Earth and Sun

“IF THE earth were 10 feet closer to the sun, we would all burn to death. And if it were 10 feet further out, we would all freeze.”

Fact or Fiction?

I have seen this posted around the internet, and in the past, have heard quite a few speakers tout this “fact” as a testament to the precision and perfection of God’s design in creation. The listeners are astounded and nod their heads in agreement to the wonder of it all.

The wonder of it all, however, is how this statement can even be believable if we apply a little reason.

If it were true that we would burn if we were 10 feet closer to the sun, there shouldn’t be any buildings taller than 10 feet. There shouldn’t even be skyscrapers, and we shouldn’t we flying in airplanes going 30,000 feet up in the air. Astronauts flying up to the moon should look like burnt bacon by the time they came down again.

Elementary science teaches us that the earth orbits the sun in the shape of an ellipse. Think of an oval-shaped fried egg sunny-side-up with the yolk slightly off-center. That’s what it looks like. That means there are months when the earth is close to the sun and there are months when it is farther away.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earth is closest to the sun in January, a distance of 147 million kilometers. It is farthest in July, with a distance of 152 million kilometers. That’s a difference of around 5 million kilometers, certainly more than plus or minus 10 feet, so God probably gives himself a greater margin of error than most people do.

People rarely take time to verify what they read or hear, especially if it comes from an authoritative figure or is delivered in a confident manner. For example, a number of you would probably not bother checking if the figures I gave above are correct.

Note also the proliferation of email, Facebook and Twitter scams. How many companies have been victims of smear campaigns? How many people have been falsely thought to have died? How many have been tricked into sending their bank details or even cash to strangers? How many have shared those photos of malnourished children with the hope that Facebook would donate $1 for every click?

Freethought and Me

I discovered the term “freethinker” around 3 years ago through the group Filipino Freethinkers (www.filipinofreethinkers.org). At first glance, I thought the term meant that you were free to think whatever you want and nobody would bother you about it.

I later on discovered that freethinking or freethought is a method of forming ideas and opinions based on reason, logic, experimentation and observable evidence, as opposed to simply accepting them from authority, dogma or tradition. Freethinking doesn’t mean that you can think whatever you want, no matter what.

It means, rather, that you have done some research, reasoning or experimentation in formulating your ideas. It is an attitude of healthy skepticism and doubt, of not immediately believing everything you see or hear without double-checking first.

This kind of thinking emerged in modern times at the turn of the 17th century when people began to look for natural explanations at how the world works instead of holding to superstition and blind belief in people who held positions of power and prominence, for example, those in church or government.

But an ancient advocate of freethought is no less than Gautama Buddha, as recorded in the GhandavyuhaSutra , where he says “Monks and scholars must not accept my teaching merely out of respect for me, but they must analyze and check it the way a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it.”

So if this appeals to you as it does to me, then happy rubbing, cutting, and melting!

Welcome to Freethinking Me.

This article originally appears in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/02/22/uyboco-earth-and-sun-269510

Unraveling My Faith

Photo by Stephen Ainsley

It all started when I pulled one loose thread from the fabric of the belief that had been woven around me when I was growing up. This fabric had protected me, warmed me and gave me comfort when I was yet a child and had not yet formed my own convictions.

I guess I was around 14 or 15 at that time when I noticed a few loose ends. It was at a national inter-church summer camp in Baguio City. I tugged a bit at those ends. I had a long discussion with my best friend. We threw around questions like “Why would an all-knowing God create Lucifer in the first place when he knew he would rebel against him? How come God put the forbidden fruit in the garden when he already knew that man would fail the test and take a bite from it? What if you were born in a remote place and you never heard about Jesus? Would it be fair for God to throw you in hell because of that?”

We went back and forth with these questions, trying to find answers from the Bible, from our own experience, and from what we had heard from other church leaders. We discussed these issues until way past midnight and even brought them up to a pastor the next day.

Looking back, my goal at that time was not so much to seek the truth no matter what, but to find a position of defensible comfort within my belief system. And so when the pastor replied with — “You know, I look at it this way. We are like people standing behind an expert painter create a masterpiece. While he is still working on the painting, we don’t understand it. We see that some parts are dark and some strokes look ugly. But when the master is done and the final work is revealed, we will marvel at how wonderful it is” — I accepted that reply even if it really didn’t answer the question. I was contented enough with it and accepted that my puny mind could never comprehend the infinite wisdom of God. I ignored those loose ends and left them there, assured that all will be revealed and make sense when I died and went to heaven.

Fast forward to a just a few years ago. I was in my mid-thirties, had gone through  tremendous swings in my spiritual journey, had married and had 3 kids, had experienced dealing with many different kinds of people, had a richer and wider view of reality than I had when I was a pimply teenager. I saw those loose threads. They were still there. They didn’t go away no matter how I tried to ignore them.

So I started to pull again. I started asking questions in an earlier blog I made. So now I had a wider audience — not just Christians and pastors but really different people with different beliefs. And I found out two things — one is that there were many people like me, on their own journey of unraveling the threads of their beliefs, and the other is that the Christian answers to the questions were more or less the same ones I had received as a teen — and they no longer satisfied me. To paraphrase from the Apostle Paul — the answers were milk when what I needed was meat. It was like feeding baby food to an adult.

Because I wasn’t satisfied, I continued pulling and it became a bit scarier because the fabric was beginning to tear and my skin was showing beneath it. I worried about how others would see me. I wondered about those who read my blog and what they thought about me: “Oh he’s backsliding” or “he’s being deceived by the devil” or “he should really stop this or God will stop blessing him.”

I think I stopped pulling for a while when I began to get numerous reactions, even calls from close relatives and friends who were “concerned” and “praying for me.” I didn’t want to rock the boat that much yet.

But in the end, my desire for truth outweighed everything else. Jesus rightly said, “the truth will set you free,” and I wanted so badly to be free. And so I decided to pursue the truth — even if that truth said that the Jesus I believed in was a lie. I started pulling harder at the strings and the fabric unraveled faster. I might have lost a few relationships because of this but those that have remained no matter what, I cherish as true friends.

Now, only a few tatters remain from the tapestry of faith that once covered me, but I have never felt happier, have never felt more joy and at peace with myself. I no longer wonder whether what I do is God’s will for me or not. I am no longer tormented by guilt that I have not prayed enough or have not nurtured my relationship with God enough. The responsibility for my life is mine alone. I accept it and lay blame at no one’s feet when things go wrong. No more asking, “Why God?” No more clutching at false hope and prayer, but simply accepting what comes today and then moving forward to create a better tomorrow.

My only regret, perhaps, is not pulling those strings sooner and having tasted this freedom earlier in my life, because the unraveling of my belief has left me stark naked to all the wonder the universe has to offer.

The truth has finally set me free.

 

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This article also appears in filipinofreethinkers.org

Middle Ground

Lego Art by WildBanana

I recently saw an old friend who greeted me with “Hi, atheist!”

That’s how I found out that he had been following my facebook posts and debates. I happened to have posted a lot of materials coming from skeptic and atheist websites to elicit questions and make my point. I didn’t consider myself an atheist though, but that greeting got me to thinking — was I slowly morphing into one?

Granted, I do enjoy the down-to-earth reasoning, thinking and questioning employed by atheists, and I can certainly relate to the issues as I have encountered the same in my own life journey. I also enjoy the company of atheist friends of both varieties – physical and FOOF (friends only on facebook). I just find it refreshing to converse openly and ask hard questions without tiptoeing around issues as I used to do with fellow believers and pastors, lest they think that I was already seriously considering heretic teachings and have turned to the dark side.

But if atheism is defined as ” the rejection of belief in the existence of deities“, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. So far, the atheism that I have seen is first and foremost, a rejection of the Christian deity (or the Christian definition of god as portrayed in the Bible). So far also, most of the atheists that I know who are actively espousing their non-belief come from some sort of Christian background. I do not know of any prominent atheist who started out as a muslim, a jew, a hindu, or a druid.

Because of this, most atheists speak out on issues that involve rejecting the Christian god and Christianity. Once that is done, this disbelief in god is expanded in a less hostile fashion to other religions (Islam is probably next in line in terms of getting atheist flak).

However, just because an atheist has written off the existence of the Christian god does not automatically mean that there is no god of any sort. What is “god” after all, but just a word people use to represent and define some unknown higher power? People have tried to define this god by using words such as creator, source, omniscient and omnipotent. They have tried to characterize this god by attributes such as loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. But these are just words, and I believe in the possibility of a being that exists beyond these words.

There is a lovely zen saying that goes, “When the sage points to the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.” The words and concepts we have for god are just parts of the finger pointing to something possibly out there, possibly greater than ourselves. I cannot explain it other than saying that there is a feeling, an inner sense of something more profound than words can express.

When Christians and atheists fight over doctrines and belief systems, it is like watching them fight over the pointing finger. It is briefly amusing and I won’t deny deriving a bit of satisfaction seeing my former belief questioned. However, this can’t go on forever. If we keep fighting over the finger, we will never get to see the moon.

So I would like both sides to step back and reflect a little. For the theists (of whatever stripe), ask yourselves if the god you believe in could ever be accurately described in ancient texts — and open your mind to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you have put your god inside a box too small to contain him, or her, or it.

For the atheists, ask yourselves whether it is possible to have a being higher than yourself. This being does not necessarily have to love you, nor listen to your prayers, nor conform to ANY concept of god that we currently have. If you think about the universe and what we yet don’t know about it, you’d have to at least consider the possibility of such a being, else you would be as close-minded as the fundamentalist you so despise.

I believe in a middle ground, a place of mutual respect, where acceptance triumphs over bigotry, and where love triumphs over fear. After all, if we humans don’t get our act together, who will do it for us?

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This article also appears in filipinofreethinkers.org

Jump and You Will Find Out

Jump and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.
-Ray Bradbury

When a major opportunity comes along, typically one with high gain but high risk, we do a lot of thinking. We fret, worry and fear the worst outcome. Sometimes, we over-analyze and over-think, what motivational speakers like to call ‘paralysis by analysis’. And the opportunity blows by while we are still busy analyzing.

Sometimes, we just have to get into the flow of the moment before the moment is gone. There should still be some thinking and risk-assessment but it should be followed by swift, decisive action. And the effort has to be sustained with commitment and dedication.

The call to jump is not a license for recklessness. Rather, it is a testament of deep courage and trust for oneself and for life. It is not for the faint-hearted, but for those with inner fortitude and desire to be the best they can be at whoever they are and whatever they do.

“Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

Hotel California

Hotel California - Photo by RedC

I must have been around 11 or so when I heard a pastor in our church talk about the evils of rock music, especially this song called ‘Hotel California’.

“If you listen to it, it sounds very mellow and soothing to the ear, but it contains a message of pure evil,” he said. “You should avoid that song at all costs.”

And then he talked about backward-masking where if you play the music backwards, you would hear hidden messages in the songs. I heard some garbled samples of what sounded like “My sweet Satan”, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana” taken from the songs of KISS, Queen, The Beatles, and so on.

For a time, I became enamored with this and I would always be interested if this was the topic in church. I bought books on the evils of rock music and why it was from the devil. I listened to taped sermons about rock music from foreign pastors. One of them even featured a line-by-line dissection of Hotel California. For example, in the song, the narrator asks for some wine but the lady there replies “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” The wine represents God (or the Holy Spirit) as it does in the Bible, and 1969 is significant because that was the year Anton Lavey supposedly founded the church of Satan (though Wikipedia tells us that it was actually founded in 1966). The Satanic Bible was written in 1969 though.

Because of this, I would shun rock music and musicians (and no, images of Ozzy Osbourne didn’t help in endearing me to this genre). During parties, even though I thought the music sounded good, I would always listen with some guilt, or would be wary and try to understand the lyrics first before I could bring myself to fully enjoy it. Love songs were ok but anything that sounded too metallic was suspect.

It was only a few years ago (when I began to get out of religion) that I learned to appreciate The Beatles and other rock and roll music. I could listen to Hotel California without getting goosebumps or wondering if demons were already seeping into my body as I soaked up the song. I also realized what a pathetic, neurotic and fearful individual religion has made me that I have become blind to the beauty right in front of me.

One thing that I have learned from this experience is to understand and appreciate things as they are — not by who or what they are associated with. Before, I saw rock music as from the devil, suddenly all rock music and musicians were now Satan’s minions, even if I hadn’t heard their songs or know who they are. Now, I make it a point not to judge until I have experienced whatever it is that requires my judgment.

What a liberating day it was for me when I learned to appreciate rock and roll. It wasn’t all noise and rebellion as I thought it was. There’s a lot of artistry and subtle emotions and passionate thoughts as well. And while rock (or Ozzy) is still not my preferred genre (I’m a jazz guy at heart), it is now a matter of taste rather than blanket condemnation.

I once heard someone comment that he was really torn when hearing “The Power of Two” from the Indigo Girls because the music was so nice but he knew that the singers were lesbians. I was like, “Oh, you poor, deprived soul. Get off your high horse and just enjoy the music”. John Lennon was perhaps right when he dreamed of a world without religion. It would probably be a better place. At least, it would be less judgmental.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late and I’m going on a trip down a dark desert highway.

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