Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reality Answers: Against the Argument from Psychology

Atheists: Like the Fonz, we're real. We're not rebels.
One common statement religious believers make about Atheists takes the form of what I will explain as an Argument from Psychology: An atheistic viewpoint, the religious say, is an expression of that person's desire not to feel accountable to God. Here is one example that is fairly typical, in my experience:
So, what is at the core of the atheist's concern?

As sinful humans, we have an amazing tendency to try to justify our actions. This is something that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We do something stupid and try to invent plausible reasons why we did it. Sometimes this is to fool others; sometimes it is to convince ourselves that we are not as stupid as our actions indicate.

Sometimes people who have taken a strong point of view on something that is wrong think it is their duty to get others on side, because there is safety in numbers. This is how cults form, and how dictators get away with murder.

If atheists know in their hearts that there really is a God, but they don't want to be accountable to God for their actions, then it starts to make sense why they try so hard to convince others that God doesn't exist.
I said this was a rather typical example, but let's pause over some of its particular statements:

a. The writer's focus is on the mindset of "the atheist," not on making a statement or a formulation of an argument. The writer presumes to have direct and complete understanding of the essence of any atheist. Although I would like not to editorialize here, the intellectual arrogance of the writer's approach is breathtaking.

b. Humans--we're speaking of all humans and all humanity--are "sinful." First, can you think of any realm of human endeavor that dares to claim authority about the default moral standing of every single human being ever? It make no more sense to say "As humans born to goodness" than it does to say "As sinful humans." Again, I feel I must editorialize here and suggest that it's quite repulsive to imagine that humans just are sinful or are born to goodness. I see no reason to condemn or exalt a person as a condition of personhood.

c. Why the grand gesture of separating "human" from "animal"? We people are sinful, but we're better than the animals because we justify our actions. Huh? In any case, one of the great tropes of religious-based writing (to be fair: not only the religious use it) is the move to separate people from animals conceptually. It's a rhetorical gesture that appears both intellectual and commonsensical. But what's wrong with animals? Why would we want to deny that we are a kind of animal?

d. "This is how cults form." No kidding, right? The irony of a cultist trying to imply that Atheists are cult-driven is beautiful. Unfortunately, Atheism--even "militant" or "new" Atheism--fails to meet any standard of definition for the word "cult."

The Argument from Psychology, then, imagines that the Atheist  takes a Machiavellian approach to justifying her or his desires--desires (a) to act in a certain way and (b) to feel in control or in charge. To illustrate: I desire to act in ways that that God has prohibited or not to act in ways that he has commanded. I resent having my will thwarted and having to participate in events that don't make perfect sense to me. By rejecting the idea of God and by swooning over virtually any argument in favor of Atheism, I get to live my life my way and I get to answer to no one else but myself for my personal conduct. I decide for myself which actions are prohibited and which are obligatory. As far as my life is concerned, in effect I am God.

At any rate, this is my formulation of what the Argument from Psychology says. I call it this name--rather than, for instance, the "Argument from Power" or the "Argument from Will"--because the core of the argument is the idea that people undergo a psychological conflict over personal desire (what I want or want to do) and extra-personal rules (that which is prohibited and obligated according to everything that is not me). The word "psychology" also works because it carries the idea that the conflict over desire and rules remains unresolved or incorrectly resolved in Atheists. Thus, while the believer has solved the problem and moved on, the Atheist persists in a state of immaturity or abnormality.

What I see in the Argument from Psychology, then, is an overt rhetorical effort to elevate the idea of the believer against the degraded idea of the Atheist. The believer is wise and centered while the Atheist is foolish and unbalanced. The believer holds the capital-t truth, while the Atheist works "so hard" to convince others of something that is, if not a lie, only little-t truth.

I am not a psychologist and have no psychological training, so please forgive me if my vague model of human subjectivity above is hopelessly naive or even incorrect. But I think I have accurately captured the first and second-level claims in the Argument from Psychology. With this understanding, I want to make my response in the form of different notes and observations:
  1. To believers, the central problem of the Atheist seems to be one of humility or pride. We Atheists are unable or unwilling to humble ourselves before God and God's prescriptions.
  2. Evidently, believers nevertheless admire the initial skeptical impulse of the Atheist. They fully agree that we should question faith--up until the point that we get the very reasonable explanation from the preacher or the theologian. Every question after that point, such as "does that explanation really make sense?", gets into the realm of Atheistic hubris.
  3. The Argument from Psychology de-emphasizes the intellectual questions of God's existence, of the fairness and relevance of ancient moral prescriptions, and of the claims of authority made by various churches and sects. The argument implies that disbelief is a personal problem--it's your fault--and not a problem of evidence, reason, or reality.
  4. The argument clearly defines disbelief as a negative value, as something "foolish." The argument counts on people's insecurities about being wrong. 
  5. The Argument from Psychology seems to suggest that Atheists should be more "sinful" than theists. I suppose it must be true in one sense, but the specifics of sin have changed over time and from sect to sect. I once remarked about sin, in the context of its sibling, purity:
    And that's the thing about a concept such as purity: it represents an ideal or a theoretical construct. It's a term for setting context, not a term of practical reality. It thus sets the context for other concepts. Sin, for example, amounts to a transgression or violation; its meaning relies on and relates to the meaning of purity. Whereas purity sets a line between the ideal and the real, sin crosses that line and even breaks it. The sin is the rejection of the natural, of established order, of differentiation. Sin explodes purity.

    Sin is a profoundly evil idea, then. But more than this it is taught with evil intent. The teaching that says "you are a sinner" instructs people to know themselves as out of sync with the universe, as divided against one's family and community, and as polluting the world. Some teachings suggest that sin can be redeemed, purchased or managed--by the teachers, of course, and for a price. Always for a price.
    Atheists can and do have moral impulses, no less than any other religion or any other group of people.
  6. The Argument from Psychology questions the priorities of the Atheist. It seems to ask, "If your priorities are not 'God, country, family,' then what are they?"
  7. I'm amused by the reasoning that there is some "God position" into which Atheists insert the "self." One of the hardest ideas for an Atheist to communicate to a believer is that there is no "God position." For instance, I cannot exalt myself as the ultimate authority, even for my own behavior, because there is no ultimate authority. I cannot do whatever I want whenever I want. Why? Because my actions have real consequences for myself and others. I don't answer to God--in fact, no one does--I answer to reality.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Autumn of Our Content

Harvest: Picking apples and pumpkins.

WARNING: This will be a personal post.

I love Autumn in New England, especially with my family. We all recently spent a fantastic morning in our backyard. Our neighbors' kids were over, and we all (the wife and I, too) played at catching wind-blown leaves before they landed on the lawn. The morning sunshine, the colors of trees and grass and sky, the laughter of children at play with one another, the unbridled joy of living without worry for anything but this moment: at one point, I counseled myself to remember the day and what it was like to be present then and there.

Fall is often taken as a season of decline, and understandably so. Autumn's eternal place is between the free fullness of Summer and the powerful austerity of Winter. John Keats takes it upon himself to console sad Autumn:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats' Autumn is a downtrodden sibling, the one who never quite measures up to the other. Keats turns the lamentations of the Fall--presumably, for the dying of the year and so then for our own dying--into a sweet and self-possessed song. The poem redeems Autumn as a melange of sounds.

But what redeems my Autumn song, which emerges from the depths of happiness? Keats approaches Autumn one-on-one, the solitary man and the somber season. Yet my Fall season is more populated. Keats heard sounds; I hear those and also a human chorus.

I recall sitting on the grass recently with my two-year-old son. We watched the chickadees, robins and blue jays dart to the bird feeder for seed. I remember another Fall, back in 2005. I was recovering from Sarcoidosis. My oldest daughter and I walked together down to the lake. We held hands, and I became choked up inside at how glad I was that we had this time. I have a picture in my mind of my younger daughter, in pink hat and pink coat, chasing after her sister through the leaves. Later, I took an actual picture of her smiling face, one cheek reddened and the other with a fading painting that she had received on the town common. These moments are all a happy song that I cannot save.

Cherished moments float in and then fly away: optima dies...prima fugit. They'll never be back, so enjoy them and be immersed in them while it's possible. Today, I struggle to lift my oldest girl up above my shoulders, and one day I'll no longer be able to wrestle my boy. Soon, my younger daughter will outgrow her lisp and get her f's and th's straightened out. The children mature, and I am aware that I am aging. How many more Fall seasons will I get? How many Autumn days will I have with my kids?

Robert Frost faces this kind of question in his usual way, dramatizing a very human dilemma in terms of work:
Gathering Leaves

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?
None of us knows the final fruits of our labors, Frost says. Our big-man work and big-man tools count for less than we think. All our efforts, a shed full of leaves, and "next to nothing" for weight or color. Yet, "a crop is a crop," suggesting the results of our efforts may indeed have value, even if we cannot recognize it at the moment.

I wonder what my children and I will reap from these happy Fall days. It's a nearly constant thought. I want them to remember. I want them to draw comfort, strength, and compassion from what we've done and the memories of what has passed. I want them to enjoy their own spouses and children.

For me, well, I want to remember it all. I don't want to forget the features of youth in my children. I want constant access to the feelings of being a father of young children. Mostly, however, I want my kids to know that because of them--that through them--their father knew joy in his life.
Joy commands the hardy mainspring
Of the universe eterne.
Joy, oh joy the wheel is driving
Which the worlds’ great clock doth turn.
Flowers from the buds she coaxes,
Suns from out the hyaline,
Spheres she rotates through expanses,
Which the seer can’t divine.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My Non-Answers to Egnor's Questions

Discovery Institute denizen Michael Egnor poses 8 questions to Atheists:
1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?
These are good questions (but see below), and many of us who have been paying attention have seen them and answered them before.

Before answering these questions, however, we should pause to consider another question that relates to all of the eight and that clarifies the nature of the debate surrounding them:
For each of the eight questions, which areas of human endeavor and study are best suited to provide reliable answers?
For instance, is the discipline of medieval studies positioned to give the most correct and comprehensive answer to #1? Or, is the discipline of urban planning? In what bodies of knowledge and practice are we expecting to gain the most comprehensive and correct view on each question?

My point is that "atheists" are not really in a position to answer these questions. Neither are "theists." Question #1 looks like a matter for philosophers, but it's probably also, or more so, a matter for cosmologists and physicists. For Question #5, I should think neuroscientists would have the most to say.

As an Atheist, then, I am not claiming to know the authoritative, definitive answers to each question. I will happily share my opinions, of course, and hopefully these opinions derive from a reasonable understanding of the experts in fields relevant to each question. However, since the questions are directed to Atheists and part of a larger discussion between Atheists, theists, and accommodationists, I think we need to ask theists:
Upon what basis, if any, does Theology X claim to be able to weigh in authoritatively on these 8 questions?
The honest answer, of course, is that there is no theology competent to pronounce authoritatively on these questions. Judaism may have its own ideas about them, Hinduism may have its beliefs, Christianity may have its doctrines--but theology as such doesn't really help us to get answers. Indeed, theology actually seems to get us farther away from the questions

Finally, I think the questions themselves are a bit of a sham. Maybe some people get a charge out of wondering "Why is there evil?" but to me this is a question that allows the thinker to remain insulated in abstraction and to avoid the messy realities of real problems. Why stand in a street to observe the intractable problems of crime and poverty when one can sit in a private library justifying the existence of capital-e evil? Why trouble ourselves by dealing with the reality that we are here when we can indulge ourselves by meditating leisurely on questions such as why are we here, which are probably unanswerable?

So, I take a dim view of the intention behind Egnor's questions and of the debates that may obtain over the answers given. All of these are sideshows. As I see it, the questions have been given to make a distraction from reality. Their intention betrays an "I'm-more-metaphysical-than-you" attitude, and any debate over specific answers will become just another reason not to consider the questions we really should answer, such as "How can we reduce violent crime?" or "How can we reduce poverty?"

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Last Prejudice?

We are petty and tribal, we people.

A relative of mine posted a link on Facebook to a story out of Michigan:
Michigan Woman Faces Civil Rights Complaint for Seeking a Christian Roommate
A civil rights complaint has been filed against a woman in Grand Rapids, Mich., who posted an advertisement at her church last July seeking a Christian roommate.

The ad "expresses an illegal preference for a Christian roommate, thus excluding people of other faiths,” according to the complaint filed by the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan.

"It's a violation to make, print or publish a discriminatory statement," Executive Director Nancy Haynes told Fox News. "There are no exemptions to that."

Haynes said the unnamed 31-year-old woman’s case was turned over to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Depending on the outcome of the case, she said, the woman could face several hundreds of dollars in fines and “fair housing training so it doesn’t happen again.”

Harold Core, director of public affairs with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, told the Grand Rapids Press that the Fair Housing Act prevents people from publishing an advertisement stating their preference of religion, race or handicap with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling.

"It's really difficult to say at this point what could potentially happen," he told the newspaper, noting that there are exemptions in the law for gender when there is a shared living space.

But Joel Oster, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the woman free of charge, describes the case as "outrageous."

"Clearly this woman has a right to pick and choose who she wants to live with," he said.

"Christians shouldn't live in fear of being punished by the government for being Christians. It is completely absurd to try to penalize a single Christian woman for privately seeking a Christian roommate at church -- an obviously legal and constitutionally protected activity."

Haynes said the person who filed the initial complaint saw the ad on the church bulletin board and contacted the local fair housing organization.

The ad included the words, "Christian roommate wanted," along with the woman's contact information. Had the ad not included the word "Christian," Haynes said, it would not have been illegal.

"If you read it and you were not Christian, would you not feel welcome to rent there?" Haynes asked.

Oster said he hopes the case will eventually be dropped and that he's sent a letter to the state asking the authorities to dismiss the case as groundless.

"The First Amendment guarantees us Freedom of Religion," he said. "And we have the right to live with someone of the same faith. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is denying her rights by pursuing this complaint."

But Haynes said officials plan on pursuing the matter.

"We want to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said.

My relative's comment on the story was "Are you kidding me?????????," meaning he felt the complaint was patently ridiculous, unjust, or out of order. Others agreed with his viewpoint:

Comment 1: "WOW! That's unbelievable...."

Comment 2: "the last prejudice....."

Comment 3: "Sadly believable. PC run amuck."

Let me say from the outset that I probably side with the woman who posted the advertisement to some extent. I certainly don't think she ought to be fined or subjected to sensitivity training.

However, in specifying a certain type of roommate from the outset, the woman expressed her own prejudice. I think, therefore, there are grounds for this complaint. Although we might sympathize with the woman who made the ad, the complaint is not trivial and not prejudicial against Christians. I'm not a lawyer, but to me the complaint raises a very interesting and important question about where we draw the line between the rights of the private individual seeking a roommate and the many potential roommates seeking a place to live.

After some internal deliberation, I decided to post my own comment:
Similar situation: person faces civil rights complaint for seeking a white roommate.

From the website of the complaining organization, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan: "What is Fair Housing? Fair Housing is the right of individuals obtain the housing of their choice (ie: rent an apartment, buy a home, obtain a mortgage, purchase homeowners insurance etc.), free from discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, mental or physical disability, familial status, marital status, age, sexual preference, and legal and verifiable source of income. These rights are assured by Federal, State and local fair housing laws."
My comment goes back to the idea that the complaint is at least valid. In the white/non-white context, the validity is more clear.

One commenter makes what I think is a reasonable response, but the second commenter is hysterical. This is the same one who had earlier bought in the comment on "the last prejudice."

Comment 5: "from the article 'The ad included the words, "Christian roommate wanted,"' she didn't say 'no - non-christians' - she just gave what she was looking for, like 'non-smoker' Plus, she advertised at her CHURCH - who was at her church that would report this!?!?! I understand the laws are in place for a reason - but this really pushes the limits!!!"

Comment 6: "it does push the limits. The article says she's looking for a roomate. Does that mean she has to be forced to live with anyone; a serial killer, a rapist, an atheist or a man? This law was meant for landlords and the artcile doesn't say whether she's the landlord or not. This is a frivolous lawsuit and a waste of taxpayer dollars...shameful. A person could ask for a gay roomate or an atheist roomate and no-one would complain due to political correcteness. Like I said, the last acceptable predjudice is against Christians."

Comment 6 reveals a troubled mind, someone who sees soldiers forcing people to act against their choices. The person also claims that a double standard exists: "A person could ask for a gay roomate or an atheist roommate and no-one would complain." I don't know if this claim is (f)actually true, but neither does the person making the claim--that subjunctive "would" tells us the person is speculating.

However, the really intriguing item is that prejudice against Christians is "the last acceptable" prejudice.


Is anyone asking Christians to live in ghettos or internment camps? Is anyone telling Christians that they can't eat in particular restaurants, attend particular schools, or sit in designated areas of buses? Are Christians being bullied to the point of suicide? Are Christians likely to encounter career ceilings and lower pay than their non-Christian colleagues? Are Christians being forced to wear badges or to adhere to special curfews? Are Christians prey to mobs willing to commit unrestrained violence against them? Are they being fed to lions? Are they being nailed to pieces of wood?

I find this persecution complex unfounded and abhorrent. I find designating this prejudice as "the last" completely egocentric.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Communication Breakdown

Can people with fundamental disagreements have productive debates? To some extent, it depends on what we mean by productive. To me, productive means, or should mean, that one debater acknowledges the other's position is supported by a superior argument. But perhaps my definition is too rigid and I should back off it. Besides, in my experience such acknowledgment rarely happens.

But, why is this outcome so infrequent? Perhaps I'm bad at arguing or perhaps it's a matter of holding pre-set positions? To attempt some preliminary and provisional answers, I'd like to follow an online debate that was initiated by "SJ," who had commented on a post of mine and later challenged me to debate him. The subject of the debate was the Cosmological Argument (CA). Our full debate is available at SJ's blog.

What I want to do here, however, is examine our various exchanges and see how we argue with each other. In the images below, I have reproduced only the beginnings of our comments. I have done this to keep the text in the images legible. I also don't think very much gets said after the first 3-5 sentences that really warrants full representation here.

Here, then, is how we begin:

My position is that CA doesn't solve the infinite regress problem. SJ appears to agree that infinite regress is a problem. However, his phrasing is curious: The point, he says, is that the CA solves the infinite regress problem. I agree with SJ on what the point of SA is. My challenge still stands, however, I don't the CA achieves its point. Now, in Exchange 2 I will make precisely this argument, but I don't want to skip over the new argument that SJ introduces, that the Bible gives us an idea of who/what cause the universe.

Thus, I think already that we are not getting anywhere. We're multiplying arguments instead of closing them down.That is, we're not being productive in the sense of moving either one of us from our original position. Instead, I see that even in my own argumentation, I'm giving a daisy chain of argumentative demands: (1) what causes God, (2) why can't the universe be uncaused, (3) how can you develop an explanation from something that is inscrutable. I suppose the thrust of these questions was to get SJ to see his position as basically unbalanced and narrow. I don't think my strategy worked because he deflected my parry by suggesting I wasn't appreciating the point of the CA and by using the Bible as an authority on knowledge from/about God.And of course

Let's look at the next exchange:

Here, I try to make the distinction (mentioned above) between the point of the CA and whether or not it successfully makes its point. I also reiterate my original argument. If I understand correctly, SJ asserts that God is by definition an uncaused cause. I imagine that this assertion is meant to defend my earlier point that invoking God just defers the regress problem: instead of wondering what caused the universe, now we must wonder what caused God.

The argument was originally a contest to move the opponent from a position concerning the efficacy of the CA. As Exchange 3 starts, SJ and I have focused on the existence of God and the state of knowledge in physics. I use focused ironically, since we're really at a rather vague and unspecified level with our comments. Follow along below with the exchanges. The discussion devolves into trite barbs and finally dissolves with mutual raspberries:

Are there any lessons or takeaways from all this? Yes. In retrospect I don't think I should have argued the success/failure or the merits/flaws of the CA. Both SJ and I already had solidified positions going into this debate. I dare say neither of us was entertaining the idea of moving off of these positions. We were not debating but rather articulating our positions; indeed, our function to each other was to help the other clarify and refine his position.

I have nothing against clarification and refinement, naturally. But I don't think I learned anything from this debate. I now believe that the better approach would have been to expand upon the CA itself. The CA is not just one argument, and there is more than just one formulation of it. This might have been a better discussion and a more productive debate, if indeed we ever got to debating.

I also think the goals of the debate and the "rules of engagement" might have been better spelled out by we the participants. What was it we wanted from each other?

So, I'll try to be better and more mindful in my debating.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Keep This Link Close

[White tatonka. It's a miracle]

I mean: keep this here link in your "review again and again" file.

Vincent Torley, according to the resume posted on-line, is a Philosophy Ph.D. and teacher living in Japan. I have read some of his work at the ID site, Uncommon Descent. Like many philosophers and humanities wonks, he is careful with his words, which means that if you read closely you'll see that nothing very controversial is ever being said.

Torley comments from a distance on a recent debate between two biologists and super-Atheists, Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers. The debate is very interesting and worth checking out; it actually began as the two scientists took different views on the Steve Zara article that I had discussed here.

Torley sees the debate, which is over whether we can find any evidence for a god (notice the italicized and boldfaced words), as an opportunity to present a list of apologetic and philosophical arguments for his god. Addressing Coyne (but not Myers, since Coyne thinks that there is at least a theoretical possibility for evidence of gods), Torley rhapsodizes:
Well, Professor, I'm something of a magpie. I collect good articles. The 200 or so articles I’ve listed below are the "creme-de-la-creme" so to speak, of what’s available on the Web. Taken together, they make a strong cumulative case, on philosophical and empirical grounds, that God does indeed exist, and that the benefits of religion vastly outweigh the multitude of harms inflicted in its name. (There’s even a case where an amputee gets healed! Curious? Thought you might be.) I’ve also included some good articles on God, morality and evil, which will interest you. The arguments for the immateriality of the mind are also significant: they serve to undermine the materialist argument that there can never be a good argument for the existence of an immaterial Intelligence, since all the minds we know of are embodied and complex. Interested? Please read on.
Torley's list is worth checking out but it also must be noted that it contains virtually no first-hand science. Some of the folks seem sciency or almost sciency, like Don Johnson, but I'm not sure if their works are works of science. Torley's list mainly consists of arguments and interpretations, which really misses the point. The problem with arguments and interpretations, as Myers aptly puts it, is that unless they are expressed in evidence and in resulting sets of data, they are really just stories:
We can have the logical possibility of finding phenomena in the natural world that have been traditionally hidden from explanation by sweeping them into the category of "the gods did it," but I say that gods have never been and never can be an adequate answer. Once you've got evidence for something, it's no longer a member of the set of mysteries under godly purview.

It's like the old joke, "What do you call alternative medicines that have been shown to work? Medicine." What I'm asking here is what should you call supernatural explanations that actually work and lead to deeper understanding of the universe…and the answer is science. All gods vanish in the first puff of understanding.
To see that Torley is probably talking past Coyne and Myers, have a look at Coyne's statements below, which try to put the focus on--da da-dah dah!--evidence!
Here are two sorts of evidence. In one, a man appears on earth (let’s say he claims to be Jesus returning) who is able to perform all sorts of “miracles.” Let’s say, for instance, that he heals amputees and all manner of illnesses and mutilations, claiming that he’s channeling God’s power. These healings are fully documented by physicians. And the being can also do other stuff that doesn’t seem to have a natural explanation, like turning water into wine at long distance (this, of course, would be supervised not just by chemists, but by magicians). You could of course impute these results to space aliens, but even aliens have to work through understandable natural mechanisms. If they don’t, then they’re equivalent to gods.

Here’s another: a rigorous double-blind experiment provides strong evidence that prayer works. (That is, the people prayed for are almost always healed, while those who are not recover at control rates.) But it works only when praying to God and Jesus, not Allah or Vishnu or anyone else. Is that not evidence for an omniscient and omnipotent being? Granted, we know that prayer doesn’t work, but it could have.
Interestingly, Torley does give us a Wikipedia reference to the Miracle of Calanda, a report of a 17th century Spanish farmer's leg being returned to him after it had been amputated two years earlier. It's a rather dodgy report, certainly not fully documented. I think we would all prefer to have more data and verification, and I think we'd all like to have similar events that are more recent than 370 years ago. Most importantly, we should remember and take to heart the advice of David Hume:
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish....
But it's a neat story and I welcome anyone to hang their religious hat on it. Such folk may also want to consider the Hindu Milk Miracle, the psychic powers of the Buddha, Muhammad's splitting the Moon, or perhaps the miraculous white buffalo.

UPDATE: Jerry Coyne has made note of Torley's list. I think Coyne treats it properly.

UPDATE 2: Torley must be reading the comments over at Coyne's site. He's recently added the following note beneath the Miracle of Calanda link:
PLEASE NOTE: The miracle of Calanda is well-documented, but hardly compelling. I have included it as a counter-example to the commonly heard claim that God never heals amputees. There is good reason to believe that on at least one occasion, he did. However, the evidence for St. Joseph of Cupertino's miracles is absolutely compelling, making it reasonable for believers to take seriously accounts of miracles for which the evidence is strong, but not compelling. To suppose that thousands of people, including skeptics, who witnessed St. Joseph of Cupertino's flights on thousands of occasions, could have been mistaken about the saint's ability to fly, is absurd.
This is fantastic backtracking. Ah, but I wish Torley had thought it worthy to include the accounts of the cephalophoric saints.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Christian Wife

My wife is the most special and wonderful person. She is a Christian of deep belief. She enjoys being part of an evangelical church. She likes the people of the church, the community, and the many opportunities for participation.

She and I are very different in some respects, but together we work. We met in 1995 and have been building a life together ever since.

I figure some might be curious about the relationship of a hard-line Atheist and a fervent Christian, so I put together a self-interview. That is, I wrote some questions and answered them myself below. If folks like the subject and format, perhaps I'll ask the wife if she would be willing to answer questions from y'all.

1. Let's start with an obvious question: How is it that two people of such different--perhaps even opposing--beliefs get together and build an apparently happy marriage?
My wife and I actually share many beliefs in common. Our values are fundamentally similar, and our differences are often complementary rather than contradictory. Clearly, religion and religious belief are places of difference, but in most every other place we stand united.

I think people make more of religious difference than there needs to be. My wife and I are different people, and we always have been. We have different jobs and different backgrounds. We don't always vote for the same people. We like different foods. Our tastes in music and art can be way off.

As far as I can tell, religion is just another difference. It's something that each of us has and keeps in the household, but it doesn't really define our home. It doesn't dominate our relationship at all. Rather, our lives together are dominated by just living. We try to be together in the morning. I leave for work, and then I come home at night and we try to be together with the kids until their bedtime routine starts.

Maybe if we had both been Catholic or Jewish when we started dating, things would be different today. But since we started out with difference, I think that religion quickly and necessarily became bracketed as a personal thing and not a universal thing.

When we first met, my wife was a practicing Catholic and I identified as Jewish. I don't remember the state of her belief then, or my own. When we moved in together in 1997, she took a spot teaching Sunday school at the local church, and I eventually got involved with my local Hillel house. I even taught the kindergartners in Hebrew school!

If we ever saw our religious differences as a problem, we didn't see it as a big problem or as a relationship problem. We wanted to be together; that was always the important point. We didn't even need to say it. From the beginning of our relationship, being together was implicitly understood and not being together never entered our minds.

2. You both went through changes in religious thinking, right?
Very much. In the 2001-2003 timeframe, my wife started to move away from the Catholic church. We were back in the Boston area by then, and the child sex abuse scandal had started to hit. The response of the Church to these horrific acts perpetrated by priests and then knowingly covered up at the highest levels of the institution--well, it was too much to take. The Church's position on homosexuality was probably also an issue for my wife. Our oldest daughter was confirmed Catholic--that was in 2003--but I don't think my wife went to church very much in those days.

It wasn't until 2006 that my wife found a Christian religious community that she liked. This community called itself non-denominational. She found many people there who were about her age and also having children. The religious message was personal and positive. The services were energetic and carefully crafted. I think my wife felt that this community had a lot of people who could understand some of her questions and problems in a way that I never could have.

I won't go over my changes here, since they are pretty well documented in this blog.

3. Surely, you and your wife must have strong disagreements about religion.
No doubt. We don't talk about it very much. In church and in her church activities, she has her space to express what she believes; in this blog, I have mine. We rarely talk face-to-face about these disagreements because I am not able to convey the sense that I take Christian belief very seriously. Now, I take it seriously to some extent. After all, my wife is sincere about her Christianity, and she seeks to bring our kids to services most every Sunday. Plus, I know that lots of people call themselves Christian, and I am familiar with much of the history and background of both early and established Christianity.

But I have limits to the deference I am willing to give ideas that have been demonstrated faulty. I cannot fake credulity for the story of a virgin-born-of-a-virgin who was impregnated by a ghost and who birthed a miracle-working human sacrifice destined to open the world's ultimate can of whoop-ass. I know the arguments around the story. I am aware of the paucity of genuine facts regarding the story's main character. I am familiar with the details of the story and their history, and I feel as though I've spent more than enough intellectual and emotional energy to give the story it's due. I have little interest in revisiting this particular story when there are, to my mind, more exciting and controversial questions to consider.

For my part, I have no desire to make Atheist arguments or to force Dawkins and Hitchens on my wife. What's the point? She's an intelligent human being and I've got my work cut out for me just defining the contours of my own thinking. We both have our own "spiritual" questions that we're pursuing, and it's enough that we support each other in our respective pursuits.

At the end of the day, our religious differences and our different rationalizations for our beliefs have very little to do with the practicalities of our love and our household. Maybe, after the kids have grown up and we're retired, we'll spend our days debating the lack of evidence for gods and the ridiculousness of all religious beliefs. I suspect we'll rather spend our days having more fun together, but who knows?

4. How do your differences in religion and Atheism apply to the way you raise your children?
In terms of how we raise the kids, I don't think there are any issues. I don't openly scoff at Christianity or Judaism in front of my children. I also don't push Darwin's Origin of Species or Dawkins's The God Delusion on them. The fact is that I don't need to do this. The reality of my Atheism will become apparent to my children when they are old enough to see it. They'll notice I don't go with them to church and that some of the books in my library make cases for Atheism.

Parenting is a practical art. It's hard to get kids to believe or to know things in the exact way you want. They develop beliefs and knowledge through their own doing and their own experiences. Neither my wife nor I is interested in controlling our children's intellectual environment to the extent that they can only have these-or-those thoughts or only come to such-and-such conclusions about the world. So, we both parent in the day; that is, we try to handle each day as it comes and enjoy it as best we can.

Honestly, I don't think personal religious or atheistic beliefs have much impact on what we parents need to do as parents. We need to be with our kids. We need to play with them, teach them, help them, encourage them, and show them we enjoy all that. To me, in marriage and in parenting, togetherness is the name of the game. It's all about being in the same place at the same time.

It's not about using the children as my personal social experiment. It's not about making the children live out my dreams and my ideas. It's not about coercing the children to think and act like me. It is about enabling and empowering them to grow according to their own reasoning and desires.

We parents are an extension of our children, not the other way around. We are their conscience until it becomes their responsibility to tell themselves what's right and necessary. We are their butlers until they are fully able to get the items they need and can clean up after themselves. We are their cheerleaders until they learn how to develop their own confidence and motivation. We are their counselors until they are able to take the lead in making the tough decisions that affect them.

My wife and I share this fundamental outlook in most ways, if not in every single way. We agree on the major things and differ in some of the details. We want the same seeds and are comfortable with however the flowers develop. This is why it has worked so far for us, and why I have no reason to be anything less than very optimistic about the future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Sound Triumphal

Too long have I stayed away from Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass. We are now on page 25, where the poet has just picked up a kind of praise for the defeated:
I sound triumphal drums for the dead . . . . I fling through my embouchures the loudest and gayest music to them,
Vivas to those who have failed, and to those whose war- vessels sank in the sea, and those themselves who sank in the sea,
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes, and the number-less unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.
Is this not a quintessentially American sentiment, to gaze lovingly and sympathetically on the fallen? Americans are fascinated by the defeated and by the underdogs. The poet here continues to dig in American soil with not (just) a nationalist's but a completist's fervor.
This is the meal pleasantly set . . . . this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous . . . . I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited . . . . the heavy-lipped slave is invited . . . . the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

This is the press of a bashful hand . . . . this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips to yours . . . . this is the murmur of yearning,
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This is the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have . . . . for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.
We realize that we had been in one of the poet's characteristic interludes, as the he brings back several "this is" statements. This type of statement is already a staple of the poem; it has both an indicative and self-referential purpose, as the poet looks out to the world and defines his own poem as being or creating both the world and its affects. The litany above continues the thread of the defeated and unloved.

Whitman's poet shows himself repeatedly to be concerned above all with continuum, "the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again": continuum and recursion and reflection. And then...the poet toggles to intimacy:
Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.
The poet talks to me, alone, now, in private and in trust of camaraderie. And then...the confidence is interrupted:
Who goes there! hankering, gross, mystical, nude?
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?

What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.

I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.

Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids . . . . conformity goes to the fourth-removed,
I cock my hat as I please indoors or out.

Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?
I think we have the poet here bringing us out from the realm of the defeated to one of the unabashed. The poet is at home in both lands, and in all lands.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ultimate Meaning: Index of Posts

[Ultimate meaning here! Believe in my religion and your lives will have divine purpose! Divine purpose, I say!]

This series was inadvertent on my part, at least initially, but I think the results were good.
  • In "Materialism and All There Is," I seek to understand why the notion of materialism draws opponents into convulsions. I also look at one of the common ID arguments about materialism: that if it's true, then our minds cannot be relied upon to know truth. This is supposed to be a winning argument for the IDers, who of course wouldn't go after materialism using evidence and empirical data. I talk about why their argument fails.
  • "What Gives Meaning to Human Life?" begins my specific engagement with materialism and ultimate meaning. In this post, I try simply to define the key issues and the problems to be solved.
  • In "What's Better Than Ultimate Meaning?" I connect the dots from materialism to the question of gods and the natural origins of humanity. I also bring in ideas of happiness and significance because the question of ultimate meaning is also a question of what to do when personal happiness conflicts with a sense of universal purpose.
  • "Is a Meaningless Life Worth Living?" discusses the sad story of Mitchell Heisman, an apparently brilliant man and a nihilist who committed suicide.
  • I wrote "Understanding Ultimate Meaning" to focus specifically on the meaning of meaning. My thesis is that ultimate meaning refers to God's purposes for individuals in the context of his plans for humanity as such. People who worry about a lack of ultimate meaning are concerned that their lives are not part of a grand mission in the universe for all humanity.
  • In "Ultimate Meaning Is Not the End of the Story," I talked about why some might find materialism and its implications undesirable. Such people reject the idea that human lives really matter if they are not the special products of a divine being.
  • Finally, "Life Has No Need of Ultimate Meaning" strips importance from the idealistic and ethereal concept of ultimate meaning. It's just not a good or useful idea. I assert that "we don’t need the existence or the supervision of any gods for our lives to have meaning, purpose, value, and worth."
I'm glad I pursued this issue because the idea of ultimate meaning and the way it was used was very strange to me. I see the idea now as a cheap trick, as a kind of snake oil. Anyone trying to peddle their religion with promises of ultimate meaning ought to be given a heavy rhetorical slap.
  • Update: See "Information Doesn't Get You God; The Bible Doesn't Get You Science" for a significant challenge to materialism. However, as I had written before, there is no necessary connection between Atheism and materialism:
    Nevertheless, there's no necessary connection between either Atheism and materialism or Atheism and knowledge (i.e., epistemology). One can reject a god (any god) and not be a materialist. Similarly, whether one admits the possibility of deities is separate and distinct from how that person learns and knows with her/his mind. The human brain works, biologically and neurologically, regardless of any deity's state of being.
    Thus, although anti-Atheists like to conflate atheism and materialism, it just ain't so.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Zara Dissolves the Possibility of God

In an epic post, Steve Zara argues that we Atheists cannot reasonably say that given the right evidence, we would believe in God's existence.

Zara carefully examines the God category as distinct from mythical beasts and aliens.Then he discusses the logical contradictions and mental gyrations required by current ideas of the Abrahamic deity--all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, cleans his room, and the like.He talks about all the barriers to evidence for this God being, and finally concludes:
So what do we have? An inconsistent and illogical idea of a being that has self-contradictory attributes, a being that exists in a realm of magic and wishes that come true, where rules are for the breaking, and yet with the magic indistinguishable from some technology that might exist centuries or millions of centuries in the future, and with even the truly miraculous (if such exists) shown to be impossible to verify. We also have the word games of theologians insisting we trust their propositions about the world, propositions that were absurd even before the Enlightenment.
We can't get to God by evidence, even if we wanted to. The very idea of God puts him beyond evidence and beyond logic. So no, we will no longer waffle about with vague attempts to express possible conditions that would persuade us to believe. There are no possible conditions.
The inconsistencies and contradictions of theism and supernaturalism seem to have no end. And, with all this, we are supposed to concede that there is some possibility of evidence for the Abrahamic God? Seriously?

To claim that such evidence could exist is to deny Clarke, to deny Hume, to deny the relativity of Einstein and the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg. To concede that there could be acceptable evidence for the supernatural all-powerful all-knowing, all-loving eternal deity is the opposite of reasonable.
I agree with Zara that we should no longer make this talk of evidence that could change our minds. Jerry Coyne disagrees a bit, but even his hypothetical scenario, addressed to P.Z. Myers tends to lead me to Zara's position:
Suppose that you, P.Z., were present at the following events, and they were also witnessed by lots of other skeptical eyewitnesses and, importantly, documented on film: A bright light appears in the heavens and, supported by wingéd angels, a being clad in white robe and sandals descends onto the UMM quad from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles with the same names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music is heard everywhere, with the blaring of trumps. The being, who describes himself as Jesus, puts his hand atop your head, P.Z., and suddenly your arms are turned into tentacles.

As you flail about with your new appendages, Jesus asks, “Now do you believe in me?” Another touch on the head and the tentacles disappear and your arms return. Jesus and his pack then repair to the Mayo clinic and, also on film, heal a bunch of amputees (who remain permanently arméd and leggéd after Jesus’s departure). After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels, ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there is thunder, and a single lightning bolt strikes P.Z.’s front yard. Then, just as suddenly, the heavens clear.

Now you can say that this is just a big magic stunt, but there’s a lot of documentation—all those healed amputees, for instance. Even using Hume’s criterion, isn’t it more parsimonious to say that there’s a God (and a Christian one, given the presence of Jesus!) rather than to assert that it was all an elaborate, hard-to-fathom magic trick or the concatenation of many enigmatic natural forces? And your evidence-based conversion to God need not be permanent, either. Since scientific truth is provisional, why not this “scientific” truth about God as well? Why not say that, until we find evidence that what just happened was a natural phenomenon, or a gigantic ruse, we provisionally accept the presence of a God?

This scenario is jocular, of course, but the point is serious--is there no evidence of any sort or variety that would convince you that God exists?
I think no. The evidence doesn't lead to God or connect to God, or whatever, by definition.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Life Has No Need of Ultimate Meaning

 [Woody knows what makes life worth living.]

The following comparison of religious belief and atheism comes from the opening of the “Atheism and Meaning” article on Investigating Atheism, a project site by members of the faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and at the University of Oxford:
Religious belief has traditionally provided human beings with a reason to think that their individual lives have a purpose, and that the existence of humanity as such has a purpose. Atheism, on the contrary, has generally taught that both individual human beings and (eventually) humanity as a whole have no purpose in the universe, and that they will be definitively annihilated in the course of time (human beings after their short spans of life, humanity - at latest - when the earth finally becomes uninhabitable). In the light of this prima facie deeply depressing prospect, the question of life's meaning or purpose within atheism has posed a peculiarly difficult challenge to atheists since the origins of modern atheism in the seventeenth century.
For an investigation of atheism, the concern of the writers seems to be how much more "uplifting" religious belief is than atheism. Clearly, this article at least is about defending religion on emotional grounds: believing makes person X feel better; therefore, believing is better.

I'm more surprised that actual academics could put together such a lame article as "Atheism and Meaning." The writers ignore the most direct and obvious points on the subject, such as those I had asked in the last installment: whether we should care if our lives, and humanity as such, have "ultimate" purpose and meaning in the universe.

Think about this: Are you really less happy with the fact of being alive if there are no gods? Do you really despair if a supreme being doesn’t acknowledge the spare change you donate to charity? Are we actually prepared to kill and maim one another except for the belief that a god is watching?

Clearly, the answer must be no to all of these questions. Most of us today are very happy to be alive. Some of us may be happier (or unhappier) if we believe a personal god is interested in all our individual thoughts and actions. But let’s be mature: who really lives life with the constant sense of being watched and judged? Who really wants to live this way? No one, I dare say.

Now think about this: Are you happier with the fact of being alive when your family and friends acknowledge you and give you positive feedback? Do you feel better than before when you donate money to people and they give you a sincere thank you? Are you better behaved when you know your relatives are around?

None of the questions above necessarily have answers that are one and the same always and everywhere, but the discernible point is sure: we don’t need the existence or the supervision of any gods for our lives to have meaning, purpose, value, and worth.

All people die. We know this. The world can seem cruel and events can appear to conspire against us. People especially can be jerks. However, we don’t need to despair that our lives are empty simply because there are no eternal souls and no heaven. We don’t need to give up on decency because there is no hellfire for sinners. We don't need to reject love for the sake of ancient stories and irrelevant rituals.

We all have reasons—good reasons, not reasons of imaginary beings—to think our lives are meaningful, and that humanity is pretty interesting. These reasons include our senses of individuality, our understanding of the world’s needs, our capacity to learn and to articulate, our ability to find and to give love, our desire to put our minds and bodies to work, and our predilection to imagine.

I understand some people think their religion gives their lives meaning. I don’t understand that some think their lives have no meaning without religion and gods.

* * * * *

This post concludes, for now, my exploration of the idea of “ultimate meaning,” especially as it relates to materialism. Ultimate meaning is a silly concept, in my opinion. It represents both human yearning and human egotism. We want so badly to understand ourselves as intrinsically special and universally important. We express these wants at the levels of community, state, nationality, culture, and species—and it’s generally been destructive to the world and to ourselves.

A person arguing for ultimate meaning and holding onto the idea has, I imagine, emotional reasons for doing so. A person bringing in this concept may very well be impervious to reason on the matter. Those of us dealing with such people are better off to move to different subjects of discussion.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Jesus the Disagreeable

[Everyone acts like a dick. Him too.]

According to the Urban Dictionary, definition number two for the noun "dick" is:
An abrasive man

Stop being such a dick.
Now, let's read the story of a guy who's all for family--just not dead family.
Matthew 8: 18-22
When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
Let the dead bury their own dead? Seems rather abrasive, and apparently when he died his followers didn't take the advice. So, he doesn't think we should worry about dead relatives. Maybe he thinks a bit differently when it's his own family involved.
Luke 14:25-27
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

Matthew 12: 46-50
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."

He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
Relax, dude! It's OK to acknowledge your mother and your brothers. Sounds like a teenager at the mall with his friends. Maybe he's one of those guys who is kinder to strangers?
Matthew 15:21-28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession."

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."

He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."

The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said.

He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."

"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
At least he finally had a change of heart. How loving! How about some love for your buds?
John 2:13-16 (See also Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18)
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"
He made a whip, and then used it on people. Is this not rather extreme?

Well, maybe he's one of those dudes who's only nice to those in his posse.
Matthew 16:21-28
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"

Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Hmm. Calls his friend "Satan," demands obedience, and threatens everyone. I'm beginning to think this person is actually not very nice, but maybe he's kind to animals.
Luke 8:26-33
They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. The owner of the pigs must have been thrilled to watch his source of livelihood fall over the edge. Jesus might have suggested that the demons not go into the feeding pigs but rather just go the hell away. Seems like this was an odd time to show mercy to the wrong beings.

Maybe he's an environmentalist:
Mark 12-14
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it.

Matt. 21:18-22
Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
Understanding the "lesson" being taught--is this the best way the "Son of God" has to teach? Perhaps a PowerPoint presentation could have communicated the message just as well?

I don't know. Maybe the guy's a pacifist:
Matthew 10:32-39
"Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn "'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Clearly, this person that comes through in these passages does not quite live up to his contemporary PR. This is a person who can be insensitive, obtuse, aloof, arrogant, violent, threatening, hysterical, and egocentric. Whatever his nice and pleasant attributes, this does not seem to be a person of superior moral standing. Yet, his fans tell us that we just don't understand Jesus like they do.
Without question there is no more beautiful, loving and wonderful person to have walked the earth than Jesus Christ. He is known even by his critics as a loving, forgiving and gracious person. It was even difficult for his enemies to find fault with him when he was present with us.
Personally, I think a much stronger case can be made for the Buddha as the most "beautiful, loving and wonderful person to have walked the earth." Of course, both Jesus and Buddha spawned religions with plenty of nuttiness.

Song of Victory

I have not posted for some time on Walt Whitman. Last entry dealt with page 23, and the bottom of the page saw the poet beginning a new pattern:
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off New-foundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
Pattern 1: A Yankee/Kentuckian/boatman/Louisianian or Georgian. Pattern 2: At home in X.

Pattern 3 starts with "Comrade," and we pick this up on page 24:
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen—comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia . . . . a wandering savage,
A farmer, mechanic, or artist . . . . a gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.
Remember that we started all these patterns with the poet's overarching declaration, "I am." Leaves of Grass holds so much interest from 1855 through today for being restless and relentless in attempting to define the self. Define yet not contain, for the self--the multiple, omnipresent self--cannot be imprisoned:
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
I hear Whitman's poet singing a particular note of defiance in "am not stuck up, and am in my place." This is a defiance of people, a resistance to accepting the slurs of people or their admonishments for the poet to mind his place. To these people, the poet rejoins:
The moth and the fisheggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.
Indeed, the poet doesn't just make a defensive argument or a positive case. He actually just demolishes the whole reason for the original question of place:
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour,
This is the the tasteless water of souls . . . . this is the true sustenance,
It is for the illiterate . . . . it is for the judges of the supreme court . . . . it is for the federal capitol and the state capitols,
It is for the admirable communes of literary men and composers and singers and lecturers and engineers and savans,
It is for the endless races of working people and farmers and seamen.
The poet returns to patterns and repetition. And the page finishes as a song of victory begins:
This is the trill of a thousand clear cornets and scream of the octave flute and strike of triangles.

I play not a march for victors only . . . . I play great marches for conquered and slain persons.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall . . . . battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.