Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Embarrasment of Riches: Best Posts of 2011

Motivation kitteh will push me to finish the dissertation in 2012.
The more I post on this blog, the more rewarding I find it. 

To those who read and considered what I wrote this year: thank you. To those who read and were moved to comment on posts: thanks a lot. I have appreciated and enjoyed the dialogue.

Proceeding month-by-month, here are my selections for best posts of 2011:
January: Mystical and fuzzy thinking appears not only in the domain of religion. In Can Science Explain Art, Music, and Literature? I discussed some woo-laden points of art and music made by philosopher Roger Scruton. Another good post was the review of specious claims made in the Bible: I Don't Believe in Bibles: The A-Bible-ist. Since we still see the bogus idea that atheism is incompatible with common decency, I was happy with my take-down of intelligent design philosophy guy V.J. Torley in Torley: Atheists Don't Know When Not to Kill.

February: An Uncommon Descent regular, BA77, was taken on in It Takes More Than Just Having an Explanation, which examines the creationist appropriation of concepts and terms from quantum mechanics. Personal changes and happenings were at the forefront of my thinking in Autistic Son, Artistic Daughter. Finally, I challenged the long-winded and repetitive GEM (aka Kairosfocus) in Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs and The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Descent and. Like many in the Uncommon Descent crowd, GEM mixes bias, hasty conclusions, selective evidence, and an overweening sense of personal offense to dress up his creationism as science.

March: March was a funny month, I guess. In Pay Down Debt or Build Up Savings?, I championed savings over debt--although I really meant that both should be done--and thus far it seems I have both more savings and more debt. So, I dunno. I like Where's the 'Ski?, which is about the failure of chief ID guy and mathematician William Dembski to respond on his own site to legitimate questions.

April: Exhibiting a little frustration at the sheer volume of woo in our culture, I wrote How About We Promote the Good with Discussion Rather than with Pleasant Fictions? I said then what I feel now, that the ideas we want to pass along to our children "can be conveyed without bunnies, false friends, and warrior kings of the future." I then considered the Christian holiday of Easter in Good Friday, Depending on Perspective. I also looked at a central claim of the ID movement in The Medieval Castle of Intelligent Design.

May: In May, I argued on behalf of teachers in Teachers Deserve Competitive Salaries and Benefits. The topic of the Kuzari Principle was back in Kuzari Returns! and Kuzari: Belief and Evidence (and Bias, Oh My!). I thought I was being controversial with They Did Not Die For Our Freedom.

June: June was all about Kuzari, and four posts stand out: Deuteronomy Doesn't Validate the Sinai Revelation, Three Sinai Stories, Why Aren't There More Sinai-Like Stories? and A Reply to Dovid Kornreich on Evidence and Hypotheses. Dovid Kornreich, my dialogue partner at this time, bowed out and to this date has made no reply to posts he asked me to make.

July: Theology became the hot topic with Theodicy Is an End to Theology and Dear Theology: Show Me the Money! A final Kuzari post was made with How the Sinai Story Originated and Developed. No immodesty: I think this post, and the series, is devastating to any suggestion that Kuzari justifies Judaism.

August: A good month of posts. The immoral atheist meme was addressed again in a post appropriately titled Immoral Atheists. Then, a trollish amateur philosopher was corrected in his bizarre ontology in If You Build It, He Will Come -- And You Better Not Disagree with Me. Next, philosopher Roger Scruton was again taken on in Can Science Explain Art, Music, and Literature? (Part 2). I examined "just war theory" in Wednesday Comedy: Jesus Loves Nukes. Finally, I marveled at the poor reasoning of the highly regarded C.S. Lewis in A Bad Argument by C.S. Lewis.

September: I think We Belly Full but They Hungry, a commentary and prediction on changing American class dynamics, is an important post. I considered Edward Feser's smarmy taxonomy of atheist attitudes in Hardline Atheism Is Intellectually Productive. In With Prayer, the Medium Is the Message, I recalled my own experience with prayer brought in examples of prayer across several religious traditions. I brought Feser back for another beating, this time on the doctrine of "original sin," in Original Sin, Faith, and the Limits of Reason.

October: I talked about Jesus in The Sacrifice of Jesus as a Left Turn from Judaism. The important point here is:
The sacrifice of Jesus is not really a sacrifice but a buy out. It kicks people from being ransomed to God to being ransomed to Jesus, and it does so without people's knowledge. In both the Jewish and Christian world orders, people are chattel. The only question is who you think is your master, El or his son.
In Enjoy Your Freedom? Thank a Protester, I again tried to be controversial, although I think the main idea of the post has true merit. I attempted to defend cultural criticism and its postmodern pretensions in Attempted Witty Title: A Reply To Jerry Coyne. I agreed with Jerry on most everything, but felt the topic of Jersey Shore could have some academic and intellectual merit.

November: I was ecstatic to see that Jerry Coyne replied to a point I had made, and I sought to clarify and extend the point in He Noticed! Deuteronomy 2013-17 became topical this month and my contribution was The Moral Deity That Commands "You Shall Not Allow Any Soul to Live." Next, I stood flummoxed before the brazen demand to believe without evidence represented by the idea of the Holy Spirit. The post was called, appropriately, Holy Spirit, Holy Bullshit. This month saw me increasingly wanting to talk about my experiences in the Alpha course, and that desire motivated Prepare to Lose, which is about arguing to learn rather than arguing to declaim. Finally, I wrote In the Humanities, We Too Want to Find Things Out because the humanities share this goal with the sciences; however, we focus on squishy terms and ideas--such as "identity."

December: This has been an extremely busy month. I began my series on what happened when I tool the Alpha Course, A Jewish-Born Atheist Does the Alpha Course. I am also glad I talked about my family in Why My Children Go to Church (and Why I Occasionally Go Too). I like what I said at the end:
Science and religion don't mix, in my opinion. Atheism and religion don't mix, either. But they can co-exist, and they can even fall in love with each other.
The month's big controversy came when I argued for moral relativism in In Defense of Moral Relativism, Moral Relativism and What Christian Moralists Really Want, and Moar on Moral Relativism.

Let me give special mention to the series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible. I should have finished the series this year but I did not. I can't imagine that it will remain unfinished through next year. Nevertheless, I like the work that's been done, and I am eager to get to the final installments.

On a personal note, I want to announce that 2012 must be the year to complete or near-complete my dissertation. I expect that blog posting will necessarily have to be cut back to allow time for dissertation writing. My wrap-up piece next year will hopefully include the good news that I am finished or on the precipice of doing so.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Solo (The Song So Far, Q4)

What's better than a great musician improvising a solo?

Here's the brilliant and self-destructive Jaco Pastorius:

And here's the no-less brilliant yet thankfully less self-destructive John McLaughlin, who soars in the solo, starting at 7:22:

And finally...the Pat Metheny Group:

Friday, December 23, 2011


I have pre-scheduled two posts for the end of the year, so this is probably the last post I will write and publish in 2011. At work, I am winding down for the year and have vacation coming up in less than two hours.

Notes and thoughts:
  • I never got around to finishing my thoughts on moral relativism, as I'd said I would. I tried writing up something earlier in the week, but I had trouble organizing the thing. Basically, I couldn't see how one could finally make the idea of an objective moral fact stick. When I think of objective, I think of something like nature: nature exists independently, whether people exist or not. Information, I have recently come to understand, can also be said to exist independently from people. I don't see how anything like a moral fact can exist independently of people, and if it cannot exist apart from us I don't see how it can be called anything but subjective. I also don't see why subjectivity is such a big negative for some folks. But maybe my little mind has just reached the end of its capacity. I'm willing to be educated if someone has an argument to make.
  • My vacation plans include lots of reading. I am especially looking forward to three books: The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Rameau's Nephew, by Denis Diderot; and In the Valley of the Shadow, by James Kugel.
  • I marvel at what a tumultuous year 2011 has been. When I was younger, the years seemed more like adventures. I felt as though I had time to absorb the things that were happening in and around me. Now, life seems too eventful, too fast. I would prefer a slower, less eventful year in 2012 (I think!).
  • My "best of" post on December 31 will announce this also, but I plan to scale back my posting activity dramatically in 2012. Not only because of what I write above, but also because I have a dissertation to complete. I'll be 42 years old next year, and I have some new horizons to travel toward, so I want to finish up the one big project (i.e., the doctorate) that consumed my thoughts from early adulthood.
  • On the other hand, I have ideas for new series and new directions for this blog. Stay tuned....
  • I am excited to go with my older brother to see the New England Patriots play the Buffalo Bills on January 1.
The last two posts of the years will be short of extended, original content. They will be review and link pieces. Let me use this space, therefore, to wish you and the world the very best of this time. If you are vacationing or visiting family, be safe, be peaceful, be happy and joyous, be helpful, be smart, be free, be honest, be yourself, and be strong.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Muppets, Muppeteers and Personal Gods

"I'm your friend to the end!"
For 25 years, "muppeteer" Kevin Clash has brought the popular Sesame Street character Elmo to life. Clash is the subject of Being Elmo, a documentary chronicling his personal and professional journey.

At one point in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Clash talks about how the illusion of Elmo stays intact, even when kids know the muppeteer is there:
We have a lot of children that will visit [the set of Sesame Street]. And what we've found is that they really don't care about us, about the puppeteers. They've watched these characters on the show, on TV for so long, that they're really like close friends. It's interesting. They really don't look at me when they see Elmo. They run to Elmo because it's a friend of theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years. We've found that the delusion is not broken by seeing us puppeteers. They see the characters in front of them. ... I get humbled by it all the time. The things that they tell Elmo, the expression on their face when they see their friend.
Are there not parallels here with God-belief? God/Jesus is familiar to people, especially Americans. Even non-believers and non-Christians can't get away from it. Witness the nonsensical levels of attention given in past weeks to the faith of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. On both my way to work and on the way home, someone has put a home-made sign on a tree by the side of the highway. Both read: "Jesus saves."

When people pray to God/Jesus, they don't see themselves as "pulling the strings." They don't see themselves animating the deity. What's more, perhaps like with Elmo, the illusion would not be broken if they saw.

If correct, this tells us something of the magnitude of fundamental psychological needs that are answered by god-belief. The belief is real and powerful, and it is personal. And maybe it doesn't have that much to do with God as a being or thing, but rather God as an ideal person giving ideal personal love.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 2, Who Is Jesus?

This is the second official installment in the Alpha Course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Gnu Atheist and Jewish-raised dude taking the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

After last week's introductory session, I began taking notes as soon as I got time at my computer. That session was titled "Is There More to Life Than This?" but we never--not once--talked about life! We didn't discuss being children and learning about the world. We dwelt not at all on the excitement and angst of adolescence. We had no words on the power and danger of early adulthood, or on the hard wisdom and humility gained in later adulthood. No mention was made of parenthood, of confronting death and mortality, or of human dignity and legacy.

In short, we spoke of nothing that had any value.

My session notes rambled as I searched my memory of the evening. If I were to continue in the course, should I speak up when I hear errors or unsupported assertions? Should I declare myself an atheist? Should I challenge the historicity and uncritical fan-dom of Jesus? Should I point out the sales agenda of everything that was happening at Alpha (so far)?

I never answered these questions as my wife and I arrived for the second session. Don't get me wrong: last week was not an awful, torturous experience. I liked being with my wife and talking to people. I was genuinely interested to come to this next session. Yet I had also hoped for something different than what I knew we were probably going to get in Alpha. Initially, I was excited by what the course promotional material said about the focus: "The emphasis is upon exploration and discovery in a relaxed and informal environment." No, the emphasis was not going to be on exploring and discovering but rather on first-person testimony and gentle coercion.

My impressions of this second session:
  • We met in a downstairs reception area, beside a kitchen. Not quite as warm and inviting as last week's rotunda.
  • Dinner was shells and sauce. Not as great as last week, but pretty good--and free.
  • Joe, the church pastor, and Rose, the Alpha director, made official welcomes and announcements. Joe's role is strictly to tell a joke and lift everyone's mood. Rose had several administrative items. Of interest to me was the library. They had books for sale and books to loan. Lots of C.S. Lewis, Nicky Gumbel (of course!), some Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Francis Collins, and N.T. Wright.
  • The DVD talk tonight was "Who Is Jesus?" Gumbel waxed on about how Jesus was a real person who really lived, really rose from the dead, and has had a real impact on both individuals and world history.
    • I'm not going to rehearse the whole talk here. If you read Textuality at all, you know that there simply is not enough evidence to tell one way or the other whether there was an actual Joshua the Messiah who was the basis for the gospel stories and the MacGuffin of the Pauline epistles.
    • Gumbel made a good, lawyer's case for Jesus. After all, Gumbel was a lawyer before be became a clergyman. But remember what we know about lawyer's cases from that great movie, My Cousin Vinny:
      Vinny: Look, maybe I could have handled the preliminary a little better, okay? I admit it. But what's most important is winning the case. I could do it. I really could. Let me tell you how, okay? The D.A.'s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right? (puts his hand on the wall)
      Bill: Right.
      Vinny: Let me show you something. (he holds up a playing card, the ace of spades, with the face toward Billy) He's going to show you the bricks. He'll show you they got straight sides. He'll show you how they got the right shape. He'll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there's one thing he's not gonna show you. (turns the card, so that its edge is toward Billy. The card is now a joker.) When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick.
    • It would have positively impressed me if Gumbel had acknowledged some of the problems of using Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus as evidence of Jesus. I would have been pleasantly surprised if he had mentioned Philo. He brought up textual criticism as a way to establish the trustworthiness of the texts, but he did not get into the particulars of real textual criticism, especially of the New Testament. Yet I am sure that Gumbel knows all this stuff. I can tell by the language he uses to talk about "the writers" of the Gospels. His theology background also tells me he knows that the case for Jesus is as far from a slam dunk as you can get at every point. So he could have given a fuller story, one more challenging to some believers but I would think ultimately more balanced and rewarding.
  • After the DVD, we are assigned to small groups. Each group adjourned to a separate room nearby.
    • Our group had about 15 people. My wife and I were one of only two couples in the group. Everyone seemed to be between 35 and 55 years old. We had two group leaders, Scott and Karen. My friend Josh was a helper, as was another woman named Joan. Only four of the group were women.
    • We began with an ice-breaker. First we went around and said why we were at Alpha. No big confessions from anyone. People were just curious. I said that I came because I was invited. Then we did a name game to get everyone familiar with one another.
    • Scott asked a few questions but got little response. He asked what people thought of Nicky Gumbel's talk and if anything about the talk surprised anyone. I could hear the clock on the wall ticking. 
    • Group leaders seem to have been coached not to initiate discussion but to let group participants direct the conversation.
    • After all my turmoil at the outset, I refrained from talking. What was I supposed to say? However, I was so bored I resolved to stir things up next time.
So, tonight's session was supposed to establish that there is a lot of evidence to support Jesus' existence, which there isn't. More importantly, it was supposed to assert definitively that Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God, and there's lots of evidence of this.

After the session, I drove away disappointed by the entire presentation. I don't think I had ever really been as close before to the way Christianity talks about itself to modern believers. It is all total bullshit.
  • The world is lost, confused, and dark. That's why you need Jesus.
  • You can't fully live life without Jesus. That's why you need Christianity.
  • Christianity is true and all-encompassing. That's why you need to be Christian.
  • To be Christian, you must transform your life. That's why you need the church.
From alpha to omega, this doctrine is thoroughly, disgustingly, and arbitrarily authoritarian. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chanukah, Oh Hanukkah

The holiday of Chanukah (yeah, that's how I spell it) begins at sundown tonight. It commemorates the temporary victory of religious zealotry over political tyranny, but lit candles are pretty, aren't they?

Here is one of my favorite songs:

The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees 4:52-59. provides the earliest account (late second-century BCE) of the origins of Chanukah. The Douay-Rheims text appears below:
52: And they arose before the morning on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month (which is the month of Casleu) in the hundred and forty-eighth year.
53: And they offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of holocausts which they had made.
54: According to the time, and according to the day wherein the heathens had defiled it, in the same was it dedicated anew with canticles, and harps, and lutes, and cymbals.
55: And all the people fell upon their faces, and adored, and blessed up to heaven, him that had prospered them.
56: And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered holocausts with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.
57: And they adorned the front of the temple with crowns of gold, and escutcheons, and they renewed the gates, and the chambers, and hanged doors upon them.
58: And there was exceeding great joy among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was turned away.
59: And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.
A first-century BCE account is 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 (again, Douay-Rheims):
1: But Machabeus, and they that were with him, by the protection of the Lord, recovered the temple and the city again.
2: But he threw down the altars, which the heathens had set up in the streets, as also the temples of the idols.
3: And having purified the temple, they made another altar: and taking fire out of the fiery stones, they offered sacrifices after two years, and set forth incense, and lamps, and the leaves of proposition.
4: And when they had done these things, they besought the Lord, lying prostrate on the ground, that they might no more fall into such evils; but if they should at any time sin, that they might be chastised by him more gently, and not be delivered up to barbarians and blasphemous men.
5: Now upon the same day that the temple had been polluted by the strangers, on the very same day it was cleansed again, to wit, on the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu.
6: And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts.
7: Therefore they now, carried boughs, and green branches, and palms for Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
8: And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.
The story about the oil lamp and the eight days appears first in the Megillat Ta'anit ("Scroll of Fasting"). Follow the link to the relevant passage in Hebrew. The story also is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 2 (page 34):
What is 'Hanukah? The rabbis taught: "On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev 'Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.
If you thought I was going to include Adam Sandler's hokey Chanukah Song here, you were mistaken. Bah Chumbug!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 11]: Reading the Bible as a Familiar Servant of God

"Please don't stand so close to me." --God
We continue to read Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. This is the eleventh installment of the series.

Last time, Kugel argued that the Bible's ancient interpreters established its real meaning. As I summarized it:
Kugel's position, then, seems to be that modern biblical scholarship may be correct about the history and original meanings of biblical texts, but the scholarly consensus has no effect on what the texts really mean. The texts still mean what the Oral Torah says they do, even if they were originally created to communicate a very different kind of message. At some point in history, ancient interpreters got hold of the texts and were able to integrate them into a philosophy of God and Israel. By doing so, these interpreters brought out divine instructions and moral insights in the texts. The interpreters were building a textual universe predicated on God's relationship with His world, His patriarchs, and His people Israel. Their overriding mission was to help their own world of men and women follow from the textual universe; to make, in other words, the real world live out the model of the Torah.
Kugel allows that the Bible has multiple meanings, and that the texts originally meant something different from what later ancients took them to mean. Yet, he privileges the reading of the ancient interpreters above all others, as when he reasons:
The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters--a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible's framers.
Of course, the argument cuts both ways. That privilege granted to the ancient interpreters sounds pretty good. I'd like to grant the same privilege to Abraham Joshua Heschel, or to the late Christopher Hitchens, or to Augustine of Hippo. My point is that Kugel makes a great case for promoting one interpretative tradition, but other great cases can be made also. When scholarship reveals or develops original meanings of biblical texts, it shatters faith in the interpretive tradition more so than in the Bible. To use one of Kugel's illustrations: one can fervently sing a spiritual yet not hold to a certain religious interpretation of it. One's reasons for singing it, for wanting to sing it, need not have anything to do with its "proper" spiritual message.

I have dwelt on the previous subsection of Chapter 36 because in the new subsection, Kugel leaves behind the argument we just discussed and layers on another one. As Kugel says of the previous argument:
This seems to me a plausible position in light of all we have seen about the emergence of the Bible. And yet, for someone who takes the Bible seriously, this stance alone hardly resolves the difficulties posed by the last century or so of biblical scholarship.
Kugel's new approach--which he says up front "is probably not the sort of answer that will satisfy most traditional readers of the Bible"--has to do with seeing oneself as a servant of God and with seeing orthodox practice in particular as the way of being a servant of God.

In a world where God will not encounter us here in our own reality, we must choose and act to stand close to God. Kugel explains:
The idea of human beings as the gods' servants has an ancient pedigree in the Near East, but in Israel this commonplace came to define a relationship, first between God and specific individuals, then between Him and the whole people: "They are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 25:42,55). To be a servant or slave was to be in a state of humble subjection, ever eager to do the master's bidding; but it was also conceived to be a state of closeness, even familiarity. (This English word, it might be noted, is related to the Latin familiaris, the household of the slave who "belonged to the family.") To be God's servant was to be part of his household.
To serve God, one must carry out His statutes in everyday life. Civil law is also Divine law, and people must learn to live intuitively in the ways that God has instructed.

After the Babylonian exile, Kugel says, Israel renews its dedication to God's will, and "it is in this context that one should locate the seeds of the very idea of the Bible, a great, multifarious corpus of divinely given instruction." At this point in time, the knowledge and practices of being God's familiar servants start to be discussed and argued about and codified.

What's more, the Torah is preeminent but not absolutely immutable:
Yet here is a most interesting point: the words of that Torah were not sacrosanct. On the contrary, as we have seen throughout this study, their apparent meaning was frequently modified or supplemented by ancient interpreters--sometimes expanded or limited in scope, very often concretized through specific applications or homey example, sometimes (as with "an eye for an eye") actually overthrown.
How did humans dare to intervene in holy writ? What possible justification could they have to change or re-direct the meaning of the text? Kugel responds:
From the perspective offered above, what do we make of biblical scholarship's insights? My own opinion is that the discoveries and theories of Biblical scholarship would not undercut the religious belief and practice emerging out of this perspective. I also think my opinion largely agrees with Kugel's view. Traditional Judaism, Kugel says, is such a set of beliefs and practices deriving from the supreme sense that serving God overpowers everything, including Scripture. Kugel writes:
Judaism is not fundamentalism, nor even Protestantism. What Scripture is, and always has been, in Judaism is the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God, a manual whose trajectory has always led from the prophet to the interpreter and from the divine to the merely human. To put the matter in, I admit, rather shocking terms: since in Judaism it is not the words of Scripture themselves that are ultimately supreme, but the service of God (the "standing up close") that they enjoin, then to suggest that everything hangs on Scripture might well be described as a form of fetishism or idolatry, that is, a mistaking of the message for its Sender and the turning of its words into idols of wood or stone.
The Bible, from Jewish vantage, is an expression of apprehending God as His familiar servants. It is one way of apprehending God, the way that came to prominence after the Babylonian exile. In later periods, Scripture would be viewed by different interpretive traditions that would make it undergo three significant revisions:
  1. Christian interpretive tradition.
  2. Protestant interpretive tradition.
  3. Modern scholarship.
Kugel's point here asserts the importance of understanding the sequence of interpretive events, from pre-exile to modern times, that have influenced the way we see and understand both the Bible's words and its role in religious (and scholarly and skeptical) communities. His argument to us, then, is that we should broaden our perspective.

And what of the Bible's divine inspiration? Kugel suggests that our commonplace ideas of divine inspiration are not applied correctly to the Bible:
Divine inspiration is not, at bottom, a matter of conferring a seal of divine approval on this or that passage of Scripture, or even on Scripture as a whole....Rather, as some rabbinic texts themselves intimate, it all has to do with the great, single revelation that inaugurated (and on which was predicated) Israel's changed apprehension of God.
Kugel seems to be saying here that we really don't know what specific words or instructions might be from God Himself. Rather, the divine inspiration of the Bible holds insofar as it derives from the authority conferred by the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel.

Kugel has made a fantastic overall argument in this section, a case that has been developing from the beginning of the chapter. He has built the assertions carefully, balancing fact and opinion as deftly as anyone can do it. We will have time to consider the larger argument and to criticize it as we must, but let's close this installment by appreciating scholarship of the very highest order.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 1, Introductory Session

Pleased to meet you....
This is the first official installment in the Alpha Course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Gnu Atheist and Jewish-raised dude taking the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

This first Alpha activity was an informational dinner and DVD talk. My wife and I arrived for the event at the rotunda of a local church. The rotunda was very nice, with high ceilings, tall windows, and dimmed lights for a mellow feel. We picked up name tags, searched for the friends who had invited us to Alpha, and found seats. We made small talk with our friends, Carmen and Josh, and we met other folks briefly. We talked nothing of either Alpha or religion.

Soon after our table filled with people, we brought up our paper plates to another table at the other end of the room and got the dinner, turkey tetrazinni.We ate and continued talking with people, a lot of where are you from, how many kids, what kind of work type of conversation.

Then a man and a woman called from the front of the room for our attention. The man was the church pastor, Joe, who told a few ice-breaker jokes. His role would be emcee throughout the course--that is, in all future sessions. To my knowledge, he did not actually participate in any of the small group discussions held after the DVD talks. The woman at the front was the Alpha course director, Rose. Her job was to pitch the course and convince people that they could get their questions answered at Alpha and that their comfort zone would not be violated. Obviously, the big concern was that people would check out Alpha and decide it wasn't for them.

The really intriguing part in Rose's schpeel was she talked about Alpha as a “safe” place to raise questions and doubts about. I guess people sometimes don't feel "safe" or comfortable voicing their misgivings with Christian doctrine or practice. As I would later discover, of the people in my group who had "problems" with Christianity, the problems concerned church, not belief.

Rose called up one person who had taken the course before to talk about his experience. This person, named Scott, later became known to me as one of my small group leaders. He said he came to Alpha as an agnostic and a non-churchgoer. He said that now he has a relationship with Jesus. He pointed to the weekend retreat as the time when belief and practice really kicked in on a personal level.

The second man was Josh, the guy from my table. He told everyone that he had been transformed since taking Alpha last year. He had been at a low point in his life, and now, 10 months later, he was in a very good place. I'd heard a bit of Josh's story before. His girlfriend Carmen was good friends with my wife. The four of us had gone to dinner once. Josh was a nice guy, a little older than me, divorced and looking to get out of a very bad job situation.

Next came a long (looong) DVD talk by Nicky Gumbel on whether Christianity was uninteresting, untrue, and irrelevant. The video was projected on a big screen up front. Gumbel, an Englishman, is a former lawyer and now senior pastor at one of England's largest churches, Holy Trinity Brompton. Gumbel developed the Alpha course, and it has been very successful around the world.In his talks, he stands alone on a stage before a lectern. He speaks in a breathy and emotive way, cracking jokes and smiling at them. As I'll learn, he is a master at conveying amazement without losing a sense of intelligence. For example, when he will talk about his conversion to Christianity, he'll come across as fully enraptured yet in perfect intellectual command of the experience, the experience of feeling and knowing at the same time that something is true. If he reaches people, I bet his delivery is a big reason why.

Gumbel began the talk by saying he had been an atheist, but also one who didn't know all that much about Jesus or Christianity. Now, when Gumbel uses the word "atheist," and he will mention atheists a whole lot over the course, he usually means someone who has never been a fervent Christian. He's not talking about people who have examined Christianity and rejected it. These sorts of people will never come up in Alpha.

He said, however, that he discovered that Christianity was true both intellectually and personally. After a close friend had become a Christian, Gumbel became distressed and decided to read the Bible. He doesn't say exactly whether he started at Genesis or if he went to straight to the New Testament, but he spent the evening and the next day reading the Bible. At the end, he concluded that it was all true. Don't ask me how.

Jesus, Gumbel said, was a real historical figure and this was en established fact. Gumbel also claimed through an unnamed authority--a history professor at Oxford--that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the most well attested fact ever.

I'll end the summary here. It was long, as I said, and presented a barrage of claims. But the main point was that we could feel confident and secure in the truth of Christianity and in the knowledge that Jesus chose to be born, to take our sins upon him, and to die so that we could have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. 

After the DVD talk ended, Rose told us that next week we would follow the same format and also have small group discussion following the talk. Finally, we all were given a booklet written by Gumbel on “Why Jesus?” It’s not very detailed and is mainly an argument for praying to Jesus as the way to fulfill one’s needs for happiness and forgiveness.

My impressions of the evening:
  • Everyone involved seems really nice, as expected.
  • I immediately felt a disconnect between the advertisement of the group as a place to explore “big questions” and the clear intent of the course to persuade people that Jesus is real, Jesus is God, and people should worship Jesus/God.
  • One part came off as repugnant. At the end of the video, Gumbel insisted that the truth of Christianity was the most important question in the history of questions. If Christianity was true then it was true for everyone and therefore everyone should be a Christian. 
    • He didn't say this last part, but I thought the path of his argument would lead inexorably to the idea that it was not OK for people to not be Christians or to reject Jesus’s offer for a relationship. There was no “opt-out” in Gumbel’s world-view.
    • The reason this is a problem is that it makes people like me an automatic antagonist. If you believe Gumbel is correct that Christianity is true and super-important, how could you bear to get along with someone like me, who thinks Christianity is a collection of bad and unattested ideas? (I, of course, can get along with Christians because I know that bad ideas are part of what makes us human. Not sharing my bad ideas won't get you kicked out of my circle.)
  • Gumbel focused heavily on the “something is missing” meme. It’s a strange line of thinking: people are generally unhappy, Gumbel says. People long for something greater in this life. People ache for more. Viola! Have a relationship with Jesus and all your emptiness will be filled. 
    • Of course, not everyone finds religion, including Christianity and a personal relationship with Jesus, to be the antidote to “the hole.” From what I can gather, the real antidote is not the attainment of things or status but the pursuit. It’s the challenge of a self-directed journey that seems to make people happy and satisfied. See this, for more.
    • So, I don’t buy the "Jesus fills the existential void" argument, and in fact my "void" has been filled by not worrying about it and by living more awake and mindfully. No god required.
I walked out of the introductory session apprehensive about what would come the next week. Based on Gumbel's talk, I was torn between not wanting to let some arguments stand uncontested, particularly when they misconstrued or omitted facts, and wanting generally just to be a passive participant.

I came to the group to share the time with my wife and to socialize. If people were only interested in being reassured that praying to Jesus wasn’t totally stupid, then I didn’t want to get in the way. But I also felt like I should be honest and forthright about what I really believed and why.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Hockey Fight Over Poetry

Jay Miller of the Boston Bruins: A great fighter.

Rita Dove, poet and scholar, is editor of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. This anthology was reviewed unfavorably by Helen Vendler, Harvard professor and a truly wonderful scholar of poetry.

Here is a snippet from Vendler's review, selected for touching on issues of religious and racial identity:
As “the melting pot was simmering,” the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War rise into Dove’s essay: “The old Euro-American literary standards were rejected, and African culture (or rather, an idealized idea of Africa)…became the rallying cry of the New Black Aesthetic.” Why should the precious and ever-rare concern for words and for their imaginative alignment be abused as “the old Euro-American literary standards”? It would have been useful if Dove had departed from her once-over-lightly historical summaries to explain the “literary standards” of “the New Black Aesthetic” as they appear in one of the poems she reprints, Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art”:
We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth taylor’s toes. Stinking
Setting fire and death to
whities ass.
There is a lot of this showy violence (“cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth,” etc.); and then Baraka, not finding any other way to close the rant, turns sentimental, in the manner of E.E. Cummings:
Let Black People understand
that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
Dove must realize that the new “literary standards” behind this example of Baraka’s verse don’t immediately declare themselves. Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines. Nor is mere presence in the scene at a given moment enough to pronounce a person a poet. Although Dove mentions oral literature, orality has its own high standards (and we recognize them in action in everything from oral epic to Walt Whitman to black spirituals to Langston Hughes). If one wants evidence of black anger against “whitie” and “jewladies” and “mulatto bitches,” here it is. But a theme is not enough to make a poem.
Dove's reply is magnificent.
It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics; she ignores a substantial critical paragraph in which I decry the fallout from the movement (“Against such clamor and thunder, introspective black poets had little chance to assert themselves and were swept under the steamroller,” I write in my introduction) and instead focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem “Black Art” in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. Smear by association…sound familiar? I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth. (I could argue equal opportunity offensiveness by having printed Hart Crane’s “A liquid theme that floating niggers swell”—but perhaps that makes me racist as well.)

In the same breath, Vendler—no slouch when it comes to lumping poets together by race—makes quick work of dismembering Gwendolyn Brooks, dismissing my description of Brooks’s “richly innovative” early poems as “hyperbole,” perhaps because I dared to compare those poems to “the best male poets of any race.” Evidently the 1950 Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Ms. Brooks to award her the prize in poetry, at a time when there was little talk of diversity in America and the expression “multiculturalism” had yet to enter the public discourse. Analogous praise today, however, amounts in Dame Vendler’s eyes to nothing but “hype.”
What to make of this disagreement? Honestly, it's about time we had a good hockey fight in literary studies. We have needed some, and we need more. This is a good fight.

Let's argue about which poems to study and why. Let's compare Amiri Baraka to E.E. Cummings to Wallace Stevens to Gwendolyn Brooks. This is a terrific conversation, and we need to have it. And we need to have it publicly. We need to argue about and discuss literature as a model for how we wish the public to argue about and discuss literature.

Literature--poetry especially--is worth a fight.

Challenging the Christian God = Anti-Semitism?

I cry when you criticize my dad.
Watch the Christian persecution complex stretched to heretofore unseen bounds.

I never could have imagined I'd see this argument:
A further, even more dangerous issue is that in a vast majority of key cases of alleged Bible issues and difficulties being raised to try to indict the God of the Bible as a "fictional" "bronze age tribal deity" and "genocidal moral monster," etc, the texts being snipped out of context come from the Old Testament or the Tanach, especially the Pentateuch or Torah.

So, Dr Dawkins and co, kindly note: the direct implication of these anti-God, anti-Bible arguments, is that they are implicit attacks on Jews and Judaism, not just Christians and Christianity. Those who would make them, need to ask whether they would be willing to explicitly substitute terms directly accusing or challenging Jews, for those that accuse or challenge Christians.
The God of the Old Testament [read: Jews] is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully . . . ” [Cf. Lennox- Dawkins debate, here. For a quick initial response to this sort of rhetoric, cf. CARM here and JPH of Tektonics here, here, here and here. Also cf. Vox Day's short book length critique of the new Atheists in a free to download format here. (Available from Amazon here.)]
The subtext of thinly veiled Anti-Semitism should be obvious, once we headline the reference to "The God of the Old Testament." Let's spell that out, a little more plainly: The God of the Old Testament [Jews].

Dr Dawkins, would you be willing to explicitly say that "the God of the Jews" is "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully"?

Obviously not, or you would not have resorted to the sort of snide euphemism that allows you to pretend that it is only Bible-believing Christians who are in your cross-hairs.
I see no anti-semitism whatsoever, even when one substitutes "God of the Jews" for "God of the Old Testament." Dawkins's point remains valid and true.

If you want to talk anti-semitism: why are you calling the Hebrew Scriptures an "old" testament? To Jews, that testament is still operative and the Christian testament is false.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moar on Moral Relativism

I continue to take a beating on my defense of moral relativism. Initially, the main purpose of my defense was to make only one claim:
To acknowledge cultural conditioning in morality does not prevent one from judging specific actions of another culture.
This claim still seems indisputably correct.

As is my wont, I took the one claim further and laid out a thumbnail defense of moral relativism. I was perhaps mistaken to do so, now that I reflect on matters. For one thing, I am not a philosopher and before these posts I have neither fully explored nor concretely adopted any particular philosophical stand related to morality. My mistake, then, has been to lock myself into a position of moral relativism before I have thoroughly investigated the scholarship in and around it.

Nevertheless, certain elements of relativism and objectivism seem irrefutable:
  1. Cultural factors do play a role in what people consider moral and immoral behavior. Surely, we can agree on this?
  2. An objectivist position that asserts universal rightness or wrongness of specific behavior/category X is indefensible. How can any human phenomenon, such as morality, be universal?
Beyond these elements, the important parts of the discussion concern not only when one is permitted to pass moral judgment on an act, as I've mentioned, but also when one is permitted to impose one's own morality on others by acting punitively or otherwise by prohibiting specific behavior.

I've also made a severe charge against some of the objectivists I have encountered:
Here's what I think actually is going on with these folks: What they are really after is sufficient justification for imposing one-world under Christianity. They're looking for the reason, not to use it necessarily but for the security of having it. They are like a nation that trusts only itself with nuclear weapons and doesn't get why that would make everyone else nervous.
Honestly, these statements frighten me a bit because they are serious. Yet, I am not sure they are incorrect. That's why I have not revised or stricken them. Perhaps someone can show me a reason to think I am wrong on these charges, but Christianity's self-appointed mission to evangelize strikes me as a reason to think I'm correct.  

So what now? I will read up over the next week or two and aim to come back with a better articulated version of my position--whatever it may be--and why I think it is the most reasonable.

A week or two is virtually no time, and the matters under discussion can legitimately take a lifetime to argue and to study. I know that, and I mean no disrespect to the subject or the people who study it. My modest aim is to put together something coherent and more considered; my aim, in other words, is to improve.

I need 2012 to be about my dissertation, more than anything else. Many topics, and indeed blogging itself, will probably be placed on the back burner next year.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Perry's Hail Mary

Clear desperation here. It's funny, except for the people who think he's sincere and who think he's correct.

Moral Relativism and What Christian Moralists Really Want

I've been talking in one or two places across the blogosphere about moral relativism. Largely, the exercise has been frustrating because people have not even attempted to address my argument:
The argument in favor of moral relativism, therefore, boils down to this:
  • We are all already relativists in most every aspect of our daily lives.
  • Moral relativism is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is not itself a moral system but a condition of moral agents (plural) acting in the world.
  • Relativism does not entail moral equality between either acts or viewpoints.
  • Moral relativism does not preclude making, legislating, or enforcing moral behavior.
  • Relativism enables a necessary flexibility in assessing and evaluating moral acts, and improving moral law.
Yet in my travels, I've learned that the number-one source of discomfort for objectors is that moral relativism does not allow one to "claim the moral high ground."

Get that? Recognize that? They reject moral relativism because it does not give them the result they want: to be right, finally and irrevocably right. Being right--that is, having the moral high ground--is as political a position as there is: the superior vantage justifies imposing and enforcing the One True MoralityTM on absolutely everyone else.

I am not being hypocritical, self-righteous, or mean-spirited with the above comments. We know from the Mercier-Sperber paper that came out in SSRN this year that humans are built for the combat of argumentation, not the end-point of truth:
Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found. [emphasis added]
I want to list some of the common objections to moral relativism that I have heard, but I think tThe objections to moral relativism are worth noting, but I won't comment on them because they are easily dispatched:
  • Objection 1: Any and every moral value is A-OK.
  • Objection 2: No way to condemn Hitler, Stalin, etc.
  • Objection 3: No way to resolve moral debates.
  • Objection 4: No way to make moral progress.
I am disheartened that folks can't bring themselves to accept that other people and other cultures can have different moral values, or that our own moral values are historically and culturally contingent. I've also been surprised at the visceral component of the resistance to relativism. People react strongly against it, and they cling ferociously to the idea of objective moral values.

Clearly, something more than reason and even more than the moral high ground are at stake.

Here's what I think actually is going on with these folks: What they are really after is sufficient justification for imposing one-world under Christianity. They're looking for the reason, not to use it necessarily but for the security of having it. They are like a nation that trusts only itself with nuclear weapons and doesn't get why that would make everyone else nervous.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I May Have to Go to a Movie Theater (Wednesday Comedy)

I have not been in a movie theater since 2001, but The Three Stooges might bring me back. Seriously. I love the Stooges. Here's the trailer:

I do hope the movie includes a pie fight.

A Jewish-Born Atheist Does the Alpha Course

Over the next several weeks, I am going to post my impressions of the Alpha course, a series of weekly meetings introducing people to Christian belief.

Interestingly, there are no pastors or preachers heading the sessions: they are run by churchgoers, which contributes to a collegiate atmosphere. The course's "We are all discovering together" message would be impossible in a clergy-run operation, where clerics dispense their wisdom to the unknowing. I would later learn, however, that the group leaders often had more knowledge than they had first let on.

In our course, the sessions went the same every week:
  • A meal (nominally free, but $5.00 per person donations were requested).
  • Two worship songs. Starting in week #3 and continuing throughout, a woman led everyone in songs, with words presented behind her in a PowerPoint presentation.
  • A DVD talk. Each talk is a recording of Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in England, speaking before an audience in his church. Everyone in the course has a handbook outlining Gumbel's talks.
  • Small group discussion. We had a group of 15 people, and we met together in a room to present responses to the talks, to share other impressions, and sometimes to go through exercises planned by the leaders. We had two nominal leaders and two helpers. They had taken the course before. Our group was one of three small groups. Group makeup seemed to be by age of the participants.
Hopefully, people will find my notes interesting and helpful. When I was first invited to take the course, along with my wife, I was happy to find at least one detailed account of an atheist's Alpha experience. This was the account of Stephen Butterfield in the UK.

But I am an American atheist, and my background is from Judaism. Also, my wife has a strong belief in Christianity. All of this gives me a different perspective on the course, and I am eager to share.

I did not intend at the outset to have a blog series on Alpha, but immediately I found it necessary to take notes and jot down impressions. Every week, I heard statements and arguments that were incredible. Yet, I felt like there was no outlet for me to question or challenge what was being said.

Should there have been such an outlet? I'm not sure, but I thought there would be one because the course was pitched as a way for people to get together to explore the "big questions." Here is a description from the Alpha web site:
Who Is Alpha For?
Alpha is for anyone…anyone who thinks there may be more to life than meets the eye.

People attend from all backgrounds, religions, and viewpoints. They come to investigate questions about the existence of God, the purpose of life, the afterlife, the claims of Jesus and more. Some people want to get beyond religion and find a relationship with God that really changes life. Others come for the close, long-lasting friendships that are built during the Alpha course.

Many guests have never been to church, others may have attended church occasionally but feel they have never really understood the basics of the Christian faith. Everyone is welcome.
My initial understanding was that the stuff about finding a relationship with God would be not as heavily pushed as it actually ended up being. Indeed, I soon learned that the primary aim of the course was to encourage and foster personal faith. We did not investigate--at least as I understand that word--the questions so much.

Over the next several weeks, I'll provide my notes on each session and additional commentary. I want to keep each post fairly light and brief. That is, I won't spend a lot of time refuting or challenging what I heard. What's the point? It's been done to death. Through brevity, I also want to protect the anonymity and privacy of the other people who participated in Alpha with me.

Everyone I met was very nice and seemingly open-minded, yet I was an outsider at Alpha and I remained one throughout. I was not always comfortable, and at times I was sad because I did not belong. That's a strange and awful feeling, to sense that you don't belong.

I'm interested to get reactions over the next few weeks. To me, it was ultimately worthwhile to take the course, if for nothing else then to be with my wife. I can't say I learned much that was new or surprising, except perhaps that people will accept extraordinary assertions. I dare say that given a similar environment, the obviously bullshit Gospel of Judas could have gotten a high level of acceptance in the group.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Why My Children Go to Church (and Why I Occasionally Go Too)

At the risk of hurting my Gnu Atheist creds, such that they are, I want to explain why my children go to Christian services every week, and why I sometimes do too.

I'm disclosing here because of a press release from Rice University with the headline, "Science and religion do mix." The release discusses a paper recently published by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. It reads:
They [Ecklund and co-authors] interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities. Only 15 percent of those surveyed view religion and science as always in conflict. Another 15 percent say the two are never in conflict, and 70 percent believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict. Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not.

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” Ecklund said. “Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Many of those surveyed cited issues in the public realm (teaching of creationism versus evolution, stem cell research) as reasons for believing there is conflict between the two. The study showed that these individuals generally have a particular kind of religion in mind (and religious people and institutions) when they say that religion and science are in conflict.
Ecklund's paper and her previous research have already been treated by others, including Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, P.Z. Myers, and Jason Rosenhouse. If you can stomach the sanctimoniousness, Uncommon Descent (Denyse O'Leary) has also noted Ecklund.

Now, I am not a scientist. But I am an atheist and I feel strongly that religious beliefs and rituals waste good human energy. That's why I stopped participating in and supporting my local Chabad Jewish center. One might therefore legitimately ask why on Earth I would agree to have my children go to church every week, and why I myself end up going to church stuff sometimes. So, if one should ask, these are my answers:
  • My wife takes the kids to church. She wants to go to church, she wants the children to be Christian, and I support her.
  • I go very infrequently, maybe two to four times a year. Usually, this is because one or more of the kids is singing or something like that. I would gladly go more often if my wife said that she wanted me to. I happen to like being with my wife. It's a love thing.
  • When I go, I don't pray or worship. I just observe and listen. Whatever opinions I have about it all are expressed here.
  • So far as I have gathered from asking questions and observing, most of what the kids learn at church is good stuff: be considerate, don't insult others, listen to Mommy and Daddy. The whole super-Jesus stuff is window dressing, as far as I can tell. It's another kind of Santa Claus belief, a metaphor for the stoic heroism that some think characterizes their lives.
  • I have no worries at all about my kids, religion, and atheism. I really don't. I might worry more about them becoming Republicans.
  • Do I want my kids to be atheists? No, I have no special desires about whether they decide to accept or reject religion. But I also have no special problem offering my opinion on religious beliefs and teachings. In the end, I trust that between what the kids learn from my wife's Christianity and from my own atheism, they'll find a religion or non-religion that makes them happy and supports their larger goals in life.
  • The real "prize," as it were, is the kids pursuing the education and professions that excite them. The endgame is for them to find love, happiness, and well-being. If they think kneeling before a cross is part of this, then I won't squawk. I just happen to think that supplication before imaginary beings is unnecessary. On the other hand, I imagine that church may provide professional networking benefits for the kids--and for my wife and me.
  • Do I think science and religion are in conflict? Yes, probably. I don't think they have a lot to say to each other, even though they would like to. But people negotiate conflicts all the time without being scarred.
So, I disagree with the headline: science and religion don't mix, in my opinion. Atheism and religion don't mix, either. But they can co-exist, and they can even fall in love with each other. And they can stay in love together--ooh, time for some Al Green.

Monday, December 05, 2011

In Defense of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is a good thing. What's more, we already accept relativism as part of our ethical framework. How, for instance, does the so-called Golden Rule work without relativism? How can we hope to understand how to behave towards others without considering their circumstances and experiences?

Moral relativism is not a problem. The problem is what to do with it. To illustrate, take the following account:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions.

But I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.”

Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
Anderson, the teacher, is correct to identify the real problem: the refusal to make moral judgments. Moral relativism is one thing; moral judgments are another. Moral relativism does not preclude making moral judgments and never has.

Yes, another culture might consider that its citizens have made a morally good action in mutilating Aisha. We have every right to challenge the moral justification of the action, even though we are not of that culture. They consider the action right. We consider the action wrong. We argue about it. We try to get to the heart of the matter and to a workable agreement about morally justified behavior.

Nothing about moral relativism prevents us from outrage over heinous acts or from punishing wrongdoing. All that relativism actually requires of us is an acknowledgment that our own moral frame of reference is not the only valid one for understanding specific acts. The alternative is to declare in all arrogance that we alone possess the One True WayTM of all morality, and everyone else can go fuck themselves. Of course, this has been tried before--and it has failed miserably. Just see how the ironically named Catholic Church has done in imposing their One True WayTM.

Those who wish to use Anderson's story to critique of materialism or postmodernism are being obtuse; they are barking up not the wrong tree but the stupid tree. Such people include the insidious "Best Schools" folks, who post Anderson's account as part of their drive to bring back straight, white, and Christian as the ideal in education and society.

But Anderson's story actually shows the power of moral relativism to establish judgment. With reasoned and reasonable judgment--the kind that only moral relativism allows--we may make responsible, nuanced appeals to those who possess moral frameworks which differ sharply from our own.

The argument in favor of moral relativism, therefore, boils down to this:
  • We are all already relativists in most every aspect of our daily lives.
  • Relativism is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is not itself a moral system but a condition of moral agents (plural) acting in the world.
  • Relativism does not entail moral equality between either acts or viewpoints.
  • Moral relativism does not preclude making, legislating, or enforcing moral behavior.
  • Relativism enables a necessary flexibility in assessing and evaluating moral acts, and improving moral law.

If one is not a relativist, how does one condemn the “mutilation”? After all, weren't the perpetrators enforcing divinely-sanctioned law? Yes, they were indeed acting according to an “objective” moral standard, as surely as the nation of Israel was in the slaughter of Deuteronomy 20:10-20. If one’s theory is that morality is divinely given, then one has nothing to say about either of the two cases above, except perhaps “hallelujah.”

One can be a relativist and then defend both cases. One can be a relativist and condemn both cases. But one cannot not be a relativist. The world is basically divided between people who accept this fact, and those who refuse to accept it.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Jazz Died in 1959

For me, Coltrane is the best of those who pushed jazz music beyond the jazz label.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton has gotten attention with a post called "On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore . . . ." Payton's piece is not so much about the coolness of jazz as it is about what defines jazz as a genre.

I like pieces like this because the challenge is enjoyable. I happen to love jazz. I love Miles and Coltrane, Monk and Ornette, Art Tatum and Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter and Tomasz Stanko, Bobo Stenson and Marilyn Crispell, Mingus and Avishai Cohen, Evan Parker and Charlie Parker. And many others. I love the music, that daring improvisational music.

So Payton has written something daring. In sprawling, swirling fashion, he says:
Jazz is a brand.

Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that.

It has never been, nor will it ever be, music.

Here lies Jazz (1916 – 1959).

Too many musicians and not enough artists.

I believe music to be more of a medium than a brand.

Silence is music, too.

You can’t practice art.

In order for it to be true, one must live it.
I agree with Payton on the main part of his argument, that the name "jazz" no longer has any useful or meaningful resonance for working artists who are placed under the jazz umbrella.

In the 1960s, Miles Davis started to place "Directions in Music by Miles Davis" on his albums. The term "jazz" no longer described what he was doing, according to his own conception. The contemporary artists I listen to, such as the Esbjorn Svensson Trio and The Bad Plus, do not consider themselves jazz artists, although they clearly love and respect jazz.

I part company with Payton on at least one distinction. I don't see why he separates musicians and artists as groups of people. This seems a self-serving and doctrinaire classification.

I like better the salvo Payton gives in a follow-up post:
The music was just fine before it was called Jazz and will be just fine without the name.

There is nothing to be afraid of except yourselves.

I am Nicholas Payton and I play Black American Music.
I appreciate that he stands his ground, that he defines his own music and makes it available to us. Maybe one day, Payton will decide he no longer plays Black American music but rather plays Nicholas Payton's music. That will be good, too.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Torah Declaration on Homosexuality

Love is not allowed in religion.

According to Jayson Littman, writing at the Huffington Post, some Orthodox rabbis have been asked to sign a declaration of the Jewish response to homosexuality, by which is specifically meant "homosexual Jews." Littman writes:
So this Declaration currently making rounds will serve as their official response in regards to guiding individuals with same-sex attractions. The endorser, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, urges all rabbis and mental health professionals to sign this Declaration, which offers modification and healing through reparative therapy as the sole option.
I abhor the secrecy element of this. Aren't we Jews always being targeted as having secret, sinister meetings?

Littman provides the text of the declaration. It's infuriating stuff. Here's the opening:
Over the past few years homosexual activists have infiltrated every aspect of the secular world and have achieved acceptance in the media and most of the general culture. They have been fighting fiercely on issues pertaining to the legitimacy of the homosexual lifestyle in all aspects of society, including homosexual marriage, in order to gain full acceptance. The last line of resistance against acceptance of the homosexual agenda has been mostly from the religious communities.
Although the writer of the declaration wants to demonize "the homosexual agenda," his writing is a bit too clear. As mentioned, the homosexual agenda is for civil equality and social acceptance. These are noble, not demonic ends. These are the good objectives other groups in America have valiantly sought and struggled for. To stand up as one who resists equality and tolerance is to identify as a douchebag. But if the writer really wants to rouse hatred and suspicion against the homosexual agenda, he should have been less specific.

The declaration gets nastier, however, as when it refuses to acknowledge homosexuality as "a genuine identity":
The Torah makes a clear statement that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a genuine identity by severely prohibiting its conduct. Furthermore, the Torah, ever prescient about negative secular influences, warns us in Vayikra (Leviticus) 20:23 “Do not follow the traditions of the nations that I expel from before you…” Particularly the Torah writes this in regards to homosexuality and other forbidden sexual liaisons.
Yes, folks you read the above correctly: the implication is that homosexuality derives from the gentiles. It's a goy thing, not a human thing. Here, our fine Jewish leaders sound no less bigoted and naive than Iranian President and psychopath Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously declared that Iran had no homosexuals.

The position of the declaration is that homosexuality should be suppressed and re-directed:
From a Torah perspective, the question (sic) whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable. G-d is loving and merciful. Struggles, and yes, difficult struggles, along with healing and personal growth are part and parcel of this world. Impossible, life long, Torah prohibited situations with no achievable solutions are not.

We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid
something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”
Homosexuality, the declaration says, is all and only about behavior, no different from an excessive love of Hostess Cup Cakes. Nevertheless, the declaration makes it clear that one should be ashamed of homosexual "inclination and desire." One should fight one's homosexuality.

My shame is to ever have thought highly of rabbis or their office.

The declaration closes with a focus on "love":
It requires tremendous bravery and fortitude for a person to confront and deal with same-sex attraction. For example a sixteen-year-old who is struggling with this issue may be confused and afraid and not know whom to speak to or what steps to take. We must create an atmosphere where this teenager (or anyone) can speak freely to a parent, rabbi, or mentor and be treated with love and compassion. Authority figures can then guide same-sex strugglers towards a path of healing and overcoming their inclinations.

The key point to remember is that these individuals are primarily innocent victims of childhood emotional wounds. They deserve our full love, support and encouragement in their striving towards healing. Struggling individuals who seek health and wellness should not be confused with the homosexual movement and their agenda. This distinction
is crucial. It reflects the difference between what G-d asks from all of us and what He unambiguously prohibits.
The declaration shows a remarkable lack of awareness of what love and compassion are. How can a person live a "full and healthy life" without being able to express romantic love freely? How can a person be happy and joyous in a community that rejects him or her?

I cry that Jewish rabbis do not see they espouse the same bigotry and ignorance that others have used against Jews in the Christian and Muslim worlds.

If what Shmuel Kamenetsky endorses is Jewish, then I am not Jewish. I will not be Jewish. I do not and will not accept either his authority on what the Torah says. His traditions are meaningless. They hold no weight either in interpreting what the Torah says or in what I should think or feel about subjects.

But this is not a Jewish problem, per se. It's a religious problem. It's a problem of using old books and religious tradition as over-riding authorities for opinions and decisions. Even the relatively benign "Statement of Principles" is unacceptable.

At some point, we have to admit that Halakhah can be wrong and immoral. The Torah can be wrong and immoral. The Talmud can be wrong and immoral. Jesus could be wrong and immoral. The New testament can be wrong an immoral. Mohammed, the Koran. Buddha, Confucius, Bruce Lee, George Clooney, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa--all of them can be factually wrong and immoral.

When will we grow up? Maybe we won't.

The introduction to the declaration says that questions can be emailed to I plan to email not a question but a polite condemnation of the declaration.