A Peculiar Book Club

While holed up in a rehabilitation hospital recovering from a nasty fall a coworker invited me to a noon-hour Bible study group. The group conveniently met in my rehab hospital so I rolled upstairs in my wheelchair and started attending their meetings. When I told my wife about this peculiar book club she thought I was suffering from post traumatic shock or had lost my mind. It’s not that dramatic! I’m a hard-ass skeptic but I enjoy reading religious and mythical texts. I’ve plowed though vast swaths of the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Iliad, Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I, like many atheists and agnostics, know far more about these works than believers might expect and consider them jewels of world literature. The Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita are still taken seriously while the greek gods of the Iliad and deities like Osiris in the Book of the Dead are no longer worshiped! Emerson said it best, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” Once you accept the view that the Bible is literature you can relax and enjoy the fabulous tales it spins. If, on the other hand, you believe you are reading “inerrant scripture” then you’re in for a world of logical hurt!

Jesus makes wine - click for consequences

Jesus makes wine - click for consequences

When I was younger I argued with believers, mostly Mormons in Utah and Muslims in southern Iran and northern Ghana, that only allegorical interpretations of the Bible or Koran made sense. A literal view forces you into never-ending and embarrassing conflict with science and violent clashes with other believers. You would think after millennia of religious warfare we would catch on. You cannot simultaneously be a good Hindu and Christian. Something has to give; they both cannot be true but they both can be false! Believers are aware of these problems but most pull back from logically analyzing their positions. They instinctively know where analysis leads: myth will not hold. In the long run Allah and Jehovah will share Osiris’s and Apollo’s fate.

This is not a view I will be advocating in my peculiar book club. I am content to let others enjoy their beliefs as long as they have no material impact on me! Atheists that constantly scream about “under god” in the pledge of allegiance or “in god we trust” on the dollar annoy me! Hypothetical entities are far less tiresome than shrieking banshees. If the term “God” irritates you substitute “Santa Claus.” As for militant believers of all creeds: we have a problem! The separation of church and state is one of the deepest and greatest things about the United States. It protects all of us from our mutual idiocies. I have no problems with people erecting, on their own dime, plaques emblazoned with the Ten Commandments but it annoys me that religious institutions enjoy special tax status. Go to your mosques, churches and temples but pay your damn taxes!

Counting Gods

How many fingers do you need to count gods?  If you are like most people you simply assume the set of gods is enumerable and then you start fighting over which value in the set of positive integers \mathbb{Z}_{\geq0}  or  {0, 1, 2, 3, \ldots, } is correct.  This process is elegantly explained by this flowchart.

I have a simple question. Is the set of gods enumerable?  For all you innumerates out there a set is enumerable if-and-only-if its members can be counted.   It’s a rather astonishing fact that many humdrum sets cannot be counted.  Do you remember line segments  \overline{AB} from school geometry?

The number of points in any nonzero length Euclidean line segment  \overline{AB} cannot be counted.  There are more points in \overline{AB} than there are counting numbers.  If you don’t believe me  check out Cantor’s diagonal argument and savor a classical mathematical treat.

Once you get your head around the idea that some things cannot be counted the notion of counting gods looks ludicrous.  Why do you expect to tally your supreme beings with ordinary counting numbers when they cannot deal with line segments?  Perhaps god counting requires more than positive integers!

Perhaps the bloody disputes between atheists GodCount=0 and deists GodCount > 0 can be resolved with rational numbers \mathbb{Q}.  How about fractional 1/2 gods?  Let’s just split the difference and all get along.  Unfortunately rational numbers will not satisfy ultrapolytheists, believers in more gods than you can count, because you can count rational numbers.  Ultrapolytheists need to get real \mathbb{R} – the numbers  – anyway.

Counting gods is a complex problem.   Electrical engineers cannot deal with the wiring in your fridge without complex numbers  \mathbb{C}. Maybe a god count of 3 + 7i is the ticket

If this sounds silly, condescending and sarcastic congratulations your bullshit detector is working.  However,  ridiculous as this little diatribe is,  it is as sound as any mainstream religious doctrine. So if you find this absurd and, you have a fixed god count in your little head,  who is really being silly?