Correlation vs Causation (2015 edition, Part 1)

I think I may have used this title for a blog post before, but I’ll bet I spelled it differently, thus it is COMPLETELY UNIQUE.

In any case, this specific post is in relation to this article, whose author claims to know what has New Atheists all up in a tizzy. I — it is difficult to know where to start. Going through the article from top to bottom has proven surprisingly lacking in usefulness. I am going to start with a line that the author got amazingly correct, and I assure you, by reading context it was obviously accidental.

“In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values.” That is perfectly correct. I am an atheist. I am also a liberal. Further to that, I also believe science holds the answers to many questions over which religion attempts to claim absolute dominion. That being the case, and all of that being true, I would still never say my atheism led me to science, that my science led me to being liberal, or any other iterations of that web. These are independent areas of my life.

What led me to losing God was the inability of Christians to answer my questions. For my long time readers, you will remember (I hope) that I am still open to returning to the fold, should I receive satisfactory answers to so many of my questions. If you want to bring me back to the Light, I’d recommend starting with my blog post from yesterday, and answering what it is that would allow for men and women to be born with psychopathy; a complete lack of empathy, and almost no morals to speak of built into them. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Back to the core point, though; why should my atheism ever be brought into the conversation when we are talking about human rights, or politics, or anything else? I do not support human rights because I am atheist, in the same way I hope your religion is not the only reason you support human rights. Were I to show incontrovertible proof that God did not exist, would you immediately support torture programs? To flip that, if you were to show me incontrovertible proof that God does exist, it would not affect my life. I like to live a good life, give to charities where I can afford it, show empathy to those in pain. That would not change, God or no, and even I would not accuse the average person, saying thus: “You are only moral because of God!”

So why is it so easy for so many Evangelical Christians to say “You support eugenics because you are an Atheist?”

That brings me, then, to the title. Atheists have done some awful things in the past. They have said some awful things. So have Christians. For some reason, many Evangelical Christians are oddly comfortable with saying “Stalin was an atheist, and look at what he did,” but will completely reverse their stance when you say “The Pope was a Christian, and look at the Spanish Inquisition!”

“Obviously,” they reply, “That Pope was a bad Christian.” Or, another tack, “We’ve made mistakes, but we’re better now!” They are allowed to say this, but when I say “I am in no way related to Stalin, I do not support Stalin’s views and methods, and I do not follow some core doctrine of atheism,” I am accused of at least one of several things. The first is the odd accusation of “If you don’t believe in God, how can you believe in anything! If you don’t believe in anything, you will believe everything!” (I think that is one of Eric Hovind’s favorite quotes.) I am accused of being some kind of passive atheist, that if I don’t have some kind of leadership in my beliefs, I can, again, believe in anything. That I am subject to my own whims. That my violent, baser nature can be curbed only by God, and that (this next one is a little bit hyperbole) I am a murderer waiting to happen because I don’t have God in my life to stop me.

I will concede that, as an atheist, there is no higher power to stop me from killing a hundred people then myself. There is no afterlife, no eternity in hell. That being said, what about Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre? In the name of God those men and women died. Oh, a corrupted version of God, not any recognizable form of Christianity, but that leads me to my next point.

People have been good in the past without God, and people have been evil in the past with God. Going into the future, people will do good in the name of God, and in the future people will do good in the name of humanity.

But that’s the rub; if someone supports eugenics, there seems to be some press to put a religious spin on it. But it can exist completely independent of religion. While you may have a block that prevents this thought from occurring to you, I would like to walk you through a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where there is no cancer. We never found a treatment for it, it just went away. There is no ALS, there is no Huntington’s disease. Not one person is born with Down’s Syndrome, not one person born with a deformity. The average life expectancy is pushing 100 years, and in the later stages of life a 95 year old is easily as spry and active as a 55 year old today.

This is all easily achievable in two generations, by my own layman’s estimation. All it requires is some light selective breeding on the part of humans. Maybe a taste of Eugenics.

Do I support eugenics? No, not personally. That being said, independent of religion, I understand that the benefits of it could be vast.

So why does an article like the above linked exist? Why is it that anyone today is allowed to say “Well, Haekel was an atheist, therefore everything he said and did was done and said because of his atheism”?

The author continues, hitting another accidental mark if only because of phrasing, “When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union.” (Emphasis mine.)

I can say “I am murdering you for science!” I could say that, and it would be meaningless. Equally meaningless were Stalin’s plans, his policies, where he tried to back them with science. Where Haekel claimed that “… Other races are inferior scientifically,” he produced no evidence. He had no scientific standing.

His statement held as much water under scrutiny, an EQUAL AMOUNT, to when Jim Jones said “I do this because God told me to.” There is no evidence, no backing. No reason to take that statement as anything other than the idle personal speculations of a man who did not have the data he required (or had a surplus of crazy, as the case may be). Was Haekel an atheist? Yes. Were there racist atheists? Yes. But, and this may surprise you, there were also racist Christians. Please, keep yourself calm, these types of revelations can change your world–but it’s OK, everything will settle down with time.

The funny thing is that while Haekel baselessly claimed his racism had scientific backing, the Christian racists backed their racism in various Old Testament verses. Some of them believe that skin color (specifically, darker skin color) may even be the Mark of Cain! (And before you tell me that it is only Mormons who believe that, my Catholic Grandfather will preach the same idea to his death, I am sure.) And yet, so many seem blind to the apparent blatant cognitive dissonance.

The article linked is very long, and there is a lot to cover yet — and I will, again, put Part 1 up and then never follow up. There is much more to be said, and I hope I find time to say it all.

The Way Things Are

“Don’t worry, guys! I am writing a series! I won’t take a 1 week break!” And it wasn’t even a lie, because I accidentally took 2.5 weeks off. Goood times.

Some days, my head is in worse condition than others, and while this blog has generally been my own personal self-therapy, I just couldn’t make myself write. It isn’t even that I haven’t been writing, I have just been so unsatisfied with what I was writing that I couldn’t bear to publish it. Also, I hate that WordPress moved the settings and options to the left when it used to be on the right.

As Facebook has proven, the smallest changes cause the most irrational anger, for at least a week or two, then everything is ok again. Well, theoretically–I’ve been using the left side bar for a few weeks now, and I still hate it.

My complaining aside, I couldn’t actually publish a post without content, and Creation Today hosted a blog post that was everything I have been talking about since I started this blog, but inverted. I tried to find the original version of that post (pingbacks are the heart of blogging) but it seems to be hidden somewhere.

Onto the meat, though, in that this is a very intelligent writer who, unfortunately, seems very prone to literal application of rhetoric. The part that irked me so was his understanding of morality, and his literal application of “Stardust shooting holes in stardust.” If you’ve not read it, I believe he is referencing the legendary quote by Carl Sagan that “We are all star stuff,” so shooting each other should have no bounds in morality–but this shows a complete lack of understanding in evolutionary morality. I really wanted to link to the source article because I had hoped that it would give my article even the smallest chance of being read by the original author–I think he is capable of critical thought, the switch is just stuck in the off position.

Again, in the off chance that he may read this post some day, I will explain morality from a purely scientific standpoint (though Sam Harris has done it better, in his own militant New Atheist kind of way). Dawkins has also tackled the issue more indirectly, though it is a vein of silver that runs through all of his books and ideas.

The short version is this: evolution is about survival. Our world is complicated and difficult to survive in. Therefore, to maximize chance for survival, we must live in groups. To live in groups, we must have something akin to a ruleset of morality. Throughout the over 3 billion year history of evolution, most, but not all, immorality has been thrown out. That being said, there are some glaring oversights in evolution’s wide scope, and I think they prove evolution rather than prove morals inscribed upon our soul by an Almighty God.

The first is sexual infidelity. Males are generally more susceptible to this, and evolution explains it very well where “morals placed upon our soul by God” does not. If God put these morals in our soul, why are so many so quick to violate them? Why are clergymen prey to them so easily? Why would God write such a power of lust into us that it overrides the morals He put into us?

Evolution explains it well, and it even explains why males tend to be more susceptible. Women are susceptible, too, but to a lesser extent. Women are only capable of reproduction during a certain percentage of the time, a relatively small percentage–and once successful reproduction has occurred, they are unable to reproduce continually while pregnant. For a woman, instinctually, it is preferable to have a male counterpart who will remain present to assist in the upbringing of a child. Males, however, are capable of almost constant reproduction from the time they hit puberty until the time they die, and evolution wants them to. If they could impregnate 1000 women, their progeny would almost guarantee the survival of his genes. For a man, successful reproduction is less about caring for a single offspring as is it is about having enough offspring that (to quote an American colloquialism) their genes are “Too big to fail.”

To that end, men’s eyes wander, searching for more potential mates.

It is not a romantic notion, I have to agree. That being said, it explains why men and women must fight with their own sexual urges, rather than merely relying on God given morality. Science explains our sins, if sins they be, where religion just raises at least one further question: Why did God do such a hack job of making moral humans?

Oh, you can quote The Fall, the Curse of Sin all you want–the reason that argument does not hold water for long is simple: if God is omniscient, He knew humans would eat of the tree before He created humans… And yet He created us in the Garden, by the Tree anyway? That is a parent leaving a 15 year old at home alone, saying “Don’t go into the liquor cabinet, which we’ve left unlocked, and that you can reach easily!” And, of course, with similarly predictable results.

Now we move on to the Monkeysphere. For those not familiar with it, it is currently the modern distillation of Dunbar’s Number, which describes the number of people in your life that you are capable of truly caring about. Before you get up in arms, saying I can’t put a number on such a thing, describe to me your reaction to the thought (or, if it has happened, the event) of your mother dying. Now describe to me your thought of, say, Bill O’Reilly dying. I’ll bet one is outright anguish, and the other is… Well, I suppose that depends on your political leanings. The point is this; if our morals are universal, granted by God, what is it that should cause me to care more about my dogs than, say, cousin Chuck who lives in Albuquerque? (Oh yes, I know about your cousin Chuck!)

The answer, again, lies in evolution. As before, we are programmed to survive in groups by our survival instincts, but we evolved only to live in groups about 100 large. In a world of universal love impressed upon my soul by God, why should I cry more for the death of my cat than I did for the 200,000 who died in the Indonesian Tsunami of 2005? Cry more for the ills felt by my dog than for the 800,000 who were left homeless and starving? And before you call me callous or cruel, did you cry? What was your reaction to 9/11, if you were old enough to have truly been aware of it? I am sure it was a bit of stunned shock, but not nearly so much as the stunned shock you felt when your first pet died. If you never had a pet, then the death of a beloved family member. If you have never felt either of those losses, wait–they will come, and you will realize that love is not universal, it cannot be, by the limits set upon our human brains by evolution.

I think I’ve covered this in implication, but I’d like to cover it explicitly. The author writes “Some will then go on to argue that right and wrong is just what is beneficial to society. But why is benefiting society right?”

The reason is this: the entire goal of evolution is survival of the species. Through 3 billion years of mixing genetic code (FOR SCIENCE!) evolution has come to the conclusion that survival depends on more than just you and your monkeysphere. Protecting the survival of the gene is the highest order goal of evolution, therefore evolution has programmed into us a sense of empathy. The thing about evolution is that while it is masterful at what it does, genetics is complicated enough that other things slip through the cracks; psychopathy, sociopathy, people simply lacking in empathy, a callous disregard for the well being of other humans independent of the above conditions… I can explain those, using both recessive genes and large numbers, allowing for undesirable traits to continue to replicate. The most unfortunate part is how our empathy does not just allow for replication of undesirable traits, but how our empathy enables it. I am not here to preach for the application of Eugenics, my own personal sense of empathy would never allow for it, but the coldly logical part of my brain does realize that the human race could be drastically improved by … Well, if I complete that sentence I know it will be held against me, despite my not agreeing with it.

The funny thing is how much evolution is often in conflict with the teachings of the Bible. Homosexuality is an easy one, a low hanging fruit for me to grasp, and wow–that sentence got weird quickly. In any case, there is evidence that homosexuality may exist at the gene level. This next part is hilarious to me; the stance of the Church that homosexuality is a choice, and the idea that they can be forced to be heterosexual, is basically allowing the homosexual gene to not just propagate in the species, but spread and grow. I’d be willing to bet the percentage of the homosexual population in the Church is a growing statistic, though I don’t have that number.

Man, if it turns out definitively that homosexuality is genetic, and the Church has been forcing homosexuals to reproduce against their instincts… Man, the Church will have so much egg on its face.

“There is no logic behind this, because there is no explanation as to why benefiting society is the correct thing to do.” No, Mr Writer, that is not true — and even a cursory reading of only the most popular books on evolution (A great place to start, as always, is “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins. It is a book purely on science, lacking most of his later vitriol) will show you that even in the 1970s we had an idea of why benefiting society is a personal benefit to the survival of the entire species. We don’t just know, at this point, we’ve plumbed those depths at length.

“But what about the atheist? If it was simply stardust blowing holes in stardust, then what reason is there to cry? What reason is there to demand justice?” Oh dear, we are getting deep into the rabbit hole now, aren’t we, Alice? Most atheists witnessing a random murder will not cry, I will give you that, but shock and horror, disgust, and empathy for the victim? Those, certainly, we will feel at witnessing this–for we have empathy as well as you do. The only difference is that varying strengths of empathy, various emotional dispositions are easily explained by evolution, where I have never heard of a good reason why a psychopath should exist in a world where morals and emotions are impressed upon our soul by God.

To clarify, a psychopath will often have no empathy at all, their actions have no mental repercussions. They are not someone who made poor choices and ended up doing something awful–they were born without the ability to understand why what they do is awful. Did God just miss them? Forget to give them morals? Some serial killers who turned out to be psychopaths, who killed 10 people, each of those with 50 friends and family to mourn their losses… God just forgot to give them morals like the rest of us, and because of that a rough guess at 500 lives being ruined? Explain that.

I can explain it through evolution, but can you explain it through God?

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?

A Monkey Wrench in the Gears

I was reading this blog post that was discussing religion and morality and came across a term I hadn’t heard before. It is called Hedonic Calculus, and is designed to weight the happiness an action will bring into the world.

“AHA!” I thought to myself. “This is it! This is someone else who thought exactly like I do!”

It seems I was overly optimistic, because my own human emotions get in the way of my motto (I am sure most of my readers know it, but it is to bring more happiness into the world than I take out of it). The very first example given was that of two sinking ships. One contains your family, one contains a rock star. By Hedonic Calculus, of course, one is required to save the rock star. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized Hedonic Calculus would require, for example, that I support Justin Bieber in whatever it is that Justin Bieber does, for it makes a huge number of people happy — sort of. If you go deeper, Justin Bieber’s antics make me sad, and I would imagine the antics of daughters taking part in #CutForBieber or #DrunkForBieber counts as sadness. Too many confounding factors.

Talking about Hedonic Calculus, I realize it is very similar to the mathematical system I created for myself that governs a very large portion of my life — but unlike pure Hedonic Calculus, I left in an error margin for my own emotions because … Well, one way or another humans are emotional creatures. And again, I ended up jumping down into the giant cave that is morality, with a new tool on my belt–perhaps this time I could get deeper.

One field that is contained in Hedonic Calculus (it is more formal than I tend to be in my theoretical mathematics of sociology) is purity, described as the probability that it will not be followed by feelings of the opposite kind. To use an example from the linked Rational Wiki page with a slight twist for my own purposes, an orgy will make you feel happy or give you pleasure, but once it is over many people in the general populace will feel shame. Very low purity score, then.

To apply that to my own example of Justin Bieber, his antics may make 10-15 year old girls (is that his target demographic? I am not hip to what the jive kids are doing these days…) happy, but when their parents punish them for whatever stupid hashtag 4chan has popularized today, they will feel sadness. Liking Justin Bieber has a very low purity score, then! And it is true that he is a bad person, because now math says so! Though I won’t lie, Justin Bieber’s “Extent” score would be quite high, and that is sad, because that doesn’t change the fact that he is pretty much awful.

That being said, for anyone who says science can have no bearing on morals, I think Hedonic Calculus (not to be confused with hedonistic calculus, which is a whole different bag of dangly bits) puts at least a partial lie to that. The values may be somewhat arbitrary, but they are based on happiness. Is it a mature morality? Probably not; nothing absolute is ever mature. The world is not black and white, no matter how much math you throw at it. That being said, it is definitely something to think about.

Morality

I have engaged in the international time waste that is the Facebook debate for as long as there have been people to debate on Facebook. I don’t know that debate is the proper term, the discussions seldom follow rules, and there is often a disconnect between the participants that prevents meaningful discussion. Recently, I was engaged in a discussion that spanned some 23 pages of text. It was sparked by this article advocating the repeal of drunk driving laws.

(A transcript of the discussion is available here. At over 16,000 words, it should kill a solid portion of your day.)

A topic that came up over and over and over again was morality. I am not moral philosopher, and when I do give my opinions on morality it should be interpreted as the opinions of a lay person. I didn’t make that clear enough during the discussion and it came back to bite me. That being said, if I were to offer the most succinct version of my own morals, it would be a morality leaning moral relativist. That is, at best, disingenuous; going back to elementary school lessons, I have just used a word to define itself.

People fear moral relativism, because it relies on the morality of the person using it. “Well, if I kill him quickly, it would be less bad than killing him slowly. By moral relativism, killing him quickly is moral.” I just made your argument for you, no reason to make that argument in the comments unless you really want to. That’s the point, though, and the point so few people want to address; morality is deeper than a single layer paradigm. (Sorry about the words there, that sounded douchey, but please let me explain.)

Many would claim to be Biblical moral absolutists, that the Bible, being the height of all moral teaching, should be adhered to in all things. That being said, when you ask them about some of the Bible’s less tenable teachings… Well, they will say they would jump if God said jump, right up until they saw the cliff. That tells you that they are not Biblical moral absolutists, they are … Something more complicated.

In the same way, a moral relativist may not be able to draw binding lines in the stone and say “I will do all that lies between these lines and nothing else,” but there is some other moral judgment at work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that my motto, my creed, my life goal, and a piece of short philosophy that defines many of my choices is the idea that “I will bring more happiness into the world than I take out of it.”

While it may not contain any explicitly moral content, a friend has been teaching me (with great resistance) to read more than what words say. When I am presented with a moral choice, then, I have to weigh things in the case of many decisions. Some are concluded before ever reaching my conscious mind (will raping this person bring more happiness into the world right now?), and get resolved before the question is ever asked — but even then, something in my subconscious has to have a bearing for this choice, so I assume somewhere in my brain these questions are answered.

Moral gray areas are much harder to resolve, as the debate referenced above pointed out in great detail. It ended up as an argument hinging on what I am going to call moral chaos theory versus moral order theory. The other participants may disagree, but let me explain.

My argument is something akin to moral chaos theory; letting a drunk driver into a driver’s seat begins a chain of events that could lead to the death of a person or people, and the irreversible alteration of an untold number of lives. By this chain, I could be indirectly responsible for the loss of happiness of hundreds of people, or a thousand people, even if they never saw my hand in it. If I extend that idea to the Police force, their not enforcing drunk driving laws is similar; by allowing drunk drivers on the road, they may end up indirectly responsible for untold numbers of drunk driving related accidents. Therefore, by my own personal moral chaos theory (I still find that to be an over simplification, but it at least illustrates a picture), allowing drunk driving is immoral.

Moral order theory, while again a term lacking in the required depth, is somewhat akin to that preached by my discussion partner(s). This morality theory does not plumb as deeply, though that is disingenuous (DAMN YOU, KYLE! My realization that words suck is your fault!). In any case, his approach was that of the fact that potential harm is irrelevant and shouldn’t be weighed against the real harm done by a police officer enforcing the law. The irony is that despite what became a very heated discussion, I believe our morals (my opponent and myself) would align in most cases.

The point I am trying to make here is a point as old as words themselves; trying to reduce a human being, in all of their complexity, down to a single word, or a single sentence–that is impossible. Trying to describe my morals would take a book larger than any written, and taking longer to write than the lifespan of the universe. The thing is, while morals may boil down further and further, they lose integrity as they are simplified.

Morality is more than your religion. It is more than your upbringing. It is more than your genetics.

And do you know what? For all of history, humans have fought to prove who is the most moral. “Killing in the name of peace,” is something that probably doesn’t sound unfamiliar to most reading this.

And yet… Here we are. I got in a heated argument to prove my morals were better.

I am a monster.

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.

A Personal Kind of Excuse

Edit: Happy 100th post everyone!!!

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians — they are so unlike your Christ.” -Mahatma Ghandi

“With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, you need religion.” -Steven Weinberg

“I’d like to think that, thanks to my intelligence, I make very few mistakes… But when I do make mistakes, they tend to be legendary.” -Me

The above three quotes tie together so well that it almost seems some kind of magic, even some kind of miracle. I don’t think that is an accident; the quote I gave from myself is one I tend to use as a talisman to ensure I retain some level of humbleness; it is when I think I am right most often that I make the worst mistakes (I once made a mistake so legendary it made the news, though thankfully my name was removed from the story). This is not anything to do with religion, this is to do with being a human, but it ties back so often to religion and to war that I felt it important to include it as a counterbalance to the Weinberg and Ghandi quotes.

Carl Jung, a great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of the early 20th century, has been quoted (and the quote slightly varies, but the idea is always the same) as having said “I do not need to believe [in God], I know [God exists]!” This is the type of knowledge that leads to mistakes that can end up being legendary. “In the fullness of time,” writes Sam Harris, “One side of this debate will really win and one side will really lose.” It is in this vein that I try, as best as I am able, to never make an absolute statement with regards to religion.

I will fully admit, of course, that my own brand of intelligence has led me to lose my belief in God, but I would never say “there is no God.” That being said, I am comfortable saying the following: “There is probably no God, and if there is, he/she/it is probably not of the Christian variety.” If I am wrong, and both of those statements turn out wrong (and I am comfortable saying I cannot know the truth until I die), then I am comfortable admitting that I have made a mistake that was, in fact, more grand in scope than I could ever imagine in this life. Perhaps, I am open to thinking, there is something to the Christian religion, and to the fact that I may burn in hell for the things I have come to believe about the world and nature.

That being said, many of my beliefs in nature align with Christian beliefs, though that word was chosen carefully and advisedly. Belief and practice are often two very different things, as any public atheist tends to learn in the fullness of time. It is very few, the number of atheists that have not been told they will burn in hell, or that they should die, or that they are (quoting a letter sent to Richard Dawkins) “Only alive because my God commands me not to kill.”

Perhaps it is my naive reading of the Bible that has made me come to this conclusion, but I would think that wishing a person dead is in direct breach of Matthew 5:27-28, which states that, in part, “Any man who has looked at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It is in my own naivete that I believe this is a broader commandment, one that charges Christians to keep a pure mind, not only with respect to adultery but with respect to all of the core commandments. This is, again in my mind, bore out by the fact that one of the core commandments states that thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods; this is not just saying “thou shalt not steal,” but is further saying “thou shalt not think about stealing.”

I think the Golden Rule really needs to be more prominently on display in the Bible, and in the hearts of its readers. I really think that sending hate mail, no matter how justified you feel, is in breach of this rule. I think hating, or in any way persecuting homosexuals, is in direct breach of this rule. I think there are greater moral teachings than the Golden Rule, though it is very good, but like an artist with a block of clay, I work with what I am given. Much in the same way, now that I think about it, an apologist or Christian works with their own block of clay. There are parts of the Bible that no person can say are moral (or if you do, you are looking through some heavily tinted sunglasses), but they are there, so we work through them, all of us, even non-Christians.

Oh, but how do non-Christians deal with the Bible? I would ask the “witches” of Salem, whose belief or nonbelief in God did not matter. I would ask the “heretics” in the middle east for the hundreds of years that the Crusades lasted. I would ask the hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, whose delicate flesh got in the way of the Inquisitor’s hammer (That’s how that worked, right? The Inquisitors were Godly men, and thus never meant to hurt anyone, these people just happened to get in the way. By accident.).

If these examples are too archaic, then how about the Scopes trial of 1925, where science was denied in the very name of God? Or the more recent Vashti McCollum trial of 1948, where her family was ostracized, her children bullied, her name sullied for years. Is that recent enough?

I am not here to bash religion, but I am certainly not above bashing things that are done in the name of Christianity.

If we want to go even more recent, even today Teach the Controversy is being forced (or, at the very least pushed) upon a barely aware populace. The numbers from Gallup and Pew as to the scientific literacy of the United States of America are almost stunning to those outside of the country, and they seem to correlate with increasingy fundamental beliefs in certain areas of the country, rather than more progressive beliefs and education.

There is no “controversy” among the scientific populace, except perhaps between proponents of kin selection versus proponents of group selection, but even then it is a debate that is being solved by evidence and ideas.

The Scopes Trial, or the Vashti McCollum incident could have been gentle non issues; if you would treat an atheist like you would treat any other brother or sister in Christ, history would barely remember her. She would be referenced in court cases, and would certainly have a place in constitutional history, but who remembers the names of the people who pressed for constitutional amendments? No, I doubt seriously that I would be accutely familiar with (or even have heard) the name Vashti McCollum in a truly Christian world, where people practiced truly Christian beliefs.

But in a human world? Perhaps, perhaps I would have, and indeed, I have.

This is the point where you may say “AHA! You admit that being human is the problem! Well, Christianity allows us to transcend our baser instincts!” I am sorry for using a Straw Man in this case; very few people will speak to me of religion face-to-face, so I am forced to use hypothetical readers. I would like to think I am not an obnoxious atheist, but I am passionate where it comes to eliminating human suffering, so I may get more heated than I would like whenever someone defends their bigotry with the Bible… That being said, I must reiterate, I am not here to take religion away, I am here to take away the evil/bad parts of religion, and I will stay the course to that end. Worded another way, I do not want to debate, I want to discuss.

Now, off of that tangent, we are back to speaking about humans and their base instincts. I do not think it is a prevalent belief that women should be murdered wholesale, but why do you think the people of Salem held the witch trials? I do not believe they were evil people, I believe they were good people who did evil things out of fear and superstition–and they used their Bible as the justification.

It is not humanity that is evil, and it is not Christianity that is evil, but this is a case of chemistry taking two things, putting them together in a beaker, and the result is often ugly. To parallel that with something in the real world, I like mentos, and I like Diet Coke (get off my lawn, it still tastes good!!!), but I know that taking a mentos followed by a shot of diet coke is going to end poorly.

This goes back to a point I’ve made before; if we separate religion from our personal image of ourselves, we can transcend this negative interaction. If I say to you “The Bible preaches many evil things, among the good things,” your first reaction should not be one of indignation or hurt; that is a sure sign that the chemical reaction of religion/humanity is curdling your soul. If you ever defend bigotry using the Bible, that is a sure sign that the chemical reaction of religion/humanity is curdling your soul.

If, however, you admit that the Bible has a dark side, and that we can transcend it, but that religion is ultimately a force that allows you to surpass your own baser nature? I will be on your side. I will help you find Bible verses that support you. I will celebrate and trumpet your religion, but you have your humanity in one beaker and your religion in another, and you understand that they can compliment each other, but should perhaps not be directly mixed.

A moralist who takes the good of the Bible and throws out the bad has an incredibly sturdy foundation. That being said, a moralist is perfectly capable of being moral without using the Bible as their foundation, and that should be recognized, too.

We all have different ways of transcending our own personal flaws. Some use religion, though many in different ways. Some use the love of Jesus as a guide to loving thy neighbor; some use the fear of hell. These are two very different things, and I should hope that even the most die-hard Christian can see that. Some do not use religion; for me, it is my empathy. I do not believe in your God, but even so I believe in being moral and loving to those around us. I believe this should extend to the planet we live on, to those who do not share our beliefs, to those who do not share our opinions, to the animals around us. An issue I have taken with many Christians is that their Bible (and their personal beliefs) often do not extend to the protection of animals–but that, I will admit, is only a minor complaint in the big picture.

To summarize, perhaps, using the same example I’ve used before of the pastor who said he’d be a murderer if not for Jesus… You know what? If that is what it takes for you to be moral, ok, I’ll accept. The issue I take with that pastor is that he takes the Bible wholesale; he has the superiority complex that comes of one of the Chosen, he believes all people must be Christian, he believes that Muslims are the height of evil. Those are not moral beliefs, and I have a problem with his religion. His personal religion.

Do I have a problem with all Christians? Certainly not. I have a problem with the immoral Christians.

If you are Christian, I am going to ask you to take a look into yourself and ask not “What does the Bible tell me,” but “Am I doing unto others as I would have them do unto me?”

To bring out a tired example, if homosexuality were the norm and being heterosexual were punishable by ostracism (in progressive places) or death (in less progressive places), would you think anyone should have the right to decide what you do in the privacy of your own home when both parties are completely consenting? No one is harmed by your heterosexuality, you reason, and yea; no one even needs to know you are heterosexual. It has no bearing on anything outside of your love of your husband or your love of your wife.

“Hey Jim, have you finished your homosexual accounting?”

“No, Charles, I did heterosexual accounting.”

“Why’d you tell me that? Now we have to fire you.”

I should hope we all find the above conversation, regardless of our religious views, ridiculous. And that’s the whole point.

So, to beat home what I have said many times on this blog, let’s all be moral, regardless of our background. If only 10% of us would choose to live that way, the world would be a better place within the week.