Sunday, June 28, 2009

Miracles Made Me Agnostic

According to the bible, Jesus performed many miracles during his ministry. He is said to have walked on water, healed lepers, restored the sight of the blind, calmed a storm, expelled demons, and most miraculous of all, brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead.

Some of these miracles were performed using nothing but hand gestures, such as when he calmed the storm; others required the use of props, such as when he restored the sight of a blind man by spitting on dirt and then rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes. And it isn’t quite clear why Jesus didn’t just heal his friend Lazarus before he died. He knew Lazarus was sick and he mourned his death. He even wept. Was it all just theatrics to prove to his followers he could do it?

The Old Testament has its share of miraculous stories, too. With no miracles in play, how could Jonah have survived for three days in the belly of a fish? How could Noah have built a boat big enough for a pair of every animal on Earth and how could he have then rounded up all these animals, especially the ones living in Antarctica and in the Arctic?

As a child, I didn’t have much trouble believing these bible stories. But then as I matured, reality set in. I knew that not every story in the bible was literally true. How could it be? But I figured that Jesus’ miracles must be true. They were related in the New Testament and more directly concerned my eternal soul.

But it seemed to me that the demon stories probably were about epileptics. And the stories about his walking on water and calming storms were probably the result of writer embellishments. Still, I thought I had to believe them in order to be a good Christian, so I told myself they must be true.

Then, one bright Sunday morning the pastor of my church, in his sermon, cleared it all up for me, at least momentarily. He said it was not really necessary to believe all the bible stories in order to be saved. He said it was ok not to believe the story of Creation in Genesis or the stories about Jonah and Noah. He even said it wasn’t necessary to believe any of the Jesus miracles except one: The Resurrection. He said that Jesus died for our sins and that we needed to believe he was resurrected and ascended into Heaven. Publicly accepting that Jesus is the Savior, plus being baptized, is all it takes to assure oneself of everlasting life with God. Believing all that other stuff is optional.

So there it was, my way out of my dilemma. I didn’t really have to believe that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead or that he drove the demons out of the possessed. The stories of the bible that had me confused and doubtful no longer had to worry me. I just wouldn’t believe them. According to my pastor, I didn’t have to.

But then it hit me. And it didn’t take long. If a belief in Jesus’ miracles is optional, except for the biggie, the dying on the cross with subsequent resurrection, then why was that particular miracle necessary? Yes, I know it is the centerpiece of His legacy of our salvation. But if that miracle is true, then why stop there? Why shouldn’t all the others also be true? I mean, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound, right?

If I am going to believe in one miracle, then I must believe that miracles are possible. And if they are possible, then why not believe in all the lesser miracles related in the bible? So I was back to square one. If I had to believe in the Resurrection to have my soul saved, then I sort of had to believe in all the miraculous stories in the bible, including the Creation, Noah and his ark, Jonah inside the fish, ad infinitum.

But then I recognized the corollary to that scenario. If believing in the Resurrection sort of forced a belief in all the other biblical miracles then not believing in one or two miracles that I knew were impossible meant that I didn’t have to believe in any of them, including the Resurrection.

That led to years of confusion, because I really wanted to believe in the Resurrection. I wanted to have an eternal soul that would reside with God. But I also knew that the Creation story was a myth, and so were all the other Old Testament stories. I mean, most of them have been scientifically disproved beyond reasonable doubt. And even most biblical scholars believe that some of Jesus’ minor miracles, such as driving out demons, probably didn’t really take place.

So how was I supposed to reconcile my disbelief of most of the biblical miracles with the mandatory belief in the Resurrection? You see my dilemma?

But after much thought and consultation with those who were smarter than I with regard to the bible, I gradually came to understand something. It doesn’t matter what I want to believe. It doesn’t matter what I actually do believe. The only thing that matters in the end is what is actually true. Believing something or not believing does not change the truth.

I also learned something else. Nobody knows what the truth is with regard to the eternal soul, life after death, or our final destinies. Oh, there are lots of people who claim they know the truth, but their “truth” is based only on their beliefs. And, as I have come to realize, beliefs don’t matter. Belief does not equal fact.

So today, I am a proud agnostic. I stand with those who have also figured out that, no, you don’t really have to believe in something. Since nobody knows the ultimate truth, we are proud to acknowledge the fact that we don’t know either. We also know for sure what religious folks may never figure out, that they don’t know the truth either; they just don’t realize it yet.

Friday, June 19, 2009

GPS: It Knows Where You Are

The advancements in consumer technologies never cease to amaze me. Take the GPS devices for example. These little units have become commonplace over the past few years as their prices have become more affordable to the average American. But what they do, and how they do it, is nothing short of amazing.

Let’s take a quick look at how these little gadgets know exactly where you are and where you’re going.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. The system relies on a series of satellites. There are 24 of them in operation at all times. They orbit the earth twice per day, circling 12,000 miles above Earth’s surface, each of them in a different orbital path.

Each satellite has on board an atomic clock, accurate down to billionths of a second, and all of the clocks have to be perfectly synchronized. Each GPS device has a quartz clock, which is far less accurate than an atomic clock, but the clock in the GPS unit is synchronized using signals from the orbiting satellites once every second. So you can say that the GPS device has a virtual atomic clock.

Your position is pinpointed using a process known as trilateration. It’s similar to how they determine the epicenter of an earthquake. By measuring the distance to the epicenter from three different locations, you can tell where the earthquake occurred. That’s because if you draw a circle around each seismograph station with the radius of the circle representing the distance to the quake, the circles will intersect at only one place. That’s the epicenter.

So a GPS needs to get signals from at least three different satellites. The distance to each is calculated based on the speed of light and the time it takes for the signal to travel between the satellite and the GPS. A sphere around each satellite with a radius of the distance between it and the GPS will intersect with each other at the exact location of the GPS unit.

The distances are updated once per second, so any movement of the GPS can be calculated. The position and motion of the GPS is then placed as an overlay on a road map. The computer chip inside the GPS makes all these calculations almost instantly.

So, to determine your exact location, the computer chip and software in the GPS has to take into consideration that the GPS is moving and every one of the satellites it is tracking is moving at high speed as they circle the earth. It has to synchronize its internal clock every second using calculations from three satellites. And then it has to place this computed location on a map so that the map moves to keep up with the motion of the GPS. It also then has to select the best routes, calculate your speed, and estimate your time of arrival at your destination.

In addition to all that, the clocks in the satellites have to be updated and synchronized with an earthbound master station to make sure that they are always synchronized with each other. This all has to be done taking into consideration the effects of the atmosphere on radio signals.

It all results in the computation of your location within about five feet of accuracy. How cool is that?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ten Things You Missed by Skipping Church

Did you neglect to go to church this Sunday? Do you feel guilty because of it? Well, don’t worry. Here is a countdown of the top ten things you missed by not going to church. They don’t all apply to all churches since each denomination has its own idea of which part of the bible is most important, but you can pick out the ones that seem to apply to your church and go with those.

10 – They sang hymns, the same ones they’ve sung a hundred times before. So pick out your favorite and sing it and you’ll feel better.

9 – Perhaps you missed out on communion. So go get a cracker and some grape juice and pretend to be a cannibal like they do at church. Oh, and don’t forget to bless it or it will just remain bread and juice. The carbs go away only after the blessing when the cracker turns into flesh and the juice into blood. There are no carbs in flesh and blood.

8 – They prayed for the sick. The preacher probably didn’t read about the scientific study they did a couple of years ago that indicated that intercessory prayer made absolutely no difference in whether the people prayed for got any better. But there’s an hour to kill and praying takes up time.

7 – Maybe you missed out on the kids’ church segment, where a church volunteer or the minister calls all the kids down to the altar and tells them a bible story. If it will make you feel better, go gather up a dozen kids from the neighborhood who also missed church and tell them a biblical fairy tale. I’m sure their parents won’t think you’re a pedophile.

6 – They almost always do church announcements. These are important because they let you know when the next food service will be. Call the church secretary on Monday to get the low-down. You don’t want to miss that upcoming chili supper or fish fry.

5 – You probably missed the minister or one of the church elders whining about needing money to repair the roof or build on a new wing to the church. Or maybe the church bus needs repairs. Whatever they need money for, you can thank your lucky stars you missed out on the guilt you would feel for not having contributed to the cause this week.

4 – If you go to a Holy Roller church, you most certainly missed out on the wailing, dancing in the aisles, and speaking loud gibberish. Just calm down and go to a ball game and pick out a team to root for. At least that way you will be screaming and wailing for something you can actually see.

3 – You probably missed the call to the altar. That’s where the preacher calls on members of the congregation who are not yet members of the church to come on down and pledge their allegiance to the Lord. You can still meet them and welcome them to the church community next week. They’ll probably be there for several more weeks before realizing that joining was a bad idea, because now they’re being called on to volunteer for stuff.

2 – Of course, you missed the sermon this week. That’s ok; I’m sure it was something about the bible. Just open your bible and pick something at random. There are only so many stories that can be retold with a new twist. If the verse you picked at random wasn’t this week’s topic, I’m sure it will eventually come up. A sermon is just a way that your preacher has of telling you what the bible means. If you interpret your random selection differently than your preacher would, take heart in the fact that a preacher in some church, somewhere, is preaching a sermon that is more favorable to your interpretation.

1 – And the number one thing you missed out on by skipping church this week was the offering. So take a dollar out of your wallet (You know that is what you always give, right?), and go give it to a bum on the street corner downtown. He’ll use it for beer, but at least he’ll be happy for a minute. The same dollar in the church coffers would only go to help pay the church’s electric bill to keep the church open for another week. But as you’ve just seen, you don’t really need church to be religious; you just need to hold on to your delusions by going through the motions at home.