On death (recycled)

2014/01/23

This is a repost of a comment I made back in September 2012 over at Dale McGowan’s excellent blog, The Meming of Life. It was in response to his request for thoughts about how atheists deal with death. I repost it here because I’m very proud of it and want to share it with you, but also because it’s a good lead-in to another thought, which I’ll post in a few days. I start this post with the question Dale posed. It was part of his research for the book that is now out, Atheism for Dummies. I encourage you to go to his blog and read the other responses – there were several thought-provoking contributions.

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

My answer:

For me, there are just a few very important things:

1. Not thinking about it. Is that shallow? Not really: my live is lived entirely when I am alive, so I should be working on living well rather than worrying about death.

2. Avoid death. Is that cowardly? Not really: I try to cultivate healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones, so that I can live as long and as fully as possible. (I agree with you, Dale – in general I’m against death.)

3. Think cosmically. Is that cerebral? I don’t care. Does the idea of *only* a hundred years getting you down? Quarks and other tiny particles bubble in and out of existence in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. Wonder what will be left of you in a million years? All the hydrogen in your body has been hydrogen for the entire 13+ billion year history of the universe, and will be until it is fused into more complex and interesting elements in the hearts of some ages-distant future star. The little points of light you see in the sky have been travelling to your eyes for hundreds or millions of years, only to be absorbed by the rods in your eyes, ending as ephemeral impressions in your visual cortex.

4. Suffer. Is that cold? Well, perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt much to hurt a little at the thought of death. I don’t know if it’s good for you to feel that pain, but at least it doesn’t kill you. Think of it this way: being afraid of death is, at least in part, simply the flip side of being in love with life. And that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day (until I can find a better deal).

Something deeper

2014/01/04

Today’s Calgary Herald has an interesting piece on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but it’s not something I’m inclined to fuss about just now.

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, the smartphone that I use for podcast listening on my commute, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I tend to get stuck in computer games when there are people I could be visiting with. (I should also point out that it’s within a framework of humanist values that I fight such tendencies in myself.) I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

The Christmas break has been a good reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give this year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game - a gift that, itself, will encourage socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with people to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not feel that religious beliefs resonate with them.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is (obviously) a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. Odds are, you do to: have a look around. Join a Meetup group (or start your own). Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Five Christmas gifts for doubters.

2013/12/24

From Why Evolution is True, I’ve learned of a curious Christmas gift that William Lane Craig is offering to atheists: Five reasons why God exists.

There are several responses already – my favorite for its philosophical rigour is Richard Carrier’s.

My take tonight is somewhat different. Rather than a rebuttal of Craig’s points – something I couldn’t do as well as Carrier anyway – I’d like to offer a Friendly Humanist’s gift to William Lane Craig, and to any people out there who are honestly doubting the existence of God.

So here are my Five reasons it is safe to question your beliefs. (Mainly aimed at religious believers, but the premise should work for any belief.)

1. Morality

It seems that many people fear or distrust nonbelief because it lacks the anchor of religious morality. I’m not going to get into how rusty and unreliable that anchor is – this is an uplifting Christmas gift, not a rant.

So just consider this: if, in fact, there is no god, then every good deed people have done, every uplifting principle, every act of compassion and moral progress, has come from people. So, if there is no god, then we have within ourselves the resources to be good, to improve our lot, that of our fellow humans, and of other creatures. Follow your reason. If it leads you away from belief in God it will not lead you away from morality. (Nor, if it leads you back into belief, will it lead you away from morality.) Millions of people are good without belief in God. Millions are good with belief in God. It is safe to doubt. It is okay to doubt.

2. Meaning

Similarly, many rely on belief in God for a sense of meaning.

They may fear that, by letting go of the belief in God, they will lose any sense of meaning in their lives. Fear not. Because if there is no god, then all the meaning and inspiration you have ever felt came from you, yourself. Whatever you believe, you cannot destroy the source of meaning. If the source is God, he’ll still be there if you doubt him. If the source is you, you will still be there regardless of your belief or disbelief in God. You may doubt God, but you can still believe in yourself. Millions find meaning in their lives without leaning on belief in supernatural creators. It is okay. It is safe.

3. Love

If you are starting to sense a pattern here, that’s fine. Patterns are everywhere in the universe.

Anyway, what about love? Many people say “God is love” – I’m not always sure, but I think some mean it metaphorically and others literally. Whatever the case, if God-the-person does not exist, that doesn’t change the fact that most people through the ages of human existence have experienced love in some form or other. If you come to believe that God does not exist, that love will not magically vanish. It remains. It is a fact; God is only a theory. (On the other hand, if God does exist, the love remains too.)

Millions of atheists live full lives, with love and all the other emotions and complexities of human living. It is okay: life without god belief is not life without love.

4. Mystery

One of the most puzzling attitudes I sometimes hear from believers is this: that rejection of belief in God is somehow a rejection of the sense of mystery.

This is insane. (Especially under the common belief that God helps explain things.) Its insanity is only exceeded in the claim that science destroys mystery. (These are connected, since atheists and humanists tend to look to science to explain things that religions have historically covered.)

Science is about answering questions, it’s true. But it answers questions from our perspective. Early scientists explained things that we saw all around us: gravity, disease, light, life. The more we learn, the further out the bubble of mystery gets. We’re now learning about minute diseases (viruses and prions), about incredibly distant objects (quasars), and about objects so tiny that they can’t even be called objects any more (quarks, strings, and I don’t know what). No matter how far science pushes back our ignorance, there’s always another “why” or “how” question sitting on the other side. Imagine our knowledge as a bubble. The bubble gets bigger and bigger, but there’s always a vastness of ignorance outside it. And the larger the bubble gets, the more questions we have at our fingertips to poke to the other side.

Anyway, I don’t know if that analogy makes sense. It’s late Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling more than thinking my way through this. I can testify, as a working scientist, that every experiment I run brings up a handful of new questions. (Whether or not that experiment answers the original question I was working on.)

Ask any scientist, and you’re likely to get an answer on the same line.

So, if your belief in God goes away, you will never lack for mysteries to quench your soul with.

5. Community

Okay, the answer here is largely predictable, but it’s worth saying anyway. All the companionship and community you have ever experienced – that was provided by people. If God exists and happened to inspire it, that’s swell. (And I’d venture that any god worth calling “good” wouldn’t take that gift away if you ceased believing in him for good reasons.) If he doesn’t exist, then that support and companionship still happened. It came from the people themselves.

There’s more, though. There are places in the world where, although there is community and love, it is conditional. You need to be part of the tribe. A fellow believer. So yes, some human communities are so broken that they cannot give true, unconditional shelter to those in need. But there are many people, many communities, that do give real support, unconditional acceptance. These include religious people, non-religious people, and folks who don’t worry about the God question one way or the other.

Thanks in large part to the loud, annoying, irrepressible “New Atheists”, there is a growing community, worldwide and locally, online and (in more and more places) offline, of people you can safely share your doubts with, or your newfound disbelief.

I don’t know who is better at it. My experience is that religious and nonreligious people alike are largely accepting of folks, and don’t meter out their friendship based on how alike you are in beliefs.

The point is not who is better at it. The point is that, if you grow away from your belief in God, wherever you end up, there is a place for you to feel safe and wanted in this world. There are thousands of places.

 

Now, in case I didn’t make it clear enough in all of that, this is not a post about why you should become an atheist, or a humanist. It is not a prod to push you away from a belief that you hold dear, or a belief that you are comfortable in.

This is a good-news post. It is for anyone who is doubting but afraid of where doubt might lead them. It is for anyone who is afraid for a friend who is doubting. The message is this: doubt away. Test your beliefs. Try on new ones, keep the old ones – follow your heart and your reason. Do not shy away from what seems true because it seems wicked, or meaningless, or inhospitable. Because it’s not. What is true is true, whether we believe in it or not. Love, meaning, goodness, mystery – these are facts of life, there for anyone to grasp.

So, to all of you out there, believers in gods of all kinds, nonbelievers, doubters and questioners, closeted or jubilantly out, may you have a great solstice season, a merry Christmas, and many more exciting trips around the sun.

Who am I to talk?

2013/12/01

Who am I to talk about this stuff?

What does a lifelong atheist have to offer when many of the key problems we as a secular community face (antagonism, discrimination, psychological scars from childhood indoctrination, etc) are completely alien to me? This post is partly a bit of fretting about my relevance as a blogger, and partly an exploration of what I might have to constructively offer. It begins with a brief summary of my life so far …

I grew up in rural Alberta, one of the more socially and politically conservative regions of Canada. (The ruling party in Alberta’s legislature for the past 42 years has been the Conservative party.) I was extremely lucky. My parents are both much less tradition-bound than the general population. My mother grew up on a farm in England; they met when my dad (a farmer) was on exchange working for her dad. It’s all very romantic. More than that, I’ve always imagined it gives them a slightly wider view of the world than many rural Albertans. Some of whom have never been outside the province, let alone the country.

Anyway, I never had religion pushed on me as a kid. My grandparents were all religious – we would go to the local Anglican church on Christmas Eve every year. We did Christmas, but it was only ever for me a family-gathering, gift-sharing, feasting holiday. Religion’s only hold on it was that relatively indoctrination-free church service. Same for Easter – a secular holiday involving chocolate eggs, a fun bunny myth, and a family gathering. I have even less memory of token church attendance for Easter than for Christmas.

So I grew up without any religious belief. I had friends in school who were religious – mainstream Christians and one or two Mormons – but it was never a point of conflict. Just one of those things. I had a really tall father and a mom who was from England; my friend I.S. was Mormon; S.M. was really good at running; and so on. That sort of thing.

It’s not that I was sheltered from it. I had (perhaps my parents still have) a “Children’s Story Bible”, which I read from once in a while.

I do remember wondering a little about it – this thing that was part of other people’s lives but not mine. But what did religion offer that I really lacked? My parents were very clear about social and ethical precepts – we knew right from wrong, so obviously that didn’t depend on religion (or any sort of deep philosophy). Our extended family and the local community were very supportive and close-knit, so the community-building function of religion wasn’t needed. The story-making role of religion, giving us a sense of where we fit in things, was a no-go: I had way better facts, from being a science nerd, and more enjoyable myths, from consuming science-fiction.

(Not that I believed the sci-fi myths to be true, of course. Just that they were more engaging stories than anything of the religious stories that filtered through to me. Literature, even when one doesn’t believe the stories literally, is a great source of narratives to use for wrapping meaning around the events in our lives.)

I did go through a phase in my early university career where I actively explored religion. Partly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. Although I hadn’t been actively shielded from religious information, neither had I been taught the details as kids from more religious households had been. (Deena still laughs at my ignorance about some passages; I’m still amazed at her capacity to cite scripture, even if it’s largely confined to the headline verses such as John 3:16.) Partly, my exploration was driven by the same curiosity that made me a scientist: “Here’s a popular hypothesis, maybe I should examine it and see if it has some merit.”

I spent a little time identifying as a neopagan. They have some fun symbols, neat rituals, and a generally non-dogmatic approach to what you have to actually *believe* about the whole affair. It was also titillatingly controversial, at least if you read the conservative Christians’ tirades. Admit it: there’s something exciting about being a persecuted minority.

But basically, my background is a very vanilla secular-living-well story with no conversions or de-conversions, no ostracism or recognizable oppression of any kind, no religion-based trauma or excitement. Not even any great teen rebellion.

And here I am, a self-identified humanist, skeptic, and atheist. And it often feels like the people who share these labels – especially the last one – seem overwhelmingly to have come from religious backgrounds. Former-Baptist (eg, Matt Dillahunty). Former-Pentecostal (eg, Jerry DeWitt). Former-Muslim (eg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Former-Jain (eg, Hemant Mehta). Former-Something. People have been harassed, parents have kicked kids out of their homes, people live under death threats, while others are outright killed. All perpetrated by religious people against atheists. Even Richard Dawkins has a story about molestation by a religious figure (though he seems to have suffered more from reactions to how he told the story than from the event itself). There are whole communities dedicated to those who are struggling with their newfound atheism: the Living After Faith blog and podcast, Recovering From Religion, the Clergy Project, and probably loads others that I haven’t even heard of because that’s not my story. (If you know of any, please feel free to list them in the comments.)

Derived from ARIS data

Shifts in religious identity among Americans

By the numbers, the vast majority of atheists in the US come from religious backgrounds. This report seems to support my hunch that, for the UK, the trend is less pronounced, though it looks like a slight majority of current “no-religion” folks still claim some childhood religious identity. (I want to note I was unable to follow through to the original report for the UK link, so I’m interpreting a flashy graphic rather than hard survey numbers.) I suspect that Canadian numbers, if they’re out there, fall somewhere between these two cultural neighbours of ours.

Data from www.brin.ac.uk

Shifts in religious identity among the British

So, having said all that, am I the (metaphorical) white guy lecturing on feminism for minorities? Do I have anything relevant to offer the people in this community, that isn’t already being better provided by someone with more relevant experience?

It’s a question worth asking, and I hope I will always ask it before I condescend to put finger to keyboard. (Linguist’s side-note: Is “put finger to keyboard” an acceptable re-tooling of the old “put pen to paper” idiom? You know what I mean, anyway.) I think there are a couple of answers that can justify this admittedly self-indulgent blogging habit.

First, there are still a few (increasingly many) people like me out there: people who come to humanism/skepticism/atheism not as a reaction to a former state of theirs, but as a recognition of what they have always felt/believed/etc. So, within the wider tent, there is a large contingent of “people who are especially like me”. And perhaps my musings and reflections will seem particularly relevant to them.

Second, for people who continue to work through the fallout of their former beliefs, my story (and the stories of those like me) may be encouraging. This is the end-game that they are working toward: so their children, and future generations, can live lives that are casually and uneventfully religion-free. Lives unscarred by childhood belief in eternal torture, or untenable “moral” commandments.

Third (and most importantly), there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether you come to the humanist community from a nonreligious background or from a lifetime of fervent religious belief, you and I will tend to share values and goals. We want a public space that is free from religious coercion. We want a society that upholds basic secular values (individual rights and liberties, science as a beacon of understanding, etc). We want to promote quality education, discourage bigotry, and enjoy artistic creations that lift the spirit and inspire greatness.

Alright then. My angst is largely assuaged. The fact that I’ve never been a believer doesn’t disqualify me from being able to contribute useful ideas to our community.

Let me know what you think. Are you a formerly-religious person, now identifying as humanist or atheist? Are you a lifelong atheist? What do you think about the content of this blog? Does the material here seem relevant to you? How do you see yourself fitting into the freethinking community in general? What issues are important to you?

Is there anything I haven’t talked about that you would like to read from someone in my position?

Brian and Who?

2013/11/23

Oh, the anticipation! It’s Doctor Who Day (or some such). Matthew Cobb has shared this set of vids. I’m exercising enormous self-control by holding off watching the last one until the other Who-nut in the house is out of a (cruel, evil, inhumane) work meeting online (on a Saturday!). But you – you go watch now, as soon as you can. Here, let me embed it …

Enjoy, all you folks down in Who-ville.

Confessions of a recurring omnivore

2013/11/23

I fall short of my goals and aspirations. It happens all the time. Well, not all the time, but more often than I’d like.

You may remember my announcement, some time ago, that Deena and I were becoming vegetarians.

It was an exciting decision – a visible affirmation of certain values and beliefs that we hold. It was also difficult. It ran against a lifetime of habits – of thought as well as action. It created a distance between us and our non-vegetarian families. It meant relearning how to balance a diet. It meant learning a whole new set of recipes, and abandoning several cherished foods.

Reactions from people we knew were all over the map. Vegetarian and vegan friends congratulated us and helped get us rolling – offering recipes, pointing out web resources, and loaning us books on vegetarianism. Non-vegetarian friends were generally supportive, accepting it as a personal decision (just as we accepted their decision to continue eating meat), rather than as a public condemnation on our part of their meat-eating.*

I remember one exception: a friend once confessed over the phone to “sinning” (her word) because she had eaten meat that day. I think she had a similar inclination toward vegetarianism, but had not yet taken the plunge. I felt that her reaction said as much about her own attitude to meat-eating as it did about any overt condemnation she might have detected from us. I thought of this piece by Dale McGowan. (Just go read it – I’d never be able to summarize it justly.)

Some friends challenged me, probing my decision for inconsistencies. Would you eat a fish? (I’d prefer not – though it doesn’t seem as bad as eating a cow.) An insect? (I have no moral qualms about it – but I have the same ick-reaction that many Westerners have about it.) Simulated meat? (Absolutely – why not?) I really enjoyed this probing, challenging reaction. It meant my friends respected my reasoning, and that they were confident enough in my integrity that I would be willing to change my mind if they could demonstrate a fault in my reasoning.

Family reactions ran the gamut. Some were incredulous: “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” Some were supportive: “Good for you, acting on your values.” Some were mildly resentful: “What does that say about your father, who raises beef cattle?” All of them were understandable; but nevertheless we persevered – even through a visit home for Christmas.

Eventually, though, we reverted. We resumed eating meat and related products (like gelatin). A key reason was to address a pill-resistant low-iron problem. But also, it was just so much easier to include meat in our diet than to exclude it entirely.

Our values have not changed. The idea of animals dying (and, just as important, suffering) for our pleasure and convenience is still distasteful. But for now, we choose to accept that consequence.

What does that mean for our ethical outlook?

Well, I go back to the reason we became vegetarians: to reduce our role in the suffering and death of animals. Clearly, we haven’t achieved that role completely. But we have made progress: we now have some vegetarian dishes we really enjoy, to mix in our weekly menu. So we eat less meat than we used to.

Sure, there is room for improvement. I am not yet living up to my own ideals. But I can live with that. For the moment, I’m working on other aspects of personal development.

I think, since I still dislike the idea of animals dying for me, I will eventually return to being a vegetarian. Perhaps more gradually next time, more sustainably. Check out Greta Christina’s recent take on the same idea here, where she seems to express my own aspirations much more clearly and eloquently than I can.

If I do go totally vegetarian again, I will be more careful about how I communicate the decision to friends and family, to avoid as far as possible any perceptions of condemnation or moral high-horsey-ness. (Though, if I get any of these gems, I will knock them down firmly.)

I’ll let you know how I get along.

Footnote:

* Our transition was helped at the time because we lived in the UK, which has a higher proportion of vegetarians than Canada. There were two vegetarian restaurants near the university I worked at, and real vegetarian options on every menu – not just salads. And people were just more accustomed to knowing vegetarians, and making the slight adjustments in behaviour that it sometimes requires. I don’t know if we’d have managed nearly as well if we’d been back in Calgary.

Guiding in the wrong direction?

2013/11/16

I generally admire the Girl Guides.

Everything I hear about them seems to indicate an organization that is interested in improving itself, and maintaining high standards of engagement with its members and the world at large. For example, unlike certain other youth organizations, they welcome atheists.

And I like their cookies. I kind of miss the old kind, which I haven’t seen in a few years, but even with the new ones I’m always happy to buy a box or three when they come knocking.

Well, recently, I heard about a petition underway that would take this fine organization a step in the wrong direction (and make me a little less interested in their cookies). You can find it (and sign it, if you disagree with me), over at Change.org. Essentially, some people want the Guides to go GMO-free in their cookies.

Now, I have mixed feelings about genetic modification. On the one hand (despite the rhetoric of the anti-GMO crowd), the science is being conducted responsibly. There is no evidence that scientifically-responsible genetic modification (as practiced in the lab) produces plants that are any more dangerous to consume than other genetic modification (as practiced by nature, plant breeders, and thousands of generations of farmers).

Never forget: we’ve been genetically modifying our diet for millennia. The only difference is that recently we’ve learned enough to do it more carefully. The hysterical accusation of “unnatural” contains no actual justification for treating genetically-modified organisms differently. From what I can see, the difference is that now modifications can be done carefully in a lab, whereas with other methods they’re done haphazardly in the field, through random mutations and selective breeding.

On the other hand, I am distrustful of the economic model within which much of modern genetic modification is used. I think it is a maniacally bad idea for a person or company to be able to patent a genetic code. This concern was somewhat allayed by Steve Novella’s recent investigation and analysis on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 429), where he cut through some of the hysteria over Monsanto’s behaviour. But still, giving corporations that sort of social/legal support seems like a recipe for trouble.

If the anti-GMO people were instead to lobby for modifying the legal status of genetic innovations, I might support them. And, as a side-effect, this might severely curtail the amount of GM research being done. But of course, flagship species like Golden Rice would be unaffected – that’s an entirely public-funded project with a humanitarian goal: reducing death and blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. (And yet, a Golden Rice test plot in the Philippines been vandalized by ideologues who, ironically, often cry “untested” as one of their rhetorical cudgels.)

Anyway, lots of rambling there. The point is, although other Change.org petitions get my support, this will not. I almost feel like starting a counter-petition. “Keep Girl-Guide cookies tasty; leave out the bad science and confused ideology.” But I suspect that it’s not as compelling or catchy a headline. Instead, I’ll express my support by buying their cookies, GM ingredients and all. Others can express their disapproval by not buying the cookies.

Honestly folks, this is one of the great powers we have in a free-market economy: use your dollars as petitions, supporting products you approve of and boycotting those you do not.

Because science *is* for people …

2013/10/23

One of the great tragedies of modern society is the general perception of science as boring, difficult, and not relevant to everyday life. To me, science has always been the best amplifier of wonder that humans have come up with.

Wonder pours in through the senses from a very early age. But, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, people seem to think that teaching kids about science means getting them to memorize facts. No. Science is about questioning, about looking fearlessly and with delight at how the world works, in all its crazy, messy complexity.

Science doesn’t answer all of our important social questions, but it does inform them. It helps us think about them more clearly.

Anyway, this post isn’t meant to be cheerleading for science. It’s meant to be cheerleading for a podcast I’ve been listening to. Until recently, it was called “Skeptically Speaking” – a perfectly reasonable name, that captured some of the spirit of the thing. (My only quibble with the name was that I’d occasionally confuse it with Rationally Speaking, another excellent podcast with a very different focus and flavour.) I enjoyed the podcast. Then I learned that it was produced out of my new home city, Edmonton, and I enjoyed it a little more. I even got to see two of the hosts, Desiree Schell (@desireeschell) and Rachelle Saunders (@afterthree), at this year’s Logicon.

What’s so great about this podcast? Well, it’s produced and hosted by science fans with great production and communication skills.

And that’s delightful to see in a science podcast.

They take a skeptical look – balancing reports where there is a legitimate scientific debate, and not giving airtime to fringe, unscientific positions.

And that’s refreshing to see in a science reporting by non-scientists.

And … well … they’re fun. Friendly. They seem to get science in the same way I do. They get that it’s hard work to do it right, and that it’s worth the work because we get to learn stuff. We get to see the world with new eyes. And along the way, we may learn things that help us better navigate this crazy, tangled, confusing life of ours.

Anyway, that’s the show. But it isn’t called Skeptically Speaking any longer. Now it’s called …

(drum roll)

Science for the People

They have a snazzy new website, and two episodes now under their new name – one exploring the reason for the name change (and some inspiring science-communication, public-engagement stuff), and one on food sustainability. Here’s a bit of what they say about themselves on the website:

“We explore the connections between science, popular culture, history, and public policy, to help listeners understand the evidence and arguments behind what’s in the news and on the shelves.”

Go. Listen. Enjoy. Wonder.

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.


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