Jordan Peterson and a Lesson on Critical Thinking for Liberals

 

I came across Jordan Peterson from listening to the Joe Rogan podcast.  I’m a fan of Rogan’s podcast because of the diversity of guests that he has on his show, and the subject matter of those talks.  I hadn’t heard of Peterson before Rogan’s podcast, but was interested in what he had to say.  Peterson is is a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and has been teaching for over thirty years.  It only took a quick Google search to realize what a controversial figure he is.  He’s been vilified by liberals and Social Justice Warriors for his criticism of transgender people (more on that below), ‘safe spaces’ on college campuses, women and gender studies, and activism.  At first glance, I could see some of the issue that liberals had with Peterson, but his talk on Rogan’s podcast made me think there was more to this issue then what lies at the surface.  After to listening to 12-14 hours worth of lectures, interviews, and podcasts of Peterson, I have a few thoughts on this guy.  Put simply; I think the Left is wrong about Peterson and here’s why:

Peterson’s notoriety has come about in large part for his outspoken protest of Senate bill C-16; legislation that would add gender identity and gender expression as a protected class in the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.  It would mean that gender identity and gender expression would be added to the already-lengthy list of protected classes — which includes “color, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.  The problem, as Peterson saw it, was not that transgendered individuals where being covered under anti-discrimination laws, it was a point in the bill that said that refusing to call someone by the personal pronoun of their choosing was considered harassment/discrimination.  This list of pronouns goes way beyond the typical “he”, “she”, or “they”, but includes a number of made-up words such as “vey”, “himer”, “shkle”,  “ze”, etc.  Peterson sees this as compelled speech and a violation of free speech.  He argues that there is no evidence to demonstrate that this sort of compelled speech would in any way help the trans community, and may actually be harmful.  His push back to this legislation drew national attention to the bill and criticism from transgender activists, faculty, and labor unions, and who accused Peterson of fostering a climate of hate.

Now, I would argue that out of respect for another person, we should use the pronoun they choose.  But I agree with Peterson that respect cannot be forced; no one should be forced to speak in a certain manner.  I may disagree with his refusal to use alternate pronouns out of principle, but I fully agree that we cannot expect compelled speech to solve the issues the trans community faces.  I take real issue with the knee-jerk reaction of liberals in calling Peterson “trans-phobic” (he has stated numerous times that he has no issue with transgendered persons) and refusing to hear what his real issue with the bill is.

Another issue that Peterson speaks on frequently that often gets misunderstood is feminism.  Of particular interest is the subject of the so-called wage gap.  I’m sure everyone has seen the statistics that point out that women make 80 percent of what men make.  This sounds like an alarming case of inequality on the surface, but once you dig deeper you find that it’s not that simple.  One get’s the idea in their heads of two people – one a man, one a women – doing the same job, for the same amount of time, and have equal experience, but one the women is getting $.80 for every $1.00 the man makes.  But that’s simply not the case.  The statistic doesn’t take into account things such as:

  • Women are more likely to stay home with their children
  • Women are more likely to work part-time jobs because they have children
  • Men are more likely to do dangerous and/or physically demanding work then women
  • Men tend to gravitate towards jobs in the STEM field which on average pay more then other jobs
  • Men tend to work more hours then women

Recent studies have shown that when these factors are taken into account, the gap is actually only a few cents.  This isn’t to say that sexism and discrimination don’t exist in certain work forces.  Although the entire pay gap is not the result of labor market discrimination, a fraction of it might be.  However, continuing to sight false statistics does nothing to address issues of real discrimination women may face.

This relates to the issue of equality, an ideology that one often finds espoused by liberals, but in too simplistic of terms.  Peterson points out that there is a difference between equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome.  Equal opportunity means that there is a level playing field for everyone to pursue whatever they want; education, careers, etc.  Equal outcome means that we rig the system so that are an equal number of people in each field, i.e, an equal number of men and women, an equal number of minorities to Caucasians, etc.  The problem with this is that rather then the best person for the job being selected, people are often put into positions simply to fill a quota.  On the flip side, you create pressure on people to pursue jobs  that they may not be interested in.

What studies have found is that when a society creates a system of equal opportunity, the differences among men and women actually increase.  In Scandinavian countries, where efforts have been made to make society more egalitarian, we find that the differences in certain work fields between men and women actually increases.  For example, men make up over 80 percent of engineers in Norway and programs to recruit men into nursing has been a dismal failure – almost 90 percent of nurses are still female!  As Peterson puts it, in truly egalitarian societies, “the genuine differences between people are free to manifest themselves”.

These finding fly in the face of feminists and gender theorists who say biology doesn’t matter at all; what matters is social expectations. Yet evolutionary psychologists insist that biology matters a lot.  It would seem that biology does play a significant role in determining a person’s vocational and career choices.

When it come the issue of Social Justice Warriors, Peterson has some advice.  Simply put – “If you can’t even clean your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?”  This comes from the observation that many in the SJW have very grandiose ideas about changing the world, yet are unable to keep their own lives in order.  Their insistence on changing other people is often a projection of their inability to make changes in their own lives.  Peterson offers some simple advice for making changes around you – Start by cleaning your room.   “Start from yourself and work outward”.  Start by cleaning your room and getting yourself in order, then you see what you can do for your neighborhood, your community, then your town, and move out from there.


 

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the controversy surrounding Peterson stems from the fact that he is simply things about issues on a more intellectual level then the average person.  He is well-read, well-educated, and very intelligent.  Most of what he says goes way over most people’s heads.

In a society where opinions are boiled down to soundbites and 140 characters-or-less, having thoughtful, nuanced discussions of complex issues isn’t appealing to most people.  We want quick, simple answers.  We want things to be black and white.  This goes for both the Right and the Left.  Peterson doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s easy to take a few sentences you hear online and slap a label on him, but that’s intellectual laziness.  In order to understand Peterson, one must listen to everything he has to say on the issue; to hear him out.

This isn’t to say that I agree with everything Peterson has to offer.  I think that he remains ignorant of the plights of minority groups.  His advice to parents to send their kids to trade school instead of college (despite being a college professor) because they’re “run by Neo-Marxists” reeks like some paranoid, conspiracy theory nonsense.  His advice towards women about needing to have kids to feel whole certainly raises my eyebrows.

My point is that Jordan Peterson provides some balance and rationality to the liberal vs conservative debate.  He demonstrates that liberals are just as capable of making the same quick, emotionally charged judgment calls that we accuse the Far Right of making.  Peterson, for me, provided a valuable lesson in critical thinking; checking all the facts before rushing to judgement, and not getting swept away in the prevailing sentiments of one’s own “tribe”.

Be skeptical.  Do your research.  Don’t judge with emotions.  Learn from the those who you may consider the “other”.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Jay Mohr’s Message to Atheists: A Response

The Dogma Debate recently asked comedian Jay Mohr, who had been on the show, if he could write up a piece about what he wanted to say to atheists.  Mohr, who would likely consider himself a “cafeteria Catholic”, has witnessed a number of debates between theists and atheists, and hasn’t been to impressed by what he saw/heard.  Mohr’s piece, “Comedian To Atheists: A Message From Jay Mohr”,  is a well crafted, humorous, assessment of the ongoing and often tumultuous arena of religious discourse.

I was expecting to like the piece less then I did, honestly.  I think Mohr makes some excellent points and does a good job of not taking any particular side, but considering both positions.  His call for more dialogue and less argument is an important one.  The need for more understanding and compassion is something both sides of the debate need to hear.  Mohr rightly points out that very often these debates become very binary – very black vs white, right vs wrong – and this can be problematic.

I do have a couple of issues with Mohr’s article that I want to address.

Mohr questions the validity of debates at all.  “Why always an argument?” he asks, “Rarely does the religious person walk away from the debate with a changed mind and throw their faith into the nearest trash can.”

I think the point that Mohr is missing is that with these sorts of debates, it’s less about the two people debating and more about the audience that is listening.  He’s right; rarely if every do either person in a debate walking away having changed their minds.  However, often times there will be someone in the audience who does change their minds.  At the very least, many people will walk away with a different or better understanding the issue.

A good example of this can be found in the Intelligence Squared debates.  The audience is asked to vote on where they stand on the issue being discussed, either “For”, “Against”, or “Undecided”.  The audience is then asked after the debate where they stand.  In almost every debate, a certain percentage of the audience will have changed their vote.

“So, what’s the point?” Mohr seems to imply.  “…what is the victory of reversing someone’s belief system that works for them?”  Well, Mohr answers his own question late in the article where he states, “If Christians weren’t always trying to explain to you how you were going to hell, or how you’re living your life incorrectly, or trying to write legislation controlling your behavior…”  THAT is precisely why it is so important to work towards reversing people’s belief systems!  Nobody lives in a bubble – beliefs have consequences.  And many of these beliefs, regardless of how well they may “work” for the person holding them, are detrimental to personal and societal well-being and often hinder humanity’s progress.

Lastly, while I appreciate Mohr’s take on evangelizing (or as he puts it; “the dreaded ‘SHARING’ of their religion”), I think he’s being a little too optimistic here.  Most Christians feel called to preach at anyone who will listen.  In some camps, you aren’t considered a “TRUE Christian” unless you’re actively trying to save people’s souls.  I fully agree that “sharing” is just another way of saying “recruiting”.  It’s offensive, it disregards personal boundaries, and is rarely as effective as Christians would like to claim.  This is all the more reason why we need to work on correcting false beliefs, and debates are often an effective tool for doing so. 

I like Mohr.  I consider him one of the “good ones”.  If he and I sat down for a beer, we would agree on far more then we disagreed on.  And likely the topic of God’s existence wouldn’t even come up, as is often the case when I hang out with my Christian friends.  I’m happy to see Mohr’s post making the rounds across social media, and I hope it continues to be a catalyst for conversation.  People on both sides  of the debate could benefit from it.

Next time we’ll be talking about another person that both sides can learn from; Jordan Peterson.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Mythbusters: 5 Historical Facts About Jesus Video

I recently came across a video called, “When an Atheist Says Why Should I Believe in Jesus and All Those Other Fairytales”.  It presents “Five Historic Facts” about Jesus that somehow prove the Resurrection.  I initially dismissed it as yet another ineffectual attempt by apologists to “prove” their fictional beliefs.  

But, it seems that this video has been gaining a lot of traction on social media, being shared by both believers and non-believers alike.  I’ve had a few friends ask for my thoughts on it, so here we are…

You could almost do a second to second commentary on this video – it’s so jam-packed with assertions, presuppositions, and logical fallacies.  However, I’m just going hit a few of the main points in the video.  So strap in – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Let’s start with the “facts” that warrant the “rational” belief in the Resurrection:

Fact 1: Jesus Died By Crucifixion

I’ll grant the author of the video that most scholars and historians do believe that Jesus was a historical person that lived in the Middle East and was likely put to death by the Romans.  However, I’m skeptical of his claim that they all accept his 5 Facts as true.  This is a mere assertion.  I’m not familiar with all of the people the video lists shows, but I am familiar with Bart Ehrman’s work, and he most certainly does not believe all of these facts are historically true (more on this later).

It’s worth noting that while most scholars accept that Jesus was a historical figure, it is widely noted that the stories surrounding Jesus – the Virgin Birth, miracles, the Resurrection, etc – are mythology and legend.  This type of hero archetype was common in ancient times and can be found in cultures all over the world, many bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Jesus story.

(Related: Mythbusters: The Uniqueness of Jesus)

It’s also important to note that the only contemporary record that we have of Jesus comes from the Bible.  There is not a single mention of Jesus in any  contemporary Greek, Roman, or Jewish sources.  None.  The first surviving account of Jesus’s life was written thirty-five to forty years after his death and none of the accounts are written by eye-witnesses of even people who knew Jesus.  It is therefore impetuous to claim that the stories surrounding Jesus are “historical fact”.

Fact 2: His Disciples Were Convinced He Rose From the Dead.

Calls for speculation, your Honor!  The last we hear of all the disciples is in Acts 1 when they’re all sitting around the table together.  From there, only a few are mentioned, namely Peter, James, and Phillip.  The rest could have gone back to fishing for all we know.  The Bible even says that some of his disciples doubted (Matt 28:17).  But, let’s say for the sake of argument that this claim is true, that all the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead.  This has no bearing on the validity of said claim.   The early followers of Mohammad unanimously believed that he flew up to heaven on a winged horse.  Does that make it true?   Most Christians certainly wouldn’t think so, yet they attempt to use the same logic when it comes to claims of the Resurrection.

Fact 3: Paul Became a Christian

Yes, Paul had his famous vision on the road to Damascus.  But what does this have to do with the historical reliability of the Resurrection?  Sticking with the Muslim theme – does the fact that Mohammad converted to Islam after meditating in a cave on the mountain and being visited by the angel Gabriel make the claims of the Quran “historical fact”?  People converting to a religion has no bearing on the legitimacy of said religion. 

Besides, as I’ve written about before, Paul likely had epilepsy and his  vision was the result of a seizure.

(Related: Paul’s Sacred Disease)

Fact 4: James Became a Christian

See above

Fact 5: The Tomb Was Empty

As mentioned in point 1, there is no extra-Biblical text to validate this claim.  The earliest accounts of Jesus come from Paul, who mentions nothing of the empty tomb.  Since the author of the video seems to hold Ehrman’s opinions in high regard, I’ll quote him here:

“I should stress that the discovery of the empty tomb appears to be a late tradition. It occurs in Mark for the first time, some thirty-five or forty years after Jesus died… the whole story was in fact a legend, that is, the burial and discovery of an empty tomb were tales that later Christians invented to persuade others that the resurrection indeed happened.” 

The author then goes on to say that these “facts” demand and explanation, and continues down the path of fallacious arguing and baseless claims.  We’ll go through a few of these quickly:

Empty Tomb Explanation
  • How many is a “bunch” of guards?  In some places, the bible says only one guard was put in place (Matt 27:65,66), in others it says there were soldiers, plural.  So which is it?
  • No mention of a 2 ton stone, only that it was “great” (Matt 27:60), yet one man was able to roll it into place.  Stand to reason that if one guy can roll it into place, one or several could roll it out of place.
  • Why was there “a city swarming of people trying to find [the body”?  There’s no mention of this anywhere in the Bible.  Jesus’s followers at this time were only in a few hundred and no one else would have had any reason to look for a body.
  • There is no “good historical evidence” that the disciples were martyred.  This is church folklore.  Peter is about the only disciple we can be reasonably certain died for his faith.
  • People die for false beliefs all the time.  Ever heard of suicide bombers?  How about Jonestown?
  • Mass hysteria is not uncommon and there have been many documented cases of it throughout history.  If you want to hold to a belief based on how many claimed to have encountered someone, you should be praying to the Virgin Mary, who has been seen by thousands of people in the last two millennia.

“Precisely those conservative evangelical scholars who claim that mass hallucinations don’t happen are the ones who deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to hundreds or thousands of people at once, even though we have modern, verified eyewitness testimony that she has.” – Bart Ehrman

Supernatural Explanation

I’ve addressed this more times then I can remember.  The atheist in the video rightly points out that dead people stay dead and miracles don’t happen.  The author gives what I consider the “Alamo” of apologetic arguments – science only deals in the natural and since miracles are supernatural they happen outside the realm of science.  Therefore science can’t disprove miracles.

First of all this is a classic argument from ignorance – just because science hasn’t proven something false, doesn’t make it automatically true.  Second, you have to first demonstrate the the supernatural occurs before you can use it as an explanation. Thirdly, science can test miracles when they happen in this, the natural, world.  And, so far science has yet to confirm a single supernatural event, including bodily resurrection.

Supernatural explanations are by default the least likely explanation for an event.  A natural explanation, no matter how far fetched, will always be more likely then a miracle.  Occam’s Razor states that when there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better.  When it comes to an explanation for the empty tomb and the witnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus after he arose, there are many natural explanations – mass hallucinations, shared psychotic disorder, groupthink, legendary accretion, mistaken identity, false memories, and yes; lying.  No matter how implausible some of these explanations may be, they are far more plausible than the supernatural explanation of a bodily resurrection.  You cannot claim that the most likely explanation is the least likely event possible; a miracle.

(Related:  Evidence Explained (or, Why Apologetics Fails)

I have no doubt that this video will convince many Christians that their belief in the Resurrection (and by default, allegiance to their faith) are perfectly rational.  I’m sure many of these well meaning individuals also think that they can convince an atheist of their viewpoint using this video.

Let me dispel this myth right now – no atheist is going to be convinced by this line of arguments.  We can spot presuppositions and logical fallacies a mile away, and this video is chock-full of both!

The entire argument is based on the assumption that the Bible is a historical accurate source of information.  It confuses “beliefs” with “facts”.  It makes bold assertions with out any evidence to back them.  It makes claims about its own religion that would be dismissed if they were made by another (i.e. special pleading).

Contrary to the atheist in the video, most of us have  “heard of this stuff before”, and we’ve found the claims of Jesus’s resurrection to be just as hollow as the supernatural claims made by other religions.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Take Aways: Misquoting Jesus

Today’s review is on Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  Ehrman is one of my favorite authors on the subject of religion and I was happy to find this book at the local library.  Ehrman is considered one of the leading authorities on the New Testament (NT), and his wealth of knowledge and experience comes through in all his books. In Misquoting Jesus, we take a close look at the history of the NT, who wrote the individual books, how and why they were edited over time, and how the 27 books that now make up the NT came to be canonized.  As the title suggests, the crux of the book is on the many, many changes that were made to the books of the NT throughout the centuries, why they were made, and how they influenced Christian doctrine.

A couple important points to start with.  You will often hear believers talking about various Bible translations being better than others because of how close the are to “The original Greek and Hebrew” texts.  This is misleading because there are no original Greek or Hebrew texts in existence.  All that we have are copies of copies of copies.  And speaking of copies; apologists will often claim that the large number of copies we have of the NT are evidence to the Bible’s reliability.  While, it’s true that there are thousands of copies of NT books, virtually no two copies are the same.  In fact, there are more discrepancies between the different copies of the NT then there are words in the entire NT.  Regarding these discrepancies:

Of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, or not any real importance  other than showing that scribes could not spell of keep focused any better than the rest of us.  It would be wrong however to say -as people sometime do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts means or on the theological conclusions one draws from them.

Because of all the mistakes and alterations, and due to the fact that we do not have the original manuscripts, it is virtually impossible for us to know what the original authors’ true words were.  This poses a big problem for those who claim that the Bible is the “inspired word of God”.  Even if God had inspired the writers of the original text, we have no way of knowing what that text actually said.  If God was so concerned about preserving his words, why not ensure that they were passed down, unaltered, throughout the generations?

It would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place.  If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he could have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).

Some have argued that the people making the copies took great diligence to ensure that the manuscripts were as unaltered as possible.  This is also false; the scribes copying were largely not religious scholars, but people outside the religious community:

Texts were typically copied either by professional scribes or by literate slaves who were assigned to do the work within a household.  That means, among other things, that the people reproducing the texts throughout the empire were not, as a rule, the people who wanted the text.

We need always remember that the copyists of the early Christian writings were reproducing their texts in a world in which there were not only no printing presses or publishing houses, but also no such thing as copyright laws.  How could the authors guarantee that their texts were not modified one put into circulation?

As mentioned above, most of the mistakes found throughout the various copies are relatively insignificant.  However, sometimes the changes were more drastic.  Many manuscripts have whole sections that have been altered, added to, or taken out all together.  A couple of well-known examples are Mark 16:9-20 and the story of the adulterous women found in John 7:53-8:12.  Both of these accounts are not found in the earliest copies that we have, and were added later.  Sometimes only a single word was changed, but these deliberate changes could have significant impact on the overall message of the text, as we will see shortly.  Often the texts were changed to suit the views of whichever scribe happened to be copying to better fit the prevailing “orthodox” view at the time.

We see this in regards to how women were viewed, and their role in the church.  For example, I Cor 14:26-33 directly contradicts what Paul says in chapter 11:5 regarding women prophesying, and was likely added later on.  It also contradicts the many times that Paul recognizes female prophets, including Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Priscilla (Rom 16:3), and Junia (Rom 16:7).  In regard to the last example, many texts purposeful changing of the word Junia to Junias.  This is problematic however, as Junia was a common women’s name, but there is no evidence in the ancient world for “Junias” as a man’s name.  Many modern English translations of the Bible still carry this error.

The alteration was no doubt made by a scribe who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the churches, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands.

During the second century, hostilities between Jews and Christians were rising, and many Christian leaders wanted to put a real emphasis on the fact that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and God would not forgive them for it.  Some manuscripts are missing Luke 23:34, most likely because certain scribes didn’t like the idea of Jesus forgiving the Jews.  Also, in one of the earliest complete manuscripts, the Codex Sinaitus, Luke 23:25 reads that Pilot “handing him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him”, thus emphasizing who was really responsible for crucifixion of Jesus.

One of the most controversial subjects in early Christianity was the nature and divinity of Jesus.  Texts were often altered to match the particular Christology of whoever happened to be copying the manuscripts.  For example, John Wettstein noticed that the Codex Alexandrinus had been altered in I Timothy 3:16.  The original manuscript had been altered from saying Christ “who was made manifest in the flesh” to say “God made manifest in the flesh”.  Also, we can see in the books of Luke and Acts that there seems to be a discrepancy regarding when Jesus became divine.  The author states Jesus as Son or God, but did he become the Christs (Luke 2:11), at baptism (Acts 10:37-38), or at resurrection (Acts 2:38)?

So how did the Bible come to be as it is?  It was well-known early on that there were a great amount of discrepancies amongst the early manuscripts.  As Ehrman notes:

 Already in the second century, the pagan critic Celsus had argued that Christians changed the texts… his opponent Origen speaks of the “great” number of differences among the manuscripts of the Gospels; more than a century later Pope Damascus was so concerned about the varieties of Latin manuscripts that he commissioned Jerome to produce a standardized translation; and Jerome himself had to compare numerous copies of the text, both Greek and Latin, to decide on the text that he thought was originally penned by its author.

The simple answer is this: “The group that established itself as ‘orthodox’ then determined what future Christian generations would believe and read as scripture.”  As time went on, and certain groups rose to power, they decided how the Bible was to be read and understood.  They altered the texts to match their particular theology, and much of that theology has been passed on to present day.

The Bible is a collection of the work of men, with all the biases, mistakes, and corruptions that we would expect from a work that has been touched by countless hands.  It’s time people start treating the Bible for what it is, rather than what they want it to be, and stop basing their beliefs on what ancient men wrote down, and future men edited.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can Science Answer Everything?

I’m a huge science nerd.  Anyone who knows me or reads this blog can attest to that.  Of the books I read last year, half of them were science books: biology, cosmology, psychology, neuroscience, physics, etc.  Science is a passion for me and a field that I advocate for and encourage others to also pursue.  Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority; only 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate.  It seems most people in our society are ignorant of the most basic facts of science, the scientific method, and how far we’ve come in understanding the world around us.

Now, I understand that learning about quantum mechanics, string theory, and multiverses may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I firmly believe that a very basic understanding of science should be common knowledge.  Science affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the food we eat, to the medicines we take, to the computers we work on; science is at work all around us.  Yet, most people you talk to don’t understand the significance of peer-review.

This becomes apparent anytime there’s a debate in which science is brought up, particularly when the topic centers around religion.  As someone who regularly invokes science whenever religion is on the table, one of the most common responses I get is – “Well, science can’t answer everything!”  This is generally employed as a discussion-stopper; a last ditch, hail-Mary attempt to change the course of discussion.  The implication being, of course, that since science can’t explain it, then God/religion can.  I want to unpack this oft used defense and explain why I believe it is fallacious argument and needs a rebuttal whenever possible.

First, people who claim “science can’t answer everything” generally have no idea what science can and cannot answer.  Science has made some incredible discoveries in the last several decades and continues to make new discoveries almost daily.  One could spend hours trying to keep track of new insights being gained through the numerous scientific fields.  Unfortunately, our public education system also lags behind in providing students with accurate and current information.

So, I understand if people are uninformed about the latest scientific findings; but don’t then presume to know what the limits of science are.  When it comes to the topics of dispute with theists, I’ve yet to encounter one that science doesn’t have an answer for; if not an evidence-backed theory, at least a working, plausible hypothesis.  When it comes to our daily existence, science does provide us with many adequate answers.  A quick Google search is generally all that’s required to find out if science has an explanation for “X”.

Second, the use of the word “can’t” is problematic.  Look back at what life was like for people living in the 1800’s and compare it to today.  Read up on all the discoveries about the universe that we’ve made in only the last 100 years.  Things that only a century ago would have been considered unknowable are now common knowledge.  The amount of progress humanity has made in such a short period is truly remarkable.  It would be unwise to put limits on scientific discovery.  

There remains a multitude of questions that scientists have about the universe and for every new discovery, new questions arise.  But to state emphatically that science “can’t” provide an answer is imprudent.  A better way to say it would be that science “hasn’t yet” found an answer.  I have no doubt that many of the big questions we all have will be answered in the next century – what caused the Big Bang?  How did life arise on Earth?  Are we alone in the Universe? – just to name a few.

Lastly, by using “science can’t explain everything” as a reason for believing in a God, you are committing a logical fallacy.  Known as the “God of the Gaps” fallacy, it happens whenever a theist tries to establish “God” as the answer to a question that science hasn’t come to a consensus on.  By stating that science can’t explain everything, the implication is that God and/or their religion can.  Until evidence for said god is given however, and clear indications as to how it was done, “God” is not a reasonable answer.

Another fallacy related to this, is when theists assert that if a scientific theory is proven false, then their theory, i.e. “God” is automatically true.  This is what’s known as a False Dilemma – assuming that there are only two correct answers.  Let’s say for example, that evolution is falsified; that does not automatically make creationism right.  Creationists still have to come up with scientific evidence to support their claims.


In his book Everybody is Wrong About God, James A. Lindsay posits that the need for explanations, or the need to attribute cause, is one of the fundamental psychological needs that a god-belief provides people.  He states, “A particularly ugly problem regarding attributional frameworks including ‘God’ is that it isn’t only when we lack natural explanations that we resort to religious ones; it also occurs when the natural explanations before us are too threatening to our deeper psychological needs.”  By claiming a belief in a god based on scientific ignorance, theists are hanging their faith on a very fragile thread, or as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it – “an every receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”.  To quote Lindsay again, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go.”  

Science is the most reliable and currently the only method we have of understanding the natural world.  Who knows what new and wondrous discoveries await us in the future?  And as we discover more and more about the universe we live in, the less people will feel the need to rely on mythological explanations.  Thanks for reading.

Three Years In – Some Thoughts

Last month marked the three year anniversary of this blog.  What started as a platform for “coming out” as a progressive Christian to my largely Evangelical friends and acquaintances, soon became the logbook of my journey out of religion.  It was never my intention to lose my religion, in fact I actively fought against it, but the desire to have my beliefs line up with reality eventually won out in the end.

It’s interesting to look back at my early posts and see the gradual transition from faith to reason.  I started off being an outspoken advocate for the teachings and life of Jesus, social justice, and progressive Christian values.  My frustrations with organized religion and self-reflection can be seen in my post where I lament, “It’s a long, messy road when you start picking through your faith, when you start dissecting everything you’ve been taught and believed.”  This frustration soon lead to my break from the Church.   Not long after, I came out publicly as a non-believer, denounced Christianity and its teachings.  I dabbled briefly in mysticism, but science and reason eventually prevailed.

Since that first year, my blog has focused mostly on science, critical thinking skills, counter-apologetics, and calling out bullshit when I see it.  As an atheist living in the Midwest, I feel a certain responsibility to speak out for other non-believers, letting them see that it’s OK to be an open and outspoken secularist.

One of the blogs that made an impact on me when I was de-converting was Neil Carter’s “Godless in Dixie“.  As a former pastor-turned-atheist living in the Bible Belt, he wrote from a place that I could relate to.  He was also kind enough to answer my emails and provide encouragement.  My hope is that Second Journeys can provide that for someone else.

Now in my third year of writing, I’ve been once again doing some self-reflection.  Perhaps it’s time to make some changes in the focus of my writing and my overall mindset in general?

The catalyst for this thinking came from reading James A. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong About God.  The book is a “call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God.”  A good summary of the book would be, “The debate about God has long been settled, atheism has won out, so now what?”  Lindsay’s book challenged my thinking on a number of points and made me reconsider my approach to talking about religion.  I want to hash through some of these points here.

Lindsay argues that apologists have been unable to provide any evidence for the existence of God, therefore theism is dead.  As such, atheism should also go away, as it has no purpose of meaning anymore: “By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost. […] It’s time to move on, and the path we should follow is to stop pretending that theism deserves serious consideration.”

When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham a couple of years ago, many atheists and scientists were upset at Nye for giving Ham a platform to promote his pseudoscience.  They felt that it only helped validate his position and did little in the way of changing opinions.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and to the idea of debating theists in general.  By engaging in debates over topics where there is no longer a debate to be had, are we really accomplishing anything other then giving credence to their views? 

Lindsay points out that debating can have the opposite effect of what is desired – people often becoming even more  entrenched in their views when faced with contradicting information.  Unfortunately, facts and evidence don’t carry the weight that they should with many people.  In religion, devout believers have mastered a myriad of tricks and techniques to avoid critical thinking and make their beliefs impossible to falsify.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of apologetics, the so-called  “defense of the Christian faith”.  I’ve talked about apologetics failures before, but Lindsay boils the typical apologetic arguments down to this simple observation, “All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth called ‘God'”.

Lindsay observes that at this point in history, apologetics has become a very redundant and foolish endeavor.  Using Sam Harris’s metaphor of religion providing comfort to people the same way that believing there is a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s back yard might provide comfort, “Taking this metaphor at face value, if religion is believing that there’s a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s yard, theology is arguing over the brand of the refrigerator.”

So what does this mean for atheists and those like myself?  For one, it means being very selective about who we choose to have debates  (discussions) with regarding theism (or creationism, climate change, etc.).  While some people may be in a place where they are open to hearing new information and are genuinely curious, most have no intentions of changing their pre-determined stance.  This can be tricky to do, especially if you’re someone like me, who enjoys a good debate.  Lindsay points out that, “Because nonbelievers are branded with this unfortunate word (atheist), they are suddenly expected to defend a lack of belief, a burden that isn’t there’s and yet they routinely accept for themselves. […] Part of the nature of this trap is that it enables religious people to misunderstand atheism as a thing like a religion, which they reliably do.”  

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make efforts to correct false information and dispel myths when we encounter them.  It simply means not getting drawn into the futile debates, or “lose ourselves in the weeds” as Lindsay says.  Don’t give validity to empirically false ideas by engaging in debates with people unable to handle critique or process contradicting information; i.e. people who suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Be honest. Be direct. Be unapologetic.  State the facts, sight your sources, and move on.  If someone counters, demand evidence and be open and willing to listen if they provide any.  This is not an attempt to shut down discussions in any sort of forceful way, but rather to “facilitate productive conversations that move us forward.”

Equally important, however, is being able to also admit when you don’t have a solid answer.  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and it’s certainly preferable to false certainty.  As Lindsay states, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go”.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge and understand that peoples’ beliefs in God come from somewhere. “‘God’ means something when people say it, and that something is related to their attempts to meet psychological and social needs.  These needs manifest primarily in three ways: attributional, for a sense of control, and regarding sociality.  When people talk about their ‘God’, they are talking about how they make sense of ideas that allow them to meet or ignore these needs, and they are telling is that they do not really know how to meet them.”   People of faith are not stupid, delusional, or mentally ill – they simply have wrong information about the world we live in.  Wrong information can be corrected.  With this in mind, it is important to not simply tear down false ideas, but to also build up correct ones.

Above, Lindsay points out three main needs that religion provides for people, and we need to be prepared to help meet those needs post-theism.  If we are going to debunk supernatural claims about the world, we need to be providing natural explanations (attributional).  We need to help people understand that the world can be a scary place, but you are ultimately in charge of your life (control).  Alternatives when it comes to the social benefits that church once offered also need to be met (sociality).  There’s no denying that churches often do community really well.  Non-believers are lacking in this department and we need to be better at providing social interactions for people looking to get out of religion.

So what does all this mean for myself and for Second Journeys?  Honestly, I’m not quite sure!  Just as my personal journey out of faith (and this blog) evolved over time, I’m sure it will continue to evolve over time, just in a different direction.

It will likely mean spending less time on counter-apologetics, both on this blog, on social media, and in person.  Theists aren’t coming up with new arguments for the existence of God, just repackaging and rehashing the same old ones anyways.  I plan on continuing my “Mythbusters” series and calling out false information and stereotypes.  I will also continue to promote critical thinking skills and provide tools and resources.  A helpful addition may be giving people a glimpse of life on the other side of religion, providing resources, and maybe working on some sort of on-line community for people.  This will be as much for my benefit as anyone else.

I think Lindsay is right that it is time for us to move forward into a “post-theist” society, similar to what Scandinavian countries have done.  “The next rational step is to stop treating the idea of ‘theism’ seriously at all.  The war of ideas is over.  The goal is not to create an atheist society so much as to create one that has left the idea of ‘God’ behind in its superstitious past.”  It’s time to move past the atheism/theism debate and start constructing new, healthier, evidence-based world views and trying to solve real world problems.  This doesn’t mean shying away from using the term “atheist”, but simply acknowledging that you don’t believe in a god and moving on to more important matters.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Privileged Immunity of Beliefs, and Why They Don’t Deserve It

Recently I came across a post on social media that a friend had shared.  This friend, by all counts, is a left-leaning liberal and makes no apologies about it.  Most days I agree whole-heartedly with what she posts.  This post, however, had me shaking my head a bit:

By now, everyone on social media has seen the rash of “spirit animal”  memes popping up on their news feeds.  Nowadays, EVERYTHING is considered a “spirit animal”, from real animals to fake animals, real people to fictional people, and even inanimate objects.  I have no dog in the fight and find the whole trend annoying.  But, I bring it up as a spring board for a discussion on the topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now- the censoring of ideas.

As the post above seems to imply, Mari is wanting to shut down the use of “spirit animal” jokes and references, claiming that spirit animals are “sacred”, part of her “deeply help religious beliefs”, and claiming that non-Natives “do not get one” and should use other words.  Mari isn’t the only one denouncing the use of spirit animals.  Articles have been written claiming that non-Natives shouldn’t claim to have spirit animals, or that only Anishinaabe tribes can use them.  Some have gone so far as to argue that it is casual racism.

Should people stop making light of Native American religions, or is this a case of political correctness going too far?  Let’s delve into this issue.

I’ll start by stating this bluntly:

While people intrinsically deserve respect – beliefs/ideas do not.

No belief, ideology, or thought is above reproach; all ideas needs to be on same level playing field of inquiry.

In the marketplace of ideas*, beliefs of every description are attacked from every angle to test how well they stand up to rigorous scrutiny.  This is how ideas are weeded out to determine how well they match up to our current understanding of reality.  The marketplace is responsible for identifying and eradicating those ideas that are based on deception, ignorance, or error.  No idea is immune from this scrutiny, regardless of long it has been around or how strongly held it may be.

Nowhere will you see this call for “criticism immunity” more clearly then in adherents of religion.  There are many who would loudly argue that religious ideas, traditions, and beliefs are somehow “off limits” from criticism, inquiry, or satire.  Some countries have taken this to the extreme in the form of blasphemy laws – laws limiting the freedom of speech and expression relating to blasphemy, or irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, or beliefs.  These laws go so far as to give redress to those who feel insulted on account of their religion.  In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, violation of blasphemy laws can be punishable by death.

Here in America, we see this sort of “privileged immunity” come most often from Christians who are quick to cry ‘persecution’ anytime someone attacks, questions, or disrespect their religious beliefs.  Yet, I am also seeing this same sentiment more and more from liberals and atheists.  They are quick to attach labels such as “prejudice”, “racist”, or “phobic” on anyone who points out the harm that religion is causing in the word.  Public figures are often labeled “Islamophobes” for offering up harsh criticism of the religion, a trend that has made many people afraid of speaking out against the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  Free-speech fundamentalists will argue that all opinions are deserving of respect and should be given a platform, regardless of how hateful and dangerous they may be.

(RELATED: Why free speech fundamentalists are undermining the case for free speech)

Daniel Dennett famously wrote about this subject in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he argues that religion is in need of scientific analysis so that its nature and future may be better understood.  The “spell” that requires “breaking” is not religious belief itself but the belief that it is off-limits to or beyond scientific inquiry.  He likened religion to a virus in the way that it protects itself from questioning.  “What a fine protective screen this virus provides,” he observes, “permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!”  Dennett is confounded over the notion that it is sacrilegious to question your own beliefs and an insult for anyone else to try – “It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question… I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God… should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing. […] Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope.”

I want to emphasize a point I mentioned earlier – When it comes to criticism in this context we are talking about ideas and beliefs, not people.   This is a distinction that needs to be understood.  I am advocating the open discourse of the validity of ideas that people hold to, not the people that are holding to them. (This same concept also applies to the often misunderstood idea of tolerance**) I understand that this can be a tricky path to navigate, as many people hold to their beliefs (especially when it comes to religion) so strongly that to them, a jab against the beliefs can feel like a jab to them personally.  However, this should not stop anyone from calling out bad ideas when we see them.  Some people cannot differentiate between their beliefs and their person, which can lead to attempts at manipulating or intimidating detractors into silence.  I’ll give an example.

A few months ago, a friend of mine who recently de-converted from Christianity posted something on social media which pointed out the ineffectiveness of prayer.  Knowing my friend sense of humor, I posted this in the comments section:

My friend found this admittedly crass joke funny, as did some other people.  One person in particular (we’ll call him “Eric”), however, took offense to it.  He went on a lengthy tirade in the comments section, claiming that “devaluing prayer and my beliefs is an insult” and that we were “attacking him emotionally”.  When pushed by others, Eric responded with threats of Hell – “Those who speak against him [Jesus] and don’t accept him as Lord and Savior are condemned to Hell.”  In one of Eric’s final responses, he claimed that he should have, “the freedom to choose [his beliefs] without insult. It is a human right. A constitutional right. It doesn’t matter if you believe, that is your choice, but to mock those that do with jokes… mocks that freedom.”  As a great example of Christian Exceptionalism – Eric is under the opinion that not only should he have the freedom of religion, but also the freedom of not having his religion/beliefs mocked or critiqued in anyway that makes him feel uncomfortable.  I pointed out to Eric that my comments had not been directed at him, nor did I mention him in any way. It was a joke shared with a friend that Eric happened to come across, took offense to, and then demanded that people not insult his “strongly held beliefs”.  The amount of entitlement it takes for someone to demand that no one ever mock or criticize their religious beliefs on social media is not only astounding, but unfortunately all too common.  As a college professor of mine once said, “There’s a difference between an insult taken and an insult given”.  Eric chose to take offense over a joke that wasn’t aimed at him.  He chose to make the joke about him and not about his beliefs.

“If people can’t control their emotions, then they have to start trying to control other’s behaviors” – Robert Skinner

Personal attachment to religious dogmas should also not persuade skeptics from only going after the low-hanging fruits of religion.  I’ve heard many atheists claim that they don’t really have a problem with religion; it’s fundamentalism they take issue with.  Well, I’m not one of those people.  I do have a problem with religion, particularity Christianity.  Because it’s not just it’s more extreme factions that are causing harm.  As one blogger rightfully points out: “Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth.”  

(RELATED: The “Not All Like That” Fallacy and why Christian doctrines inevitably leads to bad behaviors) 

 I often hear people argue that it is OK to be critical of ideas, but not acceptable to make jokes about people’s beliefs (like I did above with the joke about prayer and masturbation).  I firmly disagree.  Trying to limit how one criticizes is just another way of trying to claim privileged immunity.  That being said; again, it is important that one is careful to belittle the belief and not the individual.  The line between satire and outright mockery isn’t always a clear one, but one should make efforts to distinguish the two.  James A. Lindsay explains in Everyone is Wrong About God why satire is important in the marketplace of ideas, specifically when it comes to religious “faith” – “The benefits of satire is helping people see the laughable for what it is.  The sacred, rather by definition, is never funny exactly because ‘sacred’ means little more than always being considered with the utmost seriousness.  It breaks down central taboos and weakens bad ideas.  Humor cuts through the vein pomposity of faith deftly and, if the joke is good enough, permanently.  The power of effective satire is to take the puff out of the sails of faith and expose is as a false virtue that people will want to avoid.  It does so by breaking the powerful taboo on profaning the allegedly sacred.  Once sacredness falls away, the belief in question can more easily be reconsidered and, in many cases, revised.”

Internet memes, jokes about “spirit animals”, standup comedy, etc. are good examples of satire used well.  Regardless of which religion is the butt of the joke, “breaking the taboo” of sacredness is a worthy goal.  Supernatural beliefs should not be encouraged nor respected.  By shining a lot on the nonsensical beliefs, it may make people reconsider and hopefully revise their position.


In summary; people have the right to believe in whatever they want, and should have the freedom to express those beliefs.  But this does not mean that those ideas are off limits from scrutiny.  When people claim that you are insulting their “deeply held religious beliefs” or label you as “intolerant” for denouncing racism, this is an attempt to silence opposition and gain some sort of privileged immunity. Why is the open-season on ideas so important?

Because, ideas are everything, and bad ideas can spread, and if left unchecked, can take us down very destructive paths.  I am not okay with people believing whatever comforts them — not those beliefs which have harmful consequences for other people, at any rate.  

People are more important then beliefs.  No exceptions.

The only way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas.  Bad ideas need to be attacked forcefully, ideally at their roots.  For that, we need people willing to stand up and call out bullshit when they see it.  In the “post-fact” society we are living in, this is more important then ever.  Freedom, equality, reason, and scientific inquiry should be fought for at every turn. “I want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible”, to quote Matt Dillahunty, and I want others to do the same.  It is imperative to having a functional society that we do so.  Thanks for reading.

 

*The “Marketplace of Ideas” comes from this video by TheraminTrees on this same topic.  Well worth the watch:

** While we should make every effort to tolerate people who are different then us, we do not need to tolerate the opinions or beliefs shared by said people, nor about said people.  People of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexual orientation deserve respect.  However, we do not need to respect the opinions of others about these people.  It is intolerance to pass judgment on people based solely on their skin color or sexual preferences –  it is not intolerance to take a stand against racism and homophobia.

 

 

Take Aways: The God Argument

(Because of my love for books and the profound insights I gain from them, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)

My latest read was A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  A synopsis is not really needed, as the subtitle pretty much says it all.  The book spends the first half arguing against organized religion and the second half discussing why humanism is a better option.

I mainly grabbed this book as I was interested in the second half; what Grayling had to say about humanism as a personal philosophy.  I’ve heard of most of Grayling’s arguments against religion before, but he still offered some insights and new ways (for me anyways) of looking at things.

There’s an old saying when it comes to religion – “They can’t all be right.”  Grayling expresses that same sentiment towards the beginning of the book when describing the term “God” and what it means to people:

Even more significantly for religious people, the word [God] typically invokes to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat, and wear… The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religion, not their own.

Grayling also devotes a good amount of his book to science and how it differs from religious truths, particularly when it comes to the idea of Intelligent Design:

ID theorists know in advance the answer, and are seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it; they know what they wish to prove, and are suborning evidence which, when applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions.  They subscribe for non-rational reasons to one of the many creation myths from the infancy of mankind… and are looking for justification in support of it.  This is far from science, rationality and intellectual honesty as one can get, and it is the essence of the Creationism-ID project.

Also:

A central plank of the scientific method is the open invitation to others to test, probe and question the work that any scientist or group of scientists does.  The generalized version of this is the invitation to submit oneself – one’s ideas and proposals, one’s efforts – to challenge by and disagree with others.

One of my favorite subjects of the book was the idea of probability.  In talking with believers about the concept of God and his intervention in this world, the idea of possibility inevitably gets thrown out as a sort of last-ditch effort to get you to consider their position.  Statements like, “Isn’t it possible that God made things appear old, but they’re really not?”, “But isn’t it possible that God caused the Big Bang?”, “Isn’t it a good idea to bet on the possibility of hell really existing?”  Yes, these are all possible – just like it’s possible that there is a Chinese teapot circling the sun.  But, it’s not very probable.  Everything humans believe in is (or at least should) be based not on whether it is possible, but to the degree of which it is probable:

One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree.  The degree in question can be represented as a probability value.  A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available.  People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder.  In what is known as Bayesian probability theory this is taken to underlie all acquisition and evaluation of beliefs.

In the beginning of second half of book, Grayling gives a concise description of humanism:

In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.  Humanism recognizes the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the right that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.

Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demands to the informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the later.

Humanism is the concern to draw the best from, and make the best of, human life in the span of a lifetime, in the real world, and in the sensible accord with the facts of humanity as these are shaped and constrained by the world.

Humanism is an attitude towards ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.

Throughout the book, Grayling distinguishes between humanism and religion.  As one example:

Religious ethics is based on the putative wishes – more accurately: commands of a supernatural being.  For the humanist, the source of moral imperatives lies in human sympathy.  If I see two men do good, one because he takes himself to be commanded to it by a supernatural agency, and the other solely because he cares about his fellow man, I honor the latter infinitely more.

Grayling also points out something that I have been saying for years- you can’t claim to live your life according to the Bible and still live in a modern society; the two notions are mutually exclusive.  One has to pick and choose what they believe and leave the stuff that is no longer culturally relevant (as much as some would wish it was):

When people submit to systems, they are handing over to them (to those who devised them) the right to do their thinking and choosing for them.  Given that almost all the major systems are religious, which moreover originated in a remote past to which most of their teachings apply, they can only be adapted to contemporary conditions by much reinterpretation and temporizing, and alas – by straightforward hypocrisy.

Grayling spends a great deal of time focusing on human interactions on both a small and large scale.  I do wish he would have devoted a little more time to how the philosophy of humanism relates to the earth as a whole – how we treat animals, take care our environment, etc.

Overall, The God Argument was a good read.  I would recommend it to anybody who is on the fence about religion.  For those who have already made up their minds, I would say that you would be safe skipping to the middle of the book.  I’ll leave you with one final quote that is in the book, this one from Leibniz:

In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory.  For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary? 

Thanks for reading.

An Endless Possibility of Shoes

One of the most common arguments I see being used by apologetics is the Fine-Tuned Argument.  Simply put, it asserts that the conditions necessary to support life as it exists on Earth are so specific and narrowly defined, and the odds of such conditions emerging by random chance so remote, that the existence of a deliberate guiding force or creator may be inferred.  Christian apologists naturally assert that this “guiding force” must be the particular god that they worship, without providing any evidence to validate that conclusion.

While reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality I came across a great analogy that demonstrates the main faults in this argument:

The only special thing about being 93 million miles from the sun is that it yields a temperature range conducive to our being here.  If the earth were much closer or much farther away from the sun, the temperature would be much hotter or colder, eliminating an essential ingredient of life: liquid water.  This reveals the in-built bias.  The very fact that we measure the distance from our planet to the sun mandates that the results we find must be within the limited range compatible with our existence.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to contemplate the earth’s distance from the sun.

If the earth were the only planet in the solar system, or the only planet in the universe, you might feel compelled to carry investigation further.  Yes, you might say, I understand that my own existence is tied to explain why the earth happens to be suited at such a cozy, life-compatible position.  Is it lucky coincidence?  Is there a deeper explanation?

But the earth is not the only planet in the universe, let alone in the solar system.  There are many others.  And this fact casts such questions in a very different light.  To see what I mean, imagine that you mistakenly think a particular shop carries only a single shoe size, and are so gleefully surprised when the salesman brings you a pair that fits perfectly.  “Of all the possible shoe sizes”, you reflect, “it’s amazing that the single one they carry is mine.  Is that just a lucky coincidence?  Is there a deeper explanation?”  But when you learn that the shop actually carries a wide range of sizes, the question evaporates.  A universe with many plants, situated at a range of distances from their host star, provides a similar situation.  Just as it’s no big surprise that among all the shoes in the shop there’s at least one pair that fits, so it’s no big surprise that among all the planets in all the solar systems in all the galaxies there’s at least one at the right distance from its host star to yield a climate conducive to out form of life.  And it’s on one of those planets, of course, that we live.  We simply couldn’t evolve or survive on the others.

We live on one of millions of planets found in the Milky Way galaxy.  Scientists believe that there are thousands of planets in our galaxy alone that contain the conditions necessary for life to exist.  Just last month, NASA announced that they had found not one, but seven  Earth-sized planets orbiting a star that could potentially harbor life.  Last year NASA’s Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun very similar to our star.  If we then calculate all the millions of other galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of planets, it’s mathematically improbable that our lowly little planet should be the only one that contains life.  If we are to go one step further and look at the strong possibility of there being multiple universes (the topic of Greene’s book), then the probability factor goes up exponentially.

It’s unfortunate that the Fine-Tune Argument is still so prevalent, as it has been debunked numerous times by numerous cosmologists, physicists, and mathematicians.  Yet Christian apologists (most of whom are not scientists) keep repackaging this fallacious argument and presenting it as irrefutable “proof” of God’s existence.

I think the main reason this argument keeps coming up is A) it plays into the Christian narrative of humans being the pinnacle of all nature; that this entire universe was created just for us. And B) it sounds very appealing and plausible to those who are scientifically illiterate and predisposed towards any argument that bolsters their religious beliefs.

The Fine-Tune argument is just another appeal to ignorance by theists attempting to validate unsubstantiated claims.  It’s another variation on the all too common God of the Gaps argument – “We don’t fully understand something, so it must be God.”  Apologists will likely continue use this argument, but Neil DeGrasse Tyson offers a wise warning to those who do:

“It doesn’t mean that if you don’t understand something and a community of physicists don’t understand it, that God did it.  If that’s how you want it invoke you evidence for God, then God is an ever receding pocket of ignorance that is getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.” 

Thanks for reading.

 

Paul’s Sacred Disease

A pastor friend and I were once having a discussion on what it would take to get me to believe in God again.  He asked me, “So, what would happen if you were to have a ‘Damascus Road’ experience?”  My response was, “Check myself into the nearest neurology unit.”

Hallucinations are much more common than people think.  Approximately 1 in 20 people in the general population has experienced at least one hallucination in their lifetime that wasn’t connected to drugs, alcohol or dreaming.  These are healthy people, with no background of psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia or manic depression.  When one starts to look at experiences of people who do have some sort of medical or neurological issues, the likelihood of having some form of  hallucinations goes up considerably.   One of the most common disorder which causes hallucinations is epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures.  The human brain is the source of human epilepsy.  Although the symptoms of a seizure may affect any part of the body, the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain.  Symptoms of seizures very (depending of the area of the brain being affected), and can be motor (twitching of certain muscles), autonomic (nausea), sensory (abnormalities or hallucinations of sight, sound, smell, etc), or psychic (sudden feelings of joy or fear without apparent cause, or sudden, often unusual, trains of thought).  The location of that event, how it spreads and how much of the brain is affected, and how long it lasts all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of a seizure and its impact on the individual.  Epilepsy commonly affects higher parts of the brain, where it may evoke very complex, multisensorial “reminiscence” or dreamlike fantasies.  Essentially, anything the brain can do, it can do in the form of a seizure.

“Ecstatic seizures shake one’s foundation of belief, one’s world picture, even if one has previously been wholly indifferent to any thought of transcendent or supernatural.” – Oliver Sacks 

Hippocrates referred to epilepsy as the “Sacred Disease”, no doubt bowing to the then-popular notion that epilepsy had divine origins (Yet, he himself dismissed such notions, claiming that epilepsy, like all other diseases had natural causes), and was long thought to be a  supernatural, demonic, or spiritual disorder.

Many of histories most prolific figures are thought to have suffered from epileptic seizures which brought about vivid hallucinations and had notable affects on their lives.

Based on transcripts from her trial, many people have concluded that Joan of Arc likely had temporal lobe epilepsy with ecstatic auras.  This would help explain how a farmer’s daughter with no formal education could have been so inspired as to gain the support and admiration of thousands of people in her attempt to drive the English from France.

Vincent van Gogh believed that all expressions should be expressed through colors.  Being the loving and creative man that he was, his epilepsy had once caused him to run after his friends with an open razor, but cut cutting his own ear lobe off instead.

Aristotle was one of the first to point out that epilepsy and genius were often closely connected. He found that the seizure disorders may have the ability to increase brain activity in specific places and maybe also enhance a persons natural abilities to a certain extent.

And, in one of the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Paul was transformed from a zealous persecutor of Christianity into one of its most powerful advocates after being struck down by a blinding light.

The Damascus Road experience is recorded in a few different sections of the Book of Acts.  The accounts differ slightly from each other, but we can form a reasonable account of the events that occurred.  The best account is found in Acts 22:6-11 (Acts 9:1-9 and Acts 26:9-20 being the others), where Paul (then Saul) gives a description of the events in his own words:

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’  And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.”

Let’s note a few important points here regarding Paul’s episode.  Paul recounts that he:

  • Saw a bright light
  • Fell to the ground, no indication why
  • No loss of consciousness
  • Heard a voice
  • Was temporarily blinded

Now, let’s look at some common symptoms during an epileptic seizure:

  • Loss of vision or unable to see
  • Blurry vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Hallucinations
  • Numbness, tingling, or electric shock like feeling in body, arm or leg
  • Out of body sensations
  • Feeling detached

The commonalities are striking, to say the least.  But what about Paul’s claims of being blind for three days?  Is there a natural explanation that can account for this?  In turns out that there is.  Episodes of temporary (and even permanent) blindness have been reported among those who have occipital seizures (a type of epileptic seizure): Blindness may follow visual hallucinations and progress to other ictal epileptic symptoms but often occurs as the initial or the only ictal seizure manifestation with an abrupt onset. The duration of ictal blindness varies between less than one minute and days or can be permanent. Onset of ictal blindness in adulthood nearly always indicates symptomatic epilepsy”

This isn’t the only time we read about Paul having unique experiences.  In Acts 16:9, Paul is said to have had vision of a man standing in front of him.  The Lord appears to Paul in “a vision” in Acts 18:9, and also while Paul is “in a trance” in Acts 22:17.  In 2 Cor. 12, Paul describes having an out of body experience and seeing visions: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

In the above passage, and several others, we read of Paul hinting about his ‘physical ailment‘, by which he perhaps means a chronic illness. In the above passage from Corinthians, he states: ‘But to keep me from being puffed up with pride… I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.‘ (2 Corinthians, 12,7). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul again describes his physical weakness: ‘You remember why I preached the gospel to you the first time; it was because I was ill. But even though my physical condition was a great trial to you, you did not despise or reject me.‘ (Galatians 4, 13-14) In ancient times people used to spit at ‘epileptics’, either out of disgust or in order to ward off what they thought to be the ‘contagious matter’ (epilepsy as ‘morbus insputatus’: the illness at which one spits).  Paul also hints at having some sort of eye disease in his letter to the Galatians (4:15, 6:11).

The descriptions of Paul’s visions and experiences have led many  to believe that Paul himself suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.  To put things in another light – Paul’s miraculous transformation from Jewish Zealot to one of the founders of the Christian religion was not the result of some supernatural intervention, but a classic case of hallucination brought on by epilepsy.  Of course, there is no way of knowing for certain whether or not Paul, in fact, had epilepsy.  This is admittedly just an educated guess.  However, it is a far more probably explanation than the supernatural account portrayed in the Bible and believed by countless Christians throughout the centuries.  

One has to wonder what other Biblical figures suffered from then unknown mental disorders which led to their dramatic visions.  Take for example, John of Patmos, the author of the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, which features obscure and extravagant imagery.  The accounts of John’s visions are reminiscent of another well documented church figure.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1180), a nun and mystic of exceptional intellectual and literary power, who experienced countless “visions” throughout her life, and left detailed accounts of figures of these.  Modern neurologists have concluded, based on these accounts, that Hildegard almost certainly suffered from severe migraines, which resulted in her vivid hallucinations.

An example (seen above) of one of her visions is a figure of stars falling and being quenched in the ocean, signifies for the “The Falling of Angels”:

I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southward… And suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals… and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more. 

This account sounds strikingly similar to John’s visions in Revelations.  Could John have also suffered from migraines, which led to his wild visions?  It’s certainly possible, and far more probable than John being literally taken up into heaven by supernatural forces and given a glimpse of the future.

The Bible contains multiple accounts of very vivid, other-worldly, visions.  While some of these are certainly just the creative imaginations of it’s authors, it’s likely that some are also the very real experiences of the people who had them – as the result of the some then-unknown neurological disorder.  When talking about Paul,  John of Patmos, or even Jesus, one should never overlook the possibility that they suffered from mental illness which led to their behaviors, beliefs, and claims.  Remember, when it comes to extraordinary claims, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always more likely than a supernatural one. 

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Reflections along the journey from faith to reason.

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