Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fantastical Voyage

A while back, I finished reading Philip Jose Farmar's Riverworld saga.

For all the non-science fiction geeks, Farmar's series is considered one of the definitive works of the genre, kind of like Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, or Issac Asimov's Foundation series. Well, not on that level, but still pretty well known, I think.

Anyway, I had read a couple books in the past, but I always wanted to read the whole thing. The series describes a world where all of humanity, from the beginning of human life until 1983, is resurrected from the dead and placed on a new world alongside a massive river.

The inhabitants are largely left to their own devices in a world where, initially, there are no serious weapons and three meals a day are beamed down to everyone. They later discover that the world was created by either an advanced race of aliens, or super-developed humans.

The series explores a lot of philosophical ideas, but the author's favorite whipping boy is religion. All stripes and kinds get the treatment, but Christianity, Judaism and Islam are singled out for particular scorn.

The general feel is that the idea of the deity described in the Bible, Torah or Qu'ran being real is just too fantastical for anybody to take seriously, and those who do fall for that farce need to be branded with a massive scarlet "I" for idiot.

I thought of the Riverworld series recently while I was watching an interview between Richard Dawkins and Ben Stein. Dawkins is the self-proclaimed God-hater, while Stein likes to sell people stuff on television. Neither of them is one of my favorite people, but I was interested in the discussion.

During the interview, Dawkins explained that he's not against the idea of intelligent design, just against the idea of intelligent design by "God." He even posited that it's an "intriguing" and "plausible" theory that an advanced race of aliens began life here on Earth. But, he scoffed at the idea of a God.

See, that kind of bothered me.

As I explained to my agnostic friend, why would this guy who finds it so ridiculous to believe that there is an omnipotent and omnipresent God be willing to believe that some random aliens created Earth as a science experiment? Why is one idea deemed plausible and the other one evidence of mental instability?

Don't get me wrong, I am guilty of scoffing at other people's beliefs, particularly Scientologists. (I still can't understand how they believe in something created by a dude who said he thought religion was the best scam running. Hell the whole belief system could have been one of his novels.)

But, I've been working on that because I know it's hypocritical of me. After all, Christianity requires some pretty substantial leaps of faith. Rising from the dead? All-powerful deities who still get jealous? Virgin births? I can see why folks reject my religion as being kooky.

What I can't understand is how you can reject Christianity as being crazy, but believe that an alien might have jump-started creation. Hell, I think believing in the concept that inanimate life created animate life is wild as well. It seems like these beliefs require pretty substantial leaps of faith themselves, in my opinion.

I honestly, and truly, do not have care if people don't believe in God. It doesn't bother me. But, as my friend Deacon Blue has said on his blog, don't tell me my beliefs brand me as a retard, while refusing to admit that you've got some pretty outlandish beliefs yourself. This Dawkins guy sneers at folks who believe in something as primitive as religion, but has the audacity to advance the "alien intelligent design" theory. Come on now, man.

That's a fantastical voyage right there.


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27 comments:

Darth Whitey said...

Cool post! Bear with me as I take you on a ride...

If you consider the pace at which humanity is evolving insofar as technology and scientific advancement are concerned, it is more likely than not that we would have set up bases on other planets such as Mars or the moons of Jupiter in 1,000 years.

From there, think of where we'll be in the year 10,191 (Dune!)
By then-- if we haven't completely destroyed ourselves-- we should be colonizing space and by then we might have solved the faster-than-light travel quandary so it'd be on to other star systems as well.

So, to colonize planets, we probably would have to set in motion some sort of atmospheric processing and terraforming that leads to life via all the microbes that come along for the ride as well.

But, now imagine that we're wiped out for some reason and one of these backwater planets keeps on going with the habitability processing and life evolves.

Billions of years later, all our equipment and stuff having long disintegrated through erosion n stuff, an evolved race capable of reason such as ours may postulate that life on their world was set into motion by aliens. And they'd be right! And then at some point they'll do the same, ad infinitum.

If you give it enough time, again barring annihilation, the human race WILL colonize space whether it takes 10,000 years or 100,000 years. And the creation of new life on other planets is inevitable then, through natural evolution.

A-ha, but what created the very first organic life in the universe?? Rather than say "God did it.", I say "I don't know." It might be god, but I don't know and neither does anybody else.

So the alien idea may sound silly on the face of it, but I think it's a logical step in one civilization giving birth to another. It's less silly than the idea of a deity just doing it.

Deacon Blue said...

Except, Darth, what is the difference between "deity" and super-evolved life form, really?

What if the intelligence behind intelligent design were a cosmic-scale immaterial/energy being that wanted to seed the stars and progress organic beings through myriad steps involved with bringing them to its own level?

Such a being would be indistinguishable from the biblical ominpotent God. In fact, such a being, knowning it is trying to create mini-me's from fragile and limited organic life, would quite likely have to establish some foundational baseline steps, such as "primitive" religion, to prepare those beings.

Again, this is just me spouting off randomly, not necessarily my belief system.

My point is that people who disdain religion get hung up on the idea that God is "magical" and aliens would be psychic, able to bend matter/time/energy to their will...and yet both concepts are entirely the same thing.

I believe in the soul. But what is the soul? If energy cannot be destroyed, as is one of the popular scientific theories, is the soul simply a coalesced form of energy that marks us throughout eternity on our journey?

And is the similarity of so many belief systems because we, on a very fundemental level, perceive the universe and eternity similarly? And so, some people end up on the spiritual path more naturally, because they are more in tune with it, while others fight the current. And among those who follow the current are some who follow the best currents that lead them to the "divine" faster.

Again, regardless of how you spin it, God and hyper-advanced alien being(s) are not really that far apart. But God has a history with people citing miracles, documenting His place in life, and His "stories" enduring long past the vast majority of other religions.

The thing about something like Scientology is that a sci-fi author basically crafted a nice story to peddle to the masses, much like John Smith created a religion for his own ends with Mormonism/LDS church. I'm more inclined to feel sympathy and legitimacy for long-standing religions that have endured throughout societal changes and historical upheavals, and resonate with people, rather than those created for the convenience of people who want something that fits their own desires/goals. Those "older" religions seem to me to be the most "legit," as they perpetuate despite the attempts by so many to quell them.

Again, just rambling a bit...

Darth Whitey said...

Very interesting thoughts Deac, very cool.

Just wrt to these documented miracles, well, I hardly think that a bunch of eye witnesses in the deserts of the fertile crescent some 2,000 years ago can be taken at word. Why doesn't He do it all today? In front of camera for all to see? I mean what an unbelievable trick question!

Believe in me and heaven for you, don't believe and it's hell. Geez. That's pretty unfair. Accepting this claim is no more reasonable than accepting a snake oil salesman's claim that without his piss water you're gonna die.

Jesus sounds like a cool guy, but is he really different than the guys on the street who claim to be the second coming? Why not believe them too? How do you know they're not legit? You'll only believe it if a bunch of guys write it down and pass it on for 2,000 years?

Why would an omnipotent being, a personal God, play hide-n-seek like this? Presenting us with the ultimate cosmic trick question.

That's what I cannot get past. God has given me the divine gift of reason, but to achieve the ultimate goal I have to suspend it based on stories that have been repeated and likely twisted over 2,000? You know how tall tales develop. They take a kernel of truth and as it is repeated it snowballs into a ridiculous fable.

Again, I cannot say whether or not God exists and whether he "cares" about us, or "knows" us. But he's got quite the sense of humour and playfulness if he does!

If when I die I find myself in front of a tribunal asking me why I didn't believe, I think I'll have a fantastic defense!

Deacon Blue said...

I prefer to think of belief in Jesus as getting in the express lane. I don't actually believe that failing to accept Jesus openly while on this planet is an instant, irrevocable ticket to Hell. Too many things in the Bible and too many things about Jesus' approach fly in the face of that. Though at some point, I believe you are called to stand before Jesus and make a choice, since he is the advocate and the bridge between us and the divine.

As for the "hide and seek" aspect of God, God can either let us choose to believe in Him and seek Him out and have true free will...or He could constantly loom over us and speak to us, essentially compelling us to obey by waggling His finger openly at us every time we do wrong. But I don't see how it can be both ways or for there to be a middle ground. It's either we have a choice to love Him or we have to be puppets. I'll take the former, as the benefits of that far outweight the stressors.

I can understand your reluctance to trust "documented" miracles pre-Jesus. But if Jesus hadn't been doing miracles, I don't see (a) how all 11 apostles would have preached him as risen and put themselves so at risk unless he had actually returned to them after the crucifixion, and (b) why Jewish priests/leaders of the time wouldn't have refuted him outright as a sham...if I recall correctly, Jesus was decried as a sorcerer in some old Jewish official records, when in fact it would have been better to out him as a fake. Seems that the Jewish folks who were troubled by him and had authority still believed he was doing something more than tricks.

Darth Whitey said...

I'll say this about Jesus: he seems like he was a pretty cool guy. He's the most plausible of the prophets to me. His message is truly a godly one. Unlike Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him), a murderous psychopathic pedophile. How anybody can revere him (PBUH heh) is beyond me. Scientology is beyond ridiculous. Mormons are very nice people, they're the most honest and genuine followers of their faith IMHO.

I'll say this for religion: I'm glad I live in a (mostly) Christian nation. I'm a "cultural Christian", I celebrate Christmas and I prescribe to the whole peace n love thy neighbor thing. It makes my neighbors nice, tis a moderating influence for the worst instincts of man.

Deacon Blue said...

I don't have much practical knowledge of Islam or the Q'uran, but from what I understand, whereas the gospels were penned within a relatively close time frame to Jesus (compared to the vast majority of other ancient texts on which we rely for history), the documents that ascribed miracles and such to Mohammed were penned CENTURIES after his death. As such, not only do they seem like a clear add-on, I also wonder how much of the history of his life and actions is accurate. The gospels existed in multiple languages with a multitude of fragmented copies that could be put togehter, compared, contrasted, etc. I'm not sure to what degree that can be said of texts about Mohammed, so I am equally unlikely to feel comfortable maligning him as I am unlikely to trust any supernatural accounts of him.

All that being said, I agree that Jesus was the single most "walk the walk and talk the talk guy" in the spiritual Judeo/Christian/Islamic history.

Big Man said...

I see Deac and Darth enjoyed the post.

:)

Darth Whitey said...

Well AFAIK Muslims don't dispute the bloody conquering nature of Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him!!!) nor his marriage to a 6 year old girl (and subsequent rape thereof.)

You know, I once went to a bible study with a friend who invited me. I liked it, very cool, I went for the better part of 6 months once a week. I ended up reading some C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) as well as the ENTIRE bible and for a while I thought I might buy into it, but I never did. I couldn't do it, it was too much of a leap for me. But I appreciate the inspiration and comfort Christianity can provide and I generally tend to like (non-political) Christian folks. The friend who invited me remains one of my best friends.

Deacon Blue said...

BTW, Big Man, I wanted to take you up on your suggestion a couple weeks ago to read the Riverworld series, but my little library in my little town...as good as it is in so many ways...doesn't stock much of the classic sci-fi. I'll keep my eyes peeled though for maybe some eBay or Amazon deals on a full set of the series when I have a few extra clams, though.

Shady_Grady said...

The short answer about the Dawkins-Stein exchange is that Dawkins was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Allowing for the possibility of one organism creating or re-engineering another does not disprove evolution or mean that an all powerful entity exists that breaks the laws of physics. Dawkins does NOT believe in alien creation of earthly life.

The long answer and it is VERY long is at Dawkins site (about a third of the way down this page)

http://richarddawkins.net/article,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins

As far as the accusations about Muhammad they may be true. I don't know. I'm not sure he even existed. But if we accept them as valid do we also accept that Moses was a genocidal bastard or that Jesus was a gay pedophile (what was really going on with the naked boy in the garden). I think every religion or myth has some things they'd rather not talk about. To a true believer those things won't matter.

Deacon Blue said...

The naked boy in the garden?

Please elaborate on what passage you are referring to, because that sounds like some serious twisting of wording in the gospel to me.

And if you mean the possessed (or perhaps mentally ill) young man who shredded his clothes and, if I recall, tried to throw himself into fires, Jesus went and healed him...he wasn't radnomly hanging out with the guy to bone him up the backside.

Shady_Grady said...


And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body;
and the young men laid hold on him:
and he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.
- Mark 14:51, 52

That young man is not mentioned again. There's nothing about healing that particular young man. The Bible does not detail as to why he was there with Jesus. It is a very odd and curious statement to be included in the Gospel of Mark.

Deacon Blue said...

That is an odd passage. Never really noticed it before. Of course, the key thing here is that he isn't mentioned as part of Jesus' previous activities in the Garden of Gethsemane and there is no direct connection between the two of them, so trying to establish any clarity would be difficult. My study Bible suggests it may be a reference to Mark himself, but who knows?

Also, young man doesn't equal "boy," so that takes out the pedophile part...even if he was a teen, that would be adult back in those days.

He IS covered when the priests and guards come upon the group, and the nature of the cloth is unclear. Was he engaging in sex? Was he sleeping while Jesus was praying, and it was a hot-ass night so he took off his clothes and wrapped himself in a light cloth? Was the linen cloth actually a robe or some kind of simple clothing? Did he throw it off as a way to distract folks so he could flee? Did somebody try to grab his linen garb and he cast it off to escape that hold? Too vague, too many variables.

Odd passage, but ultimately inscrutable.

Shady_Grady said...

The actual Greek translates as young man or youth. We don't know how old he is.

Either way we don't know what he was doing there and it's passing odd that a semi-nude youth is hanging out with Jesus at nighttime.

My only point is that each religious tradition has some beliefs or events which appear weird, crazy or even evil to a non-believer. So whether it's Moses ordering the deaths of multitudes (with the notable exception of young virgin girl children) who are to be saved for the use of the Israelites, or Muhammad marrying a nine year old girl, I don't see a lot of difference.

Numbers(31:17-18)
"Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."

Ed M. said...

and for the historical period all the women children who didn't have husbands would have been about eight. Something to keep in mind when slamming the Muslims over Aisha.

I'm not going to defend Dawkins, I'm an agnostic who flirts with atheism and he's not just a jerk but he's really wrong about a number of things.

If you really delve down into modern, quantum mechanics of the "many worlds" school (which has the advantage of it's predictions be confirmed year after year), you wind up with something that looks suspiciously like God.

A tiny fraction more or less matter in this universe and the big bang would have either closed right back up or blew everything into a fine ever-expanding bunch of hydrogen atoms.

That also doesn't make me a Christian (although I've found that if I think I'm dying I grab Jesus back real quick as sort of a Hail Mary pass). As a matter of fact, if what I believe may be correct is true: What we experience as reality was set up and started by a creator, I can very well imagine anyone starting a system of predatory evolution as quite evil and something to be shunned.

Thordaddy said...

Darth Whitey,

Do you have free will? Meaning, can you live righteous and truthful and therefore free your will of anguish, despair, depression, etc.? Could such a collection of phenonema be the product of descent with modification? Who or what is doing the modifying and who or what created the descent?

Darth Whitey said...

Thor,

I do not have an answer to any of those questions, nor do I believe that I ever will. Moreover, I don't think that any human can know. The absence of answers to complex questions makes humans invent unverifiable answers.

Think of how we don't know by what means the Egyptians, Aztecs, and Burmese all built their respective pyramids given that none of them had the technology necessary to do so at the time, nor would they have it for centuries. A common arms-up-in-the-air explanation people enjoy is that aliens came and built them. There, done, we can stop thinking about it now. Balderdash, that's lazy.

Darth Whitey said...

Ed M.,

The historical context of a 6 year old girl marrying a grown man makes no difference, especially when the grown man in question is supposedly a prophet from God, he should know better. After all, aren't we all repulsed when fundamentalist Mormons do it? Or when David Koresh was doing it? How do you know that he wasn't a prophet? His C.V. was pretty tame compared to Mohammed (PBUH).

Shady_Grady said...

The historical context of human sacrifice makes no difference in today's modern morality but the Biblical God required it on occasion.

Deacon Blue said...

Darth,

I don't now how right or wrong sex with a child that young was considered back then.

But to suggest that historical context means nothing is absurd.

In a time when people might commonly not live past their 40s or 50s, and often fell prey to disease, age of sexual maturity differs a lot.

Now, that said, I suspect a 6-year-old wasn't exactly "kosher" (apologies for the pun and for mixing religious metaphors) given that she isn't even fertile yet, but let's face it, making a girl who's reached puberty your wife back then would be entirely proper even if it is entirely improper now. So, the DEGREE to which historical context is applied varies, but there is context. A prophet of God wouldn't be held to 20th and 21st century standards and laws.

Slavery of that time also has a historical context. As do many other things. We cannot look at all of those things through modern eyes and apply modern morality to things that have a totally different context.

Darth Whitey said...

Deac, with all due respect I think you're arguing against a strawman. I did not say that historical context never matters, I said it doesn't matter in the case of statutory rape of a 6 year old girl, whether the rapist is a prophet or not (or rather, especially when he is a prophet.) Although to be fair I think he didn't actually rape her until she was 8 or something. Big difference heh.

I know that back then women started bearing children pretty much at the onset of puberty and that boys were considered men very early as well. It's logical. But come on. Are you so P.C. that you'll defend anything? Remove the religious claims and can you honestly say that Mohammed was not a crazed psychopath who murdered thousands of people who disagreed with him?

Why do I have to "respect" a murderous lunatic just because a billion people think he was some kind of great prophet? No, he was just some charismatic psychopath, just as Jesus was a lunatic, even if he was a very nice guy, the same kind of guy who now yells about god and hell and stuff on street corners or reads the bible loudly on college campuses. Why don't people take them seriously? How bout if we write about them today and then ask people to believe in them in 2,000 years, does that make them credible all of a sudden?

I have no more respect for Mohammed than I do for David Koresh or any other charismatic snake oil salesman who manages to get his followers to do absurd things in the name of some higher belief. These guys are only better than Warren Jeffs and L.Ron Hubbard in that at least they have the excuse of being mentally ill.

You can believe in whatever you want but I am really sick and tired of people trying to force me to respect their beliefs. I don't ask anyone to respect my beliefs about Zeus or a flying spaghetti monster.

Deacon Blue said...

You said:

"The historical context of a 6 year old girl marrying a grown man makes no difference, especially when the grown man in question is supposedly a prophet from God, he should know better."

Who's trying to force you to respect their beliefs?

I simply said that your statement that historical context makes no difference is patently absurd.

Does the historical context make no difference in the fact that among the royalty of ancient Egypt, brothers and sisters married each other? Do we judge that activity by notions of incest in Judeo-Christian tradition or modern day?

I'm not defending the prophet, man, I'm saying you can't throw out a statement like "historical context doesn't matter" and then say, as a man of God, he would have done other than what might be acceptable in societal norms of the time. Which, for all I know, what he did WASN'T part of the norm.

Darth Whitey said...

Yes, the marriage of siblings in Egypt was just as sick then as it is today, just as the lynching of blacks was just as evil 50 years ago as it is today. Do you think people who participated in those back then were just goin' with the flow of their time and were fundamentally nice folk? Please.

And for the record, I don't give a crap if siblings marry today or 3000 years ago, not my problem.

Who's trying to force me to respect their beliefs? Everyone who thinks those Mohammed cartoons should never appear anywhere, everyone who insists that Bush was a great president, everyone who insists the earth was made in a day. I'm just sick of it.

Deacon Blue said...

Darth, I'm not trying to paint them as wonderful people. C'mon. Not trying to brush off that evil things were done.

But many things we think are "wrong" are only wrong contextually. Different cultures practice different things, sometimes because it was simply tradition and sometimes out of ignorance. But let's take some culture like, say, Native American culture. Young man, nothing more than a boy really, sent out to fend for himself in the wilderness with little or nothing carried with him. Back then, rite of passage. Today, child neglect and endangerment.

We can pick out specific things that are wrong because they force one people upon another (slavery for example), and that's an easy target because it involved force and coercion. But you're going to say sibling marriage in Egypt was evil and they knew it? It was cultural in the end, and to preserve the royal lines. It was, in their minds, a necessity.

For someone who says he doesn't care what people did 3,000 years ago (or more), you sure are being passionate about it.

Not sure what nerve I've hit or why it runs so deep for you, but even as a mostly liberal, Democrat-voting, Jesus-praising Christian, I am loathe to start widely casting modern day judgments on cultures and people who lived in times that don't resemble modern day one little bit. No matter how far they go afield of what I think is right.

There are many Jews who think Jesus as a blasphemous, socially destructive person. A megalomaniac who disparaged true Judaism. I feel they have a right to feel that way, because from their perspective, that's who he was. They don't see a socially progressive Messiah and son of God who preached the greatest message of love around. And why should I expect them to?

Darth Whitey said...

Well I'll let you have the last word since I don't even know what it is we're arguing about anymore but just a correction: I did not say that sibling marriage in Egypt was evil, I said it was gross (sick.)

Deacon Blue said...

I'm not sure either, man, which is why I was trying to center in on things. Anyway, thanks for the clarification, and agreed that incest is gross...and certainly most cultures have agreed on that point.
;-)

Thordaddy said...

Darth Whitey,

If you are agnostic as to whether you can orient yourself towards the Truth then what else needs to be known about how to evaluate all your other pontifications?

Although, if you decide to concede that YOU can orient yourself towards the Truth, then you must explain what is in the mechanisms of evolutionary theory that explains such phenomenon?

And then when you realize that the fundamental mechanisms of evolution -- "natural selection," i.e., environment (gameboard) and "variant mutations, i.e., fundamental material aspect of life -- in no way help to
explain why homo sapien orients himself towards Truth, you will then have to come to a different conclusion.

The best you can posit is that such an orientation is advantageous. This is just the tacit recognition of a Higher Order.

Raving Black Lunatic