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A quick comparison of the issues I can recall at the moment, in order to share somewhere that tables aren’t conveniently available.

Takes place before 4 BCE (while Herod the Great rules in Judea). Takes place a decade later, in 6 CE (while Quirinius is governor of Syria).
Joseph and Mary appear to be living in Jerusalem. Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth.
Jesus is born in a house (presumably, Joseph’s). Joseph has to travel to Bethlehem due to a census. Jesus is born in a stable.
Jesus is worshipped by magi, apparently at least months later, since they had time to see the star rise at his birth and travel from the "East", and because when trying to kill Jesus, Herod has all children aged two and under killed, not just newborns. Jesus is worshipped by shepherds.
(A month after Jesus is born, the magi can’t even have arrived yet!) A month after Jesus is born (after the rites of purification), the parents return to Nazareth.
Afer the magi leave, the family flee to Egypt to avoid Herod [the Great]. (Nothing.)
After Herod dies, the family return to Israel, but rather than return to Bethlehem, they move to Galilee, because Herod’s son Herod Archelaus rules in Judea. (Nothing.)

There are some additional problems.


  • Matthew actually begins with Jesus’s alleged genealogy. This is largely drawn from the Old Testament, but because Matthew has a theological notion that there’s something special about blocks of 14 generations between important people, he actually leaves out a number of people in the Old Testament genealogies.
  • Supposedly, the magi find the house when the star stops over it, but…well, obviously, a star cannot stop over a specific house; even if it’s something like a comet or magical meteorite, you can’t possibly pinpoint a specific house by its location.
  • Even though historians like Josephus wrote very critically about Herod and catalogued a number of his bloody deeds, there’s no mention of an indiscriminate slaughter of all the toddlers in Bethlehem. This was probably invented as part of Matthew’s “New Moses” narrative.
  • Galilee is strange place to flee to, because Herod’s other son, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee: but the gospel is explicit that this is why they move to Galilee rather than return to Judea.


  • It is a bizarre census that can’t have happened as described: there was no empire-wide census, and for taxation purposes it makes no sense to have people return to the putative birthplace of their ancestors a thousand years prior and register there, rather than where they are being taxed, which is where the information is wanted! That’s even if it were logistically possible, which of course it wasn’t: how would everyone know their lineage going back that far? how would everyone be uprooted to traipse off to ancestral home towns? In short, it’s a census that could not have been made to happen, and would have been a terrible idea even if it could.

The Bible

Jan. 26th, 2016 06:13 pm
haggholm: (Default)

I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading Bart Ehrman, a famous scholar of New Testament studies:

They are all excellent books and I highly recommend them; you can also find lectures and interviews on YouTube. Apart from being simply fascinating as studies of how the mythology of Christianity developed, it has also given me a new perspective on the Bible.

First, let’s acknowledge that the Bible is indisputably an extremely important book, since it underpins so much of Western civilisation; it has greatly impacted the whole world, for better and for worse. It has certainly affected literature. For this reason alone, if nothing else, I think it’s worth being familiar with it. I think I know a fair bit about the Bible—probably more than the average Christian!—but but I have not, in fact, read the whole damned thing; just an expurgated version when I was a child, and various excerpts and verses since. I’ve long thought that I need to, for a variety of reasons.

I have long thought of the Bible as a rather foolish work, in some important ways. After all, it contains lots of internal contradictions, and even presents a set of prima facie incompatible moral frameworks. If it were written by one person, it would have to be somebody profoundly unhinged. This criticism certainly applies to the literalist, inerrantist “word of God” interpretation of the Bible.

But of course I have never bought into that. I may not have known the details of how, say, the New Testament canon was formed over the first few Christian centuries as a result of various warring factions, ‘orthodoxies’, and ‘heresies’; but I knew damned well that the Bible was in fact written by a large number of people over a large number of centuries.

Somehow, though, one perspective never properly occurred to me until Ehrman emphasised it. (I feel a bit stupid and embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t, but honesty above all:) They are different books by different authors. Obvious? Let’s think more closely: It’s not one book written by one large committee of debatable competence, but sixty-six books, by an unknown number of authors (most of them unknown). It’s an anthology. They wrote separately. Their beliefs are related, to be sure, but not identical.

This means that it is not fair to dismiss the whole thing in the same way as though it were a monolith written by one confused person. Rather, the books need to be considered individually if we are to fairly evaluate their literary and moral merit, or lack thereof, as the case may be. The author of Ecclesiastes is not responsible for the brutal, tribal, genocidal violence gloated over by whoever wrote Deuteronomy. Nor can we fairly blame each author for being inconsistent with the others; after all, they didn’t collaborate. Earlier writers couldn’t know about later ones, and later writers may have simply thought that the earlier ones were wrong; or for that matter been unaware of them. They may not have had any idea at all that they would ever be combined in one canon.

This is not least true for the New Testament, where in particular, it sounds like the life of Jesus that ‘Mark’¹ believed in is a story with a good bit of pathos that’s rather diminished by reading it as though it were part of a whole with the other gospels, rather than letting it stand on its own. As Bart Ehrman says:

…The two portrayals of Jesus going to his death in Mark and Luke are radically different, [and] recognizing this radical difference is of utmost importance for understanding what each author is trying to say. The in-shock, silent Jesus of Mark, who is betrayed, denied, abandoned, and mocked by everyone, who wonders at the very end why God himself has forsaken him, simply is not the same as the calm confident Jesus of Luke, who knows God is on his side, who understands what is happening to him, and who knows what will happen to him after it happens to him: he will wake up in paradise.

And so, it’s simply unfair to ‘Mark’ to read his book while pretending that it also says what ‘Luke’ [later] wrote. It robs the story of its pathos and power and makes it worse literature. And this is, after all, literature. I will happily ridicule the whole thing as belief, but the fact that it’s ridiculous to think it’s true does not excuse dismissing it as literature. After all, I love The Lord of the Rings but would hold an extremely low opinion of anyone who believed in hobbits; and in fact it would stand up very poorly as a model of reality.

So I got myself a Bible, specifically the Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV translation, which comes highly recommended. I expect a very great slog, but I do want to read this thing, and I want to try to approach it, as best I can, with an open mind to its literary qualities. Obviously, the literary qualities of some parts will be atrocious, with mind-numbing series of begats, but at least I will try to be honest about it.

Though I may have to print myself some warning labels, to feel less embarrassed about reading this thing in public.

WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Do NOT TAKE it literally.

¹ I.e. the author of The Gospel According to Mark, whose name may not have been [the Aramaic equivalent of] Mark, traditionally identified as a travelling companion of the apostle Peter. In fact, all four canonical gospels were written anonymously, and Christians a century later attributed them to people close to the inner circle, presumably to lend them authority.

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Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate

Occam’s Razor is a famous philosophical device, a pragmatic solution when faced with multiple competing hypotheses: always choose the one that necessitates the fewest additional assumptions.

Wikipedia contains this description:

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means 'law of parsimony') is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.

The principle can be interpreted as

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

In science, Occam's razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam's razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

I’d argue, however, that the paragraph cited above actually contains at least the seeds of good reasons why it is more than a mere heuristic device. Consider: There is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis…. This means that for every concrete question, there is an infinite number of answers; one of them is maximally correct, some are plain wrong, and an infinite number fit the data but make unjustified and unparsimonious assumptions. But then, the simplest explanation that fits the data is actually very special, and not just because it’s more testable, but because of that privileged position. It alone accounts for the observed data without adding extraneous assumptions.

This leaves us with a choice, not just on a heuristic and testing level, but on an epistemological level, too: Do we accept only the one explanation permitted by the data yet spared by Occam’s Razor, or do we accept more explanations? If we do not restrict ourselves to only the simplest working possibility, I do not know of any reason why we should not accept all possibilities. Then, since we have an infinite number of possible explanations, whereof only one is maximally correct, the odds of our choosing the best solution are one out of infinity—which is to say, zero. Neglecting parsimony, then, does more harm than merely making it harder to test our hypotheses: it statistically guarantees that we will choose the wrong explanations!


Occam’s Razor provides a rule for choosing a single explanation with strong heuristic properties and avoiding the arbitrary choice of complex solutions that, statistically, are certain to be wrong in detail.

That’s perhaps a bit abstract, so let’s ground it a bit. This actually came up in a discussion on religious epistemology, where I set up something like this: Agnostic (sometimes called “weak”) atheists make a negative existential claim, not based on the existence of positive evidence for non-existence, but based on the lack of positive evidence for existence. Or, in plain language: I’m not an atheist because I have evidence there’s no god; I’m an atheist because there’s no evidence of a god.

But then, runs a certain standard counter-argument, the agnostic atheist is on the same rational footing as the theist. Neither has evidence either directly supporting their position, nor directly refuting the contrary. (Perhaps, this may go on to say, the ideally rational stance is ‘strict’ agnosticism, apparently meaning a refusal to commit to any stance on likelihood.)

This, however, I reject on the basis of a stronger Occam’s Razor.¹ The reason is this: Theists and I agree on the existence of physical reality, each other, rocks, trees, suns, moons, and so on. When we run out of established physical reality, I stop. The theist goes on to add unsupported assumptions—and that’s where the trouble sets in. After all, if you are willing to accept one god without evidence, why not two? Or three? Or a billion? If you accept (though you cannot demonstrate it) that the universe was designed by God, how can you be sure it wasn’t actually designed by aliens pretending to be God? Or wizards posing as aliens pretending to be God? Or Smurfs dressed up as wizards posing as aliens… Well, you see where this goes. I can extend this list into infinity.²

If you are willing to accept any proposition without positive evidence, on the mere basis of inability or to disprove it, or impossibility of so doing, then either you must regard all such propositions as equally valid; or you must have a method of separating your proposition from the infinite number of other propositions with the same property (the property that it hasn’t been disproven, or is not falsifiable); or you are being completely arbitrary and no longer rational. But you can’t have a rational method for separating it, for if you did, it would have to be positive evidence, and you wouldn’t face this problem to begin; so either you are being arbitrary and non-rational, or you must accept them all.

And if you hold that the infinity of possible explanations is valid territory to enter, then your preferred explanation is wrong. How do I justify this assertion? Suppose that each explanation can be laser-etched onto a grain of sand, and we take all possible explanations and let the wind carry them into the sandy desert. This is an infinity of explanations, and as the text is too small to read, you cannot know which is which. With no positive evidence to point to any one explanation, your choice is arbitrary relative to the truth. Maybe one of these explanations is the correct one—but it’s one grain of sand in the desert; and it is an infinite desert. When you bend down and pick out a single grain of sand, I can be confident that you chose the wrong one.

I prefer a more consistent principle of reason, Occam’s Razor: Choose the simplest explanation that fits observations (id est, that isn’t falsified). If our investigation has been thorough enough, it is the right explanation. If not, then it is a good explanation to start from as we investigate further, and our investigation won’t be cluttered up by arbitrary (and almost certainly wrong) assumptions.

That is why, in the absence of existential evidence either positive or negative, assuming the negative is more reasonable than assuming the positive. We should be agnostic in the strict sense of being prepared to admit additional evidence—but that does not mean we should be holding our breath.

¹ This is pretty close to Hitchen’s Razor; in a way, it’s the two razors put together: Occam’s and Hitchens’s. Mine is a two-bladed philosophical razor!

² Or if not infinity, then at least until the text of my post exceeds storage limitations. I wonder if I could write a Haskell program to generate an infinite list of increasingly unparsimonious complications…

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I recently watched a video of a debate between famous apologist and Liar for Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, and well-known cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss. Obviously all my sympathies lay with Dr. Krauss, so it was with some mortification that I watched him apparently just fail to understand Craig’s distinction between epistemic and ontological basis for moral behaviour.

Those terms weren’t used in the parts I saw, but here is how I understand it:

  • An epistemic claim would be of the nature If not for God or revealed truth, we could not know what is morally right or wrong.
  • An ontological claim is different and asserts that God is the basis, not for the knowledge of moral truth, but the existence of moral truth.

In other words, the epistemic claim is concerned with how we can know what is right and wrong, while the ontological claim deals with how there can (supposedly) be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’.

Craig, for example, claims that everyone is designed to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong, and therefore does not claim that religion is epistemically necessary to assess moral propositions, but does claim that his god is ontologically necessary. This distinction is what Krauss loudly and repeatedly failed to appreciate.

That’s not to say that I think much of the argument itself. The standard objection is a chestnut that’s been around for well over two thousand years and never convincingly resolved: the Euthyphro Dilemma. Its modern formulation when addressing Christian dogma runs something like this?

  • Is God good because he does what is intrinsically good, or because what is good is defined by what God commands?
  • If the former, then there exists an objective moral truth outside of God, who is therefore not ontologically necessary.
  • If the latter, then “God is good” is a circular and hence meaningless claim, and in fact whatever God commanded would by definition be “good”, regardless of whether it resembles what we in actuality think of as good.

Craig is a firm believer in the latter option, and to his dubious credit he carries it all the way by affirming the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to DCT, if God says to kill every man, woman, child, and head of livestock in the land you invade (1 Samuel 15), then it’s right and morally good to do so; and Craig has consistently defended this view: The genocide described in the book of Samuel¹ was morally right. It was morally good to kill all those babies.

Personally, I find this view reprehensible if not downright monstrous. But there are further problems with this view that I don’t see brought up.

If God defines Good, he cannot be trusted

If whatever God wills is (by definition) good, then “good” is arbitrary (as is often pointed out). But this is not merely a problem for ontological grounding. Christian apologists like Craig argue that it’s not arbitrary, because to do other than what is in fact (as we instinctively see it) good is against God’s nature…but so what? On the view that good is defined by God’s will, there’s no real reason to suppose that it cannot change tomorrow. Craig would probably raise a lot of arguments to the effect that God has promised not to, it’s not in his nature, and so on; but how does he know that? Under DCT, it’s not wrong for God to deceive Craig about what his nature is: if he wants to, it’s good by definition. It’s not wrong for him to change his mind about what’s good: if he wants to change his mind, that’s good by definition. In fact, it’s rather Nineteen eighty-four-ish: It is wrong to kill people. It has always been wrong to kill people and always will be. It is good to kill Amalekites…

Craig fails to notice the beam in his own eye

But there’s a deeper yet much simpler problem with Craig’s view, which is this: He says that what God wills is by definition good, and that God has the right to determine this because he created the universe, owns us all, and has the right to do with us as he pleases. But this is a naked assertion. Craig claims that DCT provides an objective view of morality, meaning presumably one with no arbitrary propositions accepted axiomatically, and yet ultimately even his own moral view is arbitrary and axiomatic, too. When Krauss says it’s bad to cause suffering, Craig asks Why?—fair enough, and I fault Krauss for failing to understand this question: I think Craig is right when he implies that Krauss is relying on what amounts to an arbitrary axiom.² But Craig’s own argument is no better, because when he says that God’s will defines what is good, even someone who agrees with him might well ask Why? Craig will say it’s because God created and therefore owns the universe and everyone in it: to this I would retort Why does creating the universe give him the right to do what he wants with it? Craig spends a good deal of time insisting that you cannot get from a factual to a normative statement—you can’t get from an is to an ought—and then he blithely goes and does that very thing in the very same breath.

¹ Fortunately, it most likely never actually happened.

² Philosophically arbitrary—of course, it’s not arbitrary in terms of our neural wiring.

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It is curious how the debate after every Islamist deed of terror, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings, always results in a flood of Most Muslims aren’t like that!—in a knee-jerk response that reminds me of nothing so much as #NotAllMen. This may strike you as (needlessly) offensive, but before I bring up my caveats, please consider the parallels. (But before you respond angrily, at least do read through to the end.)

  1. It is true that most men aren’t rapists. By analogy, and in fact, it is true that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.

  2. It’s true that lots of men are vehemently against sexual assault and harrassment, just as it is true that lots of Muslims are vehemently fighting terrorism.

  3. The truth of the Not All Men reply, however, is secondary to its unhelpful deflectionism—yes it’s true, but the point is that although not all men—indeed, not even a majority of men—are like that, still a minority large enough to matter are, and the fact that it’s a minority does not mean that it isn’t an issue with men—much like, say, breast cancer is an issue for women (even though most women don’t get it and some few men do).

    Or maybe…much as how, although lots of terrorism is committed by non-Muslims, and the majority of Muslims are not involved in or sympathetic to terrorism, still it looks as though the issue is disproportionate, and mere deflection won’t do.

  4. Finally, many people writing today are complaining how unfair it is that Muslims are expected to stand up and proclaim that they’re opposed to extremism and terrorism. But then, strictly speaking it’s hardly fair that I have to speak up against rapists. Yet, I’m told, my silence may be mistaken for tacit approval (and worse yet, daring to treat it with levity—by telling or laughing at rape jokes, for instance—might make the true villains mistake me for a sympathiser). —I said I’m told—but, too, I agree, and extrapolate.

How dare I (you might ask) make this so general, as though Islam worldwide bore responsibility for what a bunch of lunatics in Paris did? You might have a point, were that and similar local incidents all there were to it, or if the appearance of sympathy were a rarity. But we know that’s not really true. The best example I can think of are the riots after the satiric cartoons in the Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten. In outrage at some Danes’ audacity in portraying their religion (or their pedophile prophet) in an insulting manner, riots were nigh worldwide. It seems that people died in consequence in Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Let’s not pretend that there is no connection.

And there is always a predictable outcry that, although some Islamists may act like this, that has no bearing on Islam, or Muslims. #NotAllMuslims! To this I can only say, poppycock! As Jason Rosenhouse said,

I heard someone on television today lament the fact that when a Muslim does something bad, somehow all Muslims are expected to condemn it. This misses the point. The issue isn’t what anyone is expected to do. It’s what moderate Muslims had better do, loudly and unambiguously and with no “buts” at the end, because right now the crazies are the public face of Islam. No one is concluding that something is wrong with modern Islam because two Muslims did a bad thing. The conclusion is based on the chaos and despotism and illiberal attitudes that seem especially rife in the Muslim world.

More broadly, there is this constant insistence that when somebody does something, and says it is because of their religious faith and beliefs, much of the world credits it only conditionally: If what they did was good, then we’ll believe them. But if they did something bad, they must be mistaken or lying: It must be extremism, maybe a cult, or maybe it’s a response to imperialism, colonialism, racism… All of those are real, important, awful factors, but let’s avoid the No True Theist Fallacy.


With that all said, there are some extra factors to keep in mind. I loathe the term “Islamophobia”, as though a hatred of that vile religion were a bad thing. (Do you think it is pristine and blameless? Go forth and read up. The scripture itself is bad enough, quite apart from all the other stuff.) There is a strong implication, which I reject and resent, that being vehemently critical of Islam implies a hatred of Muslims, and further, that it results in—or perhaps based on—racism, in particular against Arabs (presumably, then, combined with ignorance of the fact that there are many white Muslims, although they’re a minority, and that most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and that the single largest Muslim population is found not in the Middle East, but in Indonesia).

On the other hand, there are factors of racism and irrational hatreds far beyond rational loathing of Islam. I’m not very familiar with Charlie Hebdo, but they certainly held a lofty moral high ground compared to their Islamic murderers—but now, a few French compatriots of the victims are working hard to give up that moral high ground by shooting and throwing grenades at mosques (and blowing up some poor restaurateur’s kebab shop). In the US, after the 9/11 terror attacks, I gather the FBI reported a 1,700% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. (And, to be sure, people whom racists mistook for Muslims. I may dislike the conflation of Islamophobia with racism, but if you assault people on the basis that they have brown skin and wear turbans, you’re a racist.)

There, then, is a very important difference between #NotAllMen and #NotAllMuslims: Men deflect in order to avoid self-examination, feelings of recrimination, or criticism. Muslims and their defenders deflect because, well, I agree with most of Rosenhouse’s article cited above, but there is one point where I’m afraid he is too optimistic:

Now, this is the point where the self-righteous types will accuse you of Islamophobia. They will lecture you about blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few.

But no one is doing that, and they know it. Almost no one thinks that all, or most, or even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for yesterday’s attacks. The problem, though, is that the attitudes underlying the attack are not those of a small, fringe minority. It is willful blindness to pretend otherwise.

I agree with the assertion that it is not a small, fringe minority, but unfortunately, I fear it is not true that Almost no one thinks that…even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for terrorist attacks. Deplorably—indeed, almost as deplorably as the murderous attacks themselves—it seems there are always people ready to take their vicarious vengeance on the nearest Muslim (or Muslim look-alike).

Here, #NotAllMen would only be comparable if the nighttime streets of our cities were haunted by roving gangs of actually-militant feminists, waylaying and beating men, and occasionally firebombing places that men like to frequent.

And, more, that attitude is probably very pernicious in subtler ways in its milder forms. I think that many Muslim-majority countries are—I’ll say it openly—barbaric. If the law sentences someone to being flogged for blogging critically of Islam, then the legal system and society that permits it are both horrid. But that doesn’t mean I’m ipso facto sympathetic to indiscriminate bombing, or drone strikes killing civilians at numbers I don’t care to guess at. But unfortunately, a sufficiently uncritical acceptance of the vilification of precisely the places and societies I am trying to vilify in a more nuanced manner, lays the groundwork for popular acceptance of—or at the very least, lack of resistance to—military campaigns that do just that. I reject the concept of Islamophobia, but I accept the sad truth that people in the Middle East (who may or may not be Muslims—I suppose most of them are; I don’t suppose it morally matters) die, every day, because people are uniquely unbothered by the idea of bombing Muslim-majority areas.

Under Bush, it was getting awfully tempting to think of this as Christian (or should that be Christianist?) terrorism on a large (and well-funded) scale.

#NotAllMuslims support terrorism. Most of them don’t. Yet it is disproportionately an Islamic problem, and toxic Islam should be excused no more than toxic masculinity. Let’s acknowledge this; let’s avoid euphemism and cowardly deflection and circumvention. At the same time, though, we should not loose sight of, nor fail to emphasise, that the goal here is to speak up—loudly, freely, offensively—and deplore violence, not return it.

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Or, Satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, says Ottawa imam.

This is a fascinating study in the art of getting things completely backwards. It should be mentioned up front that this guy (wrong-headed though he otherwise is) does denounce the terrorist attacks and refer to the terrorists as disturbed individuals—he’s disingenuous but not an apologist for monsters. (Nor did he claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists bore the responsibility for their own deaths, unlike some old, white, male Christians¹.) That said:

"Imtiaz Ahmed...said it should be against the law to publish cartoons that depict religious figures in a derogatory way.

“Of course we defend freedom of speech, but it has to be balanced. There has to be a limit. There has to be a code of conduct,” Ahmed said."

“We believe that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute the freedom of speech in any way at all.”

Ahmed said there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material. He says that seems to be the case for events such as the Holocaust. Members of the public denounce those who say the Holocaust never happened.

It’s worth noting that his position is in fact against free speech. He’s for free speech…unless it’s just too offensive. However, the legal right to free speech is entirely about offensive speech; after all, it’s only once speech has been deemed offensive that anyone wants to silence it, and therefore only offensive speech ever needs, and uses, legal protection. In practice, “free speech except for really offensive speech’ is exactly equivalent to no free speech at all. (Incidentally, his words are incredibly offensive to free speech advocates; but of course he wants special protection only for religious speech, on the basis of…who knows?)

His remark about public denouncement of Holocaust denial is an even more stunning miss, because public denouncement of offensive remarks is precisely what free speech advocates strive for. Legal protection of free expression necessarily includes the protection of responses to said speech. That’s the whole idea of the principle: Let everyone speak their mind, and let those who are in the wrong be defeated by having their ideas exposed, rebutted, and rejected, not by shutting them up and forcing them to nurse their grievances and resentment in private.

¹ Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. Bill Donohue, everybody.

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Whenever a religious fringe group rises up in arms, be it Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Christian murderers of abortion providers, or whatever, pundits amass to fight at the steps of the podium to be first to proclaim that what those people do is not motivated by religion, that "real religion" is not like that. This is bizarre, and either dishonest or foolish.

Let's be clear: I don't like Islam, but there are about a billion and a half Muslims out there who aren't terrorists, the vast majority of whom would (I presume) be no more eager to decapitate people than I would. I am not suggesting that, for instance, ISIS aren't a fringe group. Of course they are. (And of course there are lots of non-Muslim Arabs, and the large majority of Muslims aren't Arabs to begin with.) Nor do I think that Islam is inherently more vicious than Christianity, though the latter has been somewhat defanged by the Enlightenment.

That said, it's very odd that these commentators always insist that any evil whatsoever cannot be motivated by religion, as "properly" understood. It's always other factors -- political, historical, cultural. Of course, all that context is always significant, and sometimes religious divisions are secondary (IRA?), but claiming that it's about history and culture instead of religion is an implicit assertion that religion has no influence on culture and history. If someone says that people are never motivated to evil by religion, they're implying that people's beliefs do not influence their behaviour; or perhaps that religious beliefs aren't important enough to be acted upon.

Well, that's what they would be implying, at any rate, were they not busily committing logical fallacies to protect, pardon me, the sacred cow of religion. If someone does something nice and credits “do unto others” or “whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers”, if Muslims give to charity and say it's because the Quran tells them to, everyone is happy to accept their stated motivation. But the moment they do something bad, it is widely denied that their motivation could possibly be what they say it is, even if they can cite verses in their support. “No religion condones the killing of innocents,” said Obama, apparently unfamiliar with Psalm 137-9, Hosea 13:16, and other pleasant tidbits.

I don't believe in any of this. I believe that when someone claims to act out of religious conviction, the possibility should be entertained that they may be telling the truth, whether the act be good or evil; moreover, that even if an interpretation is a minority view, that doesn't disqualify it from being religious. I believe that many people take their religion seriously and do act on their beliefs, sometimes to great good and sometimes to great evil. Let me repeat that: Religion in general, and certainly the big monotheistic ones, can motivate people just as easily to good and evil. That, precisely, is the problem—not that people of any religion are somehow intrinsically evil, but that people mistake scriptures for moral compasses.

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Thus spake WLC.

“Fine-tuning ergo God” is like saying “The odds of drawing just these ten cards are so small, it must be rigged!” when we don’t know the composition of the deck: A glib generalisation, as though every drawing of cards corresponded to a deck of Bicycle playing cards and a probability distribution we are, supposedly, intuitively familiar with. There’s a bait-and-switch here, since for all we know the deck we’re really concerned with is (meta?)physically constrained to nothing but straight flushes. For all we know, the deck might have only ten cards to begin with or the cards might be stuck together with string and Scotch tape.

Of course it’s entirely legitimate to wonder why the parameters of physics are just what they are (and on some level there is presumably a reason), but I find it highly suspect when someone asserts that they were a priori improbable—how exactly do you determine the probability? Can you demonstrate, from first principles of making universes, that there’s a wide range of possible parameters whereof the chemically productive parameters form a small proportion? I’m sure the cosmological community would be fascinated to learn the principles.

Point one—I must call them points, for they aren’t really reasons—point one is juvenile, point three is perversely ironic in the light of two millennia of unresolved theodicy (don’t you think the Cathars had a better idea, until the Catholics murdered them all?), point four is presumably included for the sake of hilarity alone (surely no one is expected to take it seriously?), and point five must have been added after Dr. Craig got drunk and forgot to activate GMail Goggles, but point two is offensive in its duplicity.

Oh well. For this particular atheist, Christmas—well, I think of it more as “juletid” in Swedish, precisely cognate with Yuletide, a pagan term that merged with Christmas when Jesus’s birthday was moved to mid-winter to co-opt older religious celebrations like Saturnalia and, elsewhere, Yule—was never much about religion but rather family, presents, a tree (of likely pagan origin), and good food (much of it based on pork and so presumably frowned upon by Jews like the Nazarene). Or at least, it was not about religion when I grew up. Now there’s always a heavy dose of news articles, editorials, and opinion pieces by Christians who hysterically complain that their holiday is under attack (because they’re not allowed a monopoly), that Jesus and Santa Claus are white, so there!, or (á la Craig) assert that people like me are echoing slogans rather than thinking. I don’t go pissing in his crèche, but ye gods! (both Jesus and the older myths he was based on), this editorialising gets on my nerves.

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Some theologians and apologists (notably, I gather, the fairly famous Alvin Plantinga) hold forth a curious epistemic argument purportedly in favour of their theism. The argument in one form (not due to Plantinga) goes like this: Evolution optimises organisms for survival and gene dispersal, not correct beliefs, which would be favoured only if they enhance the above.

That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it.

Now, the most obvious problem with this argument is of course that evolutionary theory does give us a reason to suppose that we can arrive at true beliefs, because it is difficult to conceive of any process whereby a tendency toward mostly false beliefs would be beneficial for survival or gene dispersal. I'm sure some scenarios can be dreamed up where fortuitous misconceptions would cause an animal to behave in a manner just as good, or even better, as correctness, and certainly we know of (and science corrects for) some tendencies toward, for instance, false positive errors and other biases, but here we must imagine something both subtler and more pervasive, and in particular a mechanism that accepts sensible input from the exterior world and systematically transforms this input into beliefs that are erroneous and yet more advantageous than the simpler mechanism of apprehending reality…

Still, I don't think that's the argument's worst problem. After all, the assumption of some divine entity provides no more guarantee that your senses are accurate than a naturalistic view! On the contrary: Although it's not a logical proof, I think I have outlined a good reason to think that evolution is in fact likely to produce brains capable of apprehending reality, not perfectly but with at least some fidelity. Assume the existence of an all-powerful being, on the other hand, and that all goes out the window. What grounds have you to suppose, if such a being exists, that the beliefs it chooses to have your brain produce are correct? It is completely arbitrary! The apologist might conceivably argue that his God is a God of truth and so forth, but those are just more of the same arbitrary beliefs. On the assumption that an all-powerful being exists, which can manipulate your senses and beliefs as it sees fit, your are at the utter mercy of its intentions; and its intentions are unknowable, because it can make you believe whatever falsehood it wants, and every “evidence” you might have that your vision of this god is the right one is equally susceptible to (infallible) falsification.

Ultimately, both atheists and theists must assume some fidelity of their senses a priori, whether they wish to admit it or not. Although every epistemology needs its axioms, the naturalistic world view introduces no more than necessary, and people like Plantinga and his fellow admirers of the Argument from Arbitrariness (if you will) would do well to avoid casting stones in glass houses, for once you assume the existence of ultimate beings, everything is arbitrary.

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@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm I already told you once that is not a problem for me Things are defined as good because God says it in his word ,moral standard

@michaelAsmalls: @Pastorsmallwood @haggholm I'll go ahead and solve your little "dilemma". My moral standards are based off of what God says

The fallacy or incoherency of the above statement was illustrated over two thousand years ago by precisely that famous Dilemma that is here purportedly “solved”, in Plato’s dialogue Εὐθύφρων (Euthuphron or Euthyphro in English). Stated more simply and straightforwardly, consider the following hypothetical:

Suppose that the Christian god (henceforth “God”) exists. Suppose, furthermore, that he commands you to go forth and torture innocent babies to death. Would it be good to do so?

  1. “Yes, if God tells me to do it, it’s good by definition.” This is a logically coherent answer, but problematic in that it implies a morality that does not inherently condemn the torture of infants.

  2. “No; God would never do such a thing, because it is evil.” This is logically incoherent if you take the line that goodness is defined by God’s will: If good is defined by what God says, then he could very well say it and it would by definition be good. God cannot refrain from any action whatever on the grounds that it would be evil, because by definition whatever he does is good. He could torture babies, rape kittens, you name it—if good is defined by God’s will, it’s all good. In this case, the distinction between good and evil is mere caprice on God’s part.

    If you hold that Things are defined as good because God says it, then “God is good” means literally “God does whatever he wants”: nothing else. It is not really a meaningful statement.

    This can be resolved by saying that God would never do such a thing, because it is evil, and if he hypothetically did it, he would be evil. (Therefore, because he is good, it can only be considered hypothetically.) But in that case, God must be good according to some standard of goodness external to what he wants. Then he may be a moral authority (because, we might suppose, he’s been established as being very good), but not the source of morality (after all, it is only logically possible for him to be good in a meaning).

You might wonder how the intrepid Twitter posters from before respond to the Dilemma. The answer is of course that they faithfully, religiously, boldly, and forcefully stick their heads in the sand and refuse to answer at all.

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm there is no dilemma in my mind God created the world and gave us his word to help to see our sin +show us his Son who alone saves

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm I'm about truth. Not hypothetical. Find me in the scripture where it says that and then we will discuss

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm don't make blanket statements.I will not discuss hypotheticals as asinine as the aforementioned of yours.it goes against Gods Word

Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth—is that not marvellous? Explicitly dismiss logic and reasoning if it troubles you; it is better to recite by rote. I cannot help but be reminded of Martin Luther’s admonition that We know that reason is the devil's harlot, and can do nothing but slander and harm all that god says and does.

Even before I outgrew religion I always thought that if God had decided to give me a brain, I should probably use it. I suppose that is why I outgrew faith.

Addendum, after I responded to various “read the Bible it answers all questions and is the truth y’all” statements with a query into whether the man happened to be a parrot or a cassette player:

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm more insults , so biblical as Jesus hung on the cross people did the same thing thank you I'm humbled to suffer insults as he did

Even though Jesus’s mythical sacrifice wasn’t that big a deal, comparing my tweet to being crucified and taunted while slowly dying does sound not a little presumptuous and, well, flatly silly.

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm @Pastorsmallwood we don't have to reason. The Word is not up for debate. It is fact, facts in which we ASSERT.

Do I even need to comment?

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Tell a Christian that you are an atheist because you find the evidence for theism thoroughly unconvincing and the odds are pretty high that you will, at some point, be told that he doesn’t have enough faith to be an atheist, or that you need faith in the non-existence of gods just as much as he needs faith in the existence of his. At first blush, this sounds at once superficially reasonable, obviously false, and profoundly bizarre.

It sounds superficially reasonable, because the objection that my atheism is not founded on an absolute certainty and absolute proof is of course correct. It sounds obviously false because the word “faith” is typically used to describe a positive belief in something for which there is insufficient empirical evidence, and is not a word suited to describe skepticism, whether justified or unjustified. It sounds profoundly bizarre because many Christians use the word to describe a purported virtue of trusting in the existence and benevolence of their god in spite of the lack of such evidence (the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen).

Part of the problem is that the word “faith” is a vague one on which we may both equivocate and have genuine misunderstandings. I use it to describe belief that is not justified by rational evidence, because in any situation where there is evidence we have other words to describe it, but I recognise that anyone who uses the word in conversation with me may mean just that, or equally well something different, such as a religious belief that they perceive to be supported by evidence, as a synonym for “confidence”, or something else altogether.

Then again, a disingenuous approach some debaters will use is to conflate them intentionally, a logical fallacy known as equivocation. You might say that I have “faith” that if I sit down my chair will bear me up, just as you have “faith” that your god exists—but they are clearly not the same kind of faith, since I have ample evidence that my chair will support me, and furthermore this evidence is available to anyone who wants to inspect it: You could (if you truly doubted it) have photos, videos, contemporary eyewitness testimony, or if you were truly dedicated you could come visit me and see for yourself. Moreover, the supportive quality of chairs is not contrary to anything in common experience; it’s not (as Sagan would say) an extraordinary claim. This approach is apparently used to justify the evidence-free kind of faith by implying that it is equivalent to obviously rational forms. It is not. My confidence in chairs is based on facts and observations that could be amply supported against someone skeptical of chairs; unless you can provide facts and observations in favour of your deity, it’s not the same thing at all—and if you can then let’s talk facts and evidence, not “faith”.

More promising is the notion that I need faith to be an atheist—faith not quite supported by evidence, that is—just as the theist needs faith to be a theist. Some theists, indeed, are known to dismissively quip that “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” (by implication of which faith is a bad thing, since more of it leads to us sinful atheists—but that is by the way). However, this also falls down flat on closer inspection.

First of all, we all subscribe to most of the same basic premises or assumptions in dealing with the world, theists and atheists alike. We all operate on the assumption that the external world is real and that our senses provide us with systematic information thereof. Even a hypothetical, reductio-ad-absurdam biblical literalist has no choice: Without the empirical evidence of his eyes and ears, he could read no scripture and hear no sermons. So clearly, in terms of the basic appreciation of what exists, we start from the same position.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, as Occam’s Razor slices, and I choose to stop there. I accept the truth of premises that cannot be denied without resort to solipsism, but thereafter I demand evidence before I accept anything as true. This post goes into more detail, but in brief, since it is always possible to invent an infinitude of ideas, explanations, and purported entities, my choices are always going to be either refusal to accept any without evidence, attempting to accept all of them, or picking and choosing in an ad hoc fashion.

This all sounds rather abstract, so let’s consider this tweet from @repenTee:

@haggholm as I think about it ur conjectures are based on faith no evidence 2 prove that God doesn't exist somewhere in the universe.

(Pardon his spelling; it’s a tweet.)

The problem with this protestation is that although it is true that I have no direct evidence that no such thing as his God is floating about somewhere in the interstellar void, nor do I have any evidence that there aren’t two gods. Or three. Or ninety-six point four. Or, for that matter, a giant magic space-duck ’round whose mighty bill six supermassive black holes revolve. This shows the insufficiency of “there is no direct evidence against it” as an argument to accept any proposition: It opens the gates to all manner of silly things. I want to remain intellectually consistent, so I must approach all these disparate and sometimes contradictory claims (there is exactly one, are exactly two, three, four gods… cannot all be true) with the same approach. I do, and so accept only the ones whose existence is supported by good evidence. Therefore I am an atheist.

(This is of course what Russell’s Teapot was created to illustrate, along with its more modern successors—the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Sagan’s invisible dragon, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so on.)

So as Bertrand Russell observed,

…I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

I believe that this sufficiently deals with equivocation, and dismissing the idea that the lack of positive disproof of a proposition (in spite of lack of positive evidence for it) is sufficient grounds to believe in it. We’re left, then, with the notion that the atheist’s confidence that there are no gods is on par with the theists’s faith in his because both positions have evidentiary support. The same @repenTee provided this frank and illustrative example in a blog comment:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God. As we have observed people, places and things we conclude that something greater than ourselves must exist. Who this God is from that point we may differ but the theist never concludes that God exists apart from evidence....

Unfortunately, the analogy with biologists falls rather flat when we consider that the biologist’s inference from observation is only the first stage of scientific investigation. In the canonical simplification of scientific inquiry, this is observation leading to hypothesis formation. A biologist might for example observe cells in agar, see some interesting things, and conclude that cells reproduce by fission…but it doesn’t end there. If a biologist submitted a paper to a journal with no more substance than “here’s what I saw and here’s what I conclude”, it would be rejected and might not even receive the grace of a note explaining why. Rather, the biologist must use this point as a starting point only and ask questions. If I am right, what does that imply? What else should I be able to see? Can I follow up on that, and do I see what I expect? More importantly, what if I am wrong? What should I expect to see if I am wrong, and can I check up on that?

Indeed, some very great scientific truths have been discovered thanks to ideas that were arrived at in very ad hoc fashion, but turned out to be true. August Kekulé famously arrived at the structure of the benzene molecule from a dream of the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. Einstein developed a lot of ideas from Gedankenexperiments and his sense of scientific aesthetics. The ultimate source of an idea is not so very important, whether empirical observation or irrational impulse—you may observe nature and draw the wrong conclusions; you may hallucinate and by chance have a correct idea. The key is not where the idea comes from, but how we can tell if it’s correct or erroneous.

This is of course the principles of falsifiability and (implicitly) replicability, two of the great cornerstones of the scientific enterprise. We accept no one’s word that something is true just because it seemed reasonable from what they saw. We expect them to explain in quantitative detail what difference their idea makes, so that we can make predictive statements and check whether it’s correct. Note that this goes beyond merely looking for consistency. I can make up all kinds of crazy ideas that are consistent with facts. I can claim that the world is such as it is because the giant magic space-duck willed it to be so, and this is consistent with facts. But it’s not an idea to be taken seriously because I cannot say “If the space-duck exists then we should observe X; if it does not then we should observe Y.” Before I accept the truth of a proposition, the existence of any entity, it must be clearly meaningful to say that it is false—and of course that meaning must turn out to be counterfactual.

So let us return to the quote from above:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God.

At this stage, what’s been described is hypothesis generation. There’s nothing wrong with generating hypotheses, and no wrong way to do it (only more or less productive ones), but hypotheses must not be mistaken for validated theories, for truth. How do you know that your idea of divine creation is correct? What predictions have you (or any theist) ever made that would detect divine agency—what evidence should be sought to verify that your god created something rather than just natural processes? If you have not looked for it, then it’s not comparable to what a proper biologist does at all; it’s the brainstorming phase, not the publishable work that actually gets a scientist respect and tenure.

This is also the big problem with a deist god. Certainly it violates no evidence, but nor does it leave any evidence or make any predictions. To say that there is a god, but it leaves no traces of itself for us to find, only sounds less crazy than to say the same of a magic space-duck because we are culturally conditioned to take gods more seriously.

The objection to deism is also applicable to certain views of theism—that is, those that fall into the trap of the God of the Gaps. Over the centuries, some defenders of religious faith have insisted that what we cannot scientifically explain must be the work of their god—the orbits of the planets, say, or the origin of life. As Kepler, Newton et al explained orbital mechanics, these defenders of faith had to admit that the planets weren’t pushed along by their god—but “ah”, they’d say, “gravitation itself is surely the power of God”. Along comes Einstein and explains gravitation as geometry, the consequence of deformations in spacetime, and gravitation turns out not to be an intangible force after all. “Ah!”, exclaim the defenders (or their intellectual descendands), “but then spacetime must be due to God.” And so on—with every new discovery, their god is redefined so as not to conflict with facts. But this god can never generate a meaningfully falsifiable prediction, because every falsification is inevitably explained away with a new redefinition.

Indeed, earlier versions of these beggar-gods, deities who would hide in any nook or cranny that science had yet to illuminate, did generate falsifiable hypotheses, such as “the planets could not remain in stable orbits but for the mystical power of God”—which turned out to be false, neatly disproving them.

The only gods that remain to be dealt with are the ones with more meat on their bones—ones who generate falsifiable claims: Gods such that their followers ought to be able to come up and tell me: “These are the verifiable (or falsifiable) differences between two models of the world: One such as it is or would be with my god in it; one such as it is or would be without him.” That is a god that needs to be evaluated on an individual balance, the evidence for and against it weight—especially that against it (as attempted falsification yields better evidence than mere consistency-with-established-facts).

I’d welcome such falsifiable evidence.

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The headline pretty much says it all: “Priest Walks Out of Funeral Service Over Deceased's Lesbian Daughter”. Having denied her communion during the funeral service, the priest left the altar when the daughter of the deceased gave a eulogy, and used a weak excuse to weasel out of the gravesite part of the service.

Comments are predictable.

  • Obviously, this man need a few more courses in Theology/ Scripture and pastoral Practices.
  • I find it a shame that people who call themselves "religious leaders" behave like this.
  • The sad thing is that many people will not only stop attending that Parish but will stop going to Mass. They will say that all Catholics are bigoted holier- than- thou Christians. We are living in such troublesome times that we need Our Lord and Our Lady as constant companions.

—And so on.

What these comments and others like them all seem to miss is that the priest actually didn’t make a poor moral judgement. He did something morally awful, but in fact he didn’t make a moral judgement at all. He followed the rules—the rules of the Catholic Church that say here’s this god, here’s what he’s said, here’s what others have said to whom that god delegated some authority. He didn’t deny this woman communion because he personally decided that she didn’t deserve it: He did it because the rules said he should. He didn’t invent the notion that she’s a sinner for being homosexual; it’s right there in the “good book”. (Yes it’s true that Leviticus condemns eating shellfish and mixed-fibre clothing as well as male homosexuality, but that doesn’t excuse and annul the latter: it only makes the book ludicrous as well as vile.)

This priest believes that, as a matter of fact rather than personal judgement, this is precisely what his god wants him to do. He doesn’t think it’s his idea; it’s “the Lord’s”. He subscribes, in addition, to a faith tradition that condemns humans as “sinful”, so that his god’s morality by definition trumps his own: Even if he personally felt that this condemnation of homosexuality were evil, his faith and dogma inform him that he is in the wrong.

Does this mean I think his behaviour is pardonable? Of course not. The moral outcome is atrocious, so clearly there was an error. I only differ in my view of where the error lay; and to me, the error lay in accepting the premises that quite soundly lead to the terrible conclusion: He believes that there is a god who wants this. My point is that the error is factual rather than one of moral judgement. If you honestly believe what he believes, then his moral conclusion is inevitable. The observation that he’s a douchebag is notable, but tangential.

And here is the core problem: Belief drives action and moral conclusions, and false beliefs can drive even the well-intentioned to commit bad actions and reach poor moral conclusions. The only way someone like this priest could arrive anywhere but where he did is by either re-examining his beliefs or ignoring what he believes his god, the all-perfect creator of the Universe wants him to do. Frankly, the latter seems like a bad idea.

A lot of people seem to take the view that it is proper, in the light of such situations, to re-examine beliefs and modify them according to what they want. Though rarely stated so baldly, the argument seems to go something like this hypothetical: I don’t think that homosexuality is wrong; therefore God must not think so either, and anyone who thinks that God condemns it is wrong. I don’t give much for this kind of argument; it’s pure wishful thinking, a notion that what you want to be true necessarily must be true. (I suppose it helps that the Bible contains a lot of contradictions where you can cite one verse to denounce another.)

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to take a moral qualm with this as an impetus for re-examining these beliefs. To go thence to I don’t like this particular conclusion, ergo that biblical dogma must be wrong whereas all the dogma I personally like must be true is utterly irrational. If “Are homosexuals sinful?” is up for grabs, why not “Was Jesus God?”, or “Is there a god at all?” Why not any claim derived from scripture lacking empirical backing? Rather, one should ask one’s self what premises can be reasonably assumed or deduced, and what conclusions flow therefrom. If the conclusions seem acceptable, then either your premises or reasoning is at fault, or you’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that reality isn’t what you’d like it to be.

A common reaction to these situation seems to be to turn to a milder, more tolerant faith. On one level, of course, I applaud it—the world is full of people who are good people in spite of being Christian, because they prioritise their own judgement over that of their dogma, cherry-picking the parts they (with their good moral judgement) approve and rejecting the parts they do not. On another level, I recognise that it’s intellectually even more bankrupt than dogmatic blind faith because it’s ad hoc and inconsistent: Blindly believe some dogma because…the Bible says so?, but at the same time reject other dogma from the same source. Why believe the former if the latter proves the source unreliable?

If you have occasion to question some of religion’s teachings, perhaps it’s a good idea to start at first principles and ask how you can know that any of it is true. Once you apply reason and standards of evidence, we atheists will welcome you to our ranks, with open arms—after all you’re already a nice person.

If you choose not to question, then I suppose you face the choice of an ad hoc muddle, or taking up the entirely consistent position of the aforementioned priest.

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A Twitter exchange¹ reminds me of one of the more peculiar rhetorical gambits many proselytising Christians will resort to when faced with unbelief: Just call on God’s name sincerely, or Only pray to Jesus for salvation, or similar.

Now, for a believing Christian I’m sure the gesture seems meaningful: When they call on their god’s name or pray, they believe they are communicating with something. However, it is bafflingly inane to suggest this to a disbeliever. I get their meaning: They feel that if we only tried sincerely, then surely God would show us the light, or something. The reason why it is so inane is that said sincerity is impossible. I cannot sincerely talk to an imaginary being. I am an atheist; I sincerely don’t believe that there exist any gods, and so obviously any act of mine of “speaking” to any such fictional entity would be a sham, and I would be disqualified on the sincerity point. Someone who does offer a sincere prayer must have belief that there is at least some recipient of the prayer. So of course everyone who offers that sincere prayer feels validated, but it’s no victory at all because only those who had already subscribed qualified.

Most likely it’s just another thing not properly thought through, an earnest but inane entreaty to the unbelievers, born perhaps from this peculiar habit of some believers to treat atheists as though they didn’t actually believe that atheism is real, as though atheists were not people who don’t believe in their god but instead people who just don’t like it.² (Many atheists do point out problems with that entity, of course, but the causality is here reversed. We are free to criticise because we don’t presuppose perfection and blind ourselves to flaws.)

If, on the other hand, it is not mere sloppy thinking but an intentional rhetorical trick, it’s cheap and sleazy.

I would urge the next Christian who feels a need to implore me to sincerely beseech Jesus to first set a good example by offering a sincere prayer to Thor, or if they prefer, to Vulcan, Set, Torak, or the Great Green Arkleseizure. I am willing to bet that none of them will actually do so—not sincerely.³

¹ No, I don’t have much to do today.

² In case it’s not already clear, let me state it plainly: We’re not atheists because we dislike your god. Most of us are atheists because we realised that there’s no good evidence that any such things as gods exist; because we take the same standards of reasoning that use when determining truth in other matters, when people fervently attempt to persuade us of things, and apply them to your gods. I don’t personally feel that being an atheist makes me smarter than religious people, but I do think I apply my intelligence more consistently, to areas you choose to shelter from critical thought and need for evidence.

³ My first datum seems to represent the approach of pretending not to hear.

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Suppose on the one hand that we have a mad serial killer who wishes to strap me down and slowly pull out all of my fingernails with a pair of pliers; not because it pleases him per se, but because he feels that I deserve it and that, given my beliefs and lifestyle, this is the best and fairest thing that can possibly happen.

Suppose on the other hand that we have a Bible-believing Christian, who subscribes to the fairly orthodox beliefs that there is a God; that this God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and created the Universe; that there is a Hell of unending torment; and that people who do not believe in this God will go to this Hell.

It follows, therefore, that said Christian—and while many, many Christians are not like that, we can surely agree that those beliefs are not mere hypotheticals—is rather like the serial killer in that he feels that the best and fairest thing that can possibly happen to me, qua that which will in fact happen in a world created and governed by a just, loving, and omnipotent God, is that I will suffer torment.

The two are alike—the mad serial killer and the Bible-believing Christian—in that both believe that, given my beliefs and lifestyle, it is good and just that I should suffer torment. The serial killer, though, only thinks that I deserve the torment of having my fingernails pulled out with pliers. The Christian is not so easily satisfied: To him, the just and good torment is infinite both in magnitude and duration.

Now, the above all sounds rather slanderous, but I hasten to point out that I said in the title that this is the one way in which such Christians are logically worse than serial killers. Apart from a few rare hate-mongers like the Phelpses (and similarly a few truly vile mullahs on the Islamic side of the fence, I suppose), I expect that even Christians who subscribe to all the qualifying beliefs above don’t actually wish an infinitude of torment on me. Even apart from the obvious evasion of the issue (I want you to believe!), I think that the great majority of Christians, if they really sat down and envisioned an unbeliever like yours truly (or if you like, someone like Richard Dawkins, Jodie Foster, Bertrand Russell, Sir David Attenborough, or Isaac Asimov, to draw on a few walks of life) writhing in horrific agony for unending eons, they would feel uncomfortable with the idea. I am not claiming that Christians are in the main full of such profound malice. All I claim is that if you accept as premises that

  1. there exists a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and absolutely fair, who created and ordered the Universe;
  2. there exists a Hell where torment is infinite and unending¹;
  3. the Universe is so ordered that if you do not believe in aforementioned God, you will forever suffer in aforementioned Hell²;

then you logically arrive at the conclusion that

  • ∴ In a Universe designed, created, and ordered in the fairest and most loving way possible, the consequence for unbelief is infinite suffering.
  • ∴ Infinite suffering is a just consequence for unbelief.

Ergo, either there’s a flaw in my reasoning (please point it out); or a Christian who is also a good person must reject at least one of the premises; or they must refuse or fail to follow those premises to their conclusion. Personally, I think that the latter is most likely—as you may know, I believe that the device that allows people to hold religious beliefs is compartmentalised thinking, where these beliefs are not held to the same standards of scrutiny, reason, coherence, and evidence as are beliefs in other walks of life. That doesn’t speak too highly of the matter, though, and doesn’t resolve the dilemma of what such a believer should make of it if confronted.

Another common resolution is of course to simply reject the premise that unbelief merits Hell, or to reject the Hell doctrine altogether. That’s a better moral solution, though I’m not sure how it helps intellectually. In rejecting some of the doctrines of the Bible, after all, you thereby reject the Bible itself as an authorative document, meaning that its teachings are subject to external reason and evidence to ascertain what’s true and what’s not; whereby you’re left rejecting the reliability of the only source for the whole God-and-Jesus bit. But more on that at some other time.

¹ Mark 9:46: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

² John 3:18: He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. For some reason, liberal Christians aren’t nearly as fond of citing this as the earlier 3:16 bit about how God so loved the world.

haggholm: (Default)

Pope Ratzinger feels that Nazism was an example of atheist extremism and that the Nazi tyranny wished to eradicate God from society.

Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope)

I suppose he should know. Still, a certain Herr Adolf Hitler seems to have disagreed:

We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.

I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.

Adolph Hitler (Führer)

The last quote is a bit dubious—Hitler was nominally Catholic, but the Nazi party embraced a lot of Pagan and mystic influences that his Catholic forbears would probably have liked to see burned at the stake. The Christian church bears responsibility for an awful lot of anti-Semitism (not just the Catholic church, of course: Martin Luther was perhaps even worse), but while Hitler enjoyed some of their doctrines, he was hardly a mainstream Christian—unless in the narrow sense of a mainstream Positive Christian, as the Nazi religious doctrine was called. And while the Catholic Church has been pretty widely criticised for not officially opposing the Nazi regime (though many individual Catholics and Catholic congregations did), it’s at the very least not obvious that this was not out of fear rather than doctrinal approval.

Still, it’s rather astonishingly ironic:

  • Hitler proclaimed himself a Catholic
  • Hitler boasted of having stamped out atheism
  • Hitler spoke widely of how he felt he followed in Jesus’s footsteps in fighting the Jews¹
  • The Catholic Church did not officially denounce Hitler or the Nazis (and has been widely criticised for it)
  • Pope Ratzinger was himself a member of the Nazi youth organisation, the Hitlerjügend, albeit this was probably pretty much compulsory
  • Pope Ratzinger now claims that the Nazi tyranny was not merely atheistic, but in fact an example of atheist extremism

¹ I never claimed he made much sense.

haggholm: (Default)

I don’t really understand the furor over these recent events: The resistance to a mosque near Ground Zero, the rage at the Florida priest who wants to burn Qurans.

Of course it’s offensive to burn Qurans. It’s offensive to me because book-burnings are generally violent and anti-intellectual protests and seems to follow in the footsteps of some very nasty movements that we’d do well not to emulate. It’s offensive to Muslims because—well, I don’t think I even need to finish that sentence. Yes, it’s offensive. That’s the point—like it or dislike it.

But in a society with free speech, we never have the right not to be offended. This should be starkly obvious to everyone paying the least bit of attention to the current debate, because both ‘sides’—if we grossly oversimplify this into Christians vs. Muslims for the sole purpose of making this paragraph simpler—are obviously offending each other. The Christians down in Florida are offending the Muslims by threatening to burn Qurans. The Muslims who want to build a mosque next door to Ground Zero¹ are offending an awful lot of people, too. Is it not slightly curious that when these [particular] Muslims are offending people, the promoters of tolerance tell us that we must be tolerant and therefore let them go ahead; whereas when other people are offending the Muslims, the promoters of tolerance tell us that we must be tolerant and therefore shut the hell up? Doesn’t this seem a bit one-sided?

Not only do we have no right not to be offended; it is not possible to get through this, or most any heated discussion, without someone getting offended. Someone will get offended however any of these debates turn out. Accept it. Get over it. Move on.

Now, personally (as if this mattered to anyone else!), I would be happier if nobody burned any books, even blatantly offensive ones like Bibles and Qurans and the writings of Martin Luther. I would also be happier if nobody built a mosque near Ground Zero. Well—I would be happier if nobody built any mosques at all, but to place it there reeks of either a desire to offend or of blatantly poor taste. I’m not suggesting that these people² don’t have a right to build their mosque wherever they own land with the proper zoning; I’m aware of no reason to think that anyone has any right to prevent them from building it. Still, it seems in poor taste at best: In spite of the fact that the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims are not in fact terrorists, it remains true that Ground Zero was the site of a horrific tragedy promoted and powered by religious fundamentalism, and a mosque is a place to honour and celebrate that same religion. I would feel the same way about a cathedral at Béziers, a Lutheran church at Auschwitz, a monument to America in My Lai. If you belong to a group that was associated with something horrible somewhere, the proper thing to do is probably to distance yourself from what they did and avoid glorifying your movement on the site of the atrocity.

Let me digress for a moment. I’m not suggesting that all Muslims are aligned with terrorist action. Not only are most Muslims in no way involved in atrocity; there are (unsurprisingly) overtly Muslim organisations that openly, honestly, and vocally campaign against the various atrocities often committed in the name of their religion. A brief search will find, for instance, the Free Muslims Coalition, who [promote] a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs. But the lamentable fact is that even they write that

The Free Muslims Coalition is a nonprofit organization made up of American Muslims and Arabs of all backgrounds who feel that religious violence and terrorism have not been fully rejected by the Muslim community in the post 9-11 era.

The Free Muslims was created to eliminate broad base support for Islamic extremism and terrorism and to strengthen secular democratic institutions in the Middle East and the Muslim World by supporting Islamic reformation efforts.

The Free Muslims promotes a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs. The Free Muslims' efforts are unique; it is the only mainstream American-Muslim organization willing to attack extremism and terrorism unambiguously. Unfortunately most other Muslim leaders believe that in terrorist organizations, the end justifies the means.

This is laudable—and tragic in equal measure. Laudable that they stand up to do this. Lamentable that they feel that they are unique; lamentable that there is broad base support for extremism and terrorism (laudable though their efforts to combat it may be); lamentable that they feel that they are the only mainstream American-Muslim organisation willing to unambiguously oppose it. Hear what else they have to say:

As written recently by Khaled Kishtainy, columnist at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper, "I place on the Islamic intellectuals and leaders of Islamic organizations part of the responsibility for [this phenomenon] of Islamic terrorism, as nearly all of them advocate violence, and repress anyone who casts doubts upon this. Naturally, every so often they have written about the love and peace of Islam – but they did so, at best, for purposes of propaganda and defense of Islam. Their basic position is that this religion was established by the sword, acts by the sword, and will triumph by the sword, and that any doubt regarding this constitutes a conspiracy against the Muslims."

The Free Muslims finds this sympathetic support for terrorists by Muslim leaders and intellectuals to be a dangerous trend and the Free Muslims will challenge these beliefs and target the sympathetic support given to terrorists by Muslims.

Would that the Free Muslims were the majority voice of Islam. Alas, this does not seem to be the case. There are imams condoning terrorist actions. There are imams and ayatollahs issuing fatwahs calling for the death of people like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There are uproars and uprisings at things like the Danish cartoons. Sure, most Muslims do not participate. But where are the voices decrying and condemning it? Why do I always hear Not all Muslims are like that; you can’t judge them all by those atrocities, rather than Not all Muslims are like that; you can’t judge us all by those atrocities—because we condemn them? Where are the counter-fatwahs and apologies to Rushdie and Hirsi Ali; where are the apologies for Theo Van Gogh and others like him; where are the imams standing up and saying Yes, I found those Danish cartoons offensive, but nowhere near as offensive as the reality that people are willing to kill and destroy merely because they are being teased?

Given that the majority voice of Islam is not the Free Muslims—given that the loud and clear speakers are the issuers of murderous fatwahs and not those who oppose them—I hardly find it surprising that people take offence to the erection of a mosque near Ground Zero. They have no right to prevent it, but they have a right to be upset—and they have a right to wonder (I certainly wonder) what is the motivation of the people who chose to erect it there. Who are the builders? Are they Free Muslims who wish to have a holy site to say, Look what happens when you take it too far, when you value holy writ over human life—these are our people, and we are here to apologise on behalf of Islam, to distance ourselves from it, to make penance? If so, good on them and build on, please. If not, then who, and why? —But again, people have a right to be upset but not to stop it. I think this is clear. I think this is an obvious consequence of a free society.

Is it not, then, obvious that the same must apply both ways? The Florida priest who wants to burn Qurans is offensive—in fact, deliberately offensive where I don’t know what the motives at Ground Zero may be. People have a right to be upset. But just as the Muslims behind the Ground Zero mosque have a right to build it, even though it offends people, so the Florida Christians have a right to burn Qurans, even though it offends people. Both actions are offensive to some. Both actions are offensive to me. Both actions should be subject to criticism—but, too, the right to commit both actions should be defended.

What is the nature of the protest against the Quran burning? It will offend people! Why, yes, but so what? It will exacerbate the crisis in Afghanistan. It will incite terrorist action. Indeed, I’m sure it will. But is that any reason not to do it? I thought that it was important to a free, constitutional democracy to stand up for the right of its citizens to be free, to express themselves freely. I thought the United States of America prided itself on doing this. This is why I think that the constitution of the United States is a wonderful, beautiful thing, and though I am not American and have never lived (and will likely never live) in the United States, I admire it greatly and applaud the foundation of a country upon its principles and amendments.

So the people who say You should not do this because it will incite the enemy have it backwards. The purpose of the military arm of the United States of America is surely to protect the safety and the human and constitutional rights of its citizens, to ensure that every American is free to exercise his right to free speech. You should not avoid offending terrorists (Muslim or otherwise) to protect your soldiers; your soldiers are there to protect you from terrorists who seek to prevent you from speaking your mind.

Is the plan of the Florida priest to burn Qurans offensive? Why, yes. It is both literally and figuratively incendiary. But what’s really offensive is that some people might treat this action—the burning of a pile of papers—as sufficient justification to burn buildings and murder people. If you wish to condemn only one of these, then please condemn the latter. If you wish to condemn them both (I encourage it), then please condemn the latter a thousand times harder.

Building a mosque at Ground Zero might make terrorists happy. They might regard it as an ultimate victory, the erection of a monument to their faith at the site of their victory. But they are wrong. Allowing anyone, even if they turned out to be terrorist sympathisers, to build whatever the hell they want at Ground Zero is a victory of the values of liberty. Let everyone who walks by that mosque cast dirty looks; let not one of them cast a stone or grenade or wrecking ball. (If you vandalise it, you aren’t fighting terrorists, you’re becoming terrorists.)

You know what’s really letting the terrorists win? Saying that someone shouldn’t be allowed to offend them. The people who say that the Florida priest should not burn Qurans because it will incense the terrorists are allowing those terrorists’ atrocities to constrain their actions and freedom of speech. That’s what terrorism aims to do. That is letting the terrorists win.

¹ I may refer to these people as these people or these Muslims. Please note that I am doing so in a context-aware fashion. I’m not saying this because I lump all Muslims in with them, or because I think that those people in a voice laden with contempt is an appropriate tone, but because I am talking about a particular group of people. Feel free to be offended by my post, but please try not to misconstrue it.

² See ¹.

Errata: The facility is not at Ground Zero, but near it. I have a few instances of each in the text above, and at was simple error on my part.

See comments: The applicability of the word mosque is debatable. Read the comments and decide for yourself.


Jun. 6th, 2010 02:49 am
haggholm: (Default)

I have been meaning to find, buy, and read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel for quite some time, but I had never done so; in part because of my tendency to remember things exactly when I am in no position to do anything about them, and in part because I knew it would be painful to read, that it’s a first-person narrative that contains things that are at once awful, horrifying, and true.

Today I saw it in a bookshop window and immediately veered inside and bought it. I knew it would be painful and intense to read, so I figured it would be one of those rare books that I would take a long time to read, maybe even weeks. This proved not to be the case; although I had a length interruption earlier this evening, there was no way I could go to bed before I finished it (and, it seems, no way I could go to bed before telling the world about it, here).

Of course it had terrible and painful things, and parts that were difficult to read, but it was more, far more, than a tragic narrative; it was engaging, it was terrifically well written; it contained not one iota of self-pity and nary a trace of resentment, but empathy and sympathy and insight and amounts of courage that are beyond the power of superlatives to describe.

Reading it, I came across sections I wanted to quote here—painful ones, powerful ones, awe-inspiring ones, ones filled with hope—but as is the case with truly great books, there’s just too much to quote; I should have to quote half the book or feel that a section torn out of context would do terrible injustice to the book as a whole.

Read it. Find it, borrow it, buy it, whatever. Read it. Get it from amazon.com or .ca or Chapters or B&N or your local library or something, but read it.

You will cringe, you will cry,



haggholm: (Default)

Season’s greetings from Jeremiah 10:2–8:

2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold…
8 …They are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities.

haggholm: (Default)

The one instance where it actually makes any specific reference to abortion or causing a miscarriage in any way: Exodus 21:22

ASV: And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

The Bible prescribes a monetary fine as the punishment for abortion. Which is to say, God's word is that abortion is, while not morally good, not as evil as, say, sassing back to your parents (the Biblically-mandated punishment for which is death, as per Leviticus 20:9).

“Malimar”, blog comment

haggholm: (Default)

A wingnut called Terry Eagleton wrote a famously bad review of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

Terry Eagleton, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching

The most famous reply to this is P.Z. Myers’s satire, The Courtier’s Reply, which is one of his finer writings and vastly enjoyable. Today, though, I came across a succinct reply I had not seen before, by philosopher A.C. Grayling. It is perhaps less offensive in that it does not satirise, but it gives Eagleton about the same shrift:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

Anthony Grayling


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