My First Youtube Video Ever!

•October 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

•May 31, 2013 • 6 Comments

God Watching

“If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.” –Bart D. Ehrman

Why do we suffer? This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions that humanity faces, and it is also one of the most difficult. We are constantly bombarded with an onslaught of physical and emotional pain on a daily basis – everything from stubbing one’s toe in the morning, to dealing with the normal stresses of staying alive, to confronting the fear, sadness, and grief that flood our minds from any number of mildly difficult to excruciatingly painful experiences that are the norm here on Spaceship Earth. But WHY are we made to suffer? To the best of my knowledge, there are only 2 explanations: the natural…and the Supernatural. In this first of 3 posts on suffering, I will discuss the latter.

Suffering is Punishment for Being Bad?

Many people who believe that a God created the world also believe that God punishes or rewards the members of His creation based on how well they do what He wishes of them (of course, just what exactly He wishes us to do is a major point of contention between differing religions and denominations and has ironically been the cause of an overwhelming amount of suffering). This claim of divine punishment is substantiated in holy books like the Bible. Just read Leviticus 26, or Deuteronomy 28, where God lays out a long and horrible list of punishments for not obeying his commandments, including but not limited to: plagues, disease, blindness, starvation, unquenchable thirst, slaughter by one’s enemies, mental illness, cheating spouses, painful skin sores, slavery, crippling fear and sadness, terrible storms, wild animals eating one’s children, etc, etc, etc.

Now, it is important to understand that the Jewish people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe in Heaven – they believed that one was rewarded or punished during one’s lifetime according to one’s ability to keep all of God’s 613 commandments. This eventually became a problem when they realized that in reality, bad things happen to good people all the time, and often the worst people lead long lives of happiness and success – and this just didn’t add up. The Jews later adopted the Greek idea of Hades and transformed it into the New Testament concept of Hell – where bad people who God perplexedly allowed to live happy lives on Earth would finally get their just desserts after death. Similarly, the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven eventually evolved into the concept of good people going to Heaven immediately following death – which most Christians don’t realize is a very modern idea and not described in the Bible.

But the idea that God sometimes punishes His people for disobeying Him stuck around, and to this day Christian leaders can still be found blaming natural distasters on things like abortion and homosexuality. However, it is clear that God only sends tornadoes and hurricanes during typical seasons following typical weather patterns, and earthquakes, storms and volcanoes often occur in areas where there is little or no human population, making God’s wrath seem rather…random.

God Sends Hurricanes

The Eastern concept of Karma is also often brought up as a supernatural explanation for why bad things happen. However, it is clear that this idea also falls short of explaining reality, because again, bad things happen to good people and visa versa. This is where the loaded concept of reincarnation comes into play, where one’s seemingly unfair bad luck is explained as a result of punishment for wrongdoing in a past life. If that is true, then a person’s suffering should be seen as a good and essential thing, a way to cleanse one’s soul, and this unfortunate idea contributed to the caste system in several cultures, where the poor are generally not allowed to rise above their position or be helped, seeing as how they are serving out a fair punishment for past life evils. Thankfully, modern civil rights reforms have begun to disintegrate this system, but the lowest rung of society, or the “untouchables,” still face abandonment and abuse to this day in certain cultures.

Suffering is a Necessary and Good Thing?

Another common explanation is that God created suffering for a good and essential purpose. You know – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that is unless it kills you. Or makes you weaker. Millions of people all over the world incur so much suffering that they succumb to mental illness and have to be institutionalized, or worse, they commit suicide or murder. How can that be a good or valuable thing? Or you may have heard that God created suffering because without it, we could not experience happiness. Seriously? The only way I can experience the love of another is if a woman is gang-raped in Afghanistan? The only way I can truly be thankful for my health is if people in the tropics are constantly dying of malaria and diarrhea? Or the only way I can appreciate eating good food is if millions of children die of starvation in Africa? Really? And the only way I can enjoy feeling safety and security is if somewhere, people are being murdered in a genocidal war? I’m sorry but that’s complete crap and a horrible way to view the world, much less design it.

This point of view also fails to take into account the massive amount of non-human suffering in the world. We now know that most animals, at least those with some form of a brain, experience suffering. Why would God create a world where billions upon billions of animals have existed for millions and millions of years, all experiencing suffering during every day of their existence, long before humans ever came on the scene? Why would He create a world in which nearly all creatures cruelly die of starvation, disease, or being eaten alive? Where is the good there? Where is the necessary lesson and perfection in that plan?

Gods Plan

God is Not All Powerful?

Yet another explanation for all the suffering in the world is that God created the world….and then immediately started fucking things up. Again, this comes up in the Old Testament, where God regretted having made man on the Earth (Genesis 6:6), so much so that he sent a flood to murder, well, pretty much every living thing (overkill, much?). He goes on to choose many leaders who end up failing him, and in the New Testament His plan is revealed in Revelations to (once again) destroy everything He created in order to make it all better. How can a perfect God with a perfect Plan have regret, or make mistakes, or even be surprised and angry when things go wrong, when He Himself supposedly had this all planned out from the Beginning- and knew what was going to happen?

This brings us to the concept of Free Will. Many people say that God created the world and put humans on it with the freedom to do as they please. (I will write a future post about the incompatibility of a Divine Plan, Free Will, and Prayer.) But even if that were true, it doesn’t explain why God would create the conditions for so much suffering to occur in the first place. For instance, He apparently created things like mental illness, sexual lust, greed, and hate in the human mind, tempting us at every turn to do evil. Oh that’s not God, that’s Satan, you say? Then why did God create Satan, and why has he let Satan cause evil all over the world for thousands of years now? And again, that still fails to provide a supernatural explanation for animal suffering. Maybe God really is a failure. I mean, running a Universe has to be pretty hard I suppose. That is, unless, you had the power to create it exactly how you wanted it. And if God did indeed create such a suffering-filled world on purpose, that leads us to…

God is Not Good?

There is, of course, the possibility that God does indeed exist, and He is, in fact, evil. Again, the Bible backs this up in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Not to mention that there are 2,821,364 documented murders by the hand or under the command of God in the Bible (and that’s not counting all of the deaths in the Flood). And one has to only browse through a few of the moral doctrines that the Bible puts forth to see what kind of monster Yahweh must be. This is all punishment for Original Sin, you say? Then why did God make the damn Tree in the first place, or an evil talking snake for that matter, and not even warn Adam and Eve about evil talking snakes? Or why didn’t he just kill Adam and Eve and start over, like he did with the Flood, instead of punishing billions of people for the mistake of 2 people thousands of years ago? And really, how could Adam and Eve be held responsible for committing evil…before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Of course, the standard explanation from most Christians is that God had to create and then have His own Son murdered…so that He could create us in Heaven and then send us to suffer on Earth…where we would be tempted to sin….so that He could forgive us…for the sins that He predisposed us to commit…so that we could eventually make it back to Heaven…to be with him. Or we could choose to not believe in the story of Jesus and be sent to burn in Hell. But if God made His Divine Plan from the Beginning of Time, and He knows who will accept Jesus and who won’t, then that means He knows exactly who will burn in Hell way ahead of time- and that’s billions of billions of people – knowing full well that they will burn in Hell…and yet He creates them anyway just to watch it all happen. Epic fail, God.

God Forgiveness

Or perhaps the proper explanation is that there simply is no God.

After critically examining the evidence, it is clear to me that supernatural explanations simply fail to account for the suffering we see in the world. In fact, modern science has met with ancient wisdom to actually describe the natural reasons why we suffer, and the good news is there is hope in eventually overcoming it.

More on that in my next 2 posts. In the meantime, remember that no one truly suffers alone. At least we have each other. Reach out to others, and just keep breathing.

***Author’s Note: This post was inspired by the works of many others, but in particular by an awesome series of videos by Youtuber Todd Gates. You can check out his excellent book, “Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer”  here for an even more in depth look at many inconsistencies  in the Bible and Christian thought.

Album Review: “No, Of Course!” by The Heard Theorem

•February 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment

***Author’s Note: Some of you may know that I used to play in a band here in Austin, and recently I was asked to write an album review. Therefore this post doesn’t have anything to do with Humanism or any of the other topics I’ve covered–it’s an attempt to both stretch my writing muscles and to give back to the music community that welcomed me and my music in once upon a time. Thanks for reading.

The Heard Theorem

 

 

 

 

www.reverbnation.com/TheHeardTheorem

Bands like the Heard Theorem are exactly why I love living and listening to music in Austin. With their debut EP “No, Of Course!”, The Heard Theorem, with Eric Heard at the helm, has honed their craft and unified their sound, creating a unique blend of the familiar and the experimental. Think 80’s and 90’s Alternative meets Indie Pop Rock with a hint of singer/songwriter thrown in for good measure. The rhythm will get you moving in no time, and the passion with which Heard sings his honest lyrics will make you listen.

The first song, “Cliffs”, simply has one of the coolest intros I’ve heard in a long time. It quickly escalates into a hard-driving anthem of loss, painting a stark picture of a moment that unfortunately many of us have had to face– moving out of “that apartment”, where it all went down, the final symbolic blow of a relationship beyond repair. I’ve had to leave that apartment and “that girl” myself, and the band definitely captures that swarm of emotions here, especially with Heard’s incredible range of vocal performance woven together with refreshingly inventive guitar work.

Listening to “Failure”, there is pain here, especially in the rather dark intro, with Heard easily communicating this anger at the ironic struggles of modern life. However this is not a song stuck in the mire, but rather it evolves into an upbeat and self-reflective take on perseverance, even in the midst of our own self-created failures. It speaks of finding a balance and trying not to get in your own way (a positive message for any up and coming band striving for acknowledgment). And yes, as the song relates, sometimes you just have to say Fuck It.

“Governor Ego” is an unflinching social criticism of one of politics’ most polarizing figures. Though his name is never actually mentioned, the band’s clever use of soundbites makes it obvious that the central character referred to is the fellow living in the Big White Mansion in the Heard Theorem’s home town of Austin. But more than a criticism of a governor, the song angrily attacks the hypocrisy and ignorance of modern politics itself, which is something both sides of the Aisle should certainly take heed of.

As a native Austinite myself, I love the reference in “Moontower” to the city’s classic Moonlight Towers, first installed in the late 1880s to light the city at night, and featured prominently in the keg party scene in the film “Dazed and Confused”. Again the band combines heartfelt ballad-like vocals with an uptempo beat and driving guitar, this time testifying to the confusing intricacies of human relationships, successfully wrapping up an EP recording that is definitely worth having in your collection for many repeated listenings. And if you like what you hear, be sure and check out one of the Heard Theorem’s awesome and energetic live performances too.

 

 

God’s Role in Tragedy

•December 17, 2012 • 18 Comments

Jesus in Schools

My heart aches for the victims of the recent school shooting, as well as for the direct and indirect victims of any such violence, which includes each and every person on Earth. Unfortunately, this event has triggered many people to blame the secular movement, posting and saying things like, “The reason this happened is because we took God out of our schools.” I would appreciate your consideration while I explore this horrible notion. If I have left anything out or said something incorrect in your opinion, please feel free to let me know. I could be wrong.

First of all, if you believe in God, then you first have to ask yourself if you believe:
A.) That God has a direct influence on events here on Earth, so that he can make certain things happen or prevent certain things from happening (at least some of the time). Or,
B.) That God created the Universe with certain physical laws and moral guidelines, but then he stepped out of the creation process and does not have a direct influence on events.

Now, if you believe that God just created us with certain potential and now he just sits back while the game of Earth plays out, then the shooting did not happen because we took God out of schools, but simply because God created us with violent tendencies and mental illness, and these things will continue to happen no matter what until we figure out how to best deal with that.

If, however, you do believe that God, by virtue of his willpower, his almighty hand, mental influence, or angels and demons, does in fact have a direct influence on events, then God could have prevented this tragedy, but did not. So let’s look more closely at what that means.

If the claim that “removing God from schools caused the Newtown tragedy” is true, then that means that either:
A.) God caused or let this tragedy happen because it was part of his divine plan, or
B.) God caused or let this tragedy happen as punishment for removing religion from schools, or
C.) God caused or let this tragedy happen because we asked that His presence be removed from schools, and therefore he politely obliged by removing his protection.

If you believe the first option, that this violence was part of God’s plan, then frankly I find that sick. Why would God kill so many innocent victims and cause so much suffering just to suit His own needs, or to make more people believe in Him? In the Bible, God realized that people wouldn’t believe in him unless he performed miracles to bend the laws of physics or to instantly heal suffering (Exodus Chapter 4, John 20:24-31), so he made sure that his prophets, like Moses and Jesus, could perform such miracles to convince the masses of His existence. Why doesn’t he just allow these types of miracles to be performed today (he could even put it live on liberal media TV just to convince everyone), instead of using the death of children to promote Himself?

If you believe the second option, that God used this mass murder of innocents as punishment for taking religion out of public schools, then again, frankly that is sick. Why would God punish innocent people to pay for the sins of others? He could have simply caused mass shootings to happen only to people who supported the separation of church and state, which would have sent a clear message, but he didn’t. He killed Christians along with everybody else. And if God used this event as punishment for Christians who sat by and allowed religion to be removed from schools, then why didn’t he send mass murderers to kill only adults who are old enough to actually make those kinds of choices, instead of murdering children who can’t?

If you believe the third option, that God simply let this happen because we removed his protection by taking religion out of schools, then that doesn’t fit with the evidence we have about how the world works. First of all, Christians are critical of the secular community for asking that things like set times for public prayer, religious symbols, and religious acts like songs and plays be removed from the shared school property and curriculum. The secular community has adopted this position, because doing so would ensure that no religious belief is favored or marginalized, including not believing in religion. The idea is that school is for learning about things like math, science, history, literature, etc, not religious worship.

God not allowed in schools

It is important to note that removing a set time for communal prayer in school does not forbid anyone from praying on their own. In fact, the Bible discourages people from praying in public just to be seen by others, (Matthew 6:5), so I see no problem with individuals praying in private or silently in public during school. It should also be noted that not teaching the Bible at school doesn’t forbid people from reading it on their own time. And just because there is a lack of crosses on the walls, or because the school play is about winter and not Jesus’ birthday, that doesn’t mean that children and teachers can’t live and act according to Christian principles and values, even during school time. Additionally, it should also be noted that by removing public prayer and religious activity in school, no one is actually asking for God to remove his protection. Or are Christians insinuating that learning in a secular building creates some kind of “force field” that somehow blocks the prayers of Christians from getting to God? I can’t see the logic or love in a God who would remove his protection from an entire school with faithful Christians in it, simply because there’s no pictures of Jesus or no prayer over the speaker system.

Also, if communal prayer, reading the Bible, and putting up crosses afford buildings God’s protection, then why do priests abuse children in churches, and why do churches full of good people succumb to lightning strikes, fires, explosions, tornadoes, hurricanes, and, tragically, violence? Sadly, one of my own family members was killed in a church shooting a few years ago.

Now, there is also another group of thought regarding the reasons for this tragedy. Some Christians say that God does not literally cause or allow these types of tragedies to happen. For this group, they see God as having less of a direct influence on events, but rather that he influences the minds of humans through his Book, his followers, and as a presence in human minds. Some of these types of Christians also believe that taking God out of schools causes school shootings and other bad things to happen. However, they attribute this to the fact that children in secular schools are influenced by other things besides religion, and that being in school without worshiping or learning about God causes them to be sinful and violent, or that they eventually grow up to be so. These Christians are asking us to believe that children who are not constantly having religion crammed down their throats while learning Algebra and American History cannot be good Christians, or have less of a chance of being good Christians.

This is obviously not true, because secular schools produce both faithful Christians and non-believing atheists, and turn out both well-behaving and misbehaving kids, just as religious schools do. However, even if it were true that keeping God out of schools negatively influences Christian behavior, then I would see it as the responsibility of families and churches to be even better at religious education when kids are at home and at church. And if you believe that a religious school produces better kids than public school, then there are plenty of private religious schools that your children can attend. If these schools are too expensive, then maybe you should be an advocate for making more affordable religious education available, instead of blaming the secular community. All we’re saying is that public money shouldn’t be used for religious purposes in public schools. It should also be noted that children will unfortunately be subjected to bad things no matter what their upbringing– religious or secular. I personally think believers and non-believers should be working more together to remove bad elements from society as a whole.

So to sum up my position: if God exists but does not have a direct influence on events, then tragedies like this cannot be solely blamed on secular schools. If, however, God does have a direct influence on events and allowed this tragedy happen as part of a greater plan, as a punishment, or because He equates secular education with asking Him to remove his protection of individuals, then God is obviously a sick monster, flawed in His ways, or of course as I see it, simply not real. Additionally, if you insist that constant religious education is essential to protecting children from the evils of this world, then I recommend private religious schools. I do acknowledge though that religious people need their religion especially at times like this to cope with the pain and fear that we are all experiencing, and I completely understand and respect that. However, if people are using this event to blame secularity or the non-religious community, I certainly feel the need to respond.

So why do I believe tragedies like the Newtown school shooting happen? In the aftermath, people will blame this on lack of gun control, and too much gun control, and the religious and non-religious will blame each other, and everyone will blame drugs, tv, movies, the internet, and video games. But the real reason things like this happen is because two people have sex, and then make a baby, and that baby grows up and isn’t taught how the world works and how to handle the complexities of modern life and how to responsibly handle the natural thoughts and emotions that we as humans have to deal with in this life. It also happens because some people, most through no fault of their own, have broken parts in their brains, and tragically they go unnoticed, ignored, untreated, or mistreated. Until we get these issues figured out, mass killings like the awful events in Connecticut will continue to happen, and with increasing frequency.

I’ll leave you with a post from Facebook that I actually DID think might be helpful during this time:

Mister Rogers on Helpers

Is America a Christian Nation?

•October 7, 2012 • 3 Comments

Should healthcare plans be required to cover birth control? Should abortion be legal? Should the government fund planned parenthood? Should Creationism be taught in schools alongside evolution? Should prayer be allowed in schools, football games, or the Oval Office? Should homosexuals be allowed to marry? Is being an atheist unpatriotic? Should the 10 Commandments be displayed in government buildings? Should public policy and law be based on Christian values? Is America, in fact, a Christian Nation? These are the tough questions our country is facing these days, and these concepts are being hotly debated across the land in committee meetings, courtrooms, social networks, and the public media. Divisive as they may be, these are issues that we will have to come to some agreement on before we can move forward together as a nation in this rapidly changing world.

The Separation of Church and State

These questions all revolve around the idea of separation of church and state. This phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a widely-printed letter discussing the First Amendment with the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in Connecticut who were concerned about the prevalence of the Congregationalist Church in that state:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

As an example of this separation, in 1796 the Treaty of Tripoli was signed under President John Adams to bring peace with North African Muslim pirates, and it intended to show that the United States was not like other nations, like England for example, who had established a State Religion of Christianity and were thus perceived as a threat to the Muslim faith. Article 11 reads:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

God in the Founding Documents

The Declaration of Independence was a document adopted by the Continenal Congress on July 4th, 1776 to declare America’s separation from England, and it was written almost entirely by Thomas Jefferson. God is referenced 4 times:

twice in the Preamble:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

and twice in the final paragraph:

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

It is important to note that the Declaration of Independence was not, nor was it ever meant to be, a founding document to design the laws and regulations of our country. It was a moral plea to England justifying why America should be an independent nation, a self-evident right  (not referred to as a “Biblically-evident” right, by the way) that the founders believed came from God. It is also noteworthy that “religion” is not mentioned once, much less “Christianity”, and that the terms “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence” were all common Deist terms, and certainly not representative of Christianity alone.

The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was put into effect on March 4, 1789. God is never mentioned once, except in the signature section, where it says, “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven,” which is of course was a common notation and not a religious reference. Religion is only mentioned once in Article VI where it states that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” meaning that anyone could serve in public office regardless of their religion or lack thereof. It should be noted, however, that this applies only to federal office, and several state constitutions do require a religious test to hold certain offices, although this is rarely enacted.

The Bill of Rights consisted of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and was presented to the First U.S. Congress by President James Madison and came into effect on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment states:

“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.”

The part about religion is called the “Establishment Clause,” and it specifically states that the United States government cannot establish an official religion or stop the free exercise of religion. This is the clause addressed by Jefferson in his “Separation” letter, and clearly shows that neither Christianity nor any other faith can be a national or official religion. This idea has been held up in many Supreme Court cases throughout our nation’s history. It is also important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution were just a few generations removed from the Puritans, who escaped to America to practice their religion freely, which they could not do under the official state-declared Church of England.

Was American’s Government Based On Christian Values?

So the founding fathers clearly established separation of Church and State and did not declare Christianity as the official religion, but did Christianity influence their ideas? Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 51 were most likely Christian, which no doubt influenced their morality and worldview. Many of the early leaders held prayer during government meetings, declared religious proclamations, and attended church services at the Capitol and apparently did not see these as violations of the Establishment Clause.

However when the founding fathers set out to design a nation, they looked to Roman and Greek thought (as in Plato’s The Republic) as well as deist philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, among others. Deism and theistic rationalism were two schools of thought that developed out of the Age of Enlightenment, which helped influence both the American and French revolutions. Many of the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, were clearly heavily influenced by these principles, which focused more on reason and observation as well as reverence for the natural world, and less on religious literalism, dogma, and supernatural claims. Jefferson even famously assembled the “Jefferson Bible,” which consisted of the New Testament Gospels, omitting nearly all supernatural claims including references to the Holy Trinity, angels, miracles, the Resurrection, and Jesus’ divinity, all of which were notably doubted as being factual by most deist thinkers.

It is also clear that democracy is not a Biblical ideal, since God’s chosen people were commanded to be ruled over by kings who earned their position through birthright, including Jesus himself, and not by popular vote.

In God We Trust

So if Christianity isn’t America’s official religion, and if its government wasn’t directly based on Christian principles, why is “In God We Trust” the national motto and on all of our money? Well, “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on U.S. coins until 1864, during the Civil War. Eleven northern Protestant churches, during a time of turmoil and deep religious sentiment, lobbied for a statement recognising “Almighty God in some form in our coins,” and Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, with an act of Congress, obliged.

E pluribus unum, latin for “out of many, one,” was our nation’s unofficial motto when the Great Seal of the United States (both sides of which can be seen on the back of a dollar bill) was adopted in 1782. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War, the official motto was changed to “In God We Trust” by Congress under President Dwight Eisenhower, in part to differentiate the U.S. from atheistic Communist countries. The phrase was added to paper money in 1957. Some secularists view these changes as illegal and a violation of the Establishment Clause since they favor monotheistic religions, but the language has been held up and reaffirmed by the government over time. It was also during the scare of Communism when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 by Congress, 12 years after the original secular version of the Pledge was first officially recognized.

A Christian Nation

The majority of Americans, between 76 and 80%, consider themselves to be Christian. I would say that alone defines America as a Christian nation. I think that it is also completely fair to say that most of the founders of our country, from the Puritans to the leaders of today, have been Christian or at least subscribed in part to Christian ideals. However, I believe that I (along with many others) have demonstrated that America was not designed around the Christian religion, and that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended for there to be a distinct wall of separation between church and state.

However, public attitudes have been changing about this Separation and what it means, primarily as a result of a movement that gained steam in the late 1970s called the Christian Right. This right-wing informal coalition, mostly founded around a core of white Evangelical Protestants, has had a growing heavy influence on governmental policy and social thought through political and social groups like the Moral Majority, The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, and the Family Research Council. Unfortunately, these groups have been shown to spread misinformation and harmful ideas, mainly through public figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Falwell and Robertson in particular have been criticized for their remarks blaming certain natural disasters and the 9/11 attacks as God’s punishment for homosexuality and secularism. Other proponents have declared that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are the direct result of Satan’s influence. Some have even said that you cannot be a true patriotic citizen if you don’t believe in God.

Most people who agree with the views of the Christian Right believe that the Theory of Evolution is false and that Creationism/Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, that abstinence rather than safe sex should be taught to teenagers, that homosexuality is both a choice and wrong, that gay marriage should be illegal, that birth control should not be covered under health care, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that stem cell research is unethical, that morality comes from the Bible, that Christian teachings from the Bible should be reflected in U.S. law, that the conflicts in Israel and the Middle East are a sign of the End Times, and that Jesus will be returning sometime within the next 50 years to issue in the Apocalypse. Many people, both secular and religious, see all of these ideas as direct threats to reason, personal freedom, and national safety.

I personally hope to see a return to a more secular understanding of our government as the original founding fathers intended, one where our freedoms are not restricted by any one religion, and yet one where everyone has the freedom to believe whatever religion they choose, or to choose not to believe at all.

As John F. Kennedy famously said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

For more information, start with the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Constitution 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Declaration_of_Independence 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_we_trust 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_right 

Islam: A Religion of Peace?

•October 1, 2012 • 2 Comments

Islam means “voluntary submission to God,” and Islamic adherents are called Muslims. The defining belief of Islam is that there is only one god, Allah (known as Yahweh in the Bible), and that Muhammad was his final prophet. Muslims comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s population with nearly 1.7 billion followers. Islam is the 2nd largest religion behind Christianity, though as one of the fastest growing religions, it is predicted to take the top spot within decades.

Islam and the Bible

Muhammad (whose name means “praiseworthy”) is claimed to have been born around 570 C.E. in the Arabian city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that Muhammad, believed to have been a decedent of Abraham, was the last in a long line of prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Muslims view Muhammad and all of these prophets, including Jesus, to be mortal humans and not divine, although some could perform miracles. They believe that the Bible (both the Old and New Testament) is a divine and true revelation from God, but that it has been corrupted by men over time, and therefore God had to give Muhammad a new revelation to correct the message.

This final revelation and only existing literal word of God was revealed to Muhammad over 22 years and written down as the Quran sometime after Muhammad’s death in the year 632 C.E. Quran means “the recitation,” and Muslims believe that the only pure form of the Quran is when it is recited out loud in Arabic. Muslims also consult the “hadith,” a collection of Muhammad’s sayings, actions, and characteristics (written down 200 years after his death), which is considered to be an essential supplement to the Quran.

Basic Beliefs

According to Islamic belief, Muhammad was a merchant and a shepherd in Mecca until the age of 40, when he claimed to have begun receiving a revelation from God through the angel Gabriel and continued to periodically receive such revelations for the next 22 years of his life. He preached these revelations to his companions, who memorized them and helped spread them throughout the territory with the intent of driving out paganism. He became a military leader of his followers, leading battles against Meccan tribes who were hostile to his teachings and followers. By the time he died in 632, Muhammad had conquered Mecca, destroyed all the pagan idols in the city and had united the many tribes of Arabia under a single Islamic faith.

Muslims collectively believe that the Quran is the literal word of God, and that Muhammed was his last and most important prophet. They believe in angels as divine messengers of revelation. Muslims also believe in the “Day of Resurrection,” when God will resurrect everyone that has ever died and judge the living and the dead according to his or her own deeds in life. There are several sins that could condemn one to Hell, but forgiveness is possible if repentance is made. Those deemed worthy will enter Paradise, where everything that you have longed for in this life will exist, including servants, hangover-free wine, jewels, and yes…virgin wives. Muslims also believe in predestination, the idea that nothing good nor evil can happen without God’s permission, although paradoxically they see humans as having free will in their personal actions. Angels, on the other hand, do not have free will, although a third kind of being that God created, called jinns, do have free will. Iblis is a Shaytan, or bad jinn, who casts evil suggestions into the hearts of men.


The Five Pillars of Islam are the five basic obligatory acts that all Muslims must perform. 1) The Shahadah, or basic creed of Islam, must be stated as follows: “I testify there are no deities other than God alone and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” 2) Ritual prayer, or Salah, is performed 5 times a day, with Muslims kneeling in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, mostly reciting Quran verses in Arabic. Muslims meet to pray and study together in Mosques. Jurists, the clergy of Islam, are considered less of a divine authority and more of a class of highly educated Muslim scholars. 3) Alms-giving, or Zakat, is the duty to give a fixed portion of your accumulated wealth (if you can afford it) to the poor and needy and to help with the spread of Islam. 4) Fasting from food and drink is done from dawn to dusk every day during the holy month of Ramadhan. 5) Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgramage, or Hajj, to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, including walking 7 times around the Kaaba, the supposed first stone house of worship built for Allah toward which all Muslims pray.

There are 2 main holidays in Islam. Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, and Muslims usually give zakat (charity). Eid Al-Adha is celebrated at the end of Hajj, and Muslims usually sacrifice an animal and distribute its meat amongst family, friends and the poor.

Criticism and Extremism

Immediately following Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., Islam split into 2 factions. Those that believed that Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law as his successor became known as Shias. Those that instead believed Mohammad claimed no successor wanted Muhammad’s father-in-law to be the new leader, and became known as Sunnis. Today, 75 to 95% of Muslims are Sunni, while 10-20% are Shia, and there are several other small factions and denominations. These groups have been engaged in perpetual argument and war against each other ever since their inception.

While Islam has given humanity many great works of art, architecture, music, and culture, there are plenty of things to criticize about this self-proclaimed religion of peace. Muhammad himself was either crazy or a liar for claiming to talk to angels. He was known to have several wives, including one who became his bride at the age of 10. He owned slaves and led armies in battle who killed many Meccans. the Quran itself, although it has many verses prescribing peace and virtue, also endorses violence, slavery, spousal abuse against disobedient or unsubmissive wives, and apostasy– the idea that the penalty for leaving the Islamic faith is nothing less than death. As author Sam Harris wrote, “The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.” Check out the online Skeptic’s Annotated Quran for plenty more examples of such violent and repressive principles.

Unlike the secular government of the United States, many Muslim countries incorporate religion into their governments through Sharia law, which is based on precepts of the Quran and the hadith. These laws address all aspects of Muslim life and are considered the infallible law of God. There are many concerns from reasonable people about Islamic law’s harsh, oppressive, and at times incredibly violent views regarding women, homosexuals, slavery, human rights, and free speech.

While of course not all Muslims are terrorists, and though the majority are peaceful and non-violent, Islamic extremism still abounds and has been terrorizing the world for centuries. Terrorists use the more violent aspects of the Islamic texts to justify extreme violence and jihad holy war against anyone they perceive as a threat to the Islamic faith. The United States is seen as a Christian Nation (Muslims consider Christians to be pagans because they believe in the Holy Trinity), and the U.S., along with all of Western Culture in general, is perceived by many as a direct threat and insult to Islam. In addition many Muslims are resentful of American occupation of their lands. Muslims are particularly enraged by any blasphemy of their prophet, causing many to protest, attack and even murder over such things as poorly made movies and harmless cartoons. All of these hostilities led to the attacks of 9/11 on American soil and the recent attacks on America’s foreign embassies, and they continue to be a direct threat to freedom of speech as well as global safety.

Again from Sam Harris: “It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims.  Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no center. In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world…

“…Our press should report on the terrifying state of discourse in the Arab press, exposing the degree to which it is a tissue of lies, conspiracy theories and exhortations to recapture the glories of the seventh century.  All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth.  Muslim moderates, wherever they are, must be given every tool necessary to win a war of ideas with their co-religionists.  Otherwise, we will have to win some very terrible wars in the future. It is time we realized that the endgame for civilization is not political correctness.  It is not respect for the abject religious certainties of the mob. It is reason.”

To learn more on your own, start with:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticisms_of_islam 

Why Israel Matters

•September 30, 2012 • 1 Comment

Israel has certainly had its share of attention in the news lately. How often do we hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for how many years now? Is that really STILL going on? Each political party’s position on Israel and the authenticity of Jerusalem seemed to be a key point of each platform in this election year. Why the heck is that a factor? And now we hear that Israel is threatening to attack Iran before Iran attacks Israel, and many think that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. How are we somehow mixed up in the middle of all this? Confused? I was too, so I set out to try and make sense of all this nonsense. Keep reading and I’ll explain why Israel matters so much, why everyone seems to be talking about it, and why it will matter even more in the  near future.

A Brief History 

In the Bible, Israel was the land Yahweh gave to his chosen people, the Jews, through a covenant with Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, who was renamed “Israel” by an angel of God after the angel was unable to defeat Jacob in a late-night wrestling match (Israel means “one who wrestles with God”). Jacob, or Israel, had 12 sons, who became the direct ancestors of the “12 tribes of Israel”. It was these chosen descendants of Abraham that Moses, Jacob’s great, great grandson, led out of slavery from Egypt back into the Promised Land of Israel, also known as Canaan or Palestine.

Judaism flourished in the area, followed by Christianity. The land of Israel was conquered and re-conqured by numerous tribes and empires throughout the ages, including the rapidly-expanding Islamic empire in 635 C.E. Islam is the third great Abrahamic religion, stemming from Judeasim and Christianity, and is largely focused on the revelations of the prophet Mohammed. The region remained under Muslim control for 1300 years. This bloody piece of real estate then changed hands many times during the Crusades of the Middle Ages and was eventually taken over by the Ottoman Empire, which then lost the land to the British after World War I.

Zionism, a Jewish movement of nationalism that encouraged displaced Jews to return to Israel and form an independent state, began to grow, especially after the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. In 1948 Israel declared its independence from the expired British rule and was recognized as a democratic state by the United Nations in 1949. Immediately  after declaring independence, Israel went to war with the Arab nations surrounding it, and the area has remained in perpetual conflict ever since.

A Nation Divided

Today, this region is fiercely divided between the Jewish-controlled state of Israel, the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem controlled by the Islamic Palestinian Authority, and the Gaza strip controlled by Hamas, a terrorist offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic State of Palestine declared its independence in 1988. However, while Palestine is recognized as an official state by two thirds of the world’s countries, it is not recognized by the United Nations or several Western countries, including Israel and the United States.

The city of Jerusalem is literally at the heart of this conflict. During its history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jerusalem was divided with Jews mainly in the western part and Palestinian Muslims and Christians mainly in the eastern part. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the eastern part of Jerusalem came under Israeli control and was annexed by Israel. Most of the international community and the United Nations declare this annexation illegal, however today both the Jewish State of Israel and the Islamic Palestinian National Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital city. The United Nations, as well as the United States, does not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and instead favors it becoming an international city, or at least a peaceful shared capital between both Israel and Palestine.

Jerusalem is such a hotbed of violence mainly because it sits at the exact intersection of the world’s three great Abrahamic religions that all originated there, with each faith laying claim to several historical sites of significant religious importance. According to the Bible, King David established Jerusalem as the capital city of God’s Holy Land, and his son Solomon built the first Jewish Temple there. Modern Jews consider the entire city holy, and many make pilgrimages to the Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” in the heart of the Old City, believed to be the remaining wall of the second temple built by King Herod. Jerusalem is important to Christians as the site of many significant events in the life of Jesus, including the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed was carried from Mecca (in modern day Saudi Arabia) to the temple in Jerusalem on a magic flying horse, where he ascended to Heaven to receive Allah’s holy instructions. The Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock was built on top of the Jewish Temple Mount.

America, Israel, and the End of the World

The United States and Israel have become strong allies due to shared democratic and religious values. Israel is also one of only 2 non-NATO allies in the Middle East, making it an important strategic ally. The U.S. has generally supported the Zion movement and was instrumental in helping Israel attain statehood. Additionally, the U.S. has supplied Israel with military weaponry to defend itself, and Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid since WWII, receiving $3 billion a year from us since 1985. The Democratic party even came under fire this year when it originally neglected to mention Israel at all in its official Party Platform.

Many find this favoritism dubious, and it has caused added tension with many of the world’s Islamic nations. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is sympathetic to Palestine and has publicly threatened Israel with annihilation, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has implored the U.S. to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Israel has also threatened to preemptively attack Iran if the U.S. does not intercede. We are being dragged into a fight.

Some people actually see potential military conflict over Israel as a good thing! Both the Old and New Testaments predicted that God would gather the scattered Jews into a nation once again, and in 1948 when U.S. President Truman cast the deciding vote for Israel’s statehood, Israel’s Chief Rabbi claimed that Truman’s vote had fulfilled a 2500 year old biblical prophesy. The Bible also predicts that Israel will be horribly attacked one last time, triggering the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Armageddon, and God’s Final Judgement, followed by the renewal of Jerusalem and Heaven on Earth. Indeed, many conservative Christians believe that we are living in the End Times right now, and that WWIII would be a welcomed signal of the return of their savior. Do you find that as terrifying as I do?

I see the whole situation as nothing more than a bunch of whiny children fighting over control of a sandbox, arguing over whose version of their imaginary friend is more real. The only problem is, the children have nuclear weapons to play with, and their silly squabble could destroy us all.

Atheist Songs Mixtape

•September 15, 2012 • 6 Comments

I love music. Absolutely love it. Music is definitely one of the experiences in life that I call “spiritual,” though I don’t mean that in the literal sense, of course. It is probably my favorite thing about life, in fact, and I have relied on it countless times throughout my life to get through or enhance the current 3 seconds. I make music a part of my life every single day, as I think most people do. Indeed, we have been using music as a defining part of our culture for thousands of years. Music is incredibly powerful. It can unite us, separate us, enlighten us, comfort us, help us to heal, and allow us to express our love, our joy, or our pain in ways that we never seem to be able to find the words for ourselves.

While the religious enjoy a host of songs to express their feelings, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and other non-believers have a much smaller catalogue to choose from. That being said, there have been many songs in my life that, though they may not specifically refer to atheistic or humanistic values, have helped me define myself through song as an atheist, and that collection is presented here, in no particular order. Click on each song to go to its corresponding youtube video if you want to give any a listen.

Or, you can watch the entire playlist here on my Chris the Humanist Youtube channel.

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam – Nirvana Great cover of the Vaselines song on MTV Unplugged.

Loosing My Religion – R.E.M. Well, you knew this one had to make the list.

Who Will Save Your Soul? – Jewel  Who now?

Counting Blue Cars – Dishwalla Just by referring to God as “Her,” Dishwalla blew my young mind wide open.

One of Us – Joan Osborne One of my favorite songs ever.

The Joker – Steve Miller Band  “I’m a picker, I’m a grinner, I’m a lover, and I’m a sinner….sure don’t want to hurt no one…”

Plateau – Nirvana Another great Nirvana Unplugged cover of a Meat Puppets song.

The Mississippi Squirrel Revival – Ray Stevens  Now this is some good ol’ time religion!

Dare You To Move – Switchfoot  This is the ringtone for my morning alarm, lol.

Sheep Go to Heaven – Cake “I just want to play on my panpipes. I just want to drink me some wine. As soon as you’re born you start dying, so you might as well have a good time…”

Lights – Ellie Goulding This song was inspired by the artist’s fear of the dark. I always think about it when I contemplate the distant lights of the Universe in the night sky. The youtube video I linked to is the awesome Bassnectar remix over a montage of some of the world’s most amazing humans. 

I Will Follow You Into the Dark – Death Cab for Cutie  “If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied, illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs…” Such a great hook. 

Atheists Don’t Have No Songs – Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers Thanks Steve Martin for writing a song just for us atheists!

Bad Reputation – Joan Jett Not an atheist song, but being secular in a religious world can kinda give you a certain reputation.

Space Oddity – David Bowie Non-believers tend to be into science, especially astronomy and space exploration. Take a trip.

The Sounds of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence…”

Man in the Box – Alice In Chains Some serious teenage angst here, haha.

Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars “Won’t do me no good, washin’ in the river. Can’t no preacher man save my…Soul!”

Hand of the Almighty – John R Butler  Hilarious and true, though not work or kid friendly!

Rocky Mountain High – John Denver A reverence for Nature at its best.

God Was Never On Your Side – Motorhead Some atheists will list anti-religious songs among their favorites. For the most part I tend to stray away from those, with a few exceptions, like this one.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It – R.E.M.  And I feel fine! (But seriously, all doomsday prophecies aside, let’s not destroy the world.)

Bullet With Butterfly Wings – Smashing Pumpkins  More teen angst. “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage…and I still believe that I cannot be saved…”

Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads “And we’re not little children, and we know what we want. And the future is certain; give us time to work it out…”

Circle of Life – The Lion King (Elton John, Tim Rice) Yep, seriously. “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connnected in the great Circle of Life.”

What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong  There is beauty in the world all around you.

Amazing Grace – John Newton What? A Christian hymn on an atheist mixtape? Sure. To this day this is one of my favorite songs of all time. There is much beauty, history, and art that can be derived from our rich religious traditions. They are a part of our collective story. This version is LeAnn Rimes’ beautiful a cappella rendition.

Imagine – John Lennon Probably the quintessential Humanist song.

Well, there’s my list. I’m sure I’ll add more songs as I think of them. If you have a suggestion for a song that expresses how you feel as an atheist, agnostic, or Humanist, feel free to leave a comment. If it’s one that I’d put on my own mixtape, I’ll add it to the list.

Enjoy the music,

~Chris

How To Win Any Argument

•September 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I recently read an article (shared by Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism’s Facebook page) entitled “5 Tips to Win Any Debate” , written by Justin Hartfield and M. Harrison of the Prometheus Institute. PI is a public policy organization that has been labeled as extremist and right-wing by some, though the little information I have garnered from them was excellent. This just goes to show you that good information can come from many sources, including from those that you don’t necessarily agree with.

I wanted to share the main points of this article, mainly because I have seen an unprecedented amount of petty name-calling, mud-slinging, trash talking and just plain childishness in the online forums lately from Yahoo to Facebook to Youtube and the television tube. And it’s coming from all sides of the argument. If you are an atheist and find yourself debating a Christian, for example, the discussion should never have to devolve into disrespect, and letting it do so reflects poorly on our cause and simply corroborates negative stereotypes of non-believers.

If you find yourself in any debate, follow these 5 rules from the article, and you will be successful in demonstrating your point:

1) Always Respect Your Opponent. The fact is, you will never convince your opponent that their position is wrong and yours is right. If you make that your goal from the onset, not only will you fail, you will waste a golden opportunity. This is true especially if you have an audience witnessing the argument, whether they are in person or reading your conversation silently online. It is THESE people, the moderates, the ones with doubts, the skeptics…these are the people you are trying to educate and set an example for. And if your opponent resorts to an ad hominem argument, attacking your position by insulting your personal character, resist the urge to attack them personally. Relax and realize that you have basically already won the argument, since they have exhausted all other points and now show desperation in attacking you. If you refuse to engage in childish bickering and choose to be the more mature opponent,  your audience will take notice.

2) Find Common Ground, And Stake A Claim On It. “You should make every effort to base your arguments off of commonly-shared viewpoints. This not only persuades a greater number of your audience, but also damages your opponents’ arguments more severely.” As the article explains, this is one of the most under-utilized techniques in the political culture today. “Socialists accuse free market supporters of hating poor people, and affirmative action opponents of hating minorities. Likewise, conservatives accuse decriminalization supporters of subsidizing pothead losers, and opponents of censorship as being pro-immorality. The list could go on.

“Instead of becoming enraged, or disregarding your opponent as a crackpot idiot, you should make your opponent look foolish by showing yourself to be aware of the same concerns that he is. Free-market proponents should make strides to explain how economic growth benefits the poor, affirmative action opponents should explain how the discriminatory policy actually hurts minorities, and decriminalization supports should explain how they support the rights of productive citizens, and not potheads. Finding common ground enhances your persuasive power. Your audience is more likely to agree with your reasoning when it is based off of commonly-held beliefs, and your opponent will be categorically denied the ability to accuse you of not caring.”

3) Concede Well-Reasoned Points. From the article: “There are generally two methods by which you can challenge an argument. First is by challenging its logical structure, either by its premises, conclusions, or use of various logical fallacies. This is effective when you are debating people like your local college student who sputters nothing but arguments dripping with fallacious reasoning. However, when you are debating more well-reasoned individuals, as you should be doing, you may need to apply the second technique, which is to concede a point yet offer a stronger alternative.

“Many issues in public policy have intelligent positions on both sides, and you will need to offer a compelling case why your position is more relevant and beneficial than your opponent’s. If your points are argued well enough, they should be able to stand down any of your opponent’s points, even without directly attacking his. Such concessions not only fail to hurt you, but they also improve your standing in the eyes of your audience. It is a skilled debater who can graciously concede his opponent’s point without skipping a beat. It will be impossible to be prepared for every argument your opponent makes. He will surely cite some obscure statistic or random study, or even make an a priori argument you’ve never heard. Rather than accuse him of being a liar, you can confidently reply, ‘Even if that were true, it still doesn’t change the reality that…’ [and then state your position].”

4) Don’t Confuse Passion With Hatred. “It is easy to agree with the first point about respecting one’s opponent. The easiest way to respect someone’s viewpoint that you disagree with is to shut up and not say anything about it. But debating is necessary for the health of American democracy, and those in a debate might likewise find it difficult to passionately advocate a position without seeming too harsh on its supporters. Your denunciation of your opponent’s position should be as passionate as necessary, as long as it doesn’t denounce the person directly. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the stupidity or ignorance of a policy, especially if you can prove it. Respecting your opponent does not mean respecting what he believes or what he promotes.”

Keep it positive, people.

5) Sometimes The Best Debating Technique Is Not To Debate At All. Let’s face it. There are just some situations where you should shut the hell up and keep your opinions to yourself. Situations where, even if you are engaged by an opponent, you should refuse to debate. This mainly includes situations where it is more important to show solidarity, compassion, and teamwork, rather than to be divisive. Such settings include the workplace, weddings, funerals, public functions, social engagements where it would be inappropriate, and (lol) first dates.

So there you have it. As you can see, the main theme of this article is that you should maintain respect for your opponent in any argument, and remember that it is not really your opponent that you are trying to convince, but those listening in silence all around you, waiting to see how you will handle yourself. Keep them in mind before you fly off the handle, and remember to approach all situations with wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion.

Now go save the world.

Cosmic Perspective

•August 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Right now, at this very moment…

Gravity is holding you onto the side of a rock that is rotating around its axis at a speed of around 1,038 miles per hour (when measured at the equator). This rock is Earth, your home, and at this speed the Earth makes one full rotation once about every 24 hours.

The Earth is orbiting around a middle-aged, medium-sized star, our Sun, at a speed of around 67,000 miles per hour. At this speed, it takes the Earth about 365 days to make one full rotation around the Sun.

The Sun (along with all of its planets, asteroids, comets and chunks of ice and rock) is itself located in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy, and it is orbiting around the center of the galaxy at a speed of around 550,000 miles per hour. At this speed, it takes the Sun and its satellites about 200 million years to make one full orbit around the galaxy. Since our sun is around 5 billion years old, it has made this journey about 25 times, and since it is a middle-aged star, it will make the trek about 25 more times before it goes nova and dies, burning Earth up in the process.

The Milky Way Galaxy contains between 200 and 400 billion stars, and it is flying through space at a speed of about 1.2 million miles per hour, or about 340 miles per second.

The Milky Way is around 13.2 billion years old, almost as old as the Universe. It has several small satellite galaxies orbiting around it, and it is located in a cluster of galaxies known as the Local Group. The Local Group cluster contains the Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy, along with 52 other smaller galaxies all orbiting around together in a group. This cluster is flying through space along with many other clusters of galaxies, in a large group called the Virgo Supercluster. This supercluster contains around 100 different galaxy clusters, and there are millions of galaxy clusters in the observable universe.

I’d like you to think about that, and then think about your tiny place in this grand universe. It tends to make one reevaluate how significant our daily frets and worries are, and how lucky we truly are to be a part of it all.

The following video is a fly-through animation of a small part of the observable universe consisting of around 400,000 galaxies. These are how the galaxies actually look and are shown in the correct positions as mapped by astronomers.

(click on YouTube icon to view in fullscreen on YouTube’s website)

What Is Humanism?

•July 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This following is not an original work by me, but a document developed by the American Humanist Association to explain what Humanism is and what it aims for. Though I have no official affiliation with the AHA, I think this does a good job of summing up what I stand for as a Humanist. I have reprinted it here in its entirety for your use. For more information, please visit the AHA website at  http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III.

Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

Humanist Manifesto is a trademark of the American Humanist Association-© 2003 American Humanist Association

Top 10 Misconceptions About Atheists

•July 15, 2012 • 5 Comments

Atheists have been getting a lot of attention these days it seems, as non-believers have been organizing on social networks like never before and conflicts involving religion continue to find a spot in the headlines of news media outlets across the globe. Things are heating up, and atheists are in the middle of it.

With all of the cross-talk being continuously splattered across the online forums and yahoo comments sections from both believers and non-believers alike, a few misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist have developed and seem to come up over and over in my conversations. To set the record straight and to help you learn a little bit more about this part of my Humanist philosophy, here are the Top Ten Misconceptions About Atheists:

1) If you’re an atheist your life is meaningless. FALSE. As an atheist I don’t believe that there is any objective meaning or plan in life ordained by a supernatural power, but that does not mean that I can’t have personal meaning in my life. I’m sure there are atheists that go through life without much direction, just like there are Christians and Muslims that walk through life aimlessly as well. But there are many atheists who lead very productive and meaningful lives. They have jobs, families and mortgages; they have children and they pursue goals in life in accordance with their own personal meaning, just like everyone else. I personally feel that life holds more meaning and satisfaction for me now that I am an atheist than it did when I was a Christian. Please read my blog post about the meaning of life.

2) If you’re an atheist you have no morals. FALSE. Many religious people claim that their morality comes from God. In other words, if you don’t believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, and if you don’t follow God’s commandments, then you have no morals. Many religious people even suggest that this is what attracts people to atheism in the first place. This is incredibly insulting. If you as a Christian are saying that your belief in an imaginary God is the only thing keeping you from stealing, murdering, lying and raping, then there is something truly wrong with you. I have morals because I have a conscience, and I can tell the difference between what is right and wrong. In fact there are even many species of animals that display moral and ethical action and thought, and they certainly don’t believe in a higher power. Please read my blog post about what religion gets wrong about morality, and also my blog post about the true nature of good and evil.

3) All atheists are miserable and mean. FALSE. Atheists have a reputation as being cranky, pretentious know-it-alls who constantly bash religion and hate their own miserable lives. While I’m sure there are some atheists who fit that description perfectly (just like there are many Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who also fit that description), this of course does not describe every atheist. Many atheists are, however, particularly outspoken against god and religion or are simply lost or depressed due to bad experiences with religion in their past, and some non-believers, unfortunately, can be very mean to those who choose to believe in God. I do not endorse this behavior. Please read my blog post about how to speak out against bullshit without being mean.

4) There are no atheists in foxholes. FALSE. Some people believe that atheists actually believe in God deep down and will, when faced with a life and death situation, cling to the idea of God once again and even pray for help or guidance. Again, this is insulting. If a person is an atheist, then they do not believe in God. Period. I have been in several scary instances where I could have lost life or limb and I did not once think of God or pray. In fact, in a crisis situation, I would think it’s much more productive to focus on how to stay alive rather than praying for divine intervention. Please read my post about the existence of God.

5) Atheists worship the devil, eat babies, and hate our country. FALSE. Atheists do not believe in ANY deities, including the mythical figure of Satan, nor do we worship them. We do not eat babies. I honestly don’t know how that one got started. And we most certainly love freedom, equality, justice, and have national pride. Here in America, where the separation between church and state is guaranteed in the Constitution, being an atheist can be especially patriotic, and we are often very politically vocal when a religious group infringes on this establishment of our founding fathers.

6) Prove that God doesn’t exist. IMPOSSIBLE. You cannot prove that something does not exist. I cannot prove that God does not exist, any more than I can prove that a omnipotent Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist. Atheism is not itself a claim, it is a rejection of the claim that God exists. I don’t believe that there is enough evidence to say that there is such a thing as God, and I do not personally believe that there is a God. In fact, I think the evidence leans to the negative by far. That is what it means to be an atheist.

7) Atheists worship science. FALSE. Atheists do not worship science, or evolution, or Darwin, or nature. We see no need to, although many atheists do have a great reverence for life and its processes. And atheists do not have faith in science, as religious people have faith in God. Faith is the belief in something without the need for any evidence. Instead of faith, I trust in and use reason, logic, and the processes of science to look at the evidence to figure out what is going on here. It also helps that science is a self-correcting discipline, meaning the story can change with better evidence as time goes by, and that is perfectly normal and okay (even expected and hoped for!), while religions tend to not change much over time, clinging to dogmas that are thousands of years old despite better evidence to the contrary.

8) Atheists hate God and his followers. FALSE. Atheists can’t, by definition, hate or be angry with God, since we don’t believe in a God or Gods. We also don’t hate people just because they are religious. As I said before, there are many atheists, like myself, who are outspoken against the harms of religion, and there are, unfortunately, some atheists who personally attack Christians and others on the internet or in person. Again, I do not agree with this behavior. I believe in the power of having positive conversations. Please read more about that in my blog post about saving the world.

9) Atheists don’t believe in anything. FALSE. Atheists are very individualistic and are free to make their lives significant in any way they see fit. Some atheists want to make the world a better place, and some just don’t care. Some are very compassionate and do a lot of charity or activist work, and others don’t bother. A movement called Humanism, which is what I identify with, is made up of people who don’t believe in God or a higher power, but they do believe in the power of humanity to be ultimately good and successful, provided that we change the way we humans are handling things at the moment. We believe in logic, reason, education, and compassion, and many are working to help our fellow humans to “wake up” to what’s really going on here.

10) Atheists believe we all came from nothing. FALSE. Most atheists, if they subscribe to the findings of our best science, believe that our Universe was created in an event called The Big Bang. We do not believe that nothing magically came from nothing. We don’t yet know what came before the Big Bang, but perhaps one day we will know the whole story. As for life on Earth, we don’t believe that humans evolved from nothing. We admit that it is remarkable that molecules came together in forms that could process energy and replicate, but after billions of years, that’s exactly what happened. Apparently that’s what stardust does.

To quote atheist author Sam Harris, “The truth is that atheists are free to admit that there is much about the Universe that we don’t understand. I mean it is obvious that we don’t understand the Universe. But it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it.”

So remember, we non-believers aren’t all bad. Help make the world a better place…hug an atheist.

A Little Atheist Humor

•June 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

When we can begin to take our failures seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them. It is of immense importance to learn to laugh at ourselves.”

— Katherine Mansfield

I think we’re losing our sense of humor instead of being able to relax and laugh at ourselves. I don’t care whether it’s ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or whose ox is being gored.”

— Betty White

Laughter, and most importantly laughing at ourselves, is essential to finding happiness. The role of the jester, the clown, and the comedian has been around ever since our earliest tribal days as a functional and necessary part of society. These sharp-tongued wielders of wit have the immensely important job of forcing us to take a closer look at our innermost insecurities and flaws with their satire. Laughing at ourselves can motivate us to do better. And let’s face it. Life can be a big ol’ bitch. Sometimes you just have to take a load off and laugh to keep your sanity!

Here’s a few bits of my favorite humor with an atheistic theme from the internet. Please take a moment to laugh a little. It’s good for you.

P.S. Some of the language in the videos is not work or kid-friendly!

XXI. How to Save the World

•June 24, 2012 • 8 Comments

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” 

~H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” 

~Albert Einstein

“Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.”

~Marianne Williamson

How do we save the world? Well, we can’t. At least not literally…but hear me out. The Sun is going to go nova in around 5 billion years, absorbing the Earth and anything that remains on it back into the fires of hydrogen and helium from whence it was forged. The question is…will our descendants live on in any form at that time, and where will they go? That is a question that we cannot possibly answer from this side of that horizon, but we can give them a fighting chance.

In order for the human race (or whatever the human species evolves into) to survive into the cosmic ages to come, we first have the incredibly difficult task of surviving the present moment in our history. This has always been our task and greatest challenge since the beginnings of time: to survive. It is instilled in our genes and has shaped our entire evolution for billions of years. Whether or not we make it does not matter in the whole scheme of things, but my point is this: we have a grand experiment going here, a happy accident in which a species evolved consciousness to the point that it can take part in its own evolution and destiny, and it would be a shame to see that go to waste. I say we keep the game going as long as possible, just for the fun of it, just to see what happens when stardust wakes up.

So how do we keep civilization going? How do we “save the world”? I’m glad you asked. It’s kinda the whole point of this website.

1) Be Awesome.

Our human world is made of up individuals, working together, or at least, existing together. Our culture as a whole is the sum total of all of the individual contributions and actions of its people. The government is in debt because it is made up of indiviuals, who are people just like us with self interests, and most people are notoriously good at spending more money than they earn and living in denial about that. Billions of people live with poverty and hunger while billions of others live in comfort and excess, even throwing away tons and tons of food every day. The planet is currently facing one of the biggest mass extinctions of species it has ever seen, and guess who’s the major cause of that? These things go on because humans are notoriously good at shirking responsibility and remaining deaf and mute about the world’s problems. Our planet may await a distant fiery death, but right now it is our home, and we need it. Unfortunately, we’re pretty busy making a dreadful mess of the place, and apparently no one is coming to save us.

But there is hope, and it starts with you. Simply be awesome. I’m serious. Take responsibility for your own life. See past the illusion and learn as much as you can about the Universe and your place in it. Use the example of your higher self as your guide. Employ logic and reason as tools to help you find truth, and use wisdom, mindfulness and compassion to help you improve yourself and navigate the moral landscape of life.

2) Have Conversations.

As you begin to take charge of and improve your own small corner of the world as well as your self, you will begin to become an example for others around you. This is the most important thing you can do: Be the change you want to see in the world. Good ideas are very contagious, and our world desperately needs a good idea like this one right now. If you are being the most efficient, intelligent, compassionate and badass person you can possibly be, you WILL see start to see happiness and success in your life, and those around you will begin to look up to you more and more. This is your sphere of influence. Use it wisely.

The most important thing you can do at this point is to have conversations with people. Have the difficult conversations with people that need to be had, and don’t be afraid to call people out on their bullshit. Discuss what you’re learning, throw good ideas out there and see if they stick. Encourage and help people to better themselves. Be honest with the people you interact with, and don’t be afraid to discuss your ideas with others, even if your opinions differ dramatically. If you have a respectful conversation with someone who sits on the other side of the fence, you both will learn something valuable, and the world will be better for it. Remember, the world is just made up of individuals, and the more people you help wake up, the more people there will be out there waking others up, thus increasing the consciousness of the world as a whole.

3) Fight Apathy.

Apathy is defined as “a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest in or concern about emotional, social, spiritual, philosophical and/or physical life.” Apathy is a disturbingly widespread mental disfunction, and it is killing us. Those that don’t care consequently don’t care to do anything to make positive change. We are all guilty of this emotion, but it goes beyond simple laziness and fatigue. Apathy is on the rise, and not just among the youth but in all generations, because of four main factors:

1. People lack meaning or purpose in their lives, or that meaning and purpose is distorted by faulty thinking. This is a problem that has a solution. Please read my blog post about it here.

2. Individuals feel powerless. The system has been designed this way, to give less power to the individual and more power to the institution. It does not have to be this way, and I will be posting about long-term solutions to this problem in the future. For now, you do have power and influence over your mind, your life, and the lives of those you come into contact with. Cultivate those relationships as much as possible. Also, taking more responsibility for positive change in your community can be deeply rewarding and empowering. Long-lasting change often occurs from the bottom up rather than the top down. Donate time, money, your vote, your signature on a petition (take a look at www.change.org) or whatever resources you have towards causes that you feel are making a positive difference.

3. Our society is becoming distracted and desensitized. Whether it’s money problems, personal problems, relationship problems, anxiety about war and the economy, video games, over-saturation of the media, reality TV, mindless entertainment, the dark wormholes of the internet, porn, commercialism, consumerism, drugs, alcohol, prescriptions or pain pills– we are tuning out, and again, the system is designed that way. Now I’m not saying that entertainment and technology are bad things, but when they are stuffed down our throats at all moments of the day they can become crippling addictions that leave us powerless, mindless, and controllable, which brings me to my next point:

4. Our society is being dumbed down. We know so much less but about so much more than our earlier ancestors. With all of the complexities of modern life it can be daunting comprehending just a fraction of it, much less the whole picture. Not to mention that massive amounts of information are constantly being spewed at us from countless sources, and unfortunately, most of it is insignificant, misleading or just flat out wrong. No wonder we’re apathetic. But it is possible to gain enough understanding of this world to not only stop destroying it, but to thrive with it. The secret lies at the heart of all change, and it has always been the most crucial factor determining the survival or extinction of any society. I’m talking about education.

4) Educate the Masses.

In order to save the world, our world as we know it, I believe that we must all be on the same page. Every person in every village in every land on the globe. Education starts in the womb and stops when we take our last breath, and it is the key to everything. It’s why I started this blog. And what kind of shape are we in? Our child-rearing skills are laughable. Our public education system is terrible. Our collegiate education system is suffering. Our adult educational system is practically non-existent. Billions of people in the world can’t read. We suck at this, people. But we used to be good at this, and we can be good at it again, even to the point of ensuring that every single person on the planet is as properly educated as everyone else. Can you imagine how badass we could be as a united, global society of educated humans who share common knowledge but encourage individual search for truth, questioning, and understanding?

I believe that religion is one of the biggest culprits of spreading misinformation and apathy, which is why I spent so much time discussing the pitfalls of religion, the innacuracies of our religious dogmas, what happens when we die, and the existence of Gods in my earlier posts in this series. I believe these big questions are something we will have to come to terms with if we are to ensure the survival of our little human species experiment on this planet.

And what lies beyond that? You can look at each member of the human race as a single cell of a giant neural network. Just like when you unite the conflicting parts of your brain to find happiness and your higher self, what could we achieve if the individual cells of humanity all worked well together? We would be akin to the Earth’s brain cells, literally a planet waking up. And if we travel into the wilderness of the stars, and perhaps make contact with others like us out there, we would then be creating a neural network between stars….the galaxy would literally be waking up.

Perhaps that is the truth that we have been struggling with for so long regarding God. Perhaps we ARE God, the intelligence of the Universe, in the earliest stages of waking up. Perhaps God is not an all-knowing creator, but an ever-learning consciousness that we create instead. And if we, acting together, become a God for this particular universe, will we choose to be gods of hate or of love, creation or destruction?

Can we save our world as we know it, our little civilization of stardust? We can try. But it’s up to you.

You’ve been feeling it. Open your eyes now. It’s time to Wake Up.

Prev: Finding Yourself

***This post concludes my 21– part series on how to save the world, entitled “Wake Up.” I am indebted to you, faithful reader, for taking the time to consider what I have to say. Please feel free to improve upon the information you have found here and pay forward anything that may have helped you towards others who are also searching. Best of luck to you on this journey.

Sincerely,

~Chris

XX. Finding Yourself

•June 3, 2012 • 2 Comments

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
~Mark Twain

“People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself.  But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” 

~Thomas Szasz

“Never mind searching for who you are.  Search for the person you aspire to be.”

~Robert Brault

What is it exactly that keeps us from realizing our greatest potential? What stands in our way, keeping happiness and success hidden when we most desire them? Why can’t we truly be the individuals that we so strongly wish to be? Take a look in the mirror. That person is your greatest asset and your most crippling liability. They and they alone have the  power to bring your dreams into reality. That person facing you in the reflection is your best friend and only hope for salvation. Maybe you should hear what they have to say.

In my previous post, I explained that happiness can only be experienced in the present moment of now, which in your brain lasts about 3 seconds, and I discussed several ways to cultivate happiness in the present moment, which is all you really have to work with. However, true happiness that endures over time can only be realized by stringing several moments of now together with a delicate craftsmanship that allows you to strengthen your relationship with the rest of the Universe. It’s less about making the world a better place and more about making your mind a better place.

To change your mental experience, you literally have to make physical changes in your own brain. Luckily for you, evolution has developed a way to do just that. When you ponder a thought, electrical impulses and chemical signals are traveling along a chain of firing neuron cells in your brain. This is called a neural pathway. When you think the same thought over and over, your are strengthening the bonds of that associated group of neurons, literally creating a well-worn path. This process allows thinking to be faster and more automatic, and it happens whether the thought is positive or negative, wrong or right, beneficial or harmful. If you want to challenge negative or incorrect thoughts, you have to literally forge a new neural pathway through the wilderness of your mind. You have to take the road less travelled, and it can be hard. But because of the way the brain works, if you change your thinking about something, you change that pathway. And the more your reinforce that new thinking, the stronger the links between the new associated brain cells will be.

So how do you determine which thoughts to challenge and which thoughts to keep? As it turns out, you have your own private spiritual teacher available and ready to assist you at any time. In fact they have always been there, waiting for you to simply ask the right questions. This guide is your higher self, but this higher self is not an entity or a divine connection with God or a soul. It is nothing more than a very powerful idea:

Imagine the highest ideal of the most awesome version of yourself that you could ever think of, and then simply ask yourself, “What would that person be doing in this current moment of now?” How is he or she dressed? How in shape are they? What is their profession, and how well does that person do his or her job? How much do they enjoy it? How confident are they? What kinds of foods do they eat? How does he or she act around others? What type of home do they live in? What are their friends like? What is their love life like, and how often are they having sex, and with whom? What does that person do with their free time? What are his or her hobbies? Where have they travelled, and what are they working to accomplish?  This highest ideal is your blueprint for how to be awesome, happy, and thriving. Whenever you are faced with a decision, ask yourself how the most awesome version of yourself would handle it, and then follow suit.

As you begin listening to that constant and patient inner voice guiding you on how to proceed to fulfill your ultimate potential, you will pass through 4 stages of awareness: 1) making the wrong decision and not realizing it (most people in the world are stuck in this stage); 2) making the wrong decision and realizing it; 3) consciously choosing to make the right decision; and 4) unconsciously choosing to making the right decision. This process strengthens as the neural pathways involved with making decisions become well-worn roads, and right thinking becomes more automatic over time. It all depends on your degree of mindfulness in the present moment. As you continue to make choices more in line with the example of your higher self and witness the positive results, this process will become easier and you will begin to trust yourself more.

Many times, changing your thoughts will mean you will have to do things that you find uncomfortable. When you step out of your comfort zone, your brain floods your body with fight-or-flight chemicals, which you interpret and experience as anxiety. How would the most awesome version of yourself handle this? They would be mindful of the brain’s chemistry, and step out of their comfort zone anyway. Remember, your body is just trying to keep you alive. Be grateful for your body and its protection. Don’t try to suppress negative emotions. Instead, as you would during your meditation practice, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, watching them flow by like the current of a river, gently letting them go and not being entangled with them. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your tense muscles. Feel centered and grounded. Gently remind your brain that the situation you are in, though intense and very important to you, is really very small in the entire scheme of things. You may have attached meaning to the moment, but none of it really matters when compared to the sum of all existence. You are simply a tiny spec of stardust doing what stardust happens to be doing here on planet Earth. Let the truth of this realization empower you with the freedom to do whatever needs to be done in the given moment, using wisdom, mindfulness and compassion as your roadmap and logic and reason as your guide. You absolutely have the power to make the moment yours.

Aligning your life with the ideals of your higher self involves many tasks that you will have to accomplish. This is what we are doing here on Earth as humans. Remember, you are a human, being. Even our name reminds us that we are a process in constant motion. Here’s some things to remember to help you on the journey of finding yourself:

* Since the Universe apparently did not come with its own meaning, it is up to you to find meaning for yourself. Set goals for yourself in line with that meaning, and work toward those goals in a meaningful way, every day. Set realistic goals for where you want to be in 6 months, 2 years, and 5 years from now.

* Develop your natural talents and use them  to serve others. Make a positive difference in the lives of others with your gifts, however humble or insignificant you may incorrectly conceive them to be. You are important no matter how hard you try not to be, and as I have said before, this world needs you if we are going to survive.

* Challenge inaccurate thought processes such as “all or none thinking” or “diminishing the positive”. Click here for an excellent article with many examples of these thought traps that we all succumb to and how to challenge them. Learning to challenge and change the faulty thinking that you have learned over your lifetime is crucial to overcoming your mental roadblocks.

* Celebrate every single success, no matter how minor or “insignificant”, and then, if possible, go about the business of figuring out how to do it better.

* Heal the wounds of your childhood and past. It is the instinct of a wounded animal to hide. So many of our mental and behavioral issues in the present moment come from earlier experiences, and you must address these wounds in order to realize your full potential. For some this takes years of hard work, but you can never move forward until you let yourself let go of the past.

* Get in touch with your body on a daily basis by experiencing the wonders and mental benefits of things like walking outside, receiving and giving a massage, dancing, eating great food, having great sex, exercising, and a getting a good night’s sleep. You ARE your body. Take care of it.

* Get your relationships in order. Treat yourself and others with compassion. Be assertive yet understanding with those that you share this planet with. If you are in an abusive relationship, get out. Now. You’re worth far better, I promise. Find out why you put yourself in these situations, be mindful of that in the present moment, and make relationship decisions that are more in line with your higher self.

* Develop your spiritual relationship with the Universe. Experience the natural world; get out and get dirty. Be grateful for something– anything– several times a day. Take nothing for granted. Try to find beauty in every moment.

* Don’t take yourself or anything else too seriously. Embrace the absurd. Laugh at the world and life itself. Laugh often, laugh deeply, and laugh with people that you love.

* Remember that we’re all in this thing together, and everyone struggles with the very same things as you do for the very same reasons. We have the same thoughts and feel the same feelings. We are the same, you and I, and we are all literally one. Let this guide your compassion as you reach out to others.

“This above all, to thine own self be true.” Embrace that, and finding yourself will be as easy as looking in the mirror. Your higher self has always been there, waiting to be expressed out into reality. This is the opportunity you have been given. This is your gift to the Universe, and this is how you will save the world…..

Prev: Finding Happiness                                     Next: Save the World

XIX. Finding Happiness

•May 6, 2012 • 10 Comments

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

— Aristotle

Everything can be used as an invitation to meditation. A smile, a face in the subway, the sight of a small flower growing in the crack of cement pavement, a fall of rich cloth in a shop window, the way the sun lights up flower pots on a windowsill. Be alert for any sign of beauty or grace. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments, to “the news that is always arriving out of silence.” Slowly, you will become a master of your own bliss, a chemist of your own joy, with all sorts of remedies always at hand to elevate, cheer, illuminate, and inspire your every breath and movement.  — Sogyal Rinpoche

Happiness. Isn’t that the ultimate goal, the underlying driving hope that propels us all forward through the unknown? Do we not wander the earth, risking all that we are and what we have become for the chance to experience a few fleeting moments of it? What is this elusive condition that pushes us toward our dreams and darkens our nightmares with its absence? Modern science and ancient wisdom have now come together to show us the clearest picture yet of just what happiness is and how we can find it in our lives. Want to know the secret to happiness? Here’s the good news: it’s not a secret, and you probably already know the answer. The downside? Like anything worth having in this life, you’ll have to work hard to get it.

First, why do we suffer or feel happy? You can thank your brain for that. The human brain evolved over millions of years, and to this day it still contains the more ancient parts that we share with our simpler cousins. In your head from the spinal cord forward and up you have a reptilian brain, a squirrel brain and a primate brain. You perceive the world with 2 different hemispheres. Your decisions are a mixture of the conscious and unconscious.  All of these divisional compartments cooperate as well as conflict with each other to keep you alive.

For example, if you’re walking along a path and see a stick that resembles a snake, light bouncing off the stick enters your eyes and is processed as an image in the occipital cortex. This information is then sent to the ancient hippocampus, for evaluation as a threat or a reward, and also to the newly evolved pre-frontal cortex, where the information is given more sophisticated (but time-consuming) analysis. The hippocampus will find curvy shapes on its list of potential dangers and will trigger your amygdala to go off like an alarm, flooding your bloodstream with anxiety-producing hormones (which you experience as fear). Your fight-or-flight process causes you to jump back and perhaps yell (communicating danger to others). This incredible automatic process happens in less than a second. By this time, your pre-frontal cortex has fully analyzed the image of the object, searched your stored memories and determines that you are in no danger from the stick. Feel-good chemicals flood through your body, triggering relief.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for potential threats to avoid or rewards to pursue, keeping you alive. Your body is in a constant flux of neuro-chemical experiences. You even have a “second brain” of nerves and hormones in and around your stomach that regulates your mood (ever had a “gut-feeling” about something?). When you have a positive experience, like winning a game, accomplishing a goal, laughing with friends or having sex, your body produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. When you have a negative experience, like failing at a task, being made fun of, or stubbing your toe, your body produces norepinephrine, cortisol, or simply dramatically decreases feel-good chemicals. Your brain’s perception of the presence and absence of these chemicals combined with the electrical impulses of your thoughts produce the sensations of pleasure, pain and emotion.

Love is a particularly strong positive emotion that involves parts of the brain that process pleasure as well as parts that are associated with drug addiction. You are literally addicted to the chemical high you feel when you are with someone you love. Being separated from someone you love can cause horrible painful withdrawal symptoms. Evolution was amazingly effective when it came to getting us to want to form deep, lasting bonds for procreation and well-being.

Emotional conditions in any given moment are recorded along with basic information about what’s going on at the time to form memories. If you recall a stored memory later, your brain will recreate a rough simulation of the experience, including releasing the same chemicals that were present at the time. Your brain rates and records every experience as good, bad, or neutral. To help keep you alive, unfortunately, your brain has a bias toward the negative. Your brain will see curvy sticks as snakes most of the time to help you survive long enough to pass on your genetics. When recalling memories, it also accentuates negative experiences more than positive. As it turns out, however, most experiences are actually neutral to slightly positive rather than negative. Obsessing about the past with an extreme negative bias is called depression. Obsessing about the future with an extreme negative bias is called anxiety. Anxious and depressing thoughts arise because of the fact that you are a divided self, with many parts working for and against each other. Your brain, although it is an incredible and brilliant biological machine, actually works more like a committee than a single person when it comes to making decisions and recording memories, and it’s not always good at either.

Another source of suffering comes from the strategies that your brain has evolved to help you survive. Your brain incorrectly sees you as being separate from your body and separate from everything else in the Universe. It tries in vain to maintain stability in a Universe that is constantly changing. It causes you to spend all of your time chasing after rewards and avoiding threats. This is what the Buddha called craving, the origin of suffering. What’s more, most of this process of seeing the world and reacting to it happens on an unconscious level. Your conscious mind is like a rider sitting on top of the wild elephant that is your unconscious mind, trying to control where the both of you will go. This is why you can know that something is wrong but then do it anyway. In a struggle of wills, the elephant wins every time. A key to happiness is teaching the rider and the elephant how to work well together. How do we go about this? The key is knowing that you only have this moment to do anything.

Scientists have determined that the psychological moment of “now” lasts about 3 seconds, or about the length of one breath. That’s all you have to work with. The past is gone, the future isn’t yet here. Each new moment of now gives you a chance to make things right. You have the power to choose. Every moment is a gift. In each new breath you are literally a different person physically–your brain has physically changed; many of your body’s cells have died and others have been born. Here’s the catch: you can start anew in every moment of now, but you have to work with the conditions that the past versions of you left behind. Consequently, what you do in this moment will affect the experiences of the future versions of you yet to come. Therefore, forgive your past selves for their mistakes, and honor them by learning from their suffering and striving to do better. Also be good to your future selves. They’re counting on you. You have to be your own best friend. Be kind to yourself. If you can’t do that, at least be in your own corner.

So how do we get through the next 3 seconds? That’s really what life as a human being is all about. Here’s a few proven techniques to help cultivate happiness in the moment of now:

— Address your basic hierarchy of needs. At a minimum, you need food, water, shelter, personal space, sleep, sex and companionship.

— Money helps, but only to the extent that you have the freedom to address your basic needs and wants without worry. Research shows that beyond that, happiness levels off or even decreases with increasing wealth.

— Factors in your living and working environment such as scenery, noise, crime, length of commute, neighbors, co-workers, family and friends contribute greatly to your happiness or suffering. The amount of control and influence you have in life also affects your happiness. Work to change what you can and accept what you can’t.

— Since your breath is so tied to the moment of now, regulating it can make huge changes in your physical experience. In fact, most people tend to hold their breath or breathe very shallow in a stressful moment. This reduces the amount of oxygen getting to your brain, making things worse. When you’re stressed, take a few deep breaths. Seriously. It works.

— It’s amazing how much of a stressful experience really comes down to tightness in certain muscle groups (preparation for fight-or flight). Learn basic relaxation techniques to direct your body to calm down. I process stress in my shoulders, stomach and thighs. I find that relaxing these muscles while breathing deeply greatly improves my mood.

— What you put into your body and how you take care of your body directly affect your level of happiness in a HUGE way. Eat healthy. Exercise. Seriously. It works. No getting around this one, folks.

–Smile, even when you don’t feel like it. It sends signals to your brain that actually improve your mood.

–Remember that your brain naturally has a negative bias. Accurately assess each moment, and accentuate the positive when it occurs. Try to see the beauty and wonder in every moment. Keep in mind that most experiences are positive or at least neutral.

— When there’s no getting around the negativity of a particular moment, recall memories of people you love and who love you. Bring to mind times that you were awesome and on your game to aid you in a present moment of fear, and recall happy memories to comfort you in times of sadness. This automatically releases chemicals associated with these memories that will make you feel better and more confident.

— Meditate for at least 10 minutes every day to promote mindfulness. Simply sit quietly, being aware of your breath and watching the river of your thoughts go by without being attached to them. When you get caught up in a thought wormhole, gently bring your awareness back to your breathing and watching your thoughts impartially.

— Training your mind in this way will allow you to react to the present moment in all situations with calmness. You will increasingly be able to interpret each moment more realistically as opposed to overreacting emotionally. You will be able to distance yourself from pain and embrace pleasure without craving after it.

— Learn as much as you can about yourself and the Universe around you. This will give you greater confidence and understanding to better handle any situation that arises.

— Be compassionate with yourself and others. Make sure to schedule time every day to do things that you enjoy doing to increase your happiness. Also seek opportunities to help someone else increase their happiness. Guess what? Acting compassionately in this way increases the amount of happiness that you both experience.

— Basically be awesome at everything you do. The more you work to improve your skills and  your reactions to situations, the more happiness you will experience in the present moment.

Cultivating happiness in the present moment of now takes a lot of work, but it is totally worth the effort. If you do the things that I have described, I promise that you will begin to find more happiness. That’s just how it works. The Buddhists have known this for thousands of years, and modern science has officially confirmed how this process works physically in the brain. For further reading, I highly recommend Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, two incredibly informative books that I borrowed heavily from for this post.

But getting through the next three seconds is just the beginning. Real lasting happiness is developed when you  maintain and carry that personal happiness forth into the world through your interactions with others. It all depends on what you choose to contribute with your life. More on that in the next post. For now, you have 3 seconds.

How will you choose to spend them?

Prev: The Meaning of Life                                     Next: Finding Yourself

XVIII. The Meaning of Life

•March 11, 2012 • 25 Comments
What is the meaning of life

The meaning of life, what is it, and why?

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Every person who breaths air and roams the Earth for long enough will eventually feel an “itch” in the back of their mind. For some, that itch becomes a burning question. For others, it becomes a life-long journey. At some point in our lives, we all stop to ponder, “What is the meaning of life?”

So what do we “mean” by the “meaning of life”? Ponder the question that your are pondering for long enough, and we find that what we are searching for is an over-arching answer to many questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What should we be doing? For what purpose? Is there a point to all of this?

It is easy to see why we would ask such questions, as the evolution and survival of our species has hinged on our ability to explain the hows and whys of our world, to look for pattern, cause and effect. Due to the incredible abilities of our brains, we look at objects and events in the world and see that “this causes that, and here is why”, so it is only natural that we would look at ourselves and the Universe at large and ask….from whence did we come, and why? I addressed the first part of this question extensively in my previous blog post, but what if the second part is a question without an answer? What if there IS no why, which suggests a someone or a something to give it a reason and purpose? What if there is only ‘what is’?

As a secular Humanist, I do not believe that there is any objective meaning to be found. I don’t believe there is a preconceived plan, or a purpose, or a point to the Universe or Life itself that we are here to discern or discover. I don’t believe there is a God to judge us, or a soul to guide us, or a universal mystical force that is waiting for each of us to ask just the right question or repeat just the right mantra or sit in just the right pose so that it may release the knowledge of enlightenment. I believe that we are here as a natural result of the evolution of stardust, which is here as the natural result of universal forces and “laws”, that are they themselves a natural result of the formation of the universe. Beyond that I am ignorant, but I can look around at the world and the Universe and conclude that it was most likely not designed, so I can only guess that the Universe arose naturally from something else. Some would say that is the realm where God exists, and that may be so. But if that is true, I have concluded that He is apparently no longer a part of the process, for I have found no evidence of Him or his plan in this time and place. For the record, I do not believe that any God exists anywhere, and I have made my peace with that.

Now, there are many things that we don’t yet know, and I fully embrace this as the Great Mystery that we are all tackling together. There is no doubt that what we understand today will change in the future, which will, in turn, change what we consider to be meaningful.

So the question becomes not “What is the meaning of life?” but rather “What is the meaning of MY life?” which I see as a far more valuable question, and perhaps THE most important question that everyone must face.

I do believe in personal meaning. I believe it is up to each individual to figure out what the accident of their life means to them, and what they wish to choose to do with the time and space they have been allotted. I see no meaning in life, other than what we attribute to it, but I do see life as a precious gift. Here we are! How wonderful that is! How unlikely! How absurd! How beautiful!

So the question really becomes, “What are you going to do today, and what does that mean to you?” Can you see the limitless possibilities in that question? And it puts the responsibility directly on each of us individually, as it should be. So how do we find meaning and come to terms with a Universe that doesn’t know or care that we exist? We build a relationship with it.

A “New” Kind of Spirituality

To answer the question of “what are you going to do today?”, you first have to have a goal. I would like to put up for consideration that the ultimate goal of humanity could be for each of us to create a shared experience of the greatest amount of happiness possible with the least amount of suffering possible, while working with the most accurate knowledge of natural laws possible in order to create harmony between ourselves and our environment. I see this as a noble and honorable description of what meaning could be in our lives, both personally and as a society. Please keep in mind that I do not see this as a commandment from above, nor do I believe that anything we do really “matters” in a Universal sense–the Universe has existed for billions of years without us and it will continue to exist for billions of years after we are gone. This is just my suggestion for a goal, because the fact remains that we are here, and we have to do something. Why do I care so much about meaning? Because every decision that every person makes is based on their worldview. If society wants a better world, individuals must develop a better worldview based on their individual values. Those values are shaped by meaning.

In order to achieve this goal of happiness and harmony, I argue that we must be wise, we must be aware, and we must be compassionate. (You may recognize these ideas from Buddhism, a religion that I don’t subscribe to, but, like Christianity, it is a philosophy that has many important concepts at its core.)

For one to be wise, you must have accurate knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in your daily decisions. This is why I see education as the foundation for a positive, spiritual life. The more you understand about yourself and the Universe that you are a part of, the more responsible you can be in your daily interactions. For instance, I believe that if everyone in the world knew how and to what extent the burning of carbon fuels and the accumulation of garbage destroys our environment, it would cease to be an issue. If everyone understood the concepts of evolution, we would have a greater understanding of where we have been and could make more educated decisions about where we would like to go from here. Although I hated school for every year that I had to endure it, I now spend a part of every day educating myself, and I can only describe the moments of great clarity and epiphany that I have experienced upon learning something new as “spiritual” experiences, not as in relating to a tangible spirit or soul, but as in an awareness of my true essence and the essence of all things.

For one to be aware, you must be mindful of the complexity of your environment and how every decision you make affects all other parts of that environment. This is the Butterfly Effect. This is The Matrix. Mindfulness is an attentive awareness of the reality of things in the present moment, coupled with a clear comprehension (developed through education and wisdom) of whatever is taking place. By practicing and developing mindfulness, you can simultaneously perceive the matrix of the universe and your singular place in it. I believe that if everyone in the world were mindful, their decisions would be based on knowledge and wisdom rather than hate and fear. Each and every moment could be viewed as a precious gift, perceived through the full spectrum of the beauty, pain, absurdity and wonder of our existence. Think of the possibilities of the world we could develop together, if we only had this shared awareness. This kind of awareness can only lead to compassion.

For one to be compassionate, you must realize that all conscious creatures experience suffering. Developing true compassion allows you to see that all beings can suffer pain, loss, confusion, anger and fear just as you do. When you fully take this in to your awareness and understanding, it becomes harder and harder to be cruel, and it becomes easier and easier to love, and to help others, and to work to ease and extinguish suffering in the world with every ounce of your being as much as possible. This is what Jesus was trying to get across to his followers with the Golden Rule, and the Buddha with his teachings. I believe that if everyone in the world truly understood our capacity to cause suffering in the lives of others, there would be no need for war, there would be no need for rape, there would be no need for hateful violence among our species. There would only be room for compassion, and that compassion could fill each and every one of us with joy and satisfaction.

So what do these 3 principles look like in our daily lives? The culmination and application of these ideas is what I consider to be my spirituality. For example, every morning I wake up and drink my first cup of coffee as I look out the window at a live oak tree. I stand in silence and wait to see movement…the preening of a bluejay’s wing, the flicker of a squirrel’s tail. I look at the branching pattern of the tree and realize that it is the same pattern that river systems make, and it is the same pattern that my lungs and arteries make. I think about the bacteria that exist in and on all of us, and how we couldn’t exist without them, and they without us. I stop to think about how the bluejay, the squirrel, the tree, the bacteria and I all share a common ancestor, that we all evolved here together, that we are literally distant cousins with shared genetics. I realize that the coffee I am drinking is made with water that quenched the thirst of dinosaurs (and I often chuckle at the fact that I am drinking recycled dinosaur pee!).

Then I move my awareness to realize that we are all made up of atoms, even the rocks and the soil, and I remember that we are all here because a star died and exploded 5 billion years ago. Everything I can see, including myself, is the same. It is all stardust. This fills me with enormous wonder and gratitude, and I silently thank the Universe for allowing me to exist, even though I know it doesn’t hear me. Then I realize that there are billions of people who are not as lucky as me, who woke up today without a home to stand in, perhaps in the midst of war, without a tree to look at, with no clean water to drink or food to eat, perhaps waking in the fear that today will be the day that they and their family will be shot or blown apart. If I can, I allow the enormity of this fact to completely fill my awareness, I allow my emotions to wash over me, and sometimes, as even now as I write this, I am moved to tears. The gratitude that I feel for my own situation grows, as does my compassion for my fellow human beings, and I start my day with the conviction that I will do something, anything, to try and ease the suffering that I see all around me, in whatever small way I can.

Every day I work to expand this type of spiritual awareness farther, into every moment of my life as much as possible. This is how I am developing my relationship with the Universe. If I could, I would share this experience with every single person in the world, for I can only see goodness coming from it. Perhaps I am too idealistic. Perhaps my ideas will never change the world. But I know that MY life has changed for the better since developing this awareness, so I stand as an example of 1.

You are also an example of 1. What will you do today….and what does that mean to you?

With love and compassion,

~Chris

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XVII. Why Are We Here?

•February 20, 2012 • 79 Comments

This is your story- the entire history of your many incarnations- and it is a beautiful story. The details of this story have changed over time, and they will most assuredly change in the future as we learn more and more about ourselves and the Universe around us. But this is the best information we have at the moment, and our observations and calculations seem to say that we are getting remarkably close to a detailed and accurate understanding of All That Is. Here’s what we think we know at this point:

Around 13.7 billion years ago, all matter in the Universe was condensed into pure energy in an immensely hot and dense space smaller than an atom. We’re not exactly sure what came before that or how this energy came to be, but we have ideas, and we are working to find the answers even now (it has even been mathematically proven that something could have, in fact, arisen from nothing, although it depends on your definition of nothing). This tiny, incredibly hot and dense ball of energy suddenly expanded from something smaller than the nucleus of an atom to something the size of a baseball in less than a trillionth of a second. In just under 2 minutes, the Universe has expanded to something the size of our solar system, and it only got bigger from there. It’s still expanding, even today. All of the forces and laws of physics and nature, as well as the first subatomic particles, were created in these first few seconds of Time. Minutes later, the first simple atoms of Hydrogen and Helium formed. The radiation from this expansion is still around and flying straight through your body even now. If you have seen “snow” static on a television screen, then you have seen this radiation, as 1% of that static was due to radiation from the Big Bang.

Between a few thousand years and a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, atoms in the great cloudy mess of Hydrogen and Helium gravitated toward each other in massive amounts and ignited, and the the first stars lit the heavens. For the first time, the Universe produced visible light.

A few hundred million years after the first stars ignited, gravity caused the first galaxies to form from the ocean of newly created matter.

Sometime between 9 billion and 13.6 billion years ago, the matter that makes up your body found itself in the newly formed Milky Way spiral galaxy. The red circle in the rendering of our galaxy below encompasses all of the stars and constellations that we can now see from our home planet with the naked eye.

Stars are formed when hydrogen and helium gravitate together and become so hot that the hydrogen atoms fuse together and become more helium. After the star ignites, this process continues for billions of years. (This nuclear fusion is basically the opposite of the process that humans use to create power in reactors and atomic bombs, which is called fission.) This energy of nuclear fusion, produced in our own Sun even now, is responsible for all of life on Earth. As really big stars get older, they deplete almost all of their hydrogen, and the core becomes so hot that helium and remaining hydrogen fuse together to form lithium. This begins a chain reaction of fusion that causes even bigger and bigger atoms to combine until the heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen and iron are formed. At this point, the star becomes incredibly unstable and collapses in on itself and becomes a supernova, violently exploding and sending all of its guts out into the space around it.

The stars that formed our solar system were supernovae that died and exploded around 5 billion years ago. The molecules of oxygen that these stars sent out into the cosmos are the same molecules that you are breathing in now. The iron that they spewed forth is the very same iron found in metal and in your blood. And mind-blowing as it is, the atoms in your left hand are more than likely from a completely different star than the atoms in your right. The following picture shows the Crab Nebula, which was a supernova star that exploded in the year 1054.

 

The stardust of supernovae form clouds of dust, where hydrogen atoms come together and form helium, and new stars are born all over again. The picture below shows a region of new star growth in the Carina Nebula.

Sometimes, heavier elements in a dust cloud will begin to orbit around a new star. Clouds of gas form, and chunks of debris constantly and violently slam into each other in the dust field and eventually form planets and moons. Our own solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago.

The earth and its moon formed around this same time. The atoms that would eventually become you ended up on this early molten planet.

Eventually, the Earth began to cool and the constant bombardment of meteorites and comets, as well as processes within the Earth itself brought liquid water to the planet.

Developments in the field of abiogenesis have helped us conceptualize how biological life formed from inorganic matter through natural processes. Experiments in the laboratory have shown that amino acids, nucleotides and saccharides, all the basic building blocks of life, could have formed in Earth’s early conditions. There is also the possibility that these building blocks or something more complex was deposited on Earth via meteorites. Of course, if life did arise on other planets and made its way here, it would have to have either come from another planetary source itself, or it originated independently on its home planet.

All life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor that had a lipid cell wall, the ability to metabolize, and the ability to replicate. These physical components and processes took billions of years to eventually come together in the forms that gave rise to all life. Our very earliest ancestors probably looked something like the picture below.

Natural selection began working on these early organisms, which remained as simple cells for 3.8 billion years. Then, life changed dramatically when one form of life began to photosynthesize carbon dioxide into oxygen (these were the ancestors of today’s plants). Oxygen was toxic to many forms of life at that time, so this resulted in the death of many, many organisms. 3 billion years later, simple cells became more complex, and 2 billion years after that the first multicellular life formed on Earth. 600 million years ago, the first simple animals began to take over the planet. Around 420 million years ago, our early ancestors left the oceans and moved onto land.

The atoms that made up these organisms are still around today, and they are in the computer in front of you and in the hand that holds the mouse. You have atoms in your body right now that were also in the bodies of dinosaurs. You are drinking the same water now that the first forms of life developed in. You are breathing in the very same oxygen that the first plants released into the atmosphere. You are literally the result and recombination of everything that has come before you, going all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no difference between you and me and the rest of the Universe. All cliches aside, we are literally all one. You can never, ever be alone.

Between 85 and 55 million years ago, the first primates evolved. Humans, gorillas and chimps all share a recent common ancestor, and we began evolving independently between 4 and 8 million years ago. After that point, our lineage went through many changes and phases. Our species, Homo sapiens, is only about 250,000 years old.

Between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, our early ancestors began migrating out of Africa and began to explore and populate the world. At this point, we only had the basic tools that we could carry with us. In the history of the Earth since life began, we have survived 6 major extinctions, 5 major ice ages, and countless natural disasters. It’s simply amazing and awe-inspiring to think about how curious, courageous and resilient our ancestors must have been. We all come from incredibly brave pioneer stock.

Our species has changed the very face of the world remarkably and dramatically ever since then, arguably more than any other species that has ever existed. Just look at how the world looks at night now. From the time we first began to gather together around ancient fires to our modern discovery of electricity, we have been fighting off the darkness for ages.

So, now that we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century, what lies ahead? Likely millions and perhaps billions of years of more evolution, even if our particular species is not a part of it. Sometime between 4 and 5 billion years from today, our now middle aged Sun will deplete its hydrogen and swell to 250 times its current size, becoming a red giant that will incinerate and envelop the Earth. Our star is too small to form a supernova, but eventually it will explode and shrink into a white dwarf, which will then slowly fade out over billions of years.

But do not be afraid, and do not worry. There is an entire immense Universe to explore if we can make it off this rock before it burns or we kill ourselves. Thanks to advanced telescopes on Earth and in space, we now know that galaxies are they themselves clumped together into clusters, and these clusters are clumped into superclusters. These superclusters are organized into stringlike structures called filaments. The picture below shows a simulation of this large scale structure of the Universe. The bar of measurement shown is 31.25 megaparsecs in length, meaning that if you were traveling at the speed of light, it would take you 103 million years to get from one end of the bar to the other. It simply boggles the mind.

The following amazing video takes you from the scale of an atom to the grand scale of the Universe. I warn you, it is not for the faint of heart. Enjoy and take in the enormity of what and where you are.

Prev: There Is No Spoon                                                     Next: The Meaning of Life

XVI. There Is No Spoon

•February 6, 2012 • 21 Comments

Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

– The Matrix

Seeing the Wachowski Brothers’ film The Matrix changed my life. I have definitely taken the Red Pill many times when it comes to life’s mysteries. I guess in a way, I’m handing out Red Pills myself. Now, don’t get me wrong, having the super-human abilities in the Matrix would be awesome, but I don’t believe they are possible. And although I cannot prove that it is not the case, I don’t believe that we are under someone else’s control in a computer simulation, giant experiment, or dream within a dream. But I find the metaphor of life being an illusion in many ways to be exceptionally fascinating and useful. Once again, it’s about unlearning what you have learned. The last few posts have been about loosing your illusions. Let’s go ahead and loose a few more.

For instance, let’s take “there is no spoon.” A spoon, like all matter, is made up of molecules of particular elements stuck together in particular configurations based on the attractions of their electrons (remember high school chemistry?). These molecules are made up of atoms, which are themselves made up of smaller electrons and neutrons and protons…and a lot of empty space. If the nucleus of an atom was blown up to the size of a marble, the atom would be the size of a major domed football stadium, with the electrons at nearly microscopic size flying around in the nosebleed section. There really IS no spoon. It’s mostly empty space! And so is everything else in our world, including you and me.

Some other fascinating facts that you may not know or may have taken for granted include:

*Outer Space is mostly empty space, and most places where matter has congregated are inhospitable to life. Space is really, really big. Please, please take 1 minute and 55 seconds to watch this video. I promise it’s worth it. It will absolutely blow your mind.

*If the entire history of the Universe up to this moment were compressed into the length of one year, with the Big Bang occurring at the first second of January 1st, the first galaxies would then begin to cluster together around February. The Earth, our home, would form and begin cooling in our Solar System around September, and life wouldn’t appear on our planet until sometime in December. All of human history would be contained in the last 10 seconds of the last hour of the last day of that year, on December 31. We literally just arrived at the party.

*All life on planet Earth descended from a common ancestor that lived between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. That means that we are literally genetic flesh and blood cousins with every single species on the planet, including chimpanzees, speckled trout, mockingbirds, Saint Augustine grass, oak trees, mold and e. coli.

*99% of all the species that have ever existed on this planet have become extinct. We are their genetic offspring. We are the direct descendants of ancient fish, amphibians, reptiles, and apes. We are here because we are survivors, just like every other species alive today that has made it this far in the game.

*Everyone alive today, including you and me, and everyone that has ever lived on this planet are the flesh and  blood genetic descendants of a small group of humans that lived in southern Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. These brave explorers migrated out of Africa over thousands of generations and tens of thousands of years, changing and evolving as they went and spread out throughout the globe, developing into all the different races and cultures alive today. We are literally all family. All races are one. We are literally all Africans.

*Everything in the world- including you and me, all the plants and animals and all of the products we use- everything, is made up of nothing more than soil, water, and gas from the atmosphere. Our entire ecological existence depends on a few inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. It takes 500 years to form just 1 inch of soil, and, if unprotected, acres of it can be lost in one storm event. Even if you lost just an acre of soil the thickness of a dime, that amount would total 5 tons.

*There are 10 times more bacteria and fungal cells in and on your body than there are human cells in your entire body. You are mostly made up of that which you are not. You are literally a living, breathing, walking, talking ecosystem of invisible organisms.  Your body systems would not function without these beneficial and protective life forms, nor would they be able to exist without you. We evolved together.

*All of the atoms that make up the world, including the water, soil, plants, animals, you and me were created in the belly of a star. We are literally alive because, billions of years ago, a star died and exploded. The planet Earth is nothing more than a spherical chunk of molten stardust that has cooled on the surface while a primal fire still rages beneath in the mantel.

*You are literally made of stardust, and the atoms in your left hand most likely came from an entirely different star than the atoms in your right.

I could have taken the Blue Pill, as many do, and retreated into the sleepy haze of shallow thought. But I took the metaphorical Red Pill, and I’m glad I did. “I took the road less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.”

What will you choose?

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