Monday, April 30, 2012

Former Preachers on Dropping Religion

Y U wanna leave the flock?

I'm in a video mood today.

They all retain fondness for the old songs. I completely relate.

One of the guys is a total horn-dog. Any person with that level o' libido really shouldn't have chosen the clergy as a profession.

No Apology Necessary

No need, really, to follow the Bible.
I'm a fan of this speech.

We can and should ignore the Bible when it justifies immoral, outdated behavior.

In fact, we shouldn't rely on the Bible at all for guidance--about anything. This point has been a common and persistent theme here: the Bible very often stinks in morality and values.

Of course, on some news outlets people are complaining that Savage was being hateful towards Christianity. Sorry, the Bible is firstly a Jewish thing. And the Bible is not all there is to Christianity, is there?

Savage's broad observation and criticism are dead-on: many people across religious sects and denominations already disregard some of the Bible's morality. Yet, on homosexuality, these same people decide the Bible is authoritative. They bend the Bible to fit some modern values, but they become perfect literalists when it comes to maintaining value-based opposition to homosexuality.

Folks, we no longer live in a world where the Bible is exempt from open criticism and disdain. It's not a good book. It's not a true book. It's not holy or sacred or authoritative. It's been superseded, and people are increasingly aware of its all-too-human fallibility.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Blues: Little Red Rooster

Happy Friday!

Keith Richards and James Cotton play a song I sometimes have loved, sometimes have loathed:


Robert Pinsky, "Creole"

I’m tired of the gods, I’m pious about the ancestors: afloat
In the wake widening behind me in time, the restive devisers.

My father had one job from high school till he got fired at thirty.
The year was 1947 and his boss, planning to run for mayor,

Wanted to hire an Italian veteran, he explained, putting it
In plain English. I was seven years old, my sister was two.

The barbarian tribes in the woods were so savage the Empire
Had to conquer them to protect and clear its perimeter.

So into the woods Rome sent out missions of civilizing
Governors and invaders to establish schools, courts, garrisons:

Soldiers, clerks, officials, citizens with their household slaves.
Years or decades or entire lives were spent out in the hinterlands—

Which might be good places to retire on a government pension,
Especially if in those work-years you had acquired a native wife.

Often I get these things wrong or at best mixed up but I do
Feel piety toward those persistent mixed families in Gaul,

Britain, Thrace. When I die may I take my place in the wedge
Widening and churning in the mortal ocean of years of souls.

As I get it, the Roman colonizing and mixing, the intricate Imperial
Processes of enslaving and freeing, involved not just the inevitable

Fucking in all senses of the word, but also marriages and births
As developers and barbers, scribes and thugs mingled and coupled

With the native people and peoples. Begetting and trading, they
Needed to swap, blend and improvise languages—couples

Especially needed to invent French, Spanish, German: and I confess—
Roman, barbarian—I find that Creole work more glorious than God.

The way it happened, the school sent around a notice: anybody
Interested in becoming an apprentice optician, raise your hand.

It was the Great Depression, anything about a job sounded good to
Milford Pinsky, who told me he thought it meant a kind of dentistry.

Anyway, he was bored sitting in study hall, so he raised his hand,
And he got the job as was his destiny—full-time, once he graduated.

Joe Schiavone was the veteran who took the job, not a bad guy,
Dr. Vineburg did get elected mayor, Joe worked for him for years.

At the bank an Episcopalian named John Smock, whose family owned
A piece of the bank, had played sports with Milford. He gave him a small

Loan with no collateral, so he opened his own shop, grinding lenses
And selling glasses: as his mother-in-law said, “almost a Professional.”

Optician comes from a Greek word that has to do with seeing.
Banker comes from an Italian word for a bench, where people sat,

I imagine, and made loans or change. Pinsky like “Tex” or “Brooklyn”
Is a name nobody would have if they were still in that same place:

Those names all signify someone who’s been away from home a while.
Schiavone means “a Slav.” Milford is a variant on the names of poets—

Milton, Herbert, Sidney—certain immigrants gave their offspring.
Creole comes from a word meaning to breed or to create, in a place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Jesus Fight...And What It Means for the Jews

Religious historian and humanist R. Joseph Hoffmann has declared war on Jesus mythicists:
This little rant (and it is a rant, I acknowledge and I do not apologize for it: somebody’s got to do it) will be followed  next week by three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by me, the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher a specialist in Q-studies. We will attempt to show an impetuous amateur not only where he goes wrong, but why he should buy a map before starting his journey. Other replies will follow in course, and we invite Carrier, his fans, and anyone else interested in this discussion to respond to it at any stage along the way.
As you can see, Hoffmann's main target is Richard Carrier, a Ph.D. in ancient history, author/speaker, atheist, and mythicist. Hoffmann aims to show both Carrier and his atheist applauders that the Jesus-as-myth view is probably untenable.

But it's important also realize everything that's at stake in this war on mythicism:
  • What are viable ideas in scholarship versus crankery and crack-pottery?
  • Who are scholars and what does it mean to practice responsible scholarship?
  • What authority do consensus views have?
  • What consideration should be given to marginal and fringe views?
  • What status is given to non-professionals, hobbyists, and scholars in outside disciplines?
  • What roles do tradition, bias, ignorance, innovation, and personal ideology have in scholarship?
  • What methods work in historical and humanities scholarship, and how do we know they work?
  • Where should scholarly debates be conducted, and in what forms?
I don't know this list is exhaustive, but it is accurate and reflects a timely angst about today's hyper-traffic in ideas and opinions.

I look forward to Hoffmann and cohorts bringing in solid data and arguments. I also eagerly await Carrier's replies. I hope we'll get to see whether mythicism withstands scrutiny or not. Most of all, I hope to see how all sides of the debate directly and indirectly wrangle with the issues I've listed.

This is, folks, an important moment.

Yes, you might say, but is it good for the Jews? (i.e., we begin the humorous part of the post.) Consider this:
  • The outcome of the debate will not likely stir up antisemitism, unless people walk away thinking Jesus was a myth perpetrated by the Jews to make them look foolish.
  • The debate may turn out to be high impact. American and world evangelicals could get stirred up regardless of mythicism's standing afterwards.
  • The Jewishness of Jesus and his first followers should be one recurring item. Some, of course, will repress the idea.
Therefore, this debate may turn out not so good for the Jews. The best case scenario for the Jews is that Jesus is concluded to have probably existed and we all return to our regularly scheduled fantasies.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Feser on the Soul

Philosopher Eward Feser explains what a soul is, but not successfully, I'm afraid.

His analysis begins with de rigueur Aristotelian-Thomistic tap dancing on the nature of things. He then locates human beings between animals and angels, evidently seeing no need to consider whether angels exist outside of human fantasy. After this, we get to human beings. Feser defines human beings by their powers to reason:
A human being is by nature a rational animal. That is to say, a human being is something which by its nature exercises both the animal powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation, appetite, and locomotion, and the intellectual and volitional powers possessed by angels.
Unfortunately, Feser does not address whether studies of animal intelligence have any bearing on the last statement. For instance, ring-tailed lemurs apparently have some math abilities, and dogs are pretty smart, too. For another instance, bottlenose dolphins may experience a sense of self. For a third instance, we may have reason to think animals and humans share a similar "free will." If these instances carry any merit, perhaps we should say human beings are more rational animals or more broadly rational animals. In any case, we should be careful not to assume an absolute distinction between humans and animals in terms of intellect and volition--and we still have no evidence of angels.

Yet, without a very clear demarcation between animals and humans, it becomes difficult to isolate the essentially human soul--as opposed to the animal or vegetative souls. That difficulty, in turn, should push us to question the usefulness of the idea of a human essence, and so too a human soul. For me, a serious red flag has already been raised in the simple fact that Feser takes too much time to get to the concept of the soul. He might explain that the concept is poorly understood popularly and even by religious experts and Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers, but this would only suggest that the concept is itself problematic.

Let's look at how Feser tries to back into the idea of the soul from human intellect and volition. He begins to isolate the soul by figuratively lopping off the human body:
a human being can be damaged to such an extent that it completely loses the organs of its animal and vegetative powers, and thus cannot exercise them at all -- to such an extent that only its intellectual and volitional powers remain. But those intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature, precisely because they are immaterial and thus do not depend on any corruptible material organ, cannot themselves perish, any more than they can in the case of an angel -- though they would be impaired given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.
Feser asserts the immateriality of the "intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature," but I cannot see the basis for the assertion--outside of assuming dualism. Yet human intellect and volition have clear ties to the functioning of the human brain, primarily. Were the brain to become non-functional, that person’s intellectual and volitional powers would cease. They would become ultimately immaterial, so immaterial as not to exist!

Feser seems to be saying that the soul, human intellectual and volitional power, is what the brain does; it is the sign of what people essentially are. Feser also insists the soul is like a material aspect of a person. For him, a person has eyes, arms, legs, hair, lungs, and a soul. It's dualism, again, but I don't get it. This is like saying a ball has both a spherical shape and motion. It's like taking an effect--intellectual and volitional power, motion--and asserting that it causes or determines the thing--a person or a ball, respectively. I thought we had grown up from the kind of thinking where we just made shit up without having to reference reality.

So, if Feser's answer is the best there is--which I am not claiming--on what a soul is, then I remain unconvinced that it is anything mysterious or outside of what we normally understand as nature.

Open Letter to the Spiritually Unequal/Unequally Yoked Communities

Dear Christian married to a non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist:

I'm writing this letter to try and explain what's going on with us, that is, with those of us who don't share your passion and devotion for Christianity. I can draw only upon my specific experience and attitudes, but I hope to shed light on what many of us actually think and how we all can move forward together...happily.

The first thing you should know is that, yes, we are hostile to religion, and Christianity in particular. One reason for this is your immersion in Christianity tells us you want more than us and more than our relationship. Your adoption of Christianity and injection of it into every facet of your life seems a clear message that our love is not enough. We don't make you happy, in other words. Our marriage doesn't fulfill you.

And there's an asymmetry here: we love you, just you. We're fine with only you. We don't need to love God or to love Jesus in order to love you. We don't need anything to enhance our love for you. Yet you need help to love us. You need strength to be with us. Now, you can talk about how much better your love for us is because you've found Jesus, but we know that we have become second place. Frankly, we don't get why this should be so. We didn't marry you to be second place in your life.

We're also hostile to Christianity because, honestly, you can be rather oppressive with it. Your declaration of KNOWING (in all caps) that God is real and Jesus died for your sins is made too confidently. The truth is you feel strongly, not that you know.

You believe. You really, really believe. But belief doesn't make facts. Every time you talk about what God really wants and what Jesus's true message is, we think you are acting arrogant and unfair. If God is who you say he is, then you cannot know his desires or will. His desires and will are beyond your ability to fathom. And if Jesus is who you say he is, then his message really could have been made more clearly. Surely, one part of the triune God could have made it so that his very important message was understood by all people in the way he intended. Yet, Christianity is fractured into tens of thousands of denominations, each claiming to have the authoritative reading of Jesus.

So yeah, we're a bit hostile because we feel hurt and we feel attacked.

What's more, you don't seem to treat our view seriously. You pray for us to find God or to have our hearts turned, which is insulting. You don't accept our non-religiousness, yet you demand that we accept your religiousness. You don't grant that skepticism of Christianity is reasonable and legitimate. You are as hostile toward our skepticism, maybe more so, as we are toward your Christianity.

We need you to accept and understand our skepticism as being our idea, as belonging to us. It's not the influence of the evil one. It's not our vanity or a desire to worship ourselves. It's not running away from a truth in our hearts. It's not rebellion, immorality, or parroting atheist blogs. It's what we actually think, and it's what we have learned after a long period of trying to understand these topics. We have read the Bible, and we know what it says. We understand the Bible no less than you do, and to us it appears to be a man-made book.

Please, understand that we are skeptical because we have studied and considered the relevant matters seriously, and we think atheism is probably correct. Please, understand that it's possible to know the Bible as you do and still conclude that Christianity probably isn't true.

If you can understand this, then we can certainly talk about religion without attacking each other. We can do other things, too. You can ask us to come with you to church as your companion. And we hope you will be willing to take some Sundays "off" and do things together with us.

We understand that your religion is important to you. We want to support you, and we want to be part of things that make you happy. We also want you to support us and to be part of things that make us happy. We're sorry that we don't agree with each other about religion. Maybe our lives would be a little happier or a little easier if we both believed exactly the same thing in exactly the same degree. Maybe not.

We love you, and the life we have with you. We want to spend the time making life better and better. Our differing views of religion don't have to be a cancer in our marriage. We already have differences: we like different activities, different foods, different movies, different political candidates, and so on.

Let's not just co-exist with different religious views. Let's flourish. We'll enjoy how happy your religious activities make you, and you can enjoy how happy our skeptical and non-religious activities make us. We can both embrace the fact of our difference.

Yes, we are still growing. Our views are never static and final. Who knows how our minds will change and grow? But let's agree not to try to change each other. Let's agree not even to want that. Let's agree to enjoy the people we are now, the people who are married and building something unique together.


Your non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist spouses

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Is it the students or me?

As usual, I am teaching an early-morning class introducing students to drama, poetry, and short fiction. It's a writing intensive class that I have conducted at the same community college for 10 years.

The students in this term's class have been challenging and disappointing. Usually, the spring semester's classes go well because students have come off of the fall term in the swing of academic work. They know where the library is. They know their study habits. They know their schedule.

My students this semester, however, seem very unprepared. They constantly come in late. They hand in work late or not at all. They don't ask questions when they are confused. All of these issues I have repeatedly addressed with the students in different ways. Only now, with about three weeks left in the semester, have some of the messages started to sink in and show themselves in student behavior.

I cannot tell whether this class is anomalous or a sign of students to come. I probably won't be around much longer to find out. In my mind, I have resolved to teach the fall course and then take an extended-to-permanent break.

I lean toward thinking that the students are getting "worse," by which I mean less prepared to deal with material that doesn't conform to certain expectations. In other words, I see these students as less flexible in their thinking.

For example, in one early assignment, I brought in an essay sample for us to go over together. In my opinion, the sample was very clear and well-written. It should have been easy to understand, particularly as we had been reading Hamlet, the subject of the paper.

I put it to you, readers. Is this not lucid prose?
Act I of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet depicts a time “out of joint” (I.v.189). A ghost, a threat of war, and a new king all characterize the moment; the very world seems set against Denmark. For instance, after witnessing the Ghost, Horatio remarks, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.69). King Claudius, newly crowned and married, offers another sign of trouble, that Denmark’s enemies may think the state has become “disjoint and out of frame” (I.ii.20). Finally, when Hamlet follows the Ghost, the sentinel Marcellus declares “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.v.90).

During Act I, Claudius becomes identified as the source of Denmark’s troubles. He is a fratricide and a regicide, he has unjustly assumed power, and he has wed the widow of the man he murdered. Hamlet, son of the slain king, learns of Claudius’s foul deeds; the young prince swears to avenge his father. By Act I’s end, the proud prince seems to have license for any punishment he means to give Claudius. Unfortunately, Hamlet approaches Claudius by feigning madness, a strategy that actually creates more problems than it resolves. In other words, Hamlet diminishes his noble vengeance by pretending to be mad. Hamlet’s path to revenge thus prolongs the “eruption” and makes the state further disjoint. In accordance with his motives and his father’s war-like persona, Hamlet should have decided to oppose Claudius openly.

To accept that Hamlet undermines his purpose by feigning madness, we must first examine his motives. If Hamlet has good and honorable reasons to avenge his father’s murder, it is partly because he is obliged to do so. Vengeance is right because it is duty. One such obligation is love for his father:
GHOST: List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. (I.v.23-6)
A second source of obligation to vengeance is Hamlet’s intellect. The Ghost marks Hamlet as a discerning young man who should be impassioned by knowing Claudius’s betrayal:
                                                I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. (I.v.32-5)
In addition to love and intellect, Hamlet’s sense of natural morality obligates him to avenge his father’s murder. The Ghost appeals to this sense in Hamlet: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not; / Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (I.v.82-4). Here, the Ghost agitates Hamlet’s dignity; the young prince should be affronted that an unworthy person now holds both the office and queen of a once-valorous king.

*  *  [snip]  *  *

By faking madness, Hamlet does not embrace his destiny but rather defers it. Act I ends with Hamlet poised to pursue vengeance against Claudius. Yet Hamlet also recoils at his fate, as when he laments, “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.189-90). If Hamlet defers his destiny, he also perverts the noble motives justifying revenge. To maintain his virtue, Hamlet could have publicly claimed himself the legitimate successor to the elder Hamlet. This path would have befitted the fallen war king. Prince Hamlet’s true fate, the one he defers, is to pursue revenge through battle against Claudius. By pretending to be mad, Hamlet adds a new rottenness in Denmark and aids that which already sickens the state. He chooses the wrong way to pursue the right ends.
As I said, the essay should have been easy to understand--but it eluded them. Students found the vocabulary of the paper challenging. They couldn't articulate the paper's argument at all, and they certainly did not see it as something they should try to emulate in their own academic writing.

I figure if my students and I are so far apart on something fundamental, then it's time for me to go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

You Should Abandon Your Religion Now

Is your religion really the way to "true happiness"?
You should abandon the doctrines and beliefs of your religion. If you must, go to church, synagogue, mosque, or community center. But stop advocating for religious beliefs.

You no longer need to say Jesus died for anyone's sins, or that Israel received the Torah from God, or that Mohammed wasn't a delusional asshole. I know that you know religious traditions are bunk. I know that you suspect no clergyman or theologian has any real idea about God, gods, supernatural beings and realms, and so forth.

But I am not focusing here on the falsity of religions. Instead, I want you to try dropping the pretense of belief. I want you to imagine what would happen if you simply acknowledged to yourself that religion altogether stops or retards your personal growth .

Here's how we know that religion is poisonous. First, have a look at the top five regrets of the dying, as summarized by Hank Fox:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
Now, let's consider each regret individually.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
The sine qua non of religion is to tell you how to live your life. Religion tells you the values and expectations to which you should adhere in your life. Yes, some values and expectations are good in some contexts, but the point is that religion has no intrinsic claim on how you live. Don't give religion authority that properly belongs to you.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
The regret focuses mainly on professional work--one should scale back on the 80-100 hour weeks and so forth. Those who wish they had not worked so hard tend to feel they missed time with children, spouses, and friends. But the practice of religion doesn't always offer time for relating with others. On Easter, for example, the family may go to church together, but then everyone is just sitting or standing there while the people up front yammer at them about zombies. The actual relating that's done on Easter is the egg stuff and the traditional meal. The public worship aspect of many religions is antithetical to individuals communicating with one another and relating. The real interpersonal and social activity that people love and need have no special dependence on religion, and religions often serve only to defer that activity.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Religions by and large traffic in the suppression of feelings and intuitions. Are you uncomfortable with God's anger, misogyny, and penchant for killing (and see Exodus 4:24-26)? Are you in love with someone who does not share your religion or who is the same gender as you? Are you incredulous that so many animals and eight frakking humans could exist for 40 days on a single boat? Are you pretty sure that virgin birth is impossible for humans, and same for physical resurrection days after death? Do you think Pope Ratzi and Bernard Cardinal Law should be in jail? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you must know that religion is not particularly interested to delve deeply into these questions today. The sages and fathers of bygone days tended to assume the orthodoxies were true, and reality would bend to accommodate. But now it's best not to think too hard about all the poop that would have been on the poop deck of Noah's Ark. It's impolite to say out loud that a sitting pope enabled pederasty and valued his "church" over the suffering of real people. Religions do not advise you to share your feelings. No, they tell you "to keep an open mind" about it all. They tell you God will help you carry your burden. In other words, they are telling you to shut the hell up and deal.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Religions cast suspicion on anyone who is not part of the in-group. You are encouraged to stay in touch with friends only insofar as you talk to them about the Lord Jesus Christ or the wonderful way Allah has provided clarity in your life. Religion sets its own terms on your relationship with anyone and everyone: that's pernicious.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
This is the big regret, and the one where religions obstruct people the most. All religions talk about offering transcendence, a way to commune with something "bigger than yourself." They promise happiness as if it were a secret that only they knew. To religion, happiness is only defined and sanctioned by them. All else is not "true happiness."

And it gets worse. No religion is in the business of letting you be happy all by yourself. To religion, your happiness is selfishness. Your fulfillment is one step toward a society of Jeffrey Dahmers. Your independence is confusion. Your curiosity is foolishness. Religions are admittedly and decidedly opposed to your being happier; they favor instead your "voluntary compliance" to god-inflected happiness.

*  *  *  *  *

Religion is bad, not just untrue. The happiness it offers is happiness you can generate yourself. The happiness it scorns is none of its business.

Can you imagine lying on your deathbed saying "I wish I had gone to church more often"? Who could possibly utter, "I sure regret not having davened a few more times"?

Life is for doing stuff, folks. And it's for engaging others, talking and sharing adventures with them. It can't be about denying bacon and making solitary wishes for blessings.

Lose religion. Let it go. This is not about hating religion or being an angry atheist. This is about life. Your life.

Don't you at least owe it to yourself to consider it?

"What Must Be Said" and the Nuclear Threat Posed by Israel

In the US, it is National Poetry Month. So I offer a controversial poem by Nobel laureate Günter Grass.

"What Must Be Said" looks at how close we are to a nuclear conflict in the Middle east and criticizes Israel's current government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has responded to the poem awfully by banning Grass from visiting Israel. The government evidently takes umbrage at even the suggestion of moral equivalency between Iran, which is also a subject of the poem, and Israel.

Joseph Kugelmass renders the following English translation. I am interested in readers' responses to the poem: good or bad. I can hardly think anyone will react indifferently.
Why am I silent, silent for too long,
about that which has obviously been practiced
in war games where we, the survivors,
are footnotes at best?

The alleged right to a pre-emptive strike –
against a subjugated people,
compelled into obedience,
acting in pageants orchestrated by bullies,
and now, under their influence,
suspected of constructing nuclear weapons –
threatens the Iranian people with annihilation.

Why do I stop short of naming
that other country
which for years, in secret,
has been developing nuclear capabilities
not subject to inspection or control?

My silence is part of what I now recognize
to be the greater silence, the constraining lie
enforced by the familiar threat
that we will be judged guilty of anti-Semitism.

And now, my country
(because it is still held to account
for its unprecedented crimes)
can describe as “reparations”
what it does in its own commercial interest:
delivering another U-Boat to Israel,
one capable of deploying devastating warheads
against targets inside a nation that has not, so far,
been proven to possess a single atomic bomb.
Fear is serving as a substitute for evidence.
I say what must be said.

But why have I been silent until now?
Because of my own background,
and ineradicable shame –
which, as well it should,
binds my fate to Israel’s.
I was too ashamed to state the facts.

Why should I say, as an aged man,
down to his final drops of ink:
“Israel’s nuclear capability
is a threat to this world’s
already fragile peace?”
Because it must be said;
tomorrow it may be too late.
We Germans, already so burdened with guilt,
may become complicit in a crime
that we can foresee
and for which the usual excuses
will not suffice.

Granted, I am also speaking now
because I am tired of the West’s hypocrisy,
and because I wish
to free many others from their silence.
I appeal to you who have created this danger
to renounce violence, and to insist upon
the unhindered, permanent control
of Israeli nuclear capability
and Iranian nuclear research
by an international agency
authorized by both governments.

For Israelis, and Palestinians
and all of the people, ourselves included
living as enemies, in territories
occupied by delusion:
This is the only aid.
If, like me, you wish to have the original German version, I give you "Was gesagt werden muss":
Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange,
was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen
geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende
wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag,
der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte
und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte
iranische Volk auslöschen könnte,
weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau
einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

Doch warum untersage ich mir,
jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen,
in dem seit Jahren - wenn auch geheimgehalten -
ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar
aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung
zugänglich ist?

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes,
dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat,
empfinde ich als belastende Lüge
und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt,
sobald er mißachtet wird;
das Verdikt "Antisemitismus" ist geläufig.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land,
das von ureigenen Verbrechen,
die ohne Vergleich sind,
Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird,
wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch
mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert,
ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel
geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität
darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe
dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz
einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,
sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang?
Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft,
die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist,
verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit
dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin
und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?
Weil gesagt werden muß,
was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte;
auch weil wir - als Deutsche belastet genug -
Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten,
das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld
durch keine der üblichen Ausreden
zu tilgen wäre.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr,
weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens
überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen,
es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien,
den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr
zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und
gleichfalls darauf bestehen,
daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle
des israelischen atomaren Potentials
und der iranischen Atomanlagen
durch eine internationale Instanz
von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern,
mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser
vom Wahn okkupierten Region
dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben
und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Passover/Easter Reflections

The other Jesus and Mo.
The rites of spring are come and gone again.

My family held two seders this year, the first with only the nuclear Tanners and the second involving a fuller Tanner clan. In both cases, we conducted the seder briskly to skip all flummery and to keep the kids entertained.

My dad's seder talks about the Exodus a bit more than mine. He presents the liberation of the Hebrew slaves as a basis for believing all people should have political and religious freedom. I focus more on self-advocacy and self-determination.

For the Easter part of the weekend, my wife and I hosted a meal with her family. First, however, I went to my wife's church to see my son and older daughter sing in the holiday choir. The kids were very cute, but the Easter service was insufferable. The music was so douchey, with the basic message that Jesus is Superman.

The sermon was also dreadful. The pastor asserted again and again that Jesus REALLY DID die on the cross. Really, he did. He died.

And how do we know he really really died?

Because the details of the Gospel of Mark are not what we would expect if the story was made-up, says the pastor. Here's the passage we covered together:
1 - When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

2 - Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb

3 - and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 -  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

5 - As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 -  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

7 - But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 - Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The pastor was trying to dispel the idea that Jesus perhaps fainted and didn't die. He was also arguing against the hypothesis that the corpse was moved.

I won't go into the specific points the pastor made, but I want to dwell for a moment on the idea that only Mark's accuracy is at issue here. In fact, we are dealing with reliability at many levels in the Marcian account, where a fuller reporting sequence is as follows:
The young man in the tomb


The three women


The first people they finally told


The people who heard the story from the first people

[time (decades?)]

The person or group who wrote down Mark into manuscript form
Add to this a muddied bed of Christian interpretation and re-interpretation, and you see my point: between whatever might actually have happened and us are layers of re-tellings, time, cultural and linguistic nuance, and beliefs based on a very different and more limited understanding of reality.

Therefore, whoever produced Mark was decades away and between two and five people-layers removed from the reported events. So, what is it that is REALLY, REALLY true in the story?

Clearly, we don't know what's true. Yet many of us remain comfortable with assigning high probability that of all life forms in the universe, this one human being reversed death.

Fortunately, my home was filled with turkey, vegetables, and milk chocolate to make everyone forget the amount to cognitive dissonance required to muddle through the Jewish and Christian rituals.

Friday, April 06, 2012

And so this is Pesach, and what have you done?

Arguing together. It's enough.
I look forward to holding a small Passover seder with my wife and children tonight. Tomorrow, we will all go to my parents' condo and have a larger seder with my brothers and their families.

I love the seder. I like that we always have to think about the order of events as well as how to execute them properly. Performing the seder is never rote. Indeed, I always appreciated this in synagogue, say at Shabbat: there was always checking and double-checking at the bimah to make sure sure the service was going off correctly, even f everyone there had done 1,000 Shabbat services apiece.

I love the food of the seder, but I enjoy the songs most of all. The kids always get a kick out of "Dayenu." I cannot decide whether I like "Adir Hu" or "Chad Gadya" better. Mostly, I love the sound of my Dad's voice, and the knowledge that my Mom is happy to hear us all.

That the Exodus story is fictional matters not so much. If it comes up, we can discuss it. The Passover table is meant for serious discussion. Many households prohibit politics and/or religion at the dinner table. But at the Passover table, no subject is off-limits and no argument can get too heated.

Let's have at it, then. However you give meaning to Pesach, even if you give no meaning, I wish that you make it happy and get happiness in return.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Speaking of Resurrection

I'm back, baby. This is my time of year!
With Easter coming, there's been the unsurprising uptick of historical Jesus talk. This year's chatter brings popular attention to mythicism, the position that Jesus Christ was not a person in history.

The occasion for this development is a Huffington Post article by Bart Ehrman, a very good biblical scholar and former-evangelical-turned-agnostic. Ehrman writes:
In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world -- the Christian church -- was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today -- is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists. This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds -- thousands? -- of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal -- even articulate -- in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion -- a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers' imagination?

The view, however, founders on its own premises. The reality -- sad or salutary -- is that Jesus was real. And that is the subject of my new book, "Did Jesus Exist?"
Readers can decide how solid Ehrman's argument is (hint: it's decent but hardly unproblematic or iron-clad), but at least one scholar finds Ehrman's piece wanting. Richard Carrier is a scholar and mythicist; his book on the subject is due out soon. Carrier argues that the historical position has nothing substantial enough to warrant confidence:
To say that the Gospels contain a lot of myth, therefore they “can’t” be entirely myth, is not valid reasoning. They might contain a historical core, they might not. That has to be determined, and is at least an honestly debatable question. As Dr. Thompson admitted. I think on full analysis they come out as completely mythical (most of the attempts to argue otherwise fail on basic logic, as I demonstrate in Proving History, chapter 5). That should at least be a respectable position, even if Ehrman or anyone disagrees with it.

The second century references, meanwhile, cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels (e.g. the reference in Tacitus, even the Testimonium Flavianum, even if it were completely genuine–and it’s not–says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one), or to derive from any real source at all (e.g. the Infancy Gospels). And like any other mythic being, the Gospels would not be the earliest versions of the creed; many mythical demigods “died and were resurrected,” some were even “buried” or hung or burned or cut to pieces; that doesn’t make them historical. Thus, in Paul, that Jesus was created out of the “seed of David” (in fulfillment of prophecy) and “born of a woman” are claims that could just as easily be made of any mythical demigod (all of whom were born of a woman, and some of whom were “magically” born from the seed of their fathers, like Perseus, or even, as in the case of Dionysus, their previous corpses). They also said things–none of which were historical. Paul himself only identifies two sources for his sayings of the Lord: scripture and revelation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23 in light of Galatians 1:18-20). No historical Jesus is needed there.

That leaves nothing.
James McGrath, on the historicist side, engages Carrier's piece. McGrath's thesis is that Carrier's "is a disappointing and ineffective response that will only carry weight with people who desperately want there not to have been a historical Jesus, so much so that they cease to care about historical methods and evidence." McGrath ably defends the argument and closes with this:
Ehrman did not make mistakes in his piece, and if there is infelicitous or ambiguous wording, one should not try to use that against him any more than one should accept the use of ambiguous statements by scientists in an attempt to undermine their credibility. It remains the case, Carrier’s lengthy blog post notwithstanding, that the evidence available leads most naturally to the conclusion that a historical Jesus more likely existed than not. The attempt to manufacture controversy about this is one of the reasons why mythicists are rightly compared to creationists and other denialists.
We could go on with the back-and-forth, but instead let's make some general points about the discussion as a whole:
  • Mythicism is gaining more public credence and notoriety.
  • Some mythicists adopt the position for personal reasons.
  • The mythicist position can be made reasonably (in academic terms), yet this doesn't automatically make it a preferable or even very good position.
  • On the other hand, the historicist position may seem more "natural" (due perhaps to centuries of assuming its truth), but this in itself doesn't make it correct.
  • The historicist position may be better than the mythicist one, but the margin of superiority seems not to be as wide as historicists have traditionally thought.
  • The historicist question, we must remember, is entirely separate from many other questions related to Jesus and Christian belief, such as the resurrection.
Personally, I am a historicist who thinks historicism is legitimately questioned. I also recognize that the historicity question is hardly as interesting as the development of actual Christian beliefs and practices. See, for instance, Larry Hurtado's points on the resurrection,which suggest Jesus was at first believed to have been raised to life in the world to come, not to physical life on earth:
  • The conviction was that it was Jesus of Nazareth who had been raised.  That is, there was a direct connection between the crucified figure who had been active in Roman Judea and the figure of earliest Christian faith.
  • This was not a claim that Jesus had been resuscitated and brought back to life of this world, but instead that God had catapulted Jesus forward into life of the world to come.
  • One immediate implication of this claim was that God had vindicated Jesus against the death-penalty imposed by the earthly authorities.  That is, in the earliest setting, Jesus’ resurrection was very much divine vindication.
  • The likelihood that Jesus had been executed as a messianic/royal claimant meant that God’s resurrecting him vindicated this claim.  That’s probably why the messianic claim about Jesus seems to have been so central in earliest Christian preaching.
  • Resurrection of the righteous was, for many Jews (but not all), a central hope and expectation.  That is, “resurrection”, the personal vivification of people by God was by Jesus’ time already a familiar concept.  This hope seems to have emerged sometime in the “post-exilic” period, and in the time of Jesus was still under debate, the Sadducees the main Jewish party portrayed as denying this belief.
  • The unusual thing about the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead was that he had been singled out in advance of the resurrection that was to be given to all the righteous.  This immediately meant that Jesus was somehow special, that God had chosen to favor him apart from and in advance of the vindication to be given to the righteous (such as Moses, Abraham, David, etc.).
  • The references to Jesus’ resurrection include the claim that this involved also his exaltation to heavenly glory “at God’s right hand” (the phrase lifted from Psalm 110).   So “resurrection” in Jesus’ case must be understood as connoting his vindication and glorification.  That is reflected in the “post-Easter” references to Jesus as Messiah and as “Lord”, and the assertion that he now shares in the name and glory of God.
  • In short, the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death was central in earliest Christian faith, and also was powerful in generating attendant convictions as well.
As always, the historical and epistemological questions are more interesting and productive. Who cares whether Jesus would vote for Mitt Romney, or whether he died for someone's "sins"? The whole suffering savior stuff could hardly be more boring, as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Reasonable Doubt on Non-Contingency

Continuing to work together with Kairosfocus to build a worldview.

Previously, I paused at the principle of cause and effect because of the way it was worded:
[d] if something has a beginning or may cease from being -- i.e. it is contingent -- it has a cause.
The wording implies we can systematically distinguish between contingent and non-contingent things. Later, as he explained the system for making the distinction, Kairosfocus introduced a mathematical equation as an illustration:
The truth asserted in the structured set of symbols: 2 + 3 = 5 always was, will always be, cannot be denied on pain of absurdity, etc. It cannot break down and does not need to be repaired.

It is a necessary being.

(We need not trouble ourselves for the moment on the 2400 year old debate on whether such may only be instantiated in physical entities. Suffice to say that such mathematical or more broadly propositional truths capture assertions about reality that may or may not be true, but if true can have very powerful implications. Thence, the “unreasonable” effectiveness of mathematics in science: If X then Y, holds, once X is found.)
His point is the truth of the equation, the fact it is correct, is an example of a non-contingent thing. That is, the specific truth is itself a necessary being.

I was confused by this reasoning and shared my thinking about contingency and the mathematical equation:
The problem, as I have tried to work it out, is that the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 is contingent. Let me explain:
For the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 to begin or continue, we need (1) a material universe; (2) principles of rationality, such as the law of identity; and (3) a computer, that is, a being to arbitrate between the universe and rationality so as to determine the truth of expressions. There may be additional needs, but these three factors seem essential at the least.

We note also that the falsity of 2 + 3 = 4 depends on (1) to (3).

The truth or falsity of these expressions is an effect of the three factors of universe.
In my estimation, then, it is incorrect to say “the truth asserted in the structured set of symbols: 2 + 3 = 5 always was, will always be, cannot be denied on pain of absurdity, etc. It cannot break down and does not need to be repaired.” Specifically, the incorrect parts are “always was” and “will always be.” The expression 2 + 3 = 5 is true only as long as we have a material universe where things are identical only to themselves and interact with one another in regular ways. As long as we have, in other words, all three factors in play: materiality, regular constraints, and a translating/computing intelligence.
In response to this post, Kairosfocus commented:
To help you in brief, 2 + 3 = 5 does NOT depend on materiality, as sets can contain ANY entities. In fact, to address the Russell paradox, Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory joined to the von Neumann cumulative hierarchy -- yup THAT JvN from "Mars" again [there is a suspected nest of "Martians" in and around the old Austro-Hungarian empire's universities) -- builds in effect the set of natural numbers out of a chain of sets based on emptiness!

A simple look (let's duck the power sets issue) is to take the empty set O-slash. Take the set that contains this. Then put the two together to form a 3rd set. The fourth set collects the first three. Repeat ad infinitum. Ordinal numbers appear.

We have just created a successive collection that sets up the natural numbers, with cardinality at each step bound to that of the sets. These may be assigned labels, numerals 0, 1, 2, 3 . . .

Then, identify operations such as add and equal. The join operation add, on a set of cardinality 2 and one of cardinality 3 will yield one of cardinality 5.

At no stage have we depended on materiality, just logic. Though it is helpful to use our background as corporeal beings experiencing a physical world.

Numbers and operations on them APPLY to the physical world we experience, but do not depend on it to have validity, by extension, the same holds for logic.
I don't think this response resolves my issue. First, I had said--or meant--that the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 is contingent upon not only materiality but also principles of reason/intelligence and something to interpret the operation of the principles with respect to materiality. Another way of expressing my thinking is to ask:
Is it still true that 2 + 3 = 5 if (i) the universe is wholly uniform and immaterial, if (ii) there are no principles of reason that differentiate or manipulate information, and if (iii) there are no living or non-living entities in the universe that act or are acted upon by anything?
I don't see how the equation can have any meaning if a combination of at least two factors listed above is true. In a uniformly immaterial universe without principles of reason, how can 2 + 3 = 5 mean anything? There would be no 2, no 3, no 5, no operators, no vehicle or target for any action or conception, and no method governing difference between things (as there is no difference between things).

So, while I trust it's correct that the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 does not depend on materiality, as Kairosfocus says, my point is that the truth of the equation does depend on other factors. Indeed, the fact we need to conceive of numbers as sets demonstrates my point. If, contra factor (ii), there are principles of reason--such as conceptions of sets and operators--and if, contra factor (iii), there are entities such as ourselves that reconcile existence with (ii), then the equation can be true without reference to materiality. Yet, if either (ii) or (iii) holds along with (i), then the equation has no status whatsoever.

The proverbial jury remains out on non-contingency, as far as I can tell. It doesn't seem as though we have any way to verify whether something or some state exists with no contingencies whatsoever. If we have no way to verify, I'd like to use my version of the principle of cause and effect:
[d-1] A thing, A, has a beginning or may cease from being. A thing, A, therefore, has a cause.
This cause and effect principle flows seamlessly to the principle of sufficient reason:
[e] “Of everything that is, it can be found why it is.” (Principle of Sufficient Reason, per Schopenhauer.)
I think [d-1] and [e] work beautifully together, the first asserting the pervasive contingency of the universe and the second promising that everything in the universe can be traced to preceding factors.

Once we jettison non-contingency, we make quick progress. Everything falls together so nicely I wonder whether we should invoke another of Kairosfocus's principles:
[f] “to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true.” (Aristotle, Basic Definition of Truth, i.e. “telling it like it is.”)
Perhaps contingency is and non-contingency is not: this may be the truth.

Now, non-contingency may very well be true, even if we cannot verify it. I do not deny the possibility that non-contingency exists. But I have no special judgment to make about non-contingency until I know how we systematically and independently verify it. In other words, the empty set may be a mental model of non-contingent reality, or it may be a mental model of human reasoning.

In this post, I've tried to isolate that part of the principle of cause and effect that seems to me unassailable. For the assailable part--that is, for non-contingency--I have explained why I see things like mathematical truths to be contingent, as these truths cannot exist or continue apart from a combination of factors. My explanation will falter or fail if it can be demonstrated that the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 does not in fact rely on any factor, that it is true regardless of a physical universe, principles of reason, and an interpreting entity that mediates the previous two items. I have argued that at least two factors must be present for the equation to have any meaning at all, let alone truth. Finally, by reducing the scope of the principle of cause and effect, I have sketched how it integrates flawlessly both with the principle of sufficient reason and the "telling it like it is" principle.

Clearly, the principle of cause and effect is a critical point of divergence. Things that are caused and create effects are commonplace and not a philosophical problem. Things that have no causes and no effects--well, I don't know that we spend time wisely dwelling too much on these, if they are at all. But things that have no causes yet create effects: these are the things that concern us. Our specific concern is how we prove that a thing is un-caused. Yet what seems unquestionable is that reasonable people can doubt the existence of un-caused things.