Malaysian Atheist

An avowed atheist living in Malaysia.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Why Are Atheists So Angry?

I've been following with interest, the four-day debate between Sam Harris and Dennis Prager on "Why Are Atheists So Angry?". They could've just titled the debate "Atheist vs. Judeo-Christian Theist" because that's what it was essentially. After going through the final exchange, I couldn't help but laugh because each one is quoting the other and then basically saying that they've been misquoted and misunderstood by the other. This happens all the time, in such debates.

I remember Richard Feynman once said, "We cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosphers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, 'You don't know what you are talking about!' The second one says 'What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?', and so on." How true it is!

As difficult as it is to stay neutral, I think Sam Harris argued pretty well. His points are basically those presented in his book, Letter to a Christian Nation so nothing new there. Dennis Prager on the other hand, presented less facts and more opinions. I do not know who Dennis Prager is (says on the site, he's a radio talk show host) and I don't think I want to, after reading what he wrote.

For example, he wrote:
In fact, with no implication intended regarding you, I have almost never encountered “very smart people” who do not believe in God. The vast majority of atheists I have met had fine brain matter, but if “smart” includes wisdom, intellectual depth, profundity of thought, and moral insight, I have encountered such people almost exclusively among believers in the Judeo-Christian God.
This guy is saying that almost all 'very smart people' (like himself) believe in God. I wonder how smart you need to be, to be a radio talk show host? I'll bet he only calls you smart if you eat the same burger he eats, support the football team he supports, read the same books he reads and believe in the same God he believes in. Who does he think he is, that he can pass judgement on other people's wisdom, moral insight and intellect?

He also wrote:
Suffice it to that Judeo-Christian values alone gave humanity the notion of the sacredness of human life; linear history and therefore the idea of moral and scientific progress; universal standards of good and evil; the abolition of slavery; the scientific method; the development of democracy; equality of the sexes; the greatest experiment in non-ethnicity-based society (America); the greatest music ever composed; and the greatest art ever drawn. As for India, I have traveled there a number of times and lectured there; I have a deep reverence for its people and culture. But India did not give us those contributions. Nor did China and certainly not any of the societies contemporaneous with the ancient Jews who gave us the Torah from which these values emanate.
Now he's insulting the Chinese and the Indians and the Muslims. I don't think this guy has too many friends. Abolition of slavery? The scientific method? Democracy? Equality of sexes? All that because of the Judeo-Christian God? This is utter nonsense. All these things have nothing to do with Judeo-Christian values. Greatest music and art? Again, who does he think he is that he gets to decide which music and art is the greatest?

Then I don't know why he wrote this:
I bet you whatever sum we each can afford that the vast majority of murderers and rapists in this country were not religiously active during the time they committed their violent crimes. I would make a second bet that you won’t take that bet.
Why only violent crimes? What about white-collar crimes? What about Ted Haggard? What about those Roman Catholic priests who preyed on young children?

You know, I started writing this post, as I normally did with any post, but after writing the last few lines, I'm really starting to get angry. Now I know why atheists are so angry. Atheists are so angry because there are theists like Dennis Prager, who spew venomous nonsense in the airwaves and into people's minds.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jesus Camp

Last night I watched a horror movie. This one was scarier than all of Wes Craven's movies, all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween slasher flicks I've seen before. And the amazing thing is that this movie doesn't have any psychotic killers, ghoulish monsters and no blood and gore. What makes this movie scary is that it is REAL and it's called Jesus Camp.

Somewhere out there in middle America, talibanic Christian fundamentalists are creating an army of children to wage war against secular America. Now I understand why Richard Dawkins is so vocal against the religious indoctrination of children. The movie shows some of these children being homeschooled by their parents because public school teaches evolution. They read Chick tracts and believe everything in it, they join protest groups against abortion, they evangelise to strangers and a whole bunch of them attend a Christian camp to be brainwashed into seeing the world as black and whites.

Jesus did say in the Bible that we must have childlike faith and we must let the children come to him, but these fundies are really taking it too far. The children are essentially trapped in their parents' beliefs. They're not allowed to watch Harry Potter, they're told repeatedly that they are the chosen generation and they're not exposed to any other views other than that taught by the church. This is a recipe for disaster, especially when these children grow up and become future leaders. How will they view the secular world? How will they treat Muslims or anyone whose beliefs are different from their own?

It's easy to relate to this in Malaysia because the Muslims here too, tend to take things too far. From moral policing to inspecting ice-cream biscuits to Sisyphean apostacy cases, we know what it's like with people who see the world as absolutes. We have seen for ourselves how harmful religion can be. Of course, not all religious people are loonies, but it is religion that provides breeding ground such absolutism. Fortunately sensible Malaysians of all races and religions (and non-religions) are starting to question these fundamentalist acts. Again I stress that the answer is a balanced education that exposes people to different world views so that absolutism gets replaced with tolerance.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Theistic evolution = neapolitan ice cream?

Pope Benedict XVI said, " and religion are not opposed to each other and Christians should not be afraid to try to understand how they compliment each other in explaining the mystery of life on Earth." In other words, the Roman Catholic Church (as well as mainline Protestant churches plus some Jewish and Islamic denominations) support the view that biological evolution is compatible with their religious understanding of the nature of God. This is opposed to most Evangelical Christians who believe in Bible inerrancy, meaning they take the Creation story literally.

So, there are three major groups in contention here. We have atheists on one side and theists on the other. Within theists there are the literalists on one side and theistic evolutionists (TE) on the other. What will they think of next? A hybrid group that calls itself "theistic evolutionary literalists"??

TE, at first, sounded like an oxymoron. How can one believe in evolution and at the same time believe in a supreme God? Well you can, if you are willing to stretch your imagination a little bit. TEs essentially take the best of both worlds. Just like if your prefer vanilla ice cream but you Mom likes strawberry and your Dad likes chocolate, the best thing to do is to buy neapolitan ice cream!

According to wikipedia, theistic evolution is the synthesis of faith and religious teachings with science, with the view that divine intervention brought about the origin of life. Even if human beings only come about after 4 billion years of evolution, TEs believe that God's invisible hand has guided the process so in a sense, we are God's creations.

I see many problems with this view because it leads to more questions than answers. Why did God wait 4 billion years before creating Man? If we are created in God's image and God loves us above all creatures, wouldn't He have create us first? What has God been doing since the Big Bang all the way up to the formation of Earth? The most common reply is God transcends space and time, and we are not supposed to question His will.

I don't think it is necessary to credit God with our evolution (and the evolution of everything for that matter). Darwin got the idea for evolution by natural selection from the work of economist Thomas Malthus who wrote about human population growth. Since resources (food, shelter, mates) are limited, survival of the fittest is really an economic problem. Economists never credit God with GDP growth, low inflation or low interest rates. Adam Smith wrote about the invisible hand in The Wealth of Nations, refering to how individual self-interest inadvertently stimulate the economy as a whole. The same invisible hand is at work in nature, but it isn't God's hand. Evolution happens in spite of God.

The onus really is on the TEs to convince us that God is needed to make evolution work. After that, they need to convince us that that God is the one in the Bible or the Quran, or any one of the millions of Gods we've revered throughout history.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Blind Men and The Elephant

I've often heard the story of the blind men and the elephant used to describe religion. It goes something like this:
Three blind men found an elephant. None of them had seen an elephant before so they groped about, hoping to understand and describe it. One man got hold of the trunk and says that it is a snake. Another finds the tail and concludes that it is a rope and the third man examined the leg and describes it as a tree.
The moral of this story is that each man, in his blindness is describing the same thing but in a completely different way. If we substitute the elephant with God and the blind men with religion, we may say that all religions are describing the same thing but through different perspectives. The idea is to promote religious harmony since in our 'blindness', each and every view of God is equally valid.

Of course the explanation above presupposes a God. I think a more accurate interpretation of the story is to substitute the elephant with any natural phenomena (the solar eclipse, volcanic eruption, tsunami, burning bush, etc.) instead of God. Then the blind men represent the many prophets/sages/seers out there, trying to understand and explain these phenomena. Each one comes up with a different explanation, but you can't really blame them, since their view is limited to what they can feel and also to the scope of their prior knowledge.

As each blind man returns to their respective village, they will tell their fellow villagers of the experience of coming in contact with an 'elephant' and so, different views are accepted by different villages. So, the different villages with different views of an elephant represent the different religions of the world. Note that some villages are bigger than others, just as some religions have more followers than others. Some blind men are more imaginative than others. They write books and songs about the 'elephant', they even predict when they'll see the next 'elephant'. But that doesn't change reality, because in reality, all the blind men are wrong. The elephant is neither a snake, nor a rope nor a tree.

Imagine a fourth blind man, Geordi, comes along. But unlike the first three, Geordi wears a Star Trek VISOR. The VISOR interfaces directly to the brain and allows him to see the elephant.

He thus sees that all three blind men are wrong. Geordi even offers his VISOR to each of the blind men to try out. But when the blind men saw the elephant, they were aghast. They began to question Geordi's VISOR. Is the VISOR flawed? Has it been tempered with? How come the elephant looks nothing like the elephant they've each imagined all this while?

With this new image of the elephant, though, each blind man returned to their respective village and redefined their idea of an elephant. The first man said, "Yes, it is still snake-like, as we previously thought, but this snake has a VERY big tail!" The second man said, "Yes, it is still a rope, as we previously thought, but this rope has a VERY big knot tied to one end!" The third man said, "Yes, not only is it a tree, as we previously thought, it is actually a forest of FOUR trees with snakes and ropes hanging from the foliage!"

I think my point is pretty clear. The Star Trek VISOR represents all the advancements in science and technology, that has dramatically altered our perceptions of all the 'elephants' of the world. Yet even through these lenses, some 'blind men' are able to repackage the image to one that is consistent with their earlier beliefs.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Is Hang Tuah Chinese? (Part 2)

Interesting story. Almost as interesting as The Da Vinci Code. For those who do not know, Hang Tuah is a legendary Malay warrior who lived and served during the Malacca sultanate over 500 years ago (something like William Wallace or King Arthur).

When I first read the email, I immediately saw something wrong with it because around that time I had just finished reading the excellent book entitled "Genome" by Matt Ridley. From my understanding, it wasn't possible to determine an individual's race, much less his religion through DNA testing. Just think about it, the large amount of variation within populations and the fact that one quarter of the world's population is Chinese, makes it impossible to confidently identify a person's race using DNA. So, the evidence presented in the email is most definitely false.

You may be excused for not realising that first point, but a second flaw in the story should've been obvious and would've sounded alarm bells. The email implied that the Malaysian government changed the History syllabus to hide the truth. That further implied that the Malaysian government accepted the findings of the "team of experts". Any Malaysian would know that THAT is SURE sign of a hoax!

Since when does the Malaysian government listen to expert findings? The government only listens to those who tell them what they want to hear. If the experts say anything that is not pleasing to the government's ears, its usual reaction is denial and then ridiculing the findings. Just look at the recent findings by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute on bumiputera equity ownership. The Malaysian government pressured ASLI to retract the report while endorsing its own botched figure for political gain. Anyway, back to the email... Government acceptance of the 'expert' findings that Hang Tuah is a Chinese Muslim is most uncharacteristic of the Malaysian government, and so, this entire email is most certainly a hoax. ;)

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Is Hang Tuah Chinese? (Part 1)

I found another forwarded e-mail in my mailbox, from a few months back and thought it'd be interesting to put it here. It is about Hang Tuah and Malay history. Here it is, written in typical Malaysian English:


"The Truth Revealed (with evidence)"
In June 1998, the government of Malaysia had hired a team of experts to compliment the history studies that we undertaken in our secondary school. The objective of the research is simply:

1. To find prove and evident that show the Malays are the origins of Malaysia and they are the first race and religion that lands their foot in Malaysia.

2. To further strengthen their claims, first they need to find the grave yard of the Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Hang Lekiu and show the existant of their pioneer.

3. The Batu bersurat in Terengganu, reveals that the islamic religion has landed in malaysia for a hundred years ago which further strengthen their claims!

That is why, we are taught with sejarah (history of malaysia)!!!! BEWARE & OPEN YOUR EYES!!! go ask your brother, sister, niece, newphew and etc. etc, since the year 1999 (if i'm not mistaken) or year 2000, do they study about HANG TUAH anymore????????

Why is that popular subject GONE????? Missing in action??????? or Evidence reveals something different that causes the government to stop the syllabus and HIDE the TRUTH????????

Here are the Evidences of the findings by the team of scientists, archaeologist, historian and other technical staff from the United State, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Yemen & Russia.

The evidence are:
1) They finally found the grave yard of Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and etc..., their skeleton had been analise and samples of DNA had been taken with the results show:

Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, hang Lekiu and mates, they are not Malay!!!!!! They are CHINESE! (islamic)from china!!! and why are they here in Malacca????? Because they are in a misison to protect the UNGRATEFUL MALAY from the potential attack of SIAM (Thailand)!!!

So Hang tuah is not malay hero!!! they are the protector of the useless and ungrateful Parameswara (who is from INDONESIA) landed in Malacca and claim the land belongs to him!!!
The hang tuah bunch of people are all from china, they are being assign to malacca because parameswara request the Ching Dynasty Emporer for protection!!!

This is why the Hang Tuah series of history is MISSING from the SEJARAH!!!!

2nd. Evidence:
The researchers hired by the government found the oldest tomb stone(grave yard) in Kelantan in year 2000. Suprisingly the tomb stone are at least 900 years old!!!! older than the so-called batu bersurat and the best thing is, it belong to the Chinese. Being landed first in Malacca doesn't mean malay is the first in Malaysia cos during that time, the road is too long for them to
see the other side of the coast!!!! where the chinese has landed far more earlier.

Read Part 2!

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Famous Atheists: Richard Feynman

Here's another man I greatly admire. But to tell you the truth, until about a year ago, I had no idea who Richard Feynman (pronounced Fine-man) was. Sure, I've heard of him before in my uni days in some physics textbook, but that didn't give me any clue as to who the man was. It wasn't until I read the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" that I've come to know this extraordinary man. I strongly recommend the book along with "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"; they're both collections of highly entertaining stories as told by Feynman himself, about his adventures as a curious character.

For those who don't know, Richard Feynman is a Nobel Prize winning physicist. He worked on the field of quantum electrodynamics (something which I don't understand). He also worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, and was part of the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster in 1986. It certainly doesn't do him justice to sum up his achievements in a few sentences. Here's what it says on Wikipedia:
Known for his insatiable curiosity, wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament, he is equally famous for his many adventures. As well as being an inspirational lecturer, bongo player, notorious practical joker, and decipherer of Maya hieroglyphs, Richard Feynman was regarded as an eccentric and a free spirit. He liked to pursue multiple independent paths, such as biology, art, percussion, and lockpicking.
And here's a famous quote about Richard Feynman, by Polish mathematician, Mark Kac:
"There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre."
Richard Feynman had been an atheist since a young age. Frankly, I do not see how a curious character like him would ever be satisfied with the answers provided by any religion. He once said, "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Feynman died of cancer in 1988, but his work, his words and his extraordinary life continue to inspire millions.

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It's not Malaysia "boleh", it's Malaysia "bodoh"

By now, many Malaysians would've read Michael Backman's well-written article, "While Malaysia fiddles, it's opportunities are running dry" on Australia's The Age. Isn't it funny that whenever a mat salleh talks or writes about our country, our leaders and our media go up in arms about it? Perhaps it's because they are self-conscious and care a great deal about what foreigners think about Malaysia. But if that is the case, then all these recent talk about Malay rights and Malay agenda at the UMNO General Assembly are just going to make things worse. And, in this instance, the media seems to focus more on the use of the phrase "Malaysia bodoh" in that article, instead of the general message of government wastage. Today, on The Star, we have the Minister of International Trade and Industry, Rafidah Aziz saying:
“What do we care? Obviously, this person doesn’t know Malaysia. He is an outsider and he can say what he likes. I don’t really care about what others say – as long as it is not a Malaysian saying it.”
Perhaps Rafidah Aziz should've attended Parliament sittings more regularly because the Opposition party has been saying the same things for many, many years. In fact, the silent majority of Malaysians have always been grousing over these same issues. Michael Backman himself noted that 95% of responses to his article from Malaysians, in and out of Malaysia, have been positive. It is time our leaders wake up to reality.

One important point to note: Malaysia will become a net oil importer by 2011 and our oil will run out in 19 years. Natural gas, I think, will run out in 40 years. Petronas will still be making its hefty profits importing and exporting oil, but the price increase will be passed all the way down to us, ordinary Malaysians. That is why, as it is, we cannot afford any more wastage.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

God vs. Science: Time cover story

This week's (13 Nov 2006) US edition of Time magazine featured the "God vs. science" debate as its cover story. In recent months, atheism has been garnering plenty of media attention, due to the release of Richard Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion". Richard Dawkins is currently on a tour of North America to promote his book.

Hence, it's only fitting that the Time article feature a debate between Richard Dawkins himself and Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of the book, "The Language of God". Dr. Collins is a Christian and believes that science is compatible with his faith.

Here are a few interesting excerpts from the debate:

COLLINS: By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.

DAWKINS: I think that's a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.

COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don't think that it is God's purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?

From here, we may infer that Dr. Collins does not believe in intelligent design (ID). He believes in evolution by natural selection as the natural process that leads to the creation of complex organisms. Dr. Collins also does not disagree with Richard Dawkins (and with almost all scientists, for that matter), that the Earth is at least 4 billion years old. Meaning, he too doesn't believe in young Earth creationism - an idea that so many evangelical Christians subscribe to. But Dr. Collins believes that God created the laws of nature and twiddled the knobs of the universal constants that made life possible. He also believes that our human evolution has been guided by God's invisible hand, according to His will.

COLLINS: This is an interesting choice. Barring a theoretical resolution, which I think is unlikely, you either have to say there are zillions of parallel universes out there that we can't observe at present or you have to say there was a plan. I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam's razor--Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward--leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination.

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. What I can't understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you're shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.
Here is a good point by Richard Dawkins. Religious people often ask, "How is life/intelligence possible without a designer? It is just too improbable. The only explanation is God." It's true that many scientific theories are incomprehensible and difficult for our minds to imagine, but if the alternative is a divine being; one that is complex, intelligent, outside of nature and space-time, able to read minds and hear prayers, then you are postulating something far more complicated and improbable.

COLLINS: There are sincere believers who interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in a very literal way that is inconsistent, frankly, with our knowledge of the universe's age or of how living organisms are related to each other. St. Augustine wrote that basically it is not possible to understand what was being described in Genesis. It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God. Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.
Again, Dr. Collins says here that the Genesis account of creation cannot be taken literally. I think this point is important for many Protestants and evangelicals to take note of, since it comes from a reputable Christian scientist. But if you can't take Genesis literally, what about the rest of the Bible? Can a person still read the Bible and form his/her own interpretations or do you need the church to tell you how to interpret the Bible? But isn't this why the Protestant movement came about in the first place, because they believe that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church obscured the teachings of the Bible?
DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That's God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small--at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case.
Another good point by Richard Dawkins. The reason Dr. Collins believes in Yahweh is mainly cultural. Had he been born into a Muslim family or a Buddhist family, he very likely will not be the Christian he is today.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scientists unveil Neanderthal DNA

Scientists in Germany have successfully extracted DNA of the Neanderthal man from a 38,000-year-old fossil found in Croatia. They expect to fully map the Neanderthal genome within the next two years.

This endeavour will help reveal many aspects of our own human genome as the Neanderthal DNA is at least 99.5% identical to that of homo sapiens (humans). Neanderthals are a separate species from humans, where we share a common ancestor about 500,000 years ago.

By comparison, chimpanzees, which are our closest living relative share 99.2% of our genes. By studying the remaining 0.8% sets of genes which are different, scientists will be able to identify specific genes that make us uniquely human.

Now, people who do not understand evolution, think that evolution says we, humans come from monkeys. That is inaccurate because evolution actually says that we and the great apes share a common ancestor. A long time ago, we had a common ancestor which split into two separate evolutionary paths. One path eventually led to the evolution of apes, while the other led to hominids like Neanderthals and humans. This split occurred about 5-7 million years ago.

One interesting thing is that humans and Neanderthals did coexist at one time. The Neanderthals had occupied Europe and West Asia. There is, however some debate about whether or not humans and Neanderthals had inter-bred. Subsequently, humans replaced all archaic hominids around the world and the Neanderthals went extinct.

But if you look around you today, you'll find that there still are Neanderthals roaming about, and sometimes banding together.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Holy Cross on Wall's Moo Ice Cream biscuit

The Malaysian Muslim Consumers Association (PPIM) have issued a complaint against Unilever (M) Holdings Sdn. Bhd. the maker of Wall's Ice Cream, concerning its Moo Ice-Cream biscuits. PPIM claims that there are symbols of the Holy cross on the biscuits and these are offensive to the general Muslim population in Malaysia. Unilever replied on their website that the design on the biscuit is a '+' sign to represent the goodness of calcium, since the ice cream is called Calcium Plus!
Sigh, more religious policing in this country, and another case of religious pareidolia. It's just ridiculous that in Malaysia, we have people going around inspecting every single consumer good out there, looking for offensive religious symbols. Not even a piece of biscuit can escape their scrutiny. Just think, why would a company like Unilever deliberately put Holy crosses on their products? What can they possibly achieve by putting Christian symbols on their products? Will it result in more sales? Will a Muslim or a Hindu suddenly want to convert to Christianity after consuming the biscuits? Will they become physically sick after consuming a biscuit with symbols that aren't compatible with their beliefs? Surely, simple, rational reasoning will tell you that the symbol on those biscuits have absolutely nothing to do with religion.

I mean, if you look hard enough, your mind will see religious symbols just about everywhere. Pareidolia is the perception of a pattern where none is intended. You'll find it on a piece of toast, a cinnamon bun, on a tree, on a rock, in smoke, etc. I got fed up after reading about it, so I hopped over to Lim Kit Siang's blog.

Guess what I found?

More religious symbols!

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Atheist Professor vs. Christian Student 2: The Sequel

Previously on Atheist professor vs. Christian student...


Student: So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, sur. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

Prof: I guess you'll have to take them on faith, son.

Student: That is it sir.. The link between man & God is FAITH. That is all that keeps things moving & alive.

Now, the class continues...

(As the student was about the sit down, while the Professor slumped in his chair, another student got up ...)

Meursault: Whoa... wait just a second. I have something to say.

Student: I've just finished bashing the Professor and it's nearly lunch time, what more you have to say?

Meursault: Earlier, you said that cold is the absence of heat.

Student: Yeah, so?

Meursault: But before that you said there is no such thing as cold. So are you saying there is no such thing as the absence of heat?

Student: Wha-?

Meursault: You also said darkness is the absence of light and you said you cannot make darkness darker. Buf if you permit less light to enter a room, aren't you increasing the absence of light? If you're increasing the absence of light, aren't you increasing darkness? Therefore, aren't you making darkness darker?

Student: Well...

Meursault: You see, cold or hot, bright or dark, are just conventions people use to describe a situation. It's like asking someone "How old are you?" instead of asking "How much of the absence of youth have you endured?"

(The classroom breaks into laughter)

Meursault: Your word play carries no meaning at all.

Student: Yeah? What about good and evil?

Meursault: Again, good and evil are just conventions. If immorality is the absence of morality, you can just as correctly say that morality is the absence of immorality. Does that mean there is no such thing as morality?

Student: It's ridiculous to say that there is no morality!

Meursault: Exactly! Similarly, if evil is the absence of good, then good can also be defined as the absence of evil. Does it mean that there is no such thing as good?

Student: No way!

Meursault: So, just because you've accepted one convention, doesn't mean the opposite convention is wrong.

Student: But look at what's happening around us! Murders, rape, and stealing all because of the absence of God's moral code.

Meursault: Morality doesn't come from God. Some religious people have committed murders in the name of God. Just look at the events of 9/11. Likewise, non-religious people have also committed murders, but it is wrong to assume that without God, all humans are immoral.

Student: And why not? We're all sinners aren't we?

Meursault: We, humans, have an innate moral sense. In fact, even animals, such as chimps display moral ethics, though not as sophisticated as what we humans are capable of. We are all social creatures and we have arrived at a moral consensus that is widely agreed upon and continuously evolving.

Student: It is evolving?

Meursault: Yes! The moral zeitgeist evolves. During Jesus' time, slavery was acceptable and women were accorded a lower status, but today, things are different. Similarly, racism is no longer acceptable in many parts of the world, today.

Student: Speaking of evolution, even the Professor has never observed it with his own eyes. Have you?

Meursault: I haven't, but we know now that evolution is observable. Various studies on bacteria and fruit fly have documented the slow, evolutionary change within a single species.

Student: But evolution is just a theory. It's not proven.

Meursault: Gravity is just a theory too. Relativity? Also a theory because no one can move at the speed of light. The atom? Just a theory, no one has ever seen it. Yet, based on insurmountable evidence, these theories are accepted with a high degree of certainty. Evolution too is supported by overwhelming evidence such as mutation, vestigial organs, embryology, fossil evidence, morphology and DNA evidence.

Student: How does this relate to God?

Meursault: Well, evolution does not prove that God doesn't exist, but it certainly redefines the role of a 'god' in this world. We now know that we don't need God to create new species, evolution by natural selection can take care of that. We also need to rethink our concept of Creation.

Student: Aren't there people who believe in evolution but also believe in God?

Meursault: Yes there are and I'm still learning about that. But you realise that this discussion is far from over?

Student: Yeah I suppose you're right. It is something to think about.

Meursault: Yup, that's why we're all here in university. We're here to learn! PROFESSOR!!!

(The Professor jumped out of his chair, surprised. He seemed to have dozed off during the later part of the discussion.)

Prof: Yes?

Meursault: I feel, we must question your ability to teach this class.

Prof (stuttering) : But... but... I... got my degree and doctorate from Universiti Malaya! It's the most prestigious university in Malaysia! It's even ranked in the top 100 universities in the world!

Meursault: Sorry Professor, but in 2006, University Malaya was ranked 192 in the THES World Rankings. The standard there has been gradually dropping for the past decade. And from the earlier discussion, you don't seem very knowledgeable and don't strike us as much of a thinker.

Prof (sounding dejected) : I... I.... oh alright. You caught me. I'm really not an atheist. I just like to bully people. I'm not even a real professor. I only passed my degree because I cheated on my exams. I downloaded my doctoral thesis and passed it up as my own. The university awarded me a PhD for inadequate work... who was I to refuse? The government is over-zealous in handing out advanced degrees to make up the numbers, so I just take-lah! I am sorrie.... I will resign and let someone else take over this class.

(And with that, everyone left for lunch...)



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Atheist Professor vs. Christian Student

I was organizing my mailbox and came across this forwarded email about an atheist professor vs. a christian student. This email has been going around for many years, I'm sure many have read it. I thought it'd be interesting to post it here:

An atheist professor of philosophy speaks to his class on the problem science has with God, The Almighty.

He asks one of his new Christian students to stand and.....

Professor: You are a Christian, aren't you, son?

Student : Yes, sir.

Prof: So you believe in God?

Student : Absolutely, sir.

Prof: Is God good?

Student : Sure.

Prof: Is God all-powerful?

Student : Yes.

Prof: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to God to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But God didn't. How is this God good then? Hmm?

(Student is silent.)

Prof: You can't answer, can you? Let's start again, young fella. Is God good?

Student :Yes.

Prof: Is Satan good?

Student : No.

Prof: Where does Satan come from?

Student : From...God...

Prof: That's right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?

Student : Yes.

Prof: Evil is everywhere, isn't it? And God did make everything. Correct?

Student : Yes.

Prof: So who created evil?

(Student does not answer.)

Prof: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don't they?

Student :Yes, sir.

Prof: So, who created them?

(Student has no answer.)

Prof: Science says you have 5 senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son...Have you ever seen God?

Student: No, sir.

Prof: Tell us if you have ever heard your God?

Student : No , sir.

Prof: Have you ever felt your God, tasted your God, smelt your God? Have you ever had any sensory perception of God for that matter?

Student : No, sir. I'm afraid I haven't.

Prof: Yet you still believe in Him?

Student : Yes.

Prof: According to empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your GOD doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son?

Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.

Prof: Yes. Faith. And that is the problem science has.

Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?

Prof: Yes.

Student : And is there such a thing as cold?

Prof: Yes.

Student : No sir. There isn't.

(The lecture theatre becomes very quiet with this turn of events.)

Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don't have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can't go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.

(There is pin-drop silence in the lecture theatre.)

Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?

Prof: Yes. What is night if there isn't darkness?

Student : You're wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light , bright light, flashing light....But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and it's called darkness, isn't it? In reality, darkness isn't. If it were you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn't you?

Prof: So what is the point you are making, young man?

Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.

Prof: Flawed? Can you explain how?

Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can't even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Professor, is there such a thing as immorality?"

Prof: Of course, there is...

Student : Again, I'm sorry sir, but you are wrong. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such a thing as injustice? No, injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?"

(The Christian student pauses. He speaks very slowly.)

Student : "ISN'T EVIL THE ABSENCE OF GOOD?" If there is evil in the world, Professor, and we all agree there is, then God, if He exists, must be accomplishing a work through the agency of evil. What is that work God is accomplishing? The Bible tells us that it is to see if each one of us will, of our own free will, choose good (the result of the love of God) over evil (the result of independence or the absence of the love of God). There is nothing greater than love. God is love and God is good. If He is good, then the innate act of His goodness would be to give man the opportunity to experience the greatest thing that exists - love. But love cannot be forced on someone or else it is not love. There must be a choice involved. God loved us enough to allow us to make the choice. Evil is the result of the choice of independence from God.

Prof : As a philosophical scientist, I don't view this matter as having anything to do with choice; as a realist, I absolutely do not recognize the concept of God or any other theological factor as being part of the world equation because God is not observable.

Student : I would have thought that the absence of God's moral code in this world is probably one of the most observable phenomena going. Tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from the same ancestor as a monkey?

Prof: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.

Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?

(The Professor shakes his h ead with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument is going.)

Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavour, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?

(The class is in uproar.)

Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor's brain?

(The class breaks out int o laughter.)

Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor's brain, felt it, touched or smelt it?.....No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

(The room is silent. The professor stares at the student, his face unfathomable.)

Prof: I guess you'll have to take them on faith, son.

Student : That is it sir.. The link between man & God is FAITH. That is all that keeps things moving & alive.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Alistair McGrath

Thanks to a few readers who pointed me to Alistair McGrath as the Christian answer to Richard Dawkins. I wonder if there is an Islam answer, a Buddhist answer or a Hindu answer out there?

Alistair McGrath is an Oxford professor, scientist and theologian, was an atheist but is now a Christian, as opposed to Dawkins, who's also an Oxford professor, also a scientist but was raised a Christian and is now an atheist. Isn't it funny that somewhere out there, there is always someone whose situation is opposite to yours? For example, if the discussion is between Christianity and Islam, the Christian can always point to someone who was a Muslim but converted to Christianity, while the other side can also point to someone who was a Christion but became a Muslim. Despite this diversity, the important thing is that we've all got to live together so it is important to hear and respect other people's views.

One of the points I remember, after listening to McGrath is that he highlighted the atrocities of the Soviet government towards religous people in the name of atheism. Similarly, in this region, we've heard of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where they exterminated many intellectuals as well as religious people because the regime abolished all religion. McGrath is correct in his observation that it is a tendency for people to sometimes lose the plot or turn mad, irrespective of the cause - either religious or not. We even see it in stock market bubbles, the Dutch tulip mania and etc as evidence of the madness of crowds. This, I think, is part of an even more interesting subject which is a study of crowds and social networks. For further reading, try James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and Duncan Watts' Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.

McGrath, of course, criticized Dawkins' bipolar stance on science and religion. He says that is not the case, as there are many in-betweens. But then he tells of a man in the audience at the end of one of his talks, who having heard McGrath, says that he no longer know what to believe. Clearly, that man's thinking is bipolar (if Dawkins is wrong, then McGrath must be right) yet McGrath never explained to him that this is not the case. Atheists do not agree 100% with Dawkins, and we don't need to. My stance for example, is probably 80% Dawkins and 40% McGrath. Their views are not mutually exclusive.

McGrath also claimed that he was interviewed for Dawkins' documentary, the Root of All Evil, but was edited out. I think this is just a dirty low blow. I mean, what is McGrath trying to imply here? During the canonization of the Bible, the church applied some measure for including some books and excluding others in the Bible. In either cases, they're just gathering and publishing supporting views. I think this statement is totally unnecessary.

There was a point about the resurgence of religion in the 90s especially in America, implying that this had something to do with God's will. Hence, the Christians there believe that God has a plan for America (such as defending Israel). Is that really the case? I think it is the separation of church and state in America (their first amendment) that has led to this resurgence, mainly in the red states. This is unlike Europe where there isn't a separation. This separation has really led American churches to be creative and to work harder to attract members. This has led to them introducing livelier music, for example, to attract youths. This article from Businessweek talks about churches borrowing tactics from the business world like conducting market surveys, offer free counseling, do niche marketing and packaging self-help programs to make sure members keep coming back. As a result, they end up with mega-churches.

So, in short, McGrath raised some good points, but that doesn't mean he has dismissed Dawkins' arguments altogether. It's unfortunate that Dawkins chose to stick his neck out by taking one end of the spectrum. He's bound to draw the most criticisms from the religious lot. Still, I encourage everyone to read both sides and form your own opinions about the subject. Don't just read other people's reviews and opinions, because I know how religious people are reluctant to criticise their own kind. But remember, it is important to hear and respect everyone's views.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

I read Letter to a Christian Nation last night. It isn't a very thick book, so I was able to finish it rather quickly. As the title suggests, this book is directed at the Christians in America, as a response to all the hostile letters he received from people who call themselves 'Christians', following his first book, "The End of Faith". Even so, I think his arguments are applicable to all religions in all nations. As you can imagine, the author doesn't try to be nice anymore in this book. He doesn't beat around the bush but gets straight to the point.

He begins by quoting Scripture and questioning the extremisms of the Old Testament as well as the capricious nature of the New Testament. Again, I feel this is futile, because Christians are not going to accept Bible interpretations from a non-Christian. I'm pretty sure some preacher out there would've already come up with a good spin for those pernicious quotes. But I do like Harris' definition of atheism:

"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs."

For the remainder of the book, Harris brought up some good points regarding the clash of science and religion. He argued on various issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, condom use in underdeveloped countries and sex education. He pointed out that the Christian stand on these issues, although biblical, will very likely bring about more harm than good in the long run.

Lastly, Harris mentioned that Scandinavian countries are among the least religious societies in the world but also the healthiest in terms of life expectancy, literacy, income per capita, educational attainment, gender equality, homocide rate and infant mortality. They are also the most charitable in terms of percentage of wealth devoted to social welfare programs and foreign aid. We in Malaysia, though, are still struggling to get there. It is going to be difficult because religion is so deeply ingrained in our national ideology - the Rukunegara. But, I believe, as societies become more and more advanced, and people get more and more educated, they will see less and less need for religion. This natural progression from paganism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism appears to be a logical evolution of human society.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I've just finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I think I've used Dawkins' name too much in the past few posts. He is like the Elvis of atheism.

I think it's a good book, a very interesting read, not mainly because I'm biased, but because it puts forth a thorough and solid case for why God most certainly does not exist. The book begins by defining the God he'll be talking about for the rest of the book, which is the supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient God of the major monotheistic religions. Dawkins then argues against the 'evidence' for the existence of God, followed by arguments for the non-existence of God. His arguments work for all supernatural gods, not just the one in the Bible. Next he talks about morality and how morality does not come from religion.

There is also a section on the Old and New Testaments which I think some Christians will find rather harsh. I thought this part isn't all that necessary, because people can always say that a professor of biology is not qualified to cross-examine biblical origins and theology. Dawkins then explains why he feels religion, even in moderation is dangerous.

The last bit is his personal views on religious education for children. This isn't something I've thought about before, since I'm not yet a parent, but I do agree with his view that children are simply too young to understand all the issues at hand. They would've accepted the religious view of their parents without having considered other religious and non-religious views out there. That is wrong in principle, even though parents only have the best of intentions for their children.

There are too many topics for discussion to fit everything in one post. I shall try, in future posts, to bring up some of these topics wherever suitable. Meanwhile, I'd recommend this book to everyone and hope to get everyone's opinions.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Testing the Efficacy of Prayer

This study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer was cited in The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins which I am currently reading. I thought it'd be a scientific answer to the question - "Why Pray?" - but the outcome suggests otherwise.

This is how they conducted it. 1802 cardiac bypass patients were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: One group received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; the second group did not receive intercessory prayer after also being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and the third group received intercessory prayer after being informed that they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days and the primary outcome was the presence of any complication within 30 days of bypass surgery. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.

The first two groups test for the effectiveness of intercessory prayers while the third group tests for the psychosomatic effects of knowing one is prayed for. The results for the first two groups are virtually indistinguishable while the third group, for some reason (performance anxiety?), showed higher incidences of complications.

Of course, many groups have ridiculed such a study, saying that we cannot test God. They'll say God works in mysterious ways. We can never test Him this way. Sorry, but this explanation is just unsatisfactory. Suppose that a group of religous people prayed for a sick friend and the friend miraculously got well. People will be too quick to attribute the healing to God answering their prayers. This is an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias, because the 'miraculous' healing could possibly have nothing to do with whether or not the person was being prayed for by friends, as the study above indicates. Out of sheer probability, the person would've been healed regardless of the prayers. That possibility has never been considered, but the group immediately says that it is due to God. In essence, they've all been fooled by randomness.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Evangelical Gay Sex Scandal

There was a really good BBC documentary by Prof. Richard Dawkins on the subject of religion, called "Root of All Evil". More on Richard Dawkins and his work in the future, but one part of the program featured an evangelical church over in Colorado Springs, USA. Senior Pastor Ted Haggard is the pastor of the 14,000-strong New Life Church. He is also the president of the National Association of Evangelicals which is very influential in the US. In the program, Richard Dawkins interviewed Ted Haggard regarding blind faith over reason and the talk soon detracted to the subject of evolution where Haggard made some incorrect points about evolution. When rebuked by Richard Dawkins, Ted Haggard became agitated and said something about scientists being arrogant because they think they're intellectually superior. Later after the filming, Ted Haggard became aggressive and chased Dawkins and his crew out of the church compound.

Well, the same Ted Haggard is all over the news today because of a gay sex scandal. A male escort in Denver claimed that Haggard has been paying him for sex for three years. Although denying it at first, Haggard is now claiming that he did get a massage but not gay sex. He also admitted to buying meth but didn't use them. That's like saying he hired a hooker, but didn't sleep with her or like buying a copy of Playboy but only for the articles. You just know that it's rubbish. I kinda felt, after watching the program that something's not quite right with this guy. Turns out he might be the worst hypocrite of all. Of course he is still innocent till proven otherwise, but this is a major blow to the evangelical movement.

Religious movements have often been rocked by such scandals. Remember Roman Catholic priests? Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart? In Malaysia too, we've often heard about Buddhist monks raping devotees and Muslim clerics sexually abusing young children. There is a pattern of similarity here. For me, this just shows that no one religion is true, hence no one God is the true god. Whichever religion you look at, there are those bad apples, as there are those pious ones and all of them think they are worshipping the true God. Whichever holy book you read, you are subject to the same 'temptations' as all humans are. Some are able to overcome the temptations while others fall. No one religion is greater than another. They're all man-made and they're all the same.

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