I can’t see you so I’m invisible

Perhaps it was just something that happened in my small corner of the world, but there was a time when small children would cover their own eyes and then declare themselves invisible. I suppose it is a weakness of myself as a writer that I had to explain my own title for clarity, but that title was far too appropriate to this topic to just let it slide by.

This may surprise you, but I was reading more AiG this weekend, and this article really helped me clarify some things. The first is that even the people of the highest education at AiG are completely blind and/or lacking awareness of way too much of the world. The second is that apparently adults are just as happy to scream the title of this blog post with all apparent earnestness.

The above linked article is about the five senses and how they fit into the world view of science versus how they fit into the world view of Christian theology. At several points, the (and I am quoting here, he calls himself this) “Ph.D. scientist” claims that trusting your five senses means you believe in the Bible, and any atheist who trusts their senses has inadvertently admitted to being a closet Christian. How is this wild leap of logic attained?

I will quote directly, I do not want to paraphrase and miss the meaning. “… It makes sense in the Christian worldview that our senses would be basically reliable. An all-knowing God designed and created both the universe and our senses, so it makes sense that those two things would “go together”—that our senses can reliably probe the universe… You want to reject my reason, but unfortunately, you don’t have a good reason to reject my reason, and you have no alternative. The evolutionist has no rational reason to trust his senses based on his professed worldview. Evolutionists believe things with absolutely no good reason.”

I have, in a past post, given my reason for trusting my senses–but I cannot recall exactly which post contained that bit of logic so I’ll present it here in direct contrast to the opposing view. I think that better, and probably more fair.

The above statement could be true, if all atheists existed in a vacuum–and by that I mean that we all existed and never talked to each other. Even science has told us to not trust our eyes, not nearly with the depth and clarity of what this Ph.D. scientist has expressed, anyway. In fact, even something that should be our most reliable sense, touch, can be very easily fooled. So for my first point of rebuttal, I think I’ve stated clearly (if quickly) that our senses are not granted by a great omniscient deity–or if they were, he did a very poor job of it (another example would be how the human eye is upside down, backwards, and prone to failure–not to mention has a blind spot that is not present in octopuses.). To address the points in parentheses previous, Creationists have frequently argued that the eye is not poorly designed, that everything works as it should — but to that I have always asked this: Why is the octopus eye so much better than ours, in terms of blind  spot? Or why is the eagle eye (and actually most bird eyes) so much better than ours, in terms of overall clarity and focus? For God’s own chosen species (taking racism up one level to specism), we really got the short end of the stick. How about sense of smell? Well, we have always relied on dogs to scent things, so obviously we have shortcomings there. Hearing? I think it is well known that bats, dolphins, and many other species have us beat quite badly on that sense.

OK, I think I’ve covered that part sufficiently, and that wasn’t even my goal here. The second part has to do not with why I believe we are not created, but why I trust my senses with any respectable surety.

Now, as I’ve discussed the fact that eyewitness testimony is terribly unreliable, I have indirectly admitted that my own sense of sight is unreliable. How can I trust it, then? Well, as listed above, my sense of sight is not unreliable all the time, which leaves me a window through which to escape; I can trust my sight through the timeless art of speaking with others. If there are three of us in a room, and two of us see the same thing but the third sees a seemingly fantastic room, we can generally assume that the two are more likely correct — though the margin for error is high, and I’ve just left a glaring hole for the creationist to attack. How about we shore up our defenses a little.

In the United States, there are some 330 million people. For the sake of argument, I usually say that I trust my eyes at least 80% of the time, with the remaining 20% being times where I have to rely on those around me for confirmation (“Man, are you seeing this right now?!”). Whether we agree on the interpretation or not (where I see science you see God), we both generally see the same thing, as made clear by our ability to describe what we see intelligently to each other. So taking that load, the 330 million person load, and dividing it to help us confirm whether what we see is trustworthy, we come to an astonishingly low margin for error. The math gets a little complicated, to the point where there are numbers the human mind is ill equipped to handle, so let’s settle for ten people in a room, all of whom trust their sight 80% of the time, and all of whom are seeing the same thing. The chance that all are wrong is given by this very rough equation of 10*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2, which gives us the chance they are all hallucinating the same thing as something in the area of 0.0001%. These numbers are obviously not binding but they paint a picture; by this method, the scientific mind can reasonably assert that what the ten people present are seeing is a true representation of the world. (Group psychology throws some of my math out the window then pees on it, very clearly demonstrated by the Fatima incident. I’ve added that for fairness.)

I think a more easily digestible example would be that of the sense of smell. Say you have forty people in a room, because we are at a social gathering. Some time into the night, one particular patron comments that they smell toast, and someone has burned it badly–what is your first reaction? I would imagine for some number north of 99% of the readers, this would not seem as though God’s designed senses are working as intended; you’d be calling 911, because someone in the room is suffering from a stroke, because not one of the other 39 people smell said toast. Why would God give us such a sense that so easily misfires?

To extend that example of using others to confirm your senses, what about the rubber hand experiment linked above? The premise of the experiment (and it is one of my favorite experiments of all time) is that you convince your brain (or the brain of some unsuspecting friend) that a rubber hand is, in fact, their hand. After you do this, you smash the rubber hand with a mallet, and the person upon whom the experiment is being performed will feel that mallet smashing their own hand, because our brain is easily tricked. It is only through realizing that your own hand has not been hit, or through further experimental means of tricking your brain back into believing that your hand is perfectly safe that the pain will instantly (and MAGICALLY!) subside–and one way of doing this is by using the others in the room as reference material.

We as atheists are not so quick to trust ourselves, either, but this is not a game of chicken–something I fear that many YEC adherents forget. It is not the first person to admit fault (jump out of the way of the train) who loses; in this analogy, actually, the atheist jumping out of the way of the train is far more likely to live a long and productive life. Anyone who grew up in a town with train tracks has heard of someone getting killed by a train playing chicken. No, this is real life, not a game — and in the fullness of time, as Sam Harris so succinctly stated, “One side will really win, and one side will really lose.”

Just because you do not understand how an atheist would see the world does not mean the atheist is completely blind. We just see through a different set of glasses. The problem is, your glasses seem to have this odd feature where it makes you shout that anyone wearing any other glasses is wrong (and probably a heathen), and then we have to spend valuable time defending our own vision. I mean, look at me; I just spent over 1500 words defending my own side. Tell me that this isn’t a waste of valuable internet space!

It’s funny, though — I wouldn’t even feel the need to defend myself if your logic didn’t seem so convincing to so many people. It wounds my own sense of the power of the human mind to admit that your side is claiming as many members as my side is (though, thankfully, it seems we’re headed towards a reversal).

I don’t feel like I really have a choice; I either have to defend science, or allow irrational belief to sweep this world I cherish, and tear it to the ground.

Speaking of, this gentleman felt the need to say his beliefs were rational and those of the atheist irrational. He believes these things because of something implied by a book written starting 3000 years ago, by hundreds of different hands. His whole idea of rationality is that “This religious document says that there is a God, and that is the entire basis for my rationality.”

Please, you have a PhD, give me some reason that is better than that. I respect the effort that it took you to get that PhD, but I do not respect the intellectual dishonesty you show, and the shame you bring to the very title. I respect your religion, but only insofar as it does not negatively impact the world — and too often it does just that.

You are in a position of power; show some decorum is what I am saying here. If you are going to call me (indirectly) irrational and wrong, please give me a better reason than that a 3000 year old book told you to insult me. I think I’ve given you good reasons defending my side, I’ll patiently await your rebuttal.

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Slightly too Complicated for Children

More reading down the anti-science hole, I came across a blog post by Ken Ham (PBUH), prophet of the Young Earth Movement. I didn’t find it overly offensive for the most part, it mostly was just him reiterating the Young Earth Script–but eventually I came across a line that kind of caught my attention: “… Children can easily see that complicated life can’t be built up on the basis of mistakes…”  Yes, but can they see why kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch?!

The reason that line jumped out at me is that it is so disingenuous it hurts, as though Ken Ham is trying to imply that all complicated science should be understood by children. I would argue this isn’t the case. An example, perhaps: Spacex is launching a rocket with a probe on it, and I am sure kids don’t understand the physics that go into that. You know what that means, right? It means God did it. God launched that rocket. The thousands upon thousands of man hours that went into it? NASA just made those man hours up. Kids could launch a rocket, if they just something something GOD.

Or how about the drastic oversimplification of the theory of evolution? I know how they do love to stand on the crutches of “Observational Science,” but there are some deep flaws in their idea of what constitutes this version of science that they themselves created. First, they seem to be of the mind that since we have never seen it, it can’t happen. Life from non-life? That’s crazy. Life from the word of the mouth of an eternal being? Totally a more viable solution. Again, though, the subtext is important; “We have the answer so YOU HAVE TO STOP LOOKING FOR AN ANSWER.”

They are right, we haven’t managed to create life in the lab yet. We don’t necessarily know how it started. But ignorance is both the best friend of science, and its worst enemy; ignorance lets us know where we have to look to find new knowledge, but it is also something to be eradicated over time. Science has been a powerful force for only 150 years; in the grand scheme of cosmic evolution, I would need to invoke a LOT of leading zeroes to give you the percentage of history that covers. Even in your 6000 year cosmology, we have only really been using science (as we’d understand it in the modern era) for only 2.5% of history, and you expect us to have all of the answers? And of course, if we admit even once that we don’t have the answer, you claim some sort of victory, as though the sum of all human discourse has all of the maturity and gravity of some middle school playground.

The funny thing, the thing that makes me laugh, is the petulance on display. If they would just sit back and let us “do science,” as the common parlance goes, maybe we’d discover that they were right all along. Obviously, I think that is (at best) very unlikely, but if they are so overwhelmingly confident, why do they act like they are being pushed around so badly? Theirs is the type of confidence (arrogance) that should be able to step aside, a knowing glint in their eye, as the children find all the answers on their own. Surely, with that level of confidence, they could trust that we would all arrive at their conclusion eventually.

And there’s the rub, there’s the whole thing, they know (deep in their hearts) that science is coming closer and closer, inexorably, from invalidating their world view. Of course, the confidence they have will not be pricked by evidence (that is already clear), and they will believe as they do in full opposition of irrefutable evidence. That’s ok, I just think it is ironically hilarious that I could so easily employ a simple word replace and make Romans 1:18-21 say exactly what is happening.

18 The wrath of [science] is being revealed from [humans] against all the [ignorance] of people, who suppress the truth by their [ignorance], 19 since what may be known about [science] is plain to them, because [humans have] made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world [science has] been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

You know what? I actually like that set of verses. I might actually print them off, because I think they say a lot about the human condition, our ability to stand by our beliefs in the face of evidence, of statistics, of physics, of history. I am not immune to it, though I do try to step back and validate my beliefs regularly. Like any human, I know I fail to recognize all of my failings, but dammit, I give it a strong effort.

Young Earth Creationists do not give an effort to find their failings, but that is not to take away from the fact that they put a huge amount of effort; the amount of man hours they put into creation science is stunning… And almost admirable. The only problem is that the only way they manage to keep their ship floating is through disingenuity. One major example is the formation of fossils and stalagmites; they have created it rapidly under a rigidly defined set of conditions, and reproduced that in the lab. They are right, of course, calcification can be a rapid process, in some conditions–you’d be hard pressed to disprove that. But then they make a huge leap; they have decided since it could happen quickly that it did happen quickly.

I think a far more egregious example is that of the discovery of dinosaur soft tissue. As soon as it was discovered, it was hailed as the final piece of the puzzle proving recent dinosaur life by young earth creationists. Why, how could you have soft tissue surviving for 65 million years? That is just absurd. And then scientists tried to explain it! THE GAUL OF THEM! Can’t they clearly see the answer? There is no process that could possibly make this happen, and even by looking the scientists are showing that they are stupidheads, and anti-religion, and scientifically ignorant!

Except in a short order, they discovered a function of high iron content that could have allowed this to happen. Quietly, the YECs stopped trumpeting that discovery, though it still has a place (as last I heard) in the Creation Museum in Kentucky, there to deceive the ignorant. Of course, that isn’t an insult; they are ignorant because people have a vested interest in keeping their blindfold on, and the fact that soft tissue is still in the Young Earth playbook, despite its having been explained by science, is proof of that.

So let’s stop pretending you are doing science. You are accusing scientists of viewing evidence with a presupposition of the age of the Universe, while you grab evidence, look at it through a magnifying glass that has mirrors and dials in it that read “6000 years old” then interpret that evidence accordingly.

The fewer mirrors you put in the way, the fewer assumptions you make about the evidence, the more you realize that 10,000 different threads in the weave of time paint a similar picture — and it is only through your smoke and mirrors, young earth creationist, that you are able to even create the illusion of a 6000 year old world.

So let’s not kid ourselves (heh… Kid) into saying evolution is silly because a child could say it is wrong. That’s not even an argument. That’s not even a thought.

Let’s all go back to the scientific lab of our choice, make as few assumptions as possible, and do some science.

The Modern Damage of Romans 1:18-21

More than anything in the Gospels, more than anything in the Old Testament, more than any other passage quoted in the Epistles of Paul, Romans 1:18-21 is quoted by the Young Earth Creationists in defending their… Science? Opinion? Stance? Ignorance? I don’t even know what to call it; I don’t want to call it ignorance, but when it is said in the same breath as speaking historical science, or in the same article as calling evolution “anti-science”, it is tough to call it anything else. I don’t want to sound overly negative, but if they didn’t have this talisman I think we’d be in a very different world (or, at the very least, they’d have to pull different tools out of their tickle trunk).

I tripped down the hole that is Answers in Genesis, and was forging through the brush of their articles before coming across these two pieces of wonderful literature that I simply could not ignore. The first of my links is possibly the most broadly egregious, for it basically says that the scientific advances of the great Greek culture were only because of God. I mean, obviously they weren’t Christian or Jewish, but thanks to their MIGHTY TALISMAN (Romans 1:18-21), we can be certain that they knew God. Obviously. And because they knew God, and rejected God, then God gets all the credit for their science in absentia. I mean, it’s not like they can fight back, right?

Never mind the fact that when Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the spherical Earth, the Jews were being passed between Egypt and Greek masters like some kind of feud over a borrowed lawn mower (The third century BC). I am sure the Jews of the day were closer to the right of it, though, and the Greeks knew about the Christian God (then again… Jesus hadn’t been around yet, and Romans 1:18-21 didn’t exist. So the Jewish God was universally a territorial, xenophobic, murderous asshole of a tribal god at the time. Oh, that isn’t true, you say? Tell me where in the Old Testament God showed his love for all peoples. Oh, I know God said he loved the Israelites, but that was generally right before he wanted to kill them all. It’s OK, though, Moses talked him out of it. Anyway, take your time. I’ll wait.).

Regardless, the spurious logic presented in the second linked article is almost laughable to anyone who even … Sorry, that was going to go to an insulting place, and I’d rather we stay civil. Anyway, the author states that because the Bible states there is uniformity in the universe that there would be no such uniformity without God. I don’t even know which of the thousand threads to pull on. I mean, the first would be what was the world like before God struck his covenant with Abraham? And even if we accept your Creator God, why does He have such a small, historically insignificant people as His chosen, despite the fact that he frequently mentions his hatred of them? Why have a chosen people at all when all people are descended of your creation? And what’s with the other gods in the old testament? The Old Testament contextually speaks of Ba’al as a rival god to YWH, and historically it seems that even the early Jews accepted Ba’al as existing, though there’s an entire body of research that goes into how that argument got settled.

If God wanted to kill the Israelites so badly after the Exodus, why didn’t He just choose another, better chosen people? To that end, why did he ACTIVELY harden the heart of Pharaoh against believing in Him? I don’t even, what is this?

But then this all goes to the damage caused by Romans 1:18-21 in the modern world. The weird thing I want to know is how does this manifest? How do I know the truth of God and reject it? How is it so plainly obvious? And I don’t just mean in my case, what of the case of a child born and raised pagan? If the child learns of the Hindu pantheon from birth to death, how was that child meant to know God clearly? The passage reads that all things are clearly seen, but what makes these miracles “clearly seen” to be of the God you were raised to believe in, as opposed to Zeus? Or Odin? Or Vishnu? What makes it so clear that these aren’t scientific processes? These aren’t rhetorical questions, they are question about the very root of the arrogance of hard line creationists who cite it as defense of their view. You are asking me to take a statement from a first century religious zealot at face value, without even a hint of explanation. Hell, with the way that this set of verses is bandied about, it seems you want me to accept it without even the slightest trace of context.

I think that very passage is at the root of the arrogance of many modern creationists, and I think it has stymied the conversation between the Christian Church in the United States and science worldwide. Usually, this would not really concern me, but as the United States is a major world power, it is a major issue worldwide. The Christian Right has certainly put a massive stopper on many very promising lines of stem cell research. That should concern the entire world, and that does concern me. When your religious dogma promotes love and tolerance, I will stand by it — but if I have to let your anti-scientific rhetoric through with it, I have serious reservations — and I think any empathetic, merciful human should have similar reservations.

It is the arrogance of belief that lets so many people stand confidently beside the idea that, to use Sam Harris’ example, a 7 year old with third degree burns over 80% of her body should suffer because the treatment for this illness lies in the destruction of a blastocyst that has no nervous system. That a soul is granted immediately upon conception. I would like to see the evidence that this is the case, in any case.

There are many who believe that life is an absolute, and destroying even a blastocyst constitutes killing, regardless of whether the being has a soul — but to assume that the blastocyst could suffer in any real way, without a nervous system, without any organs, without any identifiable features that could make it human, we must not destroy it even if in the hope of saving the above mentioned girl.

These beliefs contribute perhaps to a higher population of humans, but definitely to increased suffering in the world. But hey, 9 billion people suffering is better than 7 billion healthy people, right? Right?

We Aren’t Smart Enough for God

Such a small thing that kicked off this train of thought in me. In reply to a video from Penn Jillette, a reddit user posted the following: “Penn Jillette literally went to clown college and believes he is more capable of interpreting holy texts than religious scholars.”

The video from Penn was a 6 minute interview, if you haven’t had a chance to watch it. Basically, he states that the thing that moved him to atheism wasn’t books by Dawkins or Hitchens, it wasn’t people around him, it wasn’t media… It was the Bible. Penn said it was when he read the Bible from cover to cover that he became an atheist. I think my story is somewhat similar, though my deconversion did not begin with the Bible; my deconversion ended with it. I don’t want to be an atheist, not really. I like the more romantic ideals of religion, whether or not there are any adherents that can actually grasp them. I like the idea of Heaven, even if so few people have actually studied what Heaven will be like. But still, an afterlife — that is a nice thought.

The ideas that you can only get to Heaven via love and kindness, via humility and charity — those are romantic as well, but so seldom practiced. It is an odd thing, to read interviews with people in the American Bible Belt. Even if they do not actively preach hate, so many of them seem so bitter towards so many other people, towards homosexuals, towards atheists, towards peoples of other Churches, or (God forbid) Muslims. Listen to the replies to Coca-Cola’s frankly beautiful multicultural rendition of the American National Anthem. You may say that those people aren’t Christian, but in a country that polls nearly 80% Christian, it would be a statistical anomaly if none of those people were Christian.

So where does the rampant racism and feeling of superiority fit in with your Christian values? For those that did not click the previous link, it references Matthew 5:5, a verse in the beatitudes, and I think you know where I am going with this–blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the Earth. So go on, patriots, tell me how your country is the country God chooses, that your country is the greatest in the whole world, that your race is the greatest in the whole world, that your morals are unimpeachable, go on. Keep telling me how awesome you are and how much I suck, but please do it humbly, if you could. That would be nice.

Now that I have gone off on that tangent, back to the original point of the commenter. It has been said that God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), but even though the Bible is available in my native tongue, even though God could certainly have inspired a perfect work of literature (what with the omnipotence), I should not be allowed to read it without someone to tell me how? To tell me what it means? It was so bad that many councils in the middle ages forbade owning a Bible at all, and translating it was anathema. Why is that? I think Penn is on to something; too many people now sit in Churches and listen only to the verses of the Bible read to them prior to the sermon (or during the sermon, depends on your denomination). If God is not a God of confusion, why are there such a huge number of Christian denominations in the world, all with slightly differing or outright competing views? Why did alternate views on the Bible tear the world apart not once, not twice, but three times? (Once, twice, and three times are all separate links to historical schisms in the Church.)

And even though men who study the Bible their whole lives fail to agree on a translation, and even though God is not a God of confusion, a lay person should not be able to form their opinion through careful reading of the Bible in the privacy of their own thoughts? Am I not smart enough to read it? Is that what it is?

Do I need someone to tell me what it means when Elisha kills 42 (children or men, depending on translation) via two bears, because they called him bald? Do I need someone to tell me why it is a good thing that a woman was raped to death in the service of a priest? What about drunken, incestuous rape? What about cursing an entire nation, for all of history, because of a drunken stupor that ended badly? (It should also be noted that the person who drank himself unconscious and naked was Noah.) Maybe I do need someone to tell me why that was a good thing, maybe, maybe. Certainly, in my own reading of the Bible I cannot see why a God of love and justice and tolerance would do such a thing.

My point is this; while I may not have all of the answers, I am willing to say that I have read a great deal of the Bible. I have more to read, and I am currently reading it again, and it has not brought me closer to God. It pushes me away from God, into atheism, with its sheer repulsiveness (or outright weirdness). It pushes me away because all of the powers that men attribute to God are the making of man; in the Old Testament, God seems neither omniscient nor omnipotent. He seems confused often, quick to a killing rage, unhappy, racist… I think Richard Dawkins said it best: “[God 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.”

I may have given up ground by quoting Dawkins, but only in theory. You may think you have points now, but if you’ve read the Old Testament, I challenge you to prove any one of those accusations wrong. I think that’s another part; a debate between an atheist and a theist could literally devolve into the two posing contradictory Bible quotes to each other. The Bible says many things, and it says so few of those things clearly. Oh, you have all the answers? Or your priest does? Or someone who holds a degree or PhD in theology does? Well, tell them to step forward, and we can have ourselves a universal Church.

Until then, let’s all tone it down where it comes to defending our Holy Books. For me, the Bible is nothing spectacular, a hollow bastion of hope. For you, the writings of Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris may be nothing but wastes of blasphemous paper. I don’t think we will convince each other. But before you tell people that they shouldn’t have an opinion on the Bible, perhaps you should step back and read it cover to cover. Every word. Don’t just pick and choose passages; read everything, read Deuteronomy, Leviticus, read the Book of Numbers, where it says that everyone should be killed except virgin women; read that this includes the children and the animals, any woman who has known a man. If you are offended that terrorists killed 3000 civilians on 9/11, remember that your God himself wanted to kill all of his own chosen people, that the Crusades were done in your God’s name, and that in response to the death of 3000 civilians, the United States has killed at least 18000 Afghani civilians (and that is a very low estimation by most accounts).

If you want more references, I could go on for days. For months. For years. Somehow, I feel like I could make more references than there are pages in the Bible, and I feel like that should be worrisome.

My story of deconversion is obviously not unique. As I said in a long previous post, it seems to me that it is the atheists and the skeptics in my life with the deepest knowledge of the Bible–and I think that is because so many of us were faithful and turned to the Bible in our time of crisis. And in the Bible we did not find our faith, it was in the Bible that we lost it.

Pointless Cynicism

As tends to happen on the Internet, or really any community over time, some drama has cropped up that managed to grab the attention of a huge proportion of Reddit’s users. If you don’t care to read the rather lengthy story, it adds up to a man live tweeting the discovery that his wife of a few years is cheating on him. Over time, additional characters are added to the story, including his brother, his sister-in-law, an unnamed character, a PI, and a few additional set pieces. I won’t lie, the story is not well written, but the fact that the original writer is not, in fact, a writer of high skill adds more credence than it takes away.

There are other bits in the story that really strain one’s disbelief, such as the idea that a 30 year old man would write “they kissed then she touched his penis a little,” but that line is really what sparked the true drama of the situation, and that has given me the concrete example of what I have been preaching (for lack of  a better word) for a very long time.

Immediately, three camps sprung up, and two of them actively went to war. One, claiming that this person was not in fact telling the truth, and another attempting to offer this person some sympathy in what is (or, if it is made up, would be) a very difficult time in his life. The cynics quote lines that don’t add up, while the sympathetics just want to help another human in need. I think the sympathetics have the right of it, but that needs some deeper exploration.

I know I mentioned three camps; the third is people with bags of popcorn who get three full servings of delicious, nutritious drama. The first serving is the story itself, the next two servings are the ongoing war between the cynics and the sympathetics. The third camp is immaterial, but for a while I was an active member in Camp Popcorn.

As I mentioned briefly on my Facebook, the cynicism of the cynics is pointless in this case. The sympathetics, so long as they do not give him money (and he neither asked for it, nor gave identifying information that would even allow it to be given), have no lost anything by their sympathies. They sent him typed internet messages. The time he wasted was perhaps 45 minutes of their life (the time it took to read it and write their reply). If this story is true, they may be offering a suffering man the only solace he will receive in this difficult time. Afterwards, time will pass, and all will forget. If the story is, in fact, a fabrication, then the sympathetics can be said to be playing along, and at worst have wasted a small part of their life. Time will pass, and all will forget.

The cynics, though, add up to internet bullies (though I am sure if any of them read this blog I could expect wild backlash from them to the tune of “No, we are just skeptical!”). If the story is true, and they are telling everyone to stop playing along, then what they are doing is adding another layer of stress that is helping no one. If the story is fake, they are the person in the theater during “The Usual Suspects” shouting “Well, of COURSE he is Kaiser Soze,” ruining the film for everyone who just wanted an escape from the real world.

This may be stretching it for some “internet armchair cynics”, but some of them are certainly the kind of people who would walk by someone about to jump off a bridge and tell the person “You’re just doing this to get attention.” It is cruel, and it isn’t helping anyone.

You can be cynical, I am cynical. Just keep your cynicism to yourself, because if there is even a 1% chance that the story is true, there could be a human suffering on the other end of your keyboard strokes. I don’t believe the story for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to call the writer a fraud. I would never run up to George RR Martin and shout “DRAGONS AREN’T REAL, DUMMY!” even if some of the readers of A Song of Ice and Fire believe the events actually happened. There’s no point to it.

What people on the Internet so often forget is that there are, no matter the situation, other humans out there reading what you have said. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it at them.

The Internet, as media, is more transient than any form of media that has ever come at any point in history. Books have survived millennia. Quotes from TV shows have survived decades. The shelf life of an internet meme, at its longest and best preserved, is two years. Memes from 2012 are all but forgotten, save by Know Your Meme’s databases. The thing is, while next week we may all have forgotten this story, the person who (may/may not) be living it will never forget. You will forget it. The sympathetics may forget it. The story itself is transient. But the human being on the other end could suffer for an eternity, and you would never know or care.

So take a thought for your vehemence, your pointless pointing out of your cynicism. Save your cynicism for perennial issues, save your cynicism for government, save your cynicism for religion or atheism, as is your flavor. Save your cynicism for ideas. You can’t hurt an idea. When an idea dies, no humans were harmed in the process. But when you are cynical towards a human being? You can cause harm.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again. If we took a moment to care for the happiness of others, the world would be a better place in the month. The cynic is perhaps angered by the story, or the fact that some people believe the story, but why should they attempt to spread their misery or anger? No one increases their happiness by so doing. Not one person will ever be happier for your cynicism.

I know I have opened myself up for a world of criticism by saying so (“But Chad, you write about the bad parts of religion!! Religion makes so many people happy!”), but I have accepted my lot in life. I have my justifications for what I do, fickle as some may think them.

I wonder what the armchair cynic would say is their justification?

The Plank in your Own Eye

Yesterday, a tragedy struck France. It was certainly a tragedy of Stalinian proportions, but not in the way you’d think. While the twelve people of Charlie Habdo were murdered by extremists (whether Muslims or other), thousands died of other causes, cancer, and heart disease, and accidental causes. I realize my attempts at perspective may sound callous, but the disproportional response to terrorism has always bothered me. That being said, some people raise many valid points.

Matt Inman reposted an old comic of his in reply to the murders yesterday, an inflammatory comic poking fun of some of the more easily insulted tenets of many popular religion. The comic is titled “How to suck at your religion.”

I am not going to call it a sophisticated criticism, it is a webcomic by a comedian. I enjoy it, and it certainly raises some valid points, if crude. The point I want to make is that it is a comic about “How to suck at your religion,” not “Why your religion sucks.” That is a very important distinction, and one that many people have certainly failed to make. I slipped into a gopher hole on this one, and found that the gopher hole runs very deep. The first article I came across was this one, a harsh criticism of the comic, calling it blasphemous, unintelligent, unfunny drivel. Helpfully, it goes panel by panel through the comic, making it easier to digest and deconstruct.

The author of this post mentions that the priest in panel one is wearing a Roman collar, a fact that they claim means Matt Inman has taken a direct shot at the author’s religion. BAM! Harsh criticism leveled! But remember the distinction; it is about how to suck at your religion. I have met many judgmental Catholic adherents, and whether you agree that the Catholic religion accepts this or not, the point is this; judging others means you suck at your religion.

The second panel deals with Galileo, and claims that it is so misrepresented that it is not even worth addressing. The author links a Catholic Education source to defend the Catholic church; on the surface, this makes sense–but when dealing with history, I prefer cross-reference. Certainly, when you are dealing with verifiable historical data, it pays to go to several sources to iron out wrinkles.

In any case, I’ll go over some details that would render Mr Inman’s take on the affair at least partially accurate, somewhat falsifying the Catholic writer’s clearly closely held beliefs. In 1614, a letter written by Galileo was delivered to the Qualifiers, a pre-torture arm of the Inquisition. In 1615, several depositions were made to the Inquisition regarding this affair, Galileo’s Heliocentric view. On February 24, 1616, the Inquisition levied their first judgment of Galileo, saying: ”

On February 24 the Qualifiers delivered their unanimous report: “…the idea that the Sun is stationary is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.”

“On February 26, Galileo was called to Bellarmine’s residence and ordered, to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely.” -—The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616.

So to say “The Church was totally on his side omg you guys, why get up in arms?” is to ignore a lot of the Galileo affair. The affair was far from over, though; Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633, “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world.”

Galileo was found guilty, and the sentence of the Inquisition, issued on 22 June 1633, was in three essential parts:
Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the center of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” those opinions.
He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.
His offending [book] Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.

In 1758 the Catholic Church dropped the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Forbidden Books.

So you know what, you’re right! The Catholic Church was totally on Galileo’s side the whole time, and never stood in his way! I am glad Matt Inman got it so wrong that you didn’t have to explain yourself, because I can’t see where your explanation would contradict his comic–it would have gotten awkward had you explained yourself. That was a long rebuttal of panel 2, but I thought it was worth saying. As the very blogger I am rebutting said, “… for those who actually care enough about the facts to check them.” And I do. So I did.

The rebuttal of panel three, which addresses stem cell research, is the idea that life begins at conception. Certainly it does, that cannot be countered, but the idea that life begins at conception is to put an equal value on a blastocyst that one does on a fully conscious human being. To put it another way, which I’ve explained at greater length in the past, the blastocyst is incapable of suffering, while a human in need of stem cell therapeutics most certainly is. To minimize suffering, embryonic stem cells are a valuable source of potential. I will be addressing a second article later in this post that raises an alternate concern with embryonic stem cell research, but I am trying to group this in a point by point way, so we can wait until I get there.

Point four is what I often like to call the political gambit; while it is generally accepted that a child can be “A Catholic Child,” the idea of “A Republican Child” feels odd when rolling off the tongue. Generally, you’d say “That child’s parents vote republican.” This is a question of parenting ethics, and a deep well of research into child psychology has been performed to this end, one far more deep than I could ever hope to plumb. Generally speaking, a child will believe what they are told to believe. I think this is fairly clear when dealing with the issue of Santa Claus or Faeries; they will generally believe for a very long time, at least until they are told that it is false or find incontrovertible proof. Santa is certainly highly unlikely as a physical entity, that is easy to prove.

But how would a child become disillusioned with religion, as compared to Santa? God is often said to help those who help themselves, so a faithful person who has a very rough time is often said to be tried by God, or that God works in mysterious ways. Escape hatch opened.

What about prayer? Surely, we could test prayer! And we have, finding either that there is no discernible effect of intercessory prayer, or that there is a small effect that is traced to a placebo effect. Double blind studies tend to come out with “no discernible effect,” and that should be worrisome.

The evidence, in any case, does not point to a God that certainly exists. It doesn’t point to one that doesn’t exist, either, but that is largely because God functions exactly like Superman; when placed against a piece of evidence he hasn’t seen before, the writers will often attribute to him some power or property that works specifically and only to rebut that point. In any case, the jury is out; you can believe, or you can not believe. If you tell your children to believe, there is overwhelming data that states that most will. Some choose not to, but they are still the minority (a growing minority, mind you. Wonder why that is.).

Point five raised by this writer is a smoke bomb at best; it ignores the argument. They then say that “Of course, if the Resurrection is true, that claim is false.” The sentence rests squarely on the statement “if the resurrection is true,” with the assumption being that it is. Just two days ago I wrote about the historicity of the Bible at some length, and cited references; in any case, the Resurrection is just as much an article of faith as is the afterlife. No one has ever recorded what happens after we die (well, we die, scientifically, but you know what I mean), whether we have a soul, what makes a soul, what happens to our theoretical soul, etc. They then compare being agnostic towards the afterlife as comparable to being agnostic about the answer to 3×3. I will not take the easy way and say that this is self evident, that would be somewhat hypocritical of me. Here, have some of my legendary art as rebuttal of this point:

doingthemaths

Show me a similar proof that there is an afterlife, then we can go deeper into this discussion.

Panel six is rebutted by stating that “I totally don’t have weird anxieties about sex, it is just that it can give you broken hearts, broken homes, rampant STDs, HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111!!1ii” You are right, it could. That is why safe sex is taught. Abstinence only education has been shown to fail almost universally to stop the very things you are afraid of. Your “totally not sexual anxieties” are standing in the way of real improvements in the areas of teen STD and teen pregnancy rates.

Point seven relies on the idea that “I believe my religion is the ultimate good, so it would be the ultimate evil for me to not share it,” and that is a belief you have. I am an ex-member of your Church, though, so I suppose that makes me some kind of evil. Certainly, I’ve been called similar.

I won’t lie, for point eight I am not really sure what the author is trying to prove. It completely dodges a debate and says Catholics don’t believe this thing. Again, it is important to remember that the title of the comic is “how to suck at your religion,” not “how your religion sucks.” If you don’t identify with panel 8, then maybe it isn’t about you — the thing I fear is that the author does identify with panel eight. Whatevs. We move along.

Point nine has been extensively studied, and polls show that many voters will vote strictly on, say, a pro-life stance. This is not purely religious, I will give you that; there are many people who are pro-life that are not religious, but the pro-life movement tends to be a vast majority of religious people (even if not based on explicitly religious convictions). Yes, I think it would be safe to say that some people certainly vote based on their religious beliefs; if you are not one of them, please refer to the title of the comic; maybe you don’t suck at your religion. Maybe.

Number ten calls Atheists who fear Muslims smug, and kind of implies a level of cowardice. If you feel bullied, Mr or Ms Catholic, perhaps you may remember that people were executed by the Inquisition as late as the 1860s. If you feel bullied, perhaps you should count the number of dead at the hands of the Crusades. If you think “That bullying was in the past, so it doesn’t matter,” then just wait until tomorrow, and the atheist who bullied you yesterday doesn’t matter.

There is a reason I chose “The Plank in your Own Eye” as the title for this post. For those who have not remembered the Gospels by rote, it is a reference to Matthew 7, where it says you must address your own faults before addressing those of others. Calling atheists bullies is… Well, being as the United States identifies as some 90% plus religious, I would think throwing around words like that should be done carefully. It might sound to some atheists like you are bullying them.

The author makes point eleven, citing a terrible irony, without ever feeling ironic. I would say I find that ironic, but I don’t; irony is defined by something not expected, and I was not surprised by this. Asking someone to be more tolerant as a humorist and satirist makes them “hurt, hinder, and condemn you.” You are right, the INJUSTICE OF IT ALL!

Point twelve implies that the Matt Inman is neither calm nor reasonable, but again, he is a humorist and satirist. If you wanted a respectful debate, I am afraid that The Oatmeal is no place to find it. Being as the atheist does believe that religion serves as somewhat a placebo (not believing in the afterlife, we see believing in the afterlife as a sort of wishful thinking), we are unfortunately immune to its effects. It isn’t even that we don’t want to take the placebo; I wish I could still believe. It is just that once you know a pill is sugar, the placebo effect is mostly gone. Without some major restructuring of my own beliefs, it will be very difficult for me to return to religion.

The other thing about a placebo is that if you believe it will work, it likely will work. Or at least, has a chance to work. The author’s view expressed near the end basically says “It isn’t a placebo because it is totally medicine, and I know that because I know that.” This is not meant to insult, it really isn’t, it is just meant to point out that the argument is unlikely to sway even the most casual atheist, and making it will not win any points in a debate, nor change the mind of anyone in open dialogue. This isn’t calling you down, just trying to open your mind to the point of the other side.

If God enriches your life, more power to you. I do not feel His embrace, I do not feel enriched by Him. To me, if I came back to religion, it would be in the belief that I have accepted the placebo back into my life. Just because you believe it is not a placebo does not change my own beliefs.

The final lines is perfect, because it is the line that makes it easiest to show that the author has missed the distinction between “how not to suck at your religion,” and “how your religion sucks”:

“The comic can mischaracterize and distort, but in the face of actual Catholicism, it’s silent. It has no coherent or compelling answer in response to the Catholic claim. Snark simply has no retort to truth.” – Shameless Popery

There are many Catholics who would think the comic is talking about them, and many who do not. I think there is something to that thought.

We move on to something that has been swirling in my head for a while, and it was brought about by this article. I do not want to demean Patheos, I often find their articles enlightening, even handed, and a joy to read. Even this article, while making some points I find objectionable, is at least enjoyable to read.

When I read his rebuttal to the argument of stem cells last night, it set such a fire in my mind that I could not sleep. I stayed awake, shuffling through my mind all of the points that I could write down to rebut what he says.

The Catholic stance is that adult stem cell research is the best thing that has come along in literally forever (God exists outside of time, therefore does not count in ‘forever’). He cites many good studies showing adult stem cell results as being wildly successful, and certainly they are. I would offer this statement on Brown University’s Biomedical research website to show that the Catholic line “Embryonic stem cells show no promise” can be easily rebutted with but five seconds of Google.

Even so, he is right; more has come from Adult Stem Cells, despite the statement by Brown saying Embryonic Stem Cells show broader promise. Why is that?

Well, in most of the United States (which is still politically and scientifically the most powerful nation on the Earth) embryonic stem cell research is discouraged or outright illegal. It has little investment, and research labs spend much less time on it. This obviously isn’t because it does not show promise (again, see Brown’s statement). It is because of the political pressure to not spend on it.

Denying funding to one field, and wildly encouraging another, waiting 15 years, then comparing them shows all the honesty of a parent who does the following.

Give child one 5 cents. Give child two five dollars. Tell them to go buy whatever they want.

Child one comes back with a single sour candy. Child two comes back with a bag full of candy. You reply thus: “Obviously child two is vastly superior in the world of business and financial management! Look at how good his results are!”

The above is not intended to be a straw man argument (when I use straw men intentionally, I do try to make mention of it). I can seriously not see the difference, and would ask any reader to point out any obvious flaw in my metaphor. Please do.

We move on to the Galileo affair, again. Many of the same points are made, though much better, with one glaring error. The author claims that the Inquisition dropped all charges–that is odd, as it seems to me that two guilty verdicts were delivered, 17 years separated.

While I do not agree with this author’s belief about passing religion on to your children, he makes a much better argument for it than did the author of the previous article. He is correct that he supernatural is indeed a part of human nature, but does not seem to make any point as to why his particular supernatural belief is more valid than any of the previous, which I believe is the point Inman wanted to make. In the age of rationalism we live in, though, more and more people have thrown off the shackles of the Supernatural as we are able to explain more and more of our universe without invoking the name of YWH, YVHV, God, Allah, Vishnu, Ba’al, or others. Perhaps there is a supernatural agent, but given the state of the world, I would not believe that it is the Christian God. This is my belief, of course, and you are welcome to disagree. I merely would like to point out that telling your children that your belief is the correct one and that others are wrong relies on a whole poop ton of other people who believe that same idea also being wrong.

The argument made against sexual anxieties by this author, in contrast, relies a great deal on a straw man–or at the very least, ignoring correlating and causal data. “The current (oh-so-secular) sexual culture…” he calls it, and then blames the STD rate upon it. I will agree; if teens abstained from sex, there would be fewer STDs, pregnancies, etc. But remember just above where you mentioned that supernatural belief is human nature? Well sex is human nature at its very core, and teens tend to be the most ill equipped to resist those urges. You can believe God because it is human nature, but teens should abstain from sex because… Question mark? Look, I would love it if teens would abstain from sex, I really would. I really, really would. Teens are stupid, and ill equipped to deal with the outcomes of sex. But they will keep having sex, no matter how much you try to stop them from doing it. So teach them safe sex, for God’s sake. (That was a pun. I stand by its use.)

Overall, I very much liked this author, but due to his ability to make a strong argument, I thought it worth taking the time to point out where I disagree with him. It was a wonderful piece, and I love the fairness and level-headedness on display here, and thank the author for writing it. My only fear is that because the author is so good at what he does, the parts I disagree with would go unchallenged by someone who is equally fair minded (Yes, I just stroked my own ego aggressively, but many atheists would just say “He is wrong,” and move along. They would use more colorful language. I do not believe that such language has any place in this discussion.). I wanted to rebut the points I disagree with, and acknowledge the good points.

I am truly sorry if that came across as condescending; I can see it in the words, and I apologize if that is the subtext you read. I respect your stance, I truly, truly do. Thank you for writing that article, even if it was three years ago and you will never read mine. But I do very much respect you.

To the first author, who also will never read this, I quote below the opening verses of Matthew 7, because I do not believe you have the theological legs to stand on that my second author did:

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Thanks for reading this long and winding article!

What was Meant

There are two versions of this blog post, one short, and one long. I’ll put the short version first, so you can skip all the words without losing the overall message. EFFICIENCY!

Today, many people will tout that they know what the Bible means, or how to interpret the stories in it. Some will use that knowledge to preach love, some will use it to preach hate. I hope that statement isn’t overly controversial, the Westboro Baptist Church has the same Bible you do, at the very least.

But really, no matter your confidence, do we know what the people who wrote the Bible down, from Old Testament to New Testament, really wanted us to learn?

Short version answer: Nope.

Long version answer: That is a complicated question, and certainly you require a redefinition of terms at the very least to even begin to unravel the ball of yarn that is historical interpretation, translation, and intent.

To start, before the books of the Bible’s Old Testament were written down (and yea, before they could be written down) they were oral traditions. How long were they oral traditions? Well, to pin that down with any high degree of accuracy, we’d have to rely on either asking them, or having them write it dow… Wait. Nope.

So we don’t know exactly how old some of the stories are (though they do have historical markers in many of them, which help to date them). Then we continue to walk down the road of history as far as oral tradition can take us. Well, how do we know the stories that got written down were anything close to the original orations?

Well, the common rebuttal is that there were professional oral historians whose sole job was the maintain and recite history. We can see Hebrew mnemonics in certain areas of the Old Testament that are evidence of methods in use to improve recall of the stories. Certainly, a person whose sole job is to remember would do better in such an arena than would your average person off the streets… But they would have no error checking, no oversight. What would happen if or when they make a mistake?

And if you are going to tell me that stories survived 800 years orally, without any errors, I have some pieces of the original cross to sell you. Or maybe the Shroud of Turin is more up your alley?

Let me make a few modern examples to show you the flaws in that logic, in any case.

A banker’s primary role is in dealing with money. I would say the bulk of it is counting money, and ensuring accuracy in tallies and counts. They have the money in front of them, concrete, physical, unchanging. They will double and triple count money at the beginning, end, and during the day. And yet bank errors occur, despite the fact that the banker’s sole (and some would say primary) purpose is to ensure money changes hands reliably without change and… Wait, was I describing your orator or a banker? Some of those words got a little aligned there. Weird how that is.

Howe about me, in my current field of information technology. A server is designed, from the ground up, to prevent me from making errors. In order to do anything on a server that runs, say, the heating and cooling for an entire building, I will have to accept one hundred warnings, check one hundred boxes, agree to one hundred confirmations… And there are times when I, or yea, people with many years more experience than me have made errors. My sole purpose is to change these settings, to ensure they are changed properly and correctly and without error, and there are systems whose sole purpose are to stop me from making said error… But errors get made.

How about your grandparent? They will tell stories, and I am sure you have thought at times that it could not have happened like your grandparent recalled, but you’d not say anything, of course. But it is well known that dementia and Alzheimer’s are diseases primarily affecting the elderly in the population. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, I’d be willing to say that your slips would be so minor that they could be attributed to a slight dimming of your recollection, to the point you (and anyone around you) would write them off simply as slips of memo–oh damn, what was the sole purpose of the orators? Memorizing things?

And who was the most revered, respected person who would pass along knowledge? The elders of the tribe? Let’s give that elder a generous age of 60 (if they lived in a nice place, a clean(ish) city, it could have happened even in time before history), and they’d be the elder for… We’ll say 20 years? Hell, give them 30 years, we’ll say for the sake of gentle argument that they were the elder for a full generation. If we assume only 800 years of oral tradition (The earliest parts of the Bible were written down in 800BC, and I know they reference events at times as early as 1600BC, though the accuracy is in question), then that was some 26 or 27 generations of elders. That is a lot of time for one of them to have had some degree of early Alzheimer’s.

But… But they obviously wouldn’t be trusted when they couldn’t recognize the face of their own kin, they wouldn’t be the elder any more! So they wouldn’t have passed on the failed stories!

You have to remember that even if we assume a generous life expectancy, they would never have had an 80 or 90 year old Alzheimer’s sufferer, or Dementia sufferer in the 10th and earlier centuries BC. The person entrusted with oration could have had slight slips of memory and died, and so the story altered over time.

But… But there would have been many orators! Many people who remembered! Several for each village, maybe!

Yes, but then you’d have conflicting versions of the story, and how would you resolve those? Well, I don’t know how they’d have done that, but it wouldn’t be hard to think that they would accede to the eldest and most respected of the elders–the one ironically with the highest chance of misremembering a detail. Even if that wasn’t their method, even if it was democratic (against all logic, since democracy was certainly not widespread at the time), you’d have younger elders who learned the slightly altered version voting for the slightly altered version.

You’d have inaccuracies creeping in over time, even if you had ten thousand safeguards. The modern translations of the Bible attest to that, for even within two years there will be versions with differing translations, errors, typos, mistakes in meaning or scholarship. Think of the monks who made copies of the Bible before the printing press; again, they had concrete copies, and yet if you look at old Bibles, you will see scholars marking “Copyist error” in the margin… And that is when they had an older version to copy-check again.

Or how about some of the earlier mass produced Bibles? There was a copy with the Commandment “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery” that was mass produced in the 17th century, only 30 years before the King James version was officially published.

So tell me again that there were no errors in the oral histories, and again I will find more evidence to show that wishful line of thinking will not hold.

How about even the word “history”? Certainly in the times of the Roman Empire, history was a much more sinuous beast, harder to catch, harder to pin down. People did not write down history as we understand the term, history was an idea, was morals and fables, not so much “writing down an accurate account of what happened.” What we call history today is more often viewed in the tax records of the time, or the census records, birth and death certificates, than it is in things that people wrote down — for what people wrote down and what happened are often at odds, and you can see what happened far more in the number of troops reported dead at some location than you can with some historian writing down about the battle. A historian may have written down that it was a great victory, where the death toll was nearly equal on both sides. This is two knives, not just a double edged sword; at work here is the fact that history was the lessons (in this case, the lesson of “we are so much better than x barbarian tribe), and also the fact that history is, was, and will be often written by the victors. In the global world we live in, it is becoming less so, and underdogs tell their tale to fanfare in these days more than ever before, but the principle still stands.

Reza Aslan wrote about this in greater length and with more gravitas than I can–though if you don’t trust Aslan, you can check with any historian who specializes in the centuries around year 0 and you will find similar messages.

So what was written down in the Bible, even when it was close to the events that happened (and you must remember that the earliest gospels were at the very minimum written in 70AD, 40 years after the death of Christ) likely weren’t written with a mind for exactly what happened. They would have been written with a mind for teaching the lessons of Christ, and if those lessons were of humility and sacrifice, well… The events of his life were certainly a great parallel. Almost a perfect parallel. One might say they were perfect for teaching the lessons of his ministry, and by gosh, we’ve come full circle. Again.

I am not calling into question the lessons they taught, as they are certainly good lessons. I am calling into account the historical veracity of the Bible. The YECs may be the only faction to take the Old Testament as historical fact (or as absolute historical fact, as in a 6000 year old world created in exactly 6 days, and with genealogies that can be traced back to Adam), but most people believe the life of Jesus was reliably written down.

It wasn’t. Depending on the details you are viewing, many traditions were in the Bible that were not present at any other time. The tradition of freeing a single prisoner during passover? Find me another reference to that outside of the Bible. Or, even taking that tradition as fact, what about freeing Barabus instead of Jesus? Were there only two prisoners? When given the choice of a rabble rouser (Jesus) and a serial killer (Barabus), wouldn’t they just vote to release no one at all?

Or what about the trial before Pilate? Pilate is recorded by history as having signed so many death warrants without having even so much as read the name on them that a formal complaint against him was lodged with Rome. The crime for which Jesus was condemned, Sedition, wasn’t even a crime for which you would have been given a trial. If you were said to be guilty of sedition, it was off to the cross with you, no questions asked. And during the Passover, when tensions were already heightened? The idea of Jesus having an audience with Pilate is almost silly.

I think I’ve belabored that point extensively enough. The idea is that the Bible can’t be taken as historical fact, as it had a political fact from over a thousand years before it would even have been recognized as a cohesive book, as the Bible you know.

So the people who decide what was meant by these stories? What allegories and laws and ideas and histories and world views should be taught? That adulterers should be stoned, that it is OK to kill an abortion doctor, that homosexual sex is a sin, that Jesus would support this or that idea… Those are what you have discovered two or three thousand years separated from the person who originally came up with what you are reading. Who is to say you learned the lessons they even wanted to teach?

For those reading between the lines in the Old Testament to come up with meanings that aren’t there in a plain reading of the text, I’d like you to step back and read this story, told colloquially (I can find no reference for it aside from a newspaper clipping, so it is at best anecdotal).

When asked about the themes and morals in his book Hatchet (part of the Life of Brian series), Gary Paulsen said that he was happy that so many people have gotten so much out of his book, but that he didn’t write it with all of these themes and morals in mind. He just wanted to tell a good story.

With that in mind, how can anyone today say that it is they that have the themes of the Bible correct? That they have interpreted them correctly, when billions of Christians who came before them with likely billions of differing interpretations have obviously gotten them wrong? That is it you who knows exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke the parable of the mustard seed, when it is a completely nonsensical parable unless it is explained to you?

Again, I do not want to shake your faith or your morals, but I want you to be careful what you claim you know. You don’t know it any better than I do, and believing that someone is going to hell because they believe differently than you is condemning everyone who isn’t you to hell, because chances are their beliefs differ in some core way from yours, but you haven’t had a conversation with everyone in your congregation, and who knows what is going on in your pastor’s head. He can’t tell you one tenth of what he is thinking in all of his sermon’s combined, so who knows where you differ from him? Where your core beliefs, something you completely disagree on based on some word of Jesus or another, may shake your relationship to the core–if you ever knew.

Just some things to think about.