it sound less scary). As I was explaining the method, she said, “Tell me, what use does this have in real life?”

What she doesn’t know is that, as a former math teacher,  I have had dozens of students ask me that very same question over the years — and so instead of fumbling around trying to think of an answer, I was ready with one.

I replied, “None.”

She rolled her eyes at this, but I continued, “Except perhaps, when you have kids of your own, then you would be able to explain this lesson to them.”

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

I said, “Hey, do you know how long it took me to understand quadratic equations? I learned this stuff when I was in first year high school but I never really understood it until the end of second year. And it was only in fourth year when I could claim mastery over it. The process seemed so complicated because no one could explain it to me in simple terms.”

So while that may not be a direct application of the concept, it is still useful in terms of being able to explain clearly to your child what it’s all about, instead of shrugging your shoulders and just leaving it to the teacher or the tutor. It is a way to inject life lessons and have parent-child interaction while helping her with homework, which is valuable in so many ways.

As we went along, I was able to teach her systematic trial-and-error, the process of elimination, and  logical thinking. I showed her some of the tricks teachers like to pull — like giving problems which are not factorable and watching students rack their brains trying to factor it (yes I admit to doing this as a teacher, guilty as charged). Then I mentioned that there may not be many direct applications of this particular lesson in “real life” but the thinking skills she develops because of it can be applied to many other aspects of life.

This concept is very much like athletes performing warm-up and strengthening exercises to prepare for their game. They do stretches, jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups and so on. Why do they do those? Do they actually use any of those in a real game? Does a basketball player suddenly lie down on the floor to do a couple of sit-ups after a dunk? Does a volleyball player do jumping jacks after spiking the ball? No. But those exercises help them loosen their joints and make them ready and limber to perform moves they will actually use in the game.

In the same way, much of algebra is not really directly applicable to most students’ “real” lives after they graduate (it’s funny how we always talk of “real” life as life after college — as if the life spent in school were fake — but I digress again). What is important though is that they develop the thinking skill that comes with doing math and learn to apply it in other situations, when they’re solving problems (not just math problems), making difficult decisions, or creating strategic plans.

So there, I concede the point that math is not really useful. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless.

Think about it.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

 

Dangerous Rites

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Photo Credit: opacity via Compfight cc

I used to teach at the De La Salle College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB) just a few years ago. It was one my most pleasurable stints as a teacher and I had many happy memories there. So it was with great dismay when I read about the recent hazing tragedy that befell one of its students, Guillo Cesar Servando. He joins a long list of young teenagers senselessly murdered in a rite whose purpose is, ironically, to welcome one into a “brotherhood” (perhaps brother-hoodlum would be a better term).

I had my own brush with initiation rites when I was a college freshman staying in the campus dormitories. It was not a life-threatening affair, yet it was an equally senseless assault on human dignity and a mockery of the fraternal spirit it seemed to espouse. Upperclassmen gathered us in a common area with the lights turned off. We were told to squat with our hands raised on our heads while they barked the rules for initiation week, all the while making fun of us, calling us names, insulting us, and making veiled threats for the disobedient.

That first night was enough for me to say I’ve had enough and I promptly told some upperclassmen I knew that I wanted out. They couldn’t kick me out of the dorm. I just wouldn’t be part of the dormers organization and activities. That was perfectly fine with me.

The rest of the week, I watched my fellow freshmen as they went into class in various costumes each day with a huge nametag stating “Hi, I’m ____ and I’m proud to be a dormer.” They had to address upperclassmen as “Master” and be willing to obey their whims — such as carrying their books, or singing out loud, or embarrassing themselves in public. Some of them even unknowingly called me “master”, and I had to assure them that I was a freshman just like them.

To be fair though, it wasn’t a hostile situation. I wasn’t threatened or anything when I told them I wanted out. In fact, they even tried to woo me back. These were decent people who were just play-acting, just going along with the tradition, but I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be part of the organization until that tradition changed drastically. I did not want to be a part of seemingly harmless fun that had the enormous potential to be abused in the wrong hands.

I have often wondered why fraternities and other such organizations needed initiation rites such as hazing or shaming. I do not see how that strengthens or fosters the bond between its members. If anything, it breeds contempt, hatred, and a desire for vengeance — which is most often served, not to the original perpetrators, but to the innocent initiates who are next in line. Such barbaric practices defy logic and reason.

However, I do not expect these groups to suddenly be enlightened and abolish initiation altogether (although if that were to happen overnight, I might be forced to conclude that there is indeed a God). What I would instead suggest is that these fraternity heads and officers think about how to make their initiation rites more positive and life-changing for those on the receiving end.

For example, they could create a feeding program or medical mission in the slum areas and have the initiates work as volunteers for a day (or even several days, for that matter).

They could have a “Thank A Policeman” day where initiates verbally thank a patrolman simply for his presence, or offer him water or a sandwich. They could have a “Senior Citizens Day” where they could assist seniors in crossing the street, climbing stairs, and so on.

They could have a “Help The Shoppers” day, offering to carry bags of groceries to the owners’ vehicles, or to carry food trays in the fast food area to the diners’ tables. I have personally tried the last and even if people gave me strange looks when I offered to carry their trays, many of them agreed (after making sure it wasn’t some trick). it was quite a fulfilling experience and I had a lot of fun.

To the fraternities out there, please stop thinking of ways to hurt or embarrass your initiates. Instead, think of ways to heal, nurture, and encourage. Let us banish these dangerous rites and replace them with those that are beneficial and worthwhile.

We are, after all, one big fraternity — the brotherhood of man.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

 

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