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A Wager of Fear May 30, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion, Skeptic, Thoughts.
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Unless you’re completely clueless about theology, you’ll know what Pascal’s Wager is: A “gamble” whether to believe in the existence of God.

It states that

  1. If God doesn’t exist:
    • Not believing in God will gain you no additional benefit (negligible gain)
    • Believing in God would lose you nothing (negligible loss)
  2. If God does exist:
    • Not believing in God means you will be sent to Hell (infinite penalty)
    • Believing in God means you will go to Heaven (infinite gain)

So the natural choice is to believe in God. Seems like a pretty solid argument – to a seven-year-old.

We’ll never know whether Pascal was just being tongue-in-cheek with this proposal. But if you ever hear a religious “apologist” invoking Pascal’s Wager, it’s a sure sign that either his arguments are weak, or he’s out of touch with the world. The deficiencies of the Wager are immediately obvious.

More than one way

There are myriad religions in the world. This was true centuries ago and still is. When you factor in the possibilities of every god existing – Thor, Jupiter, Krishna, Allah, etc; and the fact that most religions will punish you for believing in other gods, then blindly making the Wager will considerably shorten your odds.

This also doesn’t take into account religions that don’t have a deity (Buddhism). It also assumes that all religions send nonbelievers to Hell – which is not the case (Judaism).

It doesn’t consider that if your life is indeed all you have, then spending your time and effort on a false religion wastes it.

And more damningly, it assumes that belief – even blind belief will get you into Heaven.

Blind faith

Pascal’s Wager plays on one of our most basic fears – the fear of death. It strips from religion any pretense of humanity and reason; basically demanding “believe, or die”.

Deathbed conversions are a prime example. One wonders how a such “conversion” can be real – surely a person should die as (s)he lived. I hear stories of families saying, with relief, “Oh, we told him to nod his head if he accepts God, and he did. Praise God!”

This cheapens both man and religion. If one can get religion just by paying lip service (or in this case, by nodding your head) only when there is nothing to lose; without ever pondering over its validity, its doctrines, or its historicity; without ever spending any effort on it; then it’s safe to say that the patient would have “accepted” whatever religion thrust at him. If he was unfortunate enough to have relatives of differing religions than I pity the poor thing. Or who knows, the patient could have been saying “Yes, whatever, stop annoying me!”

And you wonder who the conversion was meant to benefit – the “convert”, or the people doing the converting, to give them peace of mind.

To a lesser extent this applies to some who convert only after a near death encounter, where religion becomes the ultimate health insurance.

Belief is not a Choice

Can you “choose” to believe, like the Wager says? Can you “choose” to believe in Santa Claus, or “choose” to disbelieve in gravity? If I pointed a gun to your head and asked you to “believe” that my religion is true, and you said yes, does it mean you believe? If, like in Indonesia, the state rules that it is a crime not to “believe” in a religion, does that mean that Indonesia is the most religious country in the world?

We can never “choose” to believe – for anything worth believing in, it is not lip service or self-delusion that determines belief, but whether we accept the premises and rationale behind it.

Later today, the Federal Court will pass judgement on the Lina Joy case. This is about more than religious freedom – it is about your very right to think for yourself. She needs “certification” from the Syariah Court to renounce Islam. A New York Times article quotes a senior fellow at the Institue of Islamic Understanding saying that “If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem”.

If religion is automatic, then surely heaven will be filled to the brim! In fact, I’d say that if Islam were to force “Muslims” to “believe”, when they so obviously don’t, it is that which implies that Islam has no dignity, no self-esteem! Anyone wanna place a wager on the outcome?

The Japanese aren’t Stupid (just weird)! April 28, 2007

Posted by Tim in Humour, Skeptic.
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I subscribe to the RSS feed from Snopes.com: New Urban Legends. Pretty interesting and you get a good laugh from some of the more outrageous tall tales going around.

In the past two days I’ve actually had three people message me with links to a story that has been picked up by several news sites. The Age and Ninemsn.com carried stories on Japanese being fooled in a poodle scam. The story goes that cunning dealers have been selling sheep – yes, sheep – to clueless Japanese, passing them off as poodles. Apparently since sheep aren’t native to Japan, they can’t differentiate.

Seriously – the Japanese aren’t stupid! They invented the Playstation, Nintendo and anime! And as Snopes points out, even schoolchildren would know what sheep look like from books. Shame on you people who believed this!

P.S. While on the subject of Japanese urban legends, those skirts-with-underwear-pattern pictures that circulate are staged/fakes. So are the ones with “sharking”. The reports about a Japanese fertility festival are true, though…

Pope: Don’t do the Limbo April 24, 2007

Posted by Tim in Religion, Skeptic, Thoughts.
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On April 20th Pope Benedict XVI reversed an 800-year old Catholic tradition: the teaching of limbo.

Limbo is a place “between Heaven and Hell” and comes in two flavours: Patriach class, for the good people who died before Jesus’ Ressurection; and Child class, for infants and people who were mentally unhealthy. According to wiki: .

Saint Thomas Aquinas described the limbo of children as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptized.

So it’s a place of “natural” happiness, just less happy than they could have been.

Limbo is or was basically an ad hoc solution for the question of how God could still be “good” if he sent babies to burn, because of their original sin. The Catholic News Service (CNS) reports:

“People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness…Parents in particular can experience grief and feelings of guilt when they doubt their unbaptized children are with God.”

Saint Augustine taught in the 5th century that infants who died unbaptized would go to hell, it was only in the 13th century that the concept of limbo took hold.

The CNS report begins:

After several years of study, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.

This is how it ends (emphases added):

“Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable — to baptize them in the faith of the church and incorporate them visibly into the body of Christ,” it said.

The commission said hopefulness was not the same as certainty about the destiny of such infants.

“It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die,” it said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was president of the commission and head of the doctrinal congregation when the commission began studying the question of limbo in a systematic way in 2004.

Questions:

  1. How do you “study” limbo “in a systematic way“, over “years“?
  2. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be the “bishop of Rome”, the “Vicar of Christ”, “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, and a whole lot of other things? Doesn’t he have a direct line to God?

The whole thing about “hope” is irritating. Since when did “hope” become a synonym for “I don’t know”? I thought the church was supposed to resolve doctrinal matters, not “hope” that it’s right.

And as Slate magazine asks: What happened to all the babies who used to be in limbo?

Oh for all you Protestants out there, don’t get smug: no concrete answers there either – or differing ones anyway, depending on whether you subscribe to Calvinism (God knows whether the babies would have made the choice to believe or not) or Arminianism (Babies go to heaven – in which case the most merciful thing a parent could do is to kill their children). How you define “original sin” also counts.

Protocols of the STAD of MMU March 27, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Skeptic.
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It’s the tenth anniversary of MMU. Pretty big event. There isn’t any shortage of events being held to commemorate it either – nearly every notable club is holding something. Chalk it up to those Entrepreneurship lectures: never miss a possible tie-in for your event!

The Student Affairs and Sports Division (STAD) is going one better though: What better way to celebrate our University than with anti-semitic talks?

[Click the image to view the full-size version with STAD’s endorsement on the bottom and the “a TM university” logo proudly displayed.]

I’d like to take the opportunity here to apologize for not listing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in my previous post about far-out religious theories (though the Illuminati part overlaps somewhat). So for the uninitiated, here’s the lowdown from Wikipedia’s article on the Protocols:

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Russian: “Протоколы сионских мудрецов”, or “Сионские протоколы”, see also other titles) is an antisemitic literary forgery that purports to describe a Jewish plot to achieve world domination.

Basically yeah, every major (bad) event past, present, and future; had/have/will have Jews pulling the strings. I remember once reading a book based on it. Even as a kid I didn’t buy it – actually the only scary part is how much people need a scapegoat for their problems, and how some people will believe anything.

Chinese Characters (not) in Genesis March 25, 2007

Posted by Tim in Skeptic.
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Remember the Bible Code? The theory was that every important person/event in the world is encoded in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and can be found by dividing the Hebrew script into columns and searching for phrases in them (so that’s what God was doing on the seventh day!). It was just one of a long line of pseudoreligious theories, e.g.:

  • The symbol of the Illuminati is “hidden” in the US dollar bill, a symbol of their conspiracy to take over the world;
  • All bar codes actually contain the numbers “666”;
  • A “lost day“, corresponding to the miracles requested by Joshua and Hezekiah, found and proven by befuddled scientists;
  • Siberian scientists accidentally drilling a well to Hell;
  • Various predictions of the world ending at various dates;
  • Hidden pentagram and 666 formations in Washington ([pentagram = freemason = demonic] + 666 = very demonic);
  • Procter and Gamble being run by Satanists;
  • Dungeons and Dragons promotes Satanism and/or will possess you demonically (or Magic: the Gathering, or any game that involves any of the following: magic, spells, rituals, dragons, demons, Persia, witches [who are the bad guys supposed to be anyway?]);
  • Harry Potter promotes witchcraft and has resulted in a rise in Satanism among children better burn all those Enid Blyton books too);
  • Nearly everything written by Jack Chick. Seriously, that guy is one intolerant, paranoid psycho.

Ok, getting a little carried away there. The point here is that a healthy amount of skepticism has never hurt anyone. And I’ll be the first to admit that when I was younger I believed some of them.

One such hoax that seems to be making its rounds here lately is the “revelation” that various Chinese characters are inspired by Genesis (“Revelation” is relative here; the book that first expounded this, The Discovery of Genesis, was written in 1979. It’s like how we get seasons of Lost late).

It works a lot like the Bible Code, just in reverse. Instead of cherry-picking the Bible for letters and words which match up, you cherry-pick Chinese characters for elements which match Genesis. You can view examples here:

As for the rebuttals:

I rather like pinyin.info’s comparison:

They’re all the equivalent of the folk etymology of the English word assume: “to assume means ‘to make an ass out of you and me.’”

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