Thursday, March 1, 2012

Overconfidence backfires

"Words fly away, writings remain."

Certainly we have all heard of this saying in one form or another. I take for granted that, even if we had yet to put them in writing, we would already know the truth behind these words; we could intuitively value their meaning. Words are often spoken just as easily as they are forgotten. From the most memorable speeches of recent history, at best we can remember a few important sentences; and yet manuscripts effectively serve as testimony to what and how people thought thousands of years ago. On a much smaller time scale, this concept can also take on personal significance. Perhaps have you even had the misfortune of experiencing for yourself how, although they meant no ill, written words can create backlash, making you wish you'd never published them.

Despite the occasional good bits, the Bible and Qur'an stand as perfect examples of this. Stories like the one in which God stops the Sun for Joshua's army, implying that the Earth somehow stopped rotating and that God had to keep the entire atmosphere from being sucked out into space, are implausible. Even though an all-powerful God could hypothetically do such a thing, the original writers clearly did not mean to say that. To them, the sun had stopped rotating around. Can we claim it was intentionally symbolic when it took centuries to determine it could not be literal? To a lot of Muslims, the Earth is still flat; we are surrounded by invisible fire-based folks called "Jinn" and we use tents in heaven. You read that right, you just don't mess with Muhammad.

If these issues were limited to a few mind-boggling miracle claims, it would not be that bad; but many of theses religious texts have generated actual wars. They still are today, wasting people's lives away. It seems almost too convenient to take the easy approach of blaming it all on people's misinterpretation of what the original writers really meant. Let's face it: If these words were divinely inspired, wouldn't an omnipotent creator be able to make the wording perfectly unambiguous? You would expect an all-knowing being to be much better at this than that, I dare say. Also, what if it were you who wrote something and later found a bunch of people slaughtering each other over its interpretations? How would you rationalize it? Would you not be disappointed at your writing skills?

When the ten commandments are quoted by atheists who wonder why more people are not killing themselves, Christians who work on Sunday unavoidably bring up the argument that this is just the old testament. It is God's unchangeable word; just kind of an outdated version, back when God was somehow only interested in one particular tribe of people in the Middle Eastern desert. Screw the Chinese who were far more advanced at the time. Sharing his message with this entire world he created was out of the question; a genocidal desert tribe would do a fine job. So, although God could see the future, he screwed up with Adam and Eve and even screwed up with spreading his message evenly. How potently organized is this YHWH? How is anyone taking this stuff seriously?

Gazing at these Burka-wearing women reminds me of an Aristotle quote that states how it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. If you were conditioned to think that questioning faith is punishable by torments and fire, upholding a healthful level of skepticism might be difficult at times. Organized religions can contribute to create and maintain strong bonds and tight communities; but this seems to cost many intelligent adults their ability to question the status quo. Compelling toddlers to be outspoken about a set of beliefs that they cannot possibly understand or grasp can greatly affect their ability to think about it later on, and though organized religions are not alone doing it, they excel at it. They came up with this idea.

We are constantly being fed the belief that, although being able to change our mind about things is itself admirable, too much fluctuation in opinions is not. It can make us appear inconsistent, which, ostensibly, is the sign of a weak mind. There is just one small problem with that line of thought. What is the use of being consistent if we happen to be wrong? Is it not the infinite freedom we have to change ideas that makes life so enthralling? The more open-minded we become, the more likely it is that, over time, we will come to develop better ways to do things and learn to determine when it is most beneficial to alternate between each. Despite typical misconceptions about intellectual integrity, it remains clear as day that uncertainty is an inescapable byproduct of sound skepticism.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are
 always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

 - Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872 –  February 2, 1970) -