Monday, January 31, 2011

Existence of God

In January 2009, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully guided a U.S. Air passenger plane to a safe landing in the Hudson River after bird strikes crippled its engines.  His skill saved the lives of the 150 passengers and crew.  This was the first time a major airline crash landed in a river with no fatalities.  

A nationally published editorial cartoon that commemorated the miraculous effort showed hands from heaven safely guiding the plane into a river.  Presumably, God was involved in rescuing participants in the crash.  The caption read: “Any questions?”

Just one.  Where were those hands when, one month later, a Continental Airlines flight crashed in Buffalo, killing 50 people.  While Capt. Sullenberger’s actions were heroic, it’s absurd to assume divine involvement.  Otherwise, we’d be forced to believe God chose to act in one situation and declined in another.  If that’s true, now the questions really start: was there someone or something special about U.S. Air flight 1549 that warranted divine intervention?  Was someone aboard God was protecting?  Are fliers leaving a downstate New York airport more valuable than ones that use an upstate facility? And so on.

Such questions point out the futility of understanding why anything happens.  After all, these were two of more than 5,300 documented plane crashes internationally in 2009. How many times did hands from heaven reached down and save passengers and crews?  


We can say that God works in mysterious ways.  In truth, however, Capt. Sullenberger had the experience and opportunity to save his passengers.  That’s all.  In the thousands of crashes, odds are that one such situation would occur.

The issue, however, extends far beyond a single plane crash.  The real question is: how much is God involved with human life at all?

If we answer yes, then we should see evidence.  

At a 2009 debate on the existence of God I participated in, one of the speakers insisted the proof of God lies all around us.  For example, he pointed out that the Earth lies in the exact zone at a distance from the Sun that allows life to flourish.  That the Moon is of the right size to support the existence of life.  Even in small ways, he said, God’s hand is evident.  For example, a giraffe is designed in a special way to give birth without killing its offspring because of the heights involved. 

Of course, he was quite correct that such situations exist – and many more.

He’s simply wrong about the order.  We are here because of our location and the Moon.  We would not be here otherwise.  That’s why scientists are now locating other planets with proper temperature ranges and expect to find life.  There will be life wherever the conditions warrant.  That’s abundantly true on Earth where strange creatures thrive in hostile conditions humans could not tolerate, such as recently discovered bacteria that reportedly requires deadly arsenic to endure.  

The same is true for the giraffe.  Giraffes, like all creatures, evolved.  Smaller versions have died out.  If larger ones had not evolved a mechanism for giving birth properly, they would have become extinct, too.

That evidence is all around us.  Right now, humans are evolving larger heads.  This, in turn, is creating problems for women because their birth canals are too small to accommodate bigger-headed babies.  That’s one reason Caesarian sections are more commonplace.  In time, they may become a necessity.  However, at least one female will be born with a larger birth canal that can accommodate the bigger-headed babies.  In time, her descendants will predominate. 

Then, someone can say God created women with big birth canals.  

Natural processes are continually making changes.  Sometimes, there are mutations – changes caused by damage to chromosomes or for other physical reasons.  Some of the mutations are benign.  A baby born with six fully functioning fingers will be the same as a baby with the usual five, for example, but with an extra digit.  
Nevertheless, some mutations are inherently life-threatening: children born with no mouth or other major deformity.  In nature, these children die; their genes die with them.   Humans, however, treasure life.  We help these children to survive through surgery or other means.  That’s why hemophiliacs endure.  An estimated 400 babies a year are born with the condition in the U.S. alone.  In the wild, there are no hemophiliacs.

Some changes are caused through evolution.  Evidence of that is everywhere, too.  Whales still have legs under their skin, proof their ancestors lived on land.  Snakes have hidden legs, too, reflecting a time millions of years ago when they walked.  Our DNA contains coding for tails, fur and other ancient aspects.  Sometimes, those genes are accidentally expressed, and babies are born covered with fur or a tail.  

In the womb, human babies progress from reptile to amphibian to human as if replaying the evolutionary process.  

This is a natural progression.  No divine involvement is required.

In fact, whether or not there is a God is actually immaterial.  Normal natural forces will maintain evolutionary processes.  Life will continue, constantly changing.  Those that survive will be those best adapted to the conditions, what Darwin labeled “natural selection.”  The rest will die out.

It’s all random, which is true for all living creatures and for airplane crashes.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols, was published in December 2010 and is available via or on his website

Friday, January 28, 2011

Belief in God 1

As related in the book of Acts in the New Testament, opponents of Christianity spoke out against the new religion some 2,000 years ago during a meeting of the Jewish assembly, the Sanhedrin.  They were silenced by Gamaliel, who is not identified in the Bible, but who actually was the foremost Jewish religious leader of his day and son (or possibly grandson) of the greatest of all Jewish sages, Hillel.  

Gamaliel stopped the arguments by insisting that if Christianity was from God, then there was nothing that anyone could do about it.  If not, he said, it would fail of its own accord.

That simple statement has been trumpeted by Christians ever since as proof of divine support.  After all, Christianity survived some traumatic birth pangs and thrives today.  Moreover, they believe that Gamaliel must be accurate because the New Testament is believed to faithfully report the word of God.  However, that statement has a flip side: it actually undermines all faith and even the idea of a deity.

That’s because Gamaliel’s thesis cannot be limited to Christianity.  Using the sage’s logic, all religions still surviving must be from God.  There’s a long list of prominent faiths: Hinduism (about 3400 years old); Judaism (about 2600 years); Buddhism (about 2500 years); Zoroastrianism (about 2500 years); Islam (about 1600 years); and so on.  And that’s not even considering Indian and African beliefs dating back to prehistoric times.  Taking Gamaliel at his word – and there’s some debate whether he actually made such a comment – all of these religions must have God’s stamp of approval.

However, none of them agree completely on even fundamental details.  Buddhism, for example, has no deity.  Hinduism contains thousands.  In Judaism and Islam, God is indivisible.  In Christianity, the father is joined by a son and a holy ghost.   To make matters worse, Christians believe only they are going to heaven via Jesus.  If so, then they must also simultaneously be packing for a trip to Islamic or Zoroastrian hell.  In fact, afterlife must be a logistical nightmare with the dearly departed obligated to be punished for their lack of belief  in a counter religion endorsed by God.

Either God has a strange sense of humor, happily pitting one belief against another without concern of the consequences, or there isn’t any divine figure involved.  There really are no other choices.  No single religion can be correct since the rest should have fallen, supposedly demolished by God’s disapproval.
This topic arose in a discussion with one of my Islamic students, who was questioning his faith after being confronted with the welter of beliefs in this society.  He was born in Saudi Arabia, a country where the Muslim belief pervades society.  He could not imagine that other religions had any validity and was stunned by the diversity in this country.

Because of my books on religious history, he approached me.

I started by asking him what God did.  He said that God created the world.  However, science has proved that effort was not necessary.  Computer models have demonstrated with little fanfare how nothing became a universe.  No divine intervention was necessary.

My student then said God judges mankind.  That presumes the existence of humans.  What did God do before there were humans?  Fossil records make it clear the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, but the mammals don’t even enter the picture until around 220 million years ago.  The first human-like creatures probably date to 8 million years ago.  Does that mean God simply waited for billions of years for someone to judge?

Besides, who was he judging?  DNA testing proved that all males are related to a human who lived 150,000 years ago.  All females are descended from a woman who lived 250,000 years ago.  Adam and Eve never met.  Evolution is continuous anyway.  There never was a first human.   As a result, if God judges humans, when did he start the process?  With Australopithecus, the first known hominids?  How about Cro-Magnon, Homo Habilis or Neanderthal?  Will we run into all of them in hereafter, too? (Heaven forbid)  We should  –  God had to wait a long time to judge humans.  Why would he sit on his hands until Homo Sapiens Sapiens (us) showed up only 200,000 or so years ago?

And what will he do when humans become extinct?  About 99 percent of all species on Earth have become extinct.  There’s no reason to think we will escape that fate.  Given global warming, pollution and natural disasters, such as meteor collisions like the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs, we have no reason to believe our time on this planet will last forever.  In fact, futurists give our species less than 1 million years to live.  Discovery Channel program that predicted the future based on scientific principles proposed that  the last hominids would be a monkey-like creature with a long tail.  Humans, the scientists claimed, would have departed for another planet because the Earth would have become inhospitable.

Besides, at some time the Earth will run out of internal heat and die, killing all life.  The Sun eventually will run out of hydrogen to burn and explode, incinerating all planets,.  And, eventually, the universe will run out of energy, too. Extinction is inevitable without God’s involvement.

My bewildered student had no more questions.  He started wandering around in circles, having never considered all of these conditions.   In many ways, he has a lot of company.  Anyone who believes in a God who creates, dictates and officiates human activity should also be pretty dazed. Gamaliel would have been, too, if he had realized the implications of what he said.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols, was published in December 2010 and is available via or on his website

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Blasphemy Day

Happy September 30

Here’s a day to highlight on your calendar: September 30.  It does have some distinctions.  For example, Babe Ruth played his last game as a Yankee on that day.  Not into sports?  Okay, it’s also Botswana Independence Day.  The first criminal was executed in the American colonies that day.  The Gutenberg Bible was first published that day in the 1400s; so was Little Women, more than 400 years later.  The Flintstones, those lovable Bedrock residents, debuted that day in 1960; so did Cheers in a later year. 
The newest entry to that distinguished list of September 30 milestones is Blasphemy Day, which, the website promoting it says, is dedicated to opening up “all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected."

September 30 was chosen because that was the day in 2006 when a Danish newspaper published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban.  Many members of the Islamic faith went ballistic over the image, insisting that Christians would be just as upset if Jesus were deprecated in a similar manner.
I agree to a point.  Some Christians would be furious.  Others would yawn. They might protest, but I don’t believe the newspaper office would be perforated with bullets.  Most would just sigh and forget about it.

That’s the typical reaction when God is satirized. For example, Far Side cartoonist Gary Larsen caused no stir, not even after publishing a drawing that was titled “Oops” and depicted humans escaping from a bottle in some kind of heavenly laboratory.  It certainly implied that God made a mistake.  How much more blasphemous does anyone want?  He also showed God creating snakes saying, “Boy, these things are a cinch,” scoring all the points in a Trivia game and producing a half-baked Earth from an oven.

Mostly, people laughed.

Then there was a 1990s storyline by Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed, who hysterically eviscerated television evangelists. I didn’t hear about Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker or Pat Robertson looking for a weapon to get even though they were ridiculed as the gang of four, and people were encouraged to contribute money to fund a race among the four; the winner would be recalled to heaven first. 

In fact, Islam is the only religion these days that believers insist must be defended with live ammunition.  Remember when Salman Rushdie published a 1988 novel about verses that the Prophet Mohammad supposedly excised from the Islamic sacred book?  Rushdie was condemned to death, one of several people who have been targeted because of their supposedly blasphemous attacks on Islam.

Frankly, I think everyone needs to lighten up.  Every religion has been targeted by writers over the ages.  But, so have kings, government officials, education, health services and almost other topic anyone would care to think about.  The “Hebe” was a traditional Jewish character on Broadway; black-faced comedians and singers parodied African-Americans.  Gays have certainly seen plenty of such abuse.  Archie Bunker even made fun of bigots.  To my knowledge, no bigots have threatened violence in response.

Without a doubt, some of these efforts were in questionable taste, including so-called passion plays that annually defame Jews and foment anti-Semitism.  I remember a Saturday Night Live skit featuring a Claudine Longet shooting gallery after the actress admitted killing (a jury said it was an accident and didn’t convict her) her long-time boyfriend.  That wasn’t nice, but it was very funny. She didn’t buy a gun and threaten SNL.  Besides, if a hit squad was sent every time someone poked fun at some institution, religious or otherwise, the cemeteries would quickly overflow.

In reality, other religions often seem very funny to nonbelievers.  How can anyone believe in the sanctity of life so much that he wears cloth over his mouth to avoid inhaling an insect? How about ancestral worship?   Making offerings to my late grandmother sounds pretty ridiculous and worthy of some satiric comment.
Just because someone believes, doesn’t make the belief true or should shield it from humorous observations.  A whole bunch of comedians would be silenced if it did.

Ridiculing another’s beliefs is not only protected by free speech, it’s human nature.  Go back at look at ancient Greek plays, where religion was often targeted.  Satirical writing aimed at Christians was commonplace during the early years of the Common Era.  Biblical authors took swipes at other people as well.

I can understand why someone might be offended.  I can understand why someone might prefer not to see or hear unruly commentary directed again faith.  Fine.  Ignore Blasphemy Day or anything else that disturbs sensibilities.  Celebrate September 30 for some other reason.  There are plenty.  

Or, as the Bible suggests, turn the other cheek – and chuckle.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Belief amid questions

I started a series on this topic and have had it published.  But, I want to share it with my readers.

I’ve been having a discussion via e-mail with my younger brother about belief.  It grew out of a book I’m working on for a client who believes the biblical Exodus from Egypt is accurate.  My brother, who is not overwhelmingly religious, said that he accepts the story of the Jewish escape from Egypt under Moses regardless of archaeological evidence. 

“I believe,” he wrote.  “Isn’t that something?”

Good question, but it can also be taken two ways: isn’t it something that he would believe such a thing or isn’t his belief worth something.

Later, he told me he was making a light comment, but I think the whole question of belief is worth pursuing.

With belief, we can accept anything: my uncle can be reborn as a cow; a god died for my sins; heaven awaits believers; etc.  However, that belief is the result of happenstance: what did the family I was born into believe?  If our parents were Catholic, we would have been taught something totally different.  And, we would have believed it.  I'm not in favor of chance.  I would like to know what I believe actually has some validity.  That's why the Da Vinci Code was so devastating to Christianity: millions worldwide believed the book was valid because the stories about Jesus have been shown to have little historical base.  Christians quickly accepted a novel as being real. 

A recent book explaining why such tales gain credence – the text was focused on conspiracies that people take as gospel – pointed that that whatever is claimed must be believable while the actual truth seems to have some gaps.  The idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their lineage affected world history seemed plausible in contrast with Christian beliefs.  It didn’t matter that the Priory of Sion, a supposed secret religious group protecting Jesus’ distant relatives, was invented in the 1960s or that the existence of any children fathered by Jesus would immediately destroy the claim of his divinity, which remains the whole point of the religion.

I find validity by studying and reading about archaeology and history.  What I believe requires that kind of underpinning.  As such, I can discard what does not fit into known historical evidence.  Take the cow and my uncle.  That's belief.  No amount of history will show that people are living multiple lives or come back as cows, mosquitoes or other humans. 

That's not true with the Exodus.  It had to have taken place in a particular time and place.
The Bible is our only source for this important event since no Egyptian records mention it.  The holy text provides some details that can be examined and verified.  Unfortunately, all the known facts simply do not match up with history.  No known pharaoh ever drowned.  Slaves did not build Egyptian cities.  No evidence of anyone living in the Sinai around 2,500 years has ever been found, even though evidence of prehistoric man has.  No mountain fits the description of Mt. Sinai.  Jews never went back to Mt. Sinai, the only known people who did not have regular pilgrimages to the site of an epiphany with their god.  Canaan was never invaded by Jews.  Cities supposedly destroyed were sometimes burned down in different eras; were already in ruins; were never destroyed; or did not exist then.  Cultural artifacts in Israel show no change over more than 1,000 years, conclusively indicating no influx of new people.

The latest theory on the origin of Judaism is that an impoverished portion of Canaanite society rebelled under the banner of a different god and succeeded in achieving some freedom.  Scorched wealthier sections of some cities support that theory.

As such, I cannot "believe" in something that did not nor could have taken place, any more than I can "believe: in Noah's ark, Saul talking with the ghost of Samuel or any other lovely biblical story.  Besides, I do not know how to pick and choose between one thing I'm supposed to believe in and something I can't.  If I can believe in the Exodus, where do I stop?  Why not believe in Jesus, Mohammad, Joseph Smith etc.?  If I draw a line, then I'm being capricious -- accepting one thing for no reason while rejecting another without any better reason.

I can’t use the Bible as bedrock.  After all, the Jewish section differs from the Christian portion.  In The “Old” Testament, for example, God condemns human sacrifice and demonstrates that by stopping Abraham from ritually killing his son.  Yet, in the “New” Testament, he blithely sacrifices his own son.  That’s one of a legion of discrepancies.

That leaves only facts and one question for my brother or anyone coping with the unfathomable idea of belief:   If I cannot base my belief on known facts, what could I possibly base my belief on?

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  You can write him via his website