Friday, August 3, 2018

Jesus didn't say that

A response to a response, from the Counter Apologist.

There are few ways to go with this. CA’s original statements stands well on its. Also, in any current form of religions I know, there is no preferable universalism that I know of. My problem with Randal is, he doesn’t go far enough with interpreting hell out of Christianity. I think that can be done, although it strips Christianity down to its Jewish roots, even into some type of Reformed Judaism, so it probably is not a popular route. My problem with the Counter Apologist is the use of assuming beliefs by the gospel writers when it’s convenient while claiming we don’t know what they meant most of the time. I think this hinders the very reforms we want to see in religion.

Starting with the reforms; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the arc of the Biblical narrative is that history has a goal, that there is some inherent reason for our existence, and it’s something good, and we need to discover our part in making it happen. This is the MLK thesis on justice and even if you take the atheist view of meaning created by the individual, it is compatible with a goal oriented form of utilitarianism as a theory for morality. To have this discussion across cultures, we need to be reasonable and accept that neither modern philosophers nor the Bible have a clear sense of what “justice” and “good” are. Modern philosophy accepts that, practically as a premise. The Bible has its moments, like Job arguing with God, but for the most part modern day practitioners of Abrahamic religion believe a supernatural force is the source of “good” and don’t care if they can’t prove it with scripture.

The above point is somewhat proven in the way Randal backtracks on his own religion when confronted with a rather straightforward problem like eternal or long lasting punishment. So let’s look at how CA supports the argument.

If atheists want to make the point that the Christian version of hell is wrong, I don’t think they need to stray deep into what the Bible says hell is. The Bible is not clear on that, that’s clear. Atheists don’t need to quote Jesus to prove Jesus was saying something. This degrades their own arguments since they begin with the understanding that the gospels are a poor reflection of any actual Jesus. This is the consensus of scholars, including religious scholars, but it seems to get forgotten when atheists start looking for proof texts. We are always quoting unknown authors and worse we might be quoting many authors in the course of just one passage.

For example, “torments” and “flame” in Luke 16 might be an allegory of justice for the rich man who neglected to care for the poor man at his gate. The thrust of the parable up to that point is about upending the power structure, and rewarding goodness for goodness sake instead of rewarding the powerful just because they do their rituals. This passage looks like a Greek version of hell getting tacked on to an earlier tale. Whether that was for better marketing of the book or because that belief was creeping into Jewish culture is debatable and barely relevant to a debate on the reality of hell.

What I think is important here is to recognize the opening Randal gives us. Christian scholars are quick to say things like Hellenism had crept into and corrupted Judaism at the time the gospels were being written, but they are slow to say exactly how. Christian scholars probably won’t lead those discussions because they suspect or fear they will result in less believers. This is exactly why atheists should be pushing in that direction.  Two passages from Revelation were included in CA’s list. Maybe Randal is open to eliminating Revelations from the canon. It has been debated since it was first proposed and is not in some Bibles. If it is an inaccurate depiction of hell that is incompatible with 1st century teaching, then let’s settle that and then move on to the next misinterpretation, redaction or mistranslation.

This might sound daunting, but I don’t think every line of scripture will need to be addressed before Christian culture begins to change. This approach to the Bible has been happening for a long time and has altered many denominations and led to reforms like women and gays being accepted. Atheists would do well to understand it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Light at the end of the tunnel

I'm getting very near the end of the 3 year Lectionary cycle at 

When I started, I didn't want to start in Christmas or Easter, because I thought they would take more research. I started in the first week of "Proper" time in year C, which was about May 2016. As it turns out, the summer time readings are much more interesting than those classics most people are familiar with. You know, the coming of the baby Jesus and the whole thing with the tomb.

The downside is, I just missed a really interesting entry from the book of Nehemiah. It's the only entry for that book. The book firmly sets the stage in the time after people are released from exile in Babylon. There is no ambiguity about the historical context. Then Ezra starts preaching. As he does he explains the meaning of text and clears up what might be seen as contradictions.

This is time in history when the ancient scriptures were being assembled and sometimes redacted and here is a story that essentially tells you they are doing that. How we got from there to people to believing that the Bible is the exact word of God that anyone can read and get the same message, I can't explain. It took centuries to screw it up that bad. The opposite is true, that is, you can read it and it tells you that is a collection of writings written by men attempting to convey a variety of meanings throughout time.

Basically the theme of my Lectionary helper in one chapter of scripture.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How to argue on the Internet

I’m thinking of making a sarcastic website about how to argue on facebook and other internet sites. Sarcastic, in that it would teach you how to do all the bad arguing I see people doing. Here is a good example. In arguments about gun control, someone inevitably brings up the problem that “you don’t know what AR stands for”. This is actually a non-issue with regards to sensible gun legislation and it doesn’t  illuminate just what an assault weapon is.  Worse though, it’s just wrong.

How to argue about gun control: 

Lesson #1: Present some facts that have nothing to do with gun control. Hopefully no one will notice how irrelevant they are.

Someone I don’t know added this link, with no other comment, to a thread on gun control. It’s just a non-argument to begin with, but the point of doing it is lots of people think it is an argument. It’s a timeline that starts in 1989, when they began producing AR-15’s for the consumer market. This is should be immediately suspicious, since it says “for the consumer market”, telling you there was a different reason the weapons were first manufactured.

As it turns out, the term “assault rifle” is a direct translation of the first such rifle created by the Germans during WWII for military purposes, the Sturmgewehr. This is easy to look up once you know that name, but more trouble than most people will go to if you are just searching for “history of the term assault rifle” or something like that. This anonymous poster was trying to take advantage of people not having a lot of free time.

Lesson #2: Exclude actual history and facts that might hurt your argument.

I don’t doubt that the post was made to educate me that the term “assault” is a liberal invention, intended to make the guns sound worse than they are. The introduction tells you what AR does not stand for, but says nothing about where the term “assault” came from.  If you read the comments below the time line, you’ll see many people believe it was an invention of liberals to serve the anti-gun agenda. What’s unfortunate for them is, comments are open to anyone. What’s unfortunate for intelligent sensible people is, you have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the factual comments.

Lesson #3: Be technically correct. Sometimes called partially correct.

People who say an AR-15 is not an assault rifle are partially correct. It’s like saying a Canon copier is not a Xerox copier, or Puffs is not Kleenex, or an instant photo is not a Polaroid. But when something gets invented, the brand name sometimes becomes what we call it. There is no technical definition for what an assault rifle is, so they can never really lose this argument. No matter how you try to define it, you are never correct, technically. This was one of the problems with enforcing the assault weapons ban. They created a legal definition, but laws can be skirted on technicalities.

Normally, we frown on this. From Perry Mason to Law and Order, the prosecutors are always lamenting people who get off on a technicality. I’m sure the makers of the ban were hoping that people would want to comply with this law and would work to improve on it so safe and legal gun owners who had no intention of killing anyone could have the guns they want, and easy to use death machines would stay out of the hands of criminals and disaffected youths. That’s not how it turned out, and the law expired.

Instead of having these bad arguments that lead to nothing, we could be discussing the practical issues and how we can create a safer world by examining the features associated with this type of weaponry and gun ownership in general and, as with anything dangerous, like dynamite or cars or pseudoephedrine, we could make regulations that we could all live with. Such as:

Large, detachable magazines
Automatic and semi-automatic fire
Proper storage and trigger locks
Caliber, range  and velocity of the bullets as well as the design that causes them to tumble.
Background checks
Loopholes to background checks such as private sales
Education about gun safety
Counseling and services for people who are thinking about misusing weapons

Lesson #4: Now that you have made definitions meaningless, use your own.

What definitely was a deliberate creation of a marketing term is MSR, Modern Sporting Rifle. I know a few hunters and none of them use an AR or AK or anything like it for sport. It takes away the sport of carefully siting and killing a deer or other large animal and would leave you with no meat for small game. I’ve heard they are good for coyotes, but who hunts those? The firearms industry first adopted the term “assault” as a new and exciting sounding product line, but with mass shootings making the news, decided to change that. See 2009 on the timeline.

By careful use of the above lessons, one can take something that their side of the argument is doing; making up terms that provide an emotional appeal, and make it sound like the other side is doing it. Congratulations, you’re ready to join the exciting world of arguing on the internet.

Friday, May 11, 2018

String Asymmetry

I’ve had one blog about TV, and that was Star Trek. The Big Bang Theory is a show about some sci-fi nerds who also happen to know a lot about actual science. But really, it’s a show about relationships and they tied it all together brilliantly in the season 11 finale with Sheldon and Amy’s wedding.

It takes a few scenes for it to be laid out. It starts with, well, it starts with years of developing the characters, but if you don’t know them, I think it still works. It starts with Sheldon attempting to tie his bow tie perfectly. His fiancĂ©, Amy asks what he’s doing. She says maybe it’s not supposed to be perfect. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little uneven. No one can ever tell Sheldon he’s not doing something right, but he seems to relent a little this time.

Later he is getting dressed for the wedding with his best man and they have their moment, then Sheldon’s mother comes in and asks for privacy. They talk about his late father and the subject of the uneven tie comes up again. His mother waxes philosophic about how sometimes it’s the imperfect things that happen that cause a moment to be perfect. Sheldon notes that Amy said something similar, then gets that look on his face he sometimes does, the far off look towards a corner of the room that is focused somewhere further off into a distant galaxy. He says, “I gotta go.” His mother is left standing there alone, a perfect demonstration of something imperfect happening, and she says out loud to no one, “like that.”

Where he goes is to his bride’s dressing room. She is standing alone in her gown looking at a mirror. His first reaction is to be stunned by her beauty. This is unusual for Sheldon. Normally if he has something important on his mind, other people don’t matter. He does do what he normally does when he rambles and stumbles and goes on tangents as he explains why he’s there. Amy is one of the few people who can pull him back into focus and when she does he explains that the bow tie discussion has led him to a breakthrough in his ideas on String Theory. Instead of super-symmetry, it could be super-A-symmetry. The two begin writing out equations on the mirror, using lipstick. In an abnormal moment for Sheldon, he does not mention that he wants credit for this discovery. He says they will publish it together.

The show has science advisers who helped them come up with the super-asymmetry idea. They checked, and as mentioned in the show, no one has published something like this yet. The brilliance of the moment to me is that string theory is an attempt to find equations that unify all of our knowledge of the universe, to find symmetry in everything. Sheldon has believed he could do this since he was a little boy. He makes rules for everything, including relationships, and stresses the importance of sticking to them. The show has traced a long slow realization on his part that people don’t always function as a set of rules. To demonstrate that he is really finally getting this he is taking these lessons for life from his wife and his mother and applying them to his lifelong goal of understanding how the universe works through mathematical formulas. He is seeing the language of love in the language of the universe.

The equations of course are a metaphor. They are not suggesting that you can write a formula for the meaning of life. The science advisers make sure that the math that appears on the show is accurate in some sense, but accuracy is not the point. They know people will freeze the frames and scrutinize them. Sometimes they put math jokes on the white boards. I wouldn’t know. The metaphor is the search for meaning. Sheldon’s very Christian mother thinks she knows the answers and that it’s cute that her son is so smart. She also sees all the problems that it has caused for him. Sheldon sees nothing but problems coming out of his caricatured Texan family. The others on the show have their own approaches and philosophies that all get their time and place. What we saw at the wedding was that all of them are reaching for the same thing, and together, sometimes finding it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Cold November

Yes, I know it's April and just warming up after a long winter. The title of this post is the title of a movie. Click here for the website. You'll need to keep an eye for screenings, but it will eventually be available for $4.99. Here's my brief review and synopsis. It's advertised as a movie where a young girl gets her first deer, so there are no spoilers.

Got to see this for a one night only showing. And they had the writer/director on Skype for questions. He’s a Minnesotan and used Minnesotan actors to portray stories that grew out his own experience. His hunting skills were passed down from women, which is a bit unusual, so the movie is a mother, grandmother and a couple sisters, one husband, with a third dead sister appearing in a dream sequence. The main character is the 12 year old and her coming of age experience of getting her first deer. Guns obviously appear in the movie, but when the heirloom gun is given to her, there is no ominous music or foreshadowing of trouble.

The tensions of the movie are family issues; a teenage daughter lost, apparently a car accident, although details are not given; the mother needs to work, but the missing men in these lives are not discussed or explained. The 12 year old is dealing with becoming an adult, so you get cute scenes like she says “shit” and the mother says, hey, “you said shit”, so the daughter says, “and so did you”. These are conversations you get to have at the hunting shack. More poignant, we hear about the difficult days when grandma had to poach deer to feed the family. Another story that stays at the shack.

But these aren’t hidden evil, these are normal things that you just aren’t normally talked about in polite company, but you do when you are with family for days in a row, supporting each other in the day to day mundane rituals, and the more significant ritual of getting meat from the land. I asked the director if he was thinking about gun legislation when he made the movie and he said he didn’t want to make an “issue” movie. To him, the appearance of guns and the handling of guns is normal. He talked about how this is something he has to explain when he shows the movie in Los Angeles.

He is going to continue making movies along these lines, about Northern Minnesota culture. I would love to be in a room full of people who have never even been “up north” for a weekend and see their reactions.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Beauty In the Art of Being Human

Everyone's Agnostic podcast

Cass Midgley often does great in depth research with his podcasts. In this episode, something called the theodicy of divine silence comes up. He explains what that is at the beginning of the podcast and in the text, but I want to add how it relates to secular versions of worldviews. These include people who believe organic farming is better, that our election systems are rigged, that the CIA is in charge of our government, that aliens are working with that secret government, that the earth is flat or any other number of ideologies that have some basis, some facts that can be demonstrated, but have become belief systems to many.

This podcast is about religion and questioning its precepts and tends to focus on the more extreme, evangelical end of the spectrum, but the psychology of belief is the same no matter where you look. Just as evangelicals point to Billy Graham in the White House and cathedrals as evidence they are right, people point to Whole Foods Grocery and the popularity of documentaries as proof they are on the right side. It gets nearly impossible to have a conversation when it becomes tribal. When you can’t point out that chemicals are used in organic farming without being considered a shill for a corporation, discourse has broken down.

Cass comes from a strong religious background, so he sees how this occurred in that environment. My background began with the counter culture and coming together as community to create something we couldn’t do alone and a little Taoist spirituality. The language however, is exactly the same. I heard “you have to believe it to see it” and “fake it ‘til you make it” from people in sandals communing with the trees. The more subtle version would be something like, “well, I just see things differently” or “you can’t look at this from an intellectual point of view”. Whatever way, it is putting blame for not seeing something on to the seer. It’s not a matter of missing evidence. It’s a matter of accepting something a priori.

For those who are open to it, it creates guilt and distrust of self. Once that is created, the readymade answer is there to fix it, the welcoming tribe is there, ready to embrace you with more reassurances, week after week, YouTube after YouTube, bad science after bad science. In the podcast, they discuss ways of deconstructing the narratives that people have. Personally, I would be happy just getting to a point where people would agree with me on ground rules for conversation.

I do want people to see the reality that I think is real, but I don’t think I have a lock on what that is. If I had not questioned my own assumptions from 20 years ago, I wouldn’t see things that I do now. That leaves the possibility that 20 years from now, I will see things differently. Knowing that, all of us should be interested in finding methods and tools for figuring out if we got it right or not. All of these belief systems, dogmatic or not, say they are seeking truth, desiring truth. I’m not convinced of that if they can’t first demonstrate their methods are sound.

I know these podcasts are longer than many of you care for, so here are some highlights.

Cass does his intro, which is also mostly in the description provided. They discuss Ryan’s history for a bit and then after a half hour or so get into how he talked to people on the street as part of his gospel mission. He explains how he would get people to answer questions about things they had done wrong in their life. This is how he would “give you the disease” then offer you the cure. At 34 minutes, he talks about once getting punched in the face for doing this. The story is interesting because it leads to him being proud of being a martyr for that happening. Cass points out that this is a helpless situation that the church is in, because if they get feedback about doing something wrong, or have used logic poorly, it becomes a blessing, that they are “persecuted for my namesake” (referring to Jesus). The world is lost, so you can’t get your truth from there, they say. It’s a very difficult line to engage.

Cass then does a little demonstration of using guided imagination to do a little of this “prophesying”. The theodicy of silence comes up after that, around 40 minutes. The text in the description of the podcast goes into more detail. Ryan uses the analogy of saying that God is like a radio, that you have to tune into. If you aren’t, it’s your fault. Cass’s experience is that he was told he had to be humble for God to show himself.

About 45:30 Cass looks at this idea of looking for the truth. He says he believes Ryan’s intentions were pure. He asks if this pursuit took him “past Jesus”. Ryan agrees. He doesn’t like it when people say he walked away from faith, he went “through it”. If you are searching for a perfect or even just superior being or spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of where you look or what you might find. That knowledge, supernatural or not, should be findable. Any flaws in the knowledge should be explainable.

Cass and Ryan agree that the pursuit can lead you past the human traditions that led to the pursuit in the first place. Bible study supports this, as Moses found YHWH and David challenged Saul and Amos spoke against the king and Jesus spoke against the Pharisees. Ryan talks about the evolution of Christianity, from something more static to something that is allowed to grow wild and see where it takes you. Ryan covers his own journey from the narrow theology he had to thinking it was either that or nothing. He moved on to seeing there are many variations of Christianity then to the possibility of there being something else that is a better expression of his feelings on the cosmology of the world and what it is to be a human being.

This leads to a great summary from Ryan in the 50th minute. They use the analogy of gardening then he says, “There is something compelling about it, about religion in general, why different cultures throughout all human history keep finding ways to reach beyond themselves. That’s interesting to me, even if what they are reaching for doesn’t exist. There’s something inviting and warm and comforting to me about the reaching itself.” (umms and other connecting words were removed from this quote)

They talk about mental illness and it leads to the path to free thinking. It’s no less interesting than the rest of the podcast. It starts to wrap up around 1:03. Cass talks about someone who went back after becoming an unbeliever and read the Psalms and saw them as a search for meaning. Unfortunately he doesn’t remember who it was. I find this type of appreciation for different viewpoints so rare. We are a very large species, spread out over the world, yet we have so much in common. As Cass says, “there’s a beauty in the art of what it means to be human.” Ryan adds a little to that about interpreting the Bible from a humanist perspective.

Cass always ends with questions about his guest’s hobbies and for this episode, plays some music.

Ryan’s blog

Monday, March 12, 2018

Trust is earned

History of the last 100 years. Who are the baby boomers?

1918 – WWI. A horrific experience following a massive build of arms due to the industrialization of the world. It brought family monarchies and isolated tribes all into one giant playing field. They now saw how small actions on one side of the world affected others  far away. And the President was a racist.

1928 – Things were looking pretty good. People were partying. A technological boom was occurring. If you don’t know why 1929 was famous, look it up.

1938 – Hitler and Mussolini are in power. People saw it coming but did little.

1948 – Hitler was defeated. Soldiers had to find their own way home, many died in that journey. Parts of Europe were flattened. The Mideast was carved up by the 3 superpowers. China was having a civil war that would end with Mao. Baby boomers were just being born, not yet affecting anything except causing people to buy washing machines and convenience foods. 

1958 – Starvation was rampant throughout Central America, India and Africa but technological solutions were solving many of the problems. America invested in its veterans, had brought electricity to rural areas, grew its suburbs, but argued about what to do about communism. Baby Boomer children were shown images of their cities being obliterated by nuclear explosions.

1968 – Moon landing, Robert Kennedy shot, MLK shot, riots in major cities, corruption exposed in politics. The baby boomers were starting to get a voice since the universities were well funded and well attended. They supported civil rights, they protested war, they wanted workers to be treated fairly, unions were strengthened.

1978 – After being shot at and arrested, the baby boomers retreated and tried more traditional ways of influencing policies. Meanwhile evangelicals in America and other traditions were also discovering political power. Some baby boomers had helped end the Vietnam war, so now they were divided:Veterans who thought they should have bombed more and those who had avoided the draft or who were talking about how they were given orders to fight an unjust war. The superpower’s dominance was also in retreat.  Secret operations were getting exposed, colonies were getting independence, or they were fighting back in low level wars.

1988 – Reagan (not a baby boomer) is fighting new secret wars while also turning us from the largest loaner nation to the largest debtor nation mostly through the buildup of nuclear weapons. Many Baby Boomers return to protesting, along with a new younger generation. Starvation is seen as a world problem, but some of the solutions are just causing more problems. All over the world leaders point to other nations as the cause of problems, old tribal differences turn into modern wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central America and elsewhere.

1998 – The first baby boomer President reduces the deficit, wants abortion to be “safe and legal”, tried to reform health care and started SCHIP, signed a gun control bill, loosened restrictions on gays in the military. He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act and reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country. He also used cruise missiles in the Mid-East in his fight against terrorism. He modernizes the military, but spending is still high.

2008 – This year saw the near collapse of the world’s financial system as a Republican President and divided Congress had weakened banking regulations. Bankers had abused their lending power and gambled with one of the foundations of the system, home ownership by private citizens. Youth again took a leadership position in protesting these massive organizations and the people who once marched with MLK and against Vietnam are now in positions of power to help them. Another baby boomer President comes to power this year and again has to right the economy, reduce the deficit and bring the long awaited and desperately needed reforms to health care.

2018 –  Millenials now equal to Baby Boomers as a share of the electorate.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the 1960’s was when young people said “don’t trust anyone over 30”. I was still too young to even know what they meant, but it took me a long time to understand the contribution of the generations before me. The ones who fought fascism and built the schools that I attended. We can’t afford that long learning curve this time. Boomers have the traditionally strong voting block of older people and we might be seeing a long needed increase in the youth vote. Let’s work together.