Monday, October 28, 2013

Malaysia’s Muslim Monopoly on the Monotheistic Master

There is nothing that is at once both sinister and hilarious as a nation enacting regulations based on religious dictates.  These efforts are hilarious because they sound, to a foreigner’s ear, as the most ridiculous laws that humans invented. Governments informed by faith ban stuff that is innocuous (to wit the Saudi ban on women driving!). They then mandate stuff that is moronic.  And they divide communities on the basis of irrational beliefs.  But more than stupid, these rulings are sinister for these directives, be they blasphemy or moral impositions, can entrench bigotry and lead to savagery.  
Beacons of tolerance capture control of a word in the fight against freedom.
Today we look at a Muslim ruling but we might have looked at the cruel jailing of the Pussy Riot Church concert in the name Christianity or the pathetic Jewish regulations on restricting women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. All faiths have these disastrous lapses although at present, Islam seems over represented in the enactment of brainless and malicious laws.
A week ago, a court ruled that only Muslims can use the word "Allah" to refer to God.  The absurdity of this is that “Allah” is a combination of two Arabic words meaning “The God” where “al” Is the definite article and “Lah” is a slight abbreviation of the word for deity.  Thus Allah is the God and in a monotheistic sense, the sole god (lower case “g”).  It is not only deployed by Muslims.  It is the word used by Arabic and Maltese Christians, some Sephardi Jews and other faiths with an Arabic communion such as the Baha’i.    
In one sense I get the Judge.  Outside the Middle East, the word Allah does have Islamic overtones.  But those overtones are not actually correct.  And anyway, who cares?  The word is not monopolised in monotheism by Islam and even if it were solely used in Islam, why the problem with others talking the Allah talk?
Malaysia is a society with three ethnicities, Chinese, Indian and Malay (Bumiputra), who are treated differently by their government.  The Bumiputra have racial preference through affirmative action by way of various employment and other advantages.  This discrimination is underpinned by the faith differences.  The Bumiputra are overwhelmingly Muslim; the 8% Indians are Tamil Hindus and the 25% Chinese are Buddhist with a Christian sub-minority.  This ruling is aimed at the Chinese Christians and therefore appears to be part of the Malaysian ethnic issues rather than a pan Islamic one.
So outside Malaysia, if is fortunate that a number of Muslim scholars are condemning the decision.  For example, in Pakistan, the ruling has been called insular by the Dawn newspaper.  Islamic theologians and some Malaysian politicians also regard the decision with dismay.
Nonetheless, this does shed some light on how the provincial Muslims in an otherwise modern country view faith and ethnicity.  Clearly, litigants and the judge in this case (on appeal to a State court) felt that this matter was of such gravity that dramatic action was needed.  More objective observers in KL seem to be ashamed by the decision. However, it is clearly an attack on the Christian minority’s religious freedom and therefore is disgusting.  In more violent countries, such rulings inevitably signal the legitimate hounding of Christians and other apostates by the followers of Islam.  It is incumbent on all atheists to condemn this in the name of Christian freedom and I do so.
In Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, this ruling would be just another signal for a religious pogrom.  This ugly decision is bigotry writ large and is a great advertisement for atheism.
What is your view?
Is this ruling an isolated provincial mistake or evidence that supports the view that Islam generally is intolerant?
Is this just an anomaly or conclusive evidence that atheism is wonderful?
What is it about the combination of faith and ethnicity that leads both to brilliant cultural diversity and murderous violence?  Will ethnicity and faith ever be separated?
Over to you guys...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Soul searching PART 2

The search for the soul has found succour with Near Death Experience (NDE) crew.  I thought that I would this time look at a piece of research that was on the souls of rats that was summarised in this article from The Economist  The NDE is a widely documented phenomenon reported by those who are dying, but cheat the coffin and return to life.  In their joy and gratitude at survival TWO claims of some (almost) post mortal perceptions are made.  These two perceptions enjoy remarkable consistency around the world despite different circumstances, dispersed locations, varied causes of extremis and diverse cultures/beliefs of the nearly dead.  This constancy of image does lend credit to the argument that the soul is emerging from the corpse.  The two NDE perceptions are illusions of either walking towards a bright light or floating above the room the nearly dead are nearly dying in and observing what goes on.  So there are two distinct figments but each has a global fan base.  
"The soul finds it's way home"by Alex Grey
 These two NDE images are used to justify the existence of the disembodied soul or one that departs the body upon death and then resumes a fairly human type existence outside the host body.  The last blog looked at a refutation of this form of soul. How could this disembodied soul see the light or the perspective as it floats above the room when it does not possess eyes to see the visions?  But these sorts of arguments are never really addressed by believers.  It is just assumed that the disembodied soul has the characteristics and advantages of residing in a live body with all of the miraculous cognitive and perceptual things a brain and body can do without the pains and aches that ordinarily accompany physical embodiment. 
The godless, sceptics and doubters see these visions in a very different light. We are medical materialists who see the NDE as merely the last, convulsive neurological symptoms of a traumatised or oxygen starved body and brain. The fact that people have visions often leads to a religious moment.  There was the famous psychological experiment colloquially known as the “Miracle of Marsh Chapel” when seminary students on LSD reported religious encounters.  The hallucinations were mistaken for the divinity. Similarly, the figments of the NDE cause similar claims of the numinous or divine and seem similarly bogus. 
And so we come to the experiment on the souls of rats by University of Michigan’s Jimo Borjigin.  Sadly, in the cause of godlessness, the researchers killed the rats and measured their brains as they died.  The small sample involved showed some neurological activity as death approached.  This sounds analogous to the sort of brain activity that might drive the NDE.  The brain reacts to the demise with a burst of activity and that activity creates illusions of floating or light.
Now of course, rats and humans are different.  It was a small sample.  But this is the first of many similar experiments I hope will come that explores the neurological activity of a dying animal, whether human or not, and this will shed light on the veracity or otherwise of the existence of the soul.  I expect that the materialists will triumph over the spiritualists as the science progresses.
What is your view?
Can the soul, when it departs the body, see or perceive and if so, how?
Where would such souls end up – transmigrating to other bodies or in an invisible heaven?
What do you think of the medical type explanations of a traumatised brain shooting out images with no evidence of a soul at all?
Over to you guys...

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Soul searching

The soul is that intangible essence of us that believers hope will survive death.  I wish I could say that the soul existed.  Sadly, I cannot. This is the first of two parts on the soul.
In this post, I look at the definition of the soul. Next time, I examine some of the science.
If one disentangles the arguments about eternal life one discovers there are two contradictory definitions of life after death in the Western tradition.  In one view the soul and the body are separated and in the other theory, they are kept together.  But these two mutually exclusive traditions are often melded together in a confusing mish mash.  How is it that two contradictory notions of life after death can exist?  Either the soul and the body are separated or are not?  Why is there no public debate about the clash of definitions?  I expect it is because either most people in their heart of hearts, notwithstanding their stated belief, don’t actually believe.  So they don’t want to interrogate the two forms of life after death.
The first form is the disembodied soul.  In this Hellenistic tradition, the soul is separated from the body and some existence is then supposed to eventuate presumably in Heaven.   
But what form of existence would there be for the disembodied soul?  Without eyes, ears, brain and mouth, the soul would be incapable of thought, sight, sound and the ability to communicate.  Souls would have an awful isolated existence of sensory deprivation.  Indeed, if they were the souls of miscreants, these souls would feel nothing of the searing punitive fires of Hell. 
The life of a disembodied soul would be one of sensory deprivation and endless tedium.  Such a disembodied existence, were it possible, would be awful, miserable anti human existence.  And needless to say, the nature of the soul clashes with available scientific evidence.  The soul, however defined, is part of the brain and so with death, comes the death of the brain and so the soul must die with the body and cannot live a distinct and disembodied state.
Michelangelo's version of the soul - the second form of a soul embedded in a resurrected body.

The second notion of life after death is restoration of the dead cadavers at some time such as the Coming of God.  This is known as resurrection.  In this form of eternity, the soul and the body remain together and both physically revive and are restored.  This notion is scientifically absurd given the poor status of the bodies after but a short time in the grave or the crematorium.  And what would happen should the atoms from one corpse be consumed and form part of a living person?  Who gets those atoms? If I shared the atoms that formed part of some historic personage, who would get those atoms on the day of resurrection and whose limbs would be mere stumps?  And I feel that most of us don’t really truly believe in resurrection.  If we did, mummification or embalming and vacuum packing would be widespread rather than cremation and rotting in the earth.  Ancient Egyptians planned for a resurrected afterlife by mummification because of the tenacity of their belief.  Modern humans have the capacity it would seem to say they believe and yet actions of cremation and burial indicate otherwise.
And the difficulty of all forms of afterlife is demonstrated in Eric Clapton’s plaintive cry to his dead baby child, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?”  He wrote this elegy after his young son fell to his death.  He is asking about the nature of the post mortal world.  What age would his son be?  Would he be a young boy child unable to recall his father?  Would the dead be ancient like Clapton will be when he dies?  Will we be an infant like his son – incapable of memory?  Will we be like many of us will be at death – with Alzheimer’s – also incapable of memory?  Clapton seems to be suggesting that there is no meaningful afterlife and the song appears to be a part of his healing as he comes to realise this.

The idea of the soul is alluring and uplifting.  The notion is found in both Western and Eastern traditions.  It gives us hope in the face of relentless, inexorable pursuit of death.  One would have to be a complete shit head to repudiate it.  I am sorry to be one of those that do.  What will I do next?  Proclaim that brain devouring zombies don’t exist?  I think that I am on safer, less contentious grounds with that one.

What do you think?

Are you a believer in the afterlife? 
Which of the two forms do you believe in – soul alone or soul and body combined?  How do you contend with the logic and evidence of the afterlife?

So now it is over to you guys.