Thursday, July 13, 2017

Truth Pledge

People say I argue a lot on facebook. I’m not going to argue about that. But most of the time, I’m trying to just get the discussion on to an honest track. I try to find agreement about basic facts, like pain hurts, and people die, and life is risky, and there are things we don’t know, and love is better than hate. Okay that last one is not a fact, but you get the idea.

 I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:

 Share truth

  • Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
  • Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
  • Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
  • Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts

 Honor truth

  • Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
  • Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information

 Encourage truth

  • Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
  • Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
  • Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
  • Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth

I heard about this through Bart Campolo’s podcast where he pointed out the people who sign this are going to be the people you already trust. Maybe. Or they are going to be those “others” that you don’t trust and you see as people who sign pledges and don’t understand them. Yep. But it’s a start. If enough people, important people, people who are in positions that are supposed to be trustworthy, sign it, it will begin to carry some weight.

It’s very short and all you do is click the orange button. Email is required, which I know will scare a few people off. It’s not for everyone.

Meanwhile, we can actually start doing this with each other. It’s like recycling. We can shake our fists at the big polluters of the world, but if we aren’t reducing our plastic consumption and separating our garbage, nothing is going to change. As Bart says, “Science can’t proceed unless people agree to be honest with each other about their results. Everything has to be verifiable. When people lie about their results, it slows down the whole process. Science is a conversation and this conversation can only go forward if we agree to these ground rules. In the same way, collective governance, the social contract, social cooperation can only really do well if we agree to have the conversation where we all use the same facts. If we are going to live together, have a community, large or small, we’ve gotta agree to some rules of conversation. The first of those is everybody’s gotta tell the truth about physical things, money that can be accouted for, etc. Without that, we can’t make any decisions, we can’t even argue.”

Oddly enough, I’m now going to cite a study on Buzzfeed. It was also mentioned in the podcast. Usually I don’t trust Buzzfeed, but this one has been reviewed and cited by more reputable sources. It compares the top 20 fake news items on facebook in the last election cycle to the top 20 real news stories. The fake news engaged 8 million people, while real news only had 7 million shares. That’s you. That’s every time you share something and say, “I’m not sure about this, but I’m sharing it anyway.” Or even when you say, “This is dumb.”

I know that’s hard not to do sometimes, but it’s something I’m trying to do lessof myself. There are ways to avoid it and still engage the issues.Share an article that discusses the bad science or “alternative facts” and provides the facts that were left out, or explains the bad analysis. Sometimes, in the case of bad science, the counter argument is to simply show the actual scientific study underlying the discussion. Often, the summary of the study tells you the opposite of what the fake news story says. If we do that we’ll have a facebook full of actual data instead of the interpretation of someone who knows little or nothing about the field. With politics, link the full speech, or to a chapter from Adam Smith, or the Supreme Court decision that is being claimed as supporting evidence, or a longer story of the historical event in question, or a Pew poll,anything but the fake news. You can refer to the fake article by giving the source, title, author and date if you want. I can usually determine fakeness just by examining those four things.

There is also a menu item in facebook to report fake news. This of course requires that you read it and do a little fact checking, but it’s the tool we have for now. Some of you have already figured out to just not join facebook, but I’m assuming you aren’t reading this, so I’m not talking to you. This is for all of my online relationships.

One little story before you go. I participated in my first online discussion group back in 1993. It was a computer group supporting getting technology into the community. In the middle of some other discussion, someone popped in and said we should all be concerned about congress wanting to tax email. He included a number identifying the bill. I dismissed it. This urban legend continued to make the rounds on the Internet for years, making it all the way to the 2000 presidential debate between Al Gore and George W Bush. Neither of them knew how to answer the question or had heard of this bill, because it never existed.

Back then, I learned about Snopes.com and started educating people about this and other stories that only existed in emails and discussion forums. It took over a decade to get rid of that one story. It would have been great if Al had known about fake news, but the term wasn’t on anyone’s radar at the time.It sure is now, but it is already out of control and it played a yuge part in the 2016 election. We owe it to ourselves to create a public square filled with honest discussion.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fake News

I have an ongoing "discussion" with a local columnist in the free rag in Duluth. He writes about every conspiracy under the sun, his favorite being "Big Pharma". I write to the editor, and get published most of the time. This one is about where fake news comes in general, and how to spot it:

As Gary moves on to the next conspiracy theory, let’s look at his strategy in general. I showed Gary these steps. He says this is what Big Pharma and mainstream media and whoever else he rails against does. I’ll show how you can tell fake from real after showing this 7 step method of phony science.
This system starts with an industry that is somehow threatened by established science facts. It funds and creates information that looks scientific, but isn’t. You can see where the Duluth Reader begins to play a role in this, somewhere around step 5. Whether the Reader or Gary Kohls are unwitting participants or willing supporters of these industries is known only to them.

1 – Create uncertainty about accepted views of science. Not with new science, but by cherry picking papers or experiments that were never confirmed or were proven false. Any isolated article will do.
2 – Spoon feed the press with this disinformation through non-profits and bloggers.
3 – Build and finance industry-aligned front groups that appear to be grassroots efforts.
4 – Recruit professionals into the campaign.
5 – Talk-radio and cable news and more from the earlier steps should pick up the story at this point. They might not realize the source.
6 – The political support is now there. Votes can be had by supporting the ideas. Questioning these unscientific sources can get you labeled as the one who hasn’t read the latest research.
7 – The industry behind the phony science can now step out of the shadows, supported by every aspect of mainstream society. They can appear to be neutral and positive voices in the debate. Maybe even play the victim.

How can we recognize this is happening? It’s not as hard as you think. You need to compare the stories that are published through all the steps with the actual science. You don’t need a degree in every possible science, but you need to learn what actual science looks like. It looks like the articles printed in accepted journals like Nature or Scientific American. It looks like what is being taught in Universities around the world.

You may not be able to evaluate every study but you can evaluate the methodology. You can see who did the study and see if they have knowledge and experience and if they are respected by others with similar knowledge and experience. You can see if something was predicted based on their knowledge that was later shown to be true. You can evaluate where they say their knowledge came from. Did it come from institutions of learning where you would send your children or are they someplace you’ve never heard of? If a study is quoted, get the name of it and who wrote it. Look it up and look up if it has been refuted or even retracted. Often, you need look no further than whatever article you are reading. Does it have a byline saying who wrote it? If there are sources, check a couple of them with the above tests. I have seen citations that actually don’t lead anywhere, or lead to studies that don’t say what the article says it does.


Try this test. There is probably something that comes from universities and science journals that you accept, like the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we went to the moon, climate change is being caused by human action, or germs make you sick. Look at how you were convinced of whatever you accept as true. Look at all the things that would need to be explained if they were not true. Now, apply those standards to vaccines or chemtrails or whatever else is being questioned. If you apply standards of logic and evidence honestly and equally, you will arrive at the best conclusions that humans are currently capable of. If you want to align yourself with the real world, you should at least give it a shot.

If you want more, and I know you are dying for it, click here. My comments are signed with various versions of John W. They go back 3 weeks. I have ones for June 14 and May 25th somewhere, I'll try to get them online. The one with the graphs is a doozy. May 17th is probably my favorite. That's where I started. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Self Promotion

This is me, on a podcast. It's a guy in Duluth who invited me via the Lake Superior Freethinkers facebook page. His "topic of the month" was "The Meaning of Life". I give a couple answers, one from Dan Fincke, one from Dan Barker that the question is backwards. Aidin does some good probing in to my own journey. It's actually not that bad.

Topic a Month Podcast

I didn't quite get to an expression of my main theme, so added this in the comments afterward:

To tie this all together, the reason for caring for others is that others cared for us. As we expand who we help, who we educate, more people will be able to use their skills effectively and find their best fit in the world. As we have done this, for example, women have become more empowered, giving them the right to control their own reproductive choices. So, counter-intuitively, helping people who are having lots of babies results in decreasing population.
As people see a world of hope, where their children will survive and help each other, they don't see the need to have lots of children. Educating each other, empowering each other, leads to people making better choices for leadership, instead of feeling the need to join a paramilitary group and tear down governments.
We can do this on the world scale, bringing appropriate technology where it is needed, as well as across the table from each other, listening intently, and teaching instead of fighting.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Accidental Courtesy

http://accidentalcourtesy.com/

Available on Netflix and elsewhere. To say this movie is controversial or provocative would be an understatement. A jazz musician, and would-be diplomat is the star. You see his successes; a couple dozen KKK robes that men have given to him when they quit the Klan. Later, you see how difficult it is when he sits down with a couple of young men from Black Lives Matter.

Unfortunately, whatever it is he does, is not easily taught. He does speak publicly, we'll see if his ideas grow in the future. I like his basic premise, that sitting in a room full of people who agree with your point of view and discussing how to be more "diverse", is not going to solve anything. We need to sit down at tables with the people with whom we disagree.

There are a few of those conversations throughout the movie. I suspect they are like nothing you've ever seen.

I've tried to have these myself. I've tried to understand the racist mind or the libertarian ideas. I do some of the things I see Daryl doing. I ask why they think government should not provide services to all people equally. If they think services are provided unequally, I ask why they think that. I ask what it takes to create a free and open society at all. To me it means accepting, even embracing ideas from other cultures while finding common ground. To them there is something dangerous about that. They cite failures in the past when cultures were mixed. But if I cite historical precedents of success, they say they don't apply.

I try to talk about values, because "free and open" does not mean anything goes. Some libertarians will actually say anarchy is possible, as long anyone is free to leave a given boundary. Within the defined boundaries, the rules can be that there are no rules, except for the rule that if you want to leave you can. Somehow, that rule has to apply to everyone. If this sounds like a science fiction premise, I think you're right. There are too many problems with it for me to even begin.

If it's not anything goes, then what should everyone agree to? Fire departments? Police? Libraries? Defending of borders? Food safety? This leads to a discussion of legal agreements, which leads to a need for agreements about what a law is and how they can be enforced. Things break down around that time because they are starting to define governments, not agreements between individuals, but they still think they are talking about a system where if they want to say white people rule, it can work.

I like to talk about when the modern idea of nations was created. I know, I'm using that history that doesn't count as evidence, and in conversation, you usually don't get to do this. In 1638 in Westphalia, the treaty called The Peace of Westphalia was signed, ending decades of religious war. A few years later, Isaac Newton was born and the science that was used to get us to the moon was created. I kind of see those two things as related. When we can stop arguing about how our cultural beliefs are more important than some other culture's belief's and start looking at the problems of survival themselves, we can begin to work together and build that peaceful world we all say we want. When I try to talk about love, that's when things really tend to get out of control.

They tell me that their opinion is sharing of their views and my opinions indicate I am closed minded and that I am not listening. That the values that the government supports that they agree with are the right ones, and the ones they don't agree with are the equivalent of them being forced to do something at gun point. They tell me their evidence, even if they can't show it to me is correct, and my scientific studies are the fallacy of an argument from authority. Eventually, we get to where there is no way to demonstrate truth, no one can prove anything, we don't know if we exist and it's just everyone for themselves. Basically a return to the stone age.

People observing these conversations tend to focus on the emotional argument. The person getting upset often gets the benefit of the doubt that the upset was caused by how the argument was presented. This ignores anything about the logic or reasoning of the argument itself. There is no excuse for presenting an argument poorly or for shaming someone who lacks background information or berating them for failing to understand. But someone's failure to understand is not always the fault of the person making the argument. It's good to remember Bertrand Russel's rule of allowing others time to absorb new information when these conflicts arise.

Some of this is basic ignorance. Not stupidity, just not knowing. In the documentary, Daryl goes to the Lincoln Memorial, with the big statue of Lincoln in a chair. He walks around and asks a couple people to please take a step or two from where they are standing, because that is where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he gave his famous speech. He knows it's the spot because it is engraved in the marble they are standing on. That's it. No statue, No plaque. It's not even in color. If it's not pointed out to you, you miss it. A lot of history of non-white European men in America is like that. Daryl calls this "standing on the dream". We do it all the time, without thinking about, without knowing what we are missing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

No One Will Buy My Book

First off, I won't write a book about my approach to the Bible, so my prophecy in the title of this blog post will be fulfilled due to my own inaction. The reason I won't write it is I see what kinds of books people buy about the Bible. Most of them confirm what has been being said for hundreds of years. A few of them say they have something new to say, then they say how amazing it is and how you will discover God and Jesus by looking at it this way. I don't want you to discover anything that isn't true. Most people find reality pretty boring. Too bad, they don't know what they are missing.

In Rob Bell's latest book, he manages to both give this message to the church and tell you that he knows what God thinks and knows how you can know that too. He has the advantage of once having preached at a mega-church and he's studied the ancient languages and been seminary school. But I don't think you need to do all that to understand what he gets right and what he gets wrong.

Most organizations that say they are teaching something about reality that you can only find by following their ideas, their practices, will tell you anything except that you can find it on your own. John Prine may be one of the few people who could tell you that and still sell albums. Churches and fortune tellers and gurus and snake oil salesmen and politicians have a goal of self preservation.

The Bible does not teach you to hang on to one way of thinking. It teaches you to give things up. It teaches you that your tradition is corrupt. It teaches you that your leaders have an agenda that does not further the needs of the community. Sometimes, while doing that, it recommends fixing it by returning to the tradition, but in some more pious or more devout or more self-sacrificing way. This is one of the more commonly ridiculed flaws, but focusing on those just becomes a mask for the major theme, found throughout, that to make progress, you have to leave where you are.

Being a slave may be comfortable, but it's not who you are. Your family is great, but it needs to spread itself out over the land and maybe not get together as much. And later, you may find visiting that long last relative and reconciling old wounds may be just the ticket. Whatever it might be, getting together every Sunday with the same people and singing from the same hymnal is probably not it. Celebrating the glory of what someone said thousands of years of ago is not progress.

Rob's sub-title is about transformation, mine would be something like, "An ancient library that has some useless and wrong history and some stories that changed things in important ways a long time ago and just a few stories that can still inspire some people today." Probably not a blurb that is going to sell anything.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Critical Thinking

This is just some notes I threw together. I might spice it up.

I’ve gathered facts and I’ve determined that I have most of the information available on this topic.
                Great, you’re done.

I have some information, but I don’t have all of it. Acquiring more data would require months or years of study.

                Decide if you want to do that study. Or, use the listed items below.

The issue may not be settled. The people who are the best minds on this issue do not agree. They might even say they don’t know enough to make a judgment.
1)     
How do you know who the experts are?
a.       Degrees from accredited institutions
b.      Honors, awards
c.       Appearances to the public, intended to help the uneducated understand the issue
d.      Participation in setting public policies that can be evaluated
e.      Publications that provide real world, understandable examples and illustrations
f.        Historical precedence

2)      When those experts disagree, do they do it respectfully, or are they claiming bad motivations or hidden agendas?
a.       Do both sides have a body of evidence they refer to, or does one concentrate mostly on pointing the flaws in the other?
b.      Can you at least follow a logical flow to the arguments?
c.       Are the two sides willing to debate?

3)      Can you identify any other facts behind those motivations or agendas?
a.       Are they pointing to anything written or recorded, can you verify their data?
b.      Are they using words like “some” or “always” or “stupid” or “commie”?

In the best case, you have a friend or acquaintance in the field in question. Someone you can trust to clarify anything specific.

Second best is to attend a public lecture and ask your question face to face. Sometimes you can find very intimate settings for these types of discussions. For example, a farmer might be willing to show you their operations, a lab worker might take you on a tour, or someone good with numbers could show you where to find data and how to interpret it.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Unsealed documents

I haven’t written a Monsanto blog in a while, but it seems things are heating up, and this article came through my feed. I’ve heard people being accused of being paid trolls in online discussions and unscientific sites like Natural News, but this site has an appearance of being a legitimate news site. They accuse people of being tools of the pesticide industry, and specifically mention the Genetic Literacy Project.

I had a little trouble identifying the source of the article, but Quora did not have answers that settled me at all. https://www.quora.com/Journalistic-Ethics-and-Norms-How-legitimate-is-The-Centre-for-Global-Research Other debunking type websites did not give it nice reviews either. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Globalresearch . http://fakenewswatch.com/ lists it as a “Clickbait Website”.

Here’s the article. Please limit your clicks on it, it just encourages them.

May 3, 2017
http://www.globalresearch.ca/monsanto-accused-of-hiring-army-of-trolls-to-silence-online-dissent-court-papers/5588396

This article is almost devoid of facts, except the ones presented by the Monsanto quotes. It almost seems like someone disguised a pro-Monsanto article as an anti. It uses a facebook quote as evidence and notes that earlier evidence says a “single comment” was taken out of context, but now they have more. I couldn't find that much "more".

It linked to a website of court documents that were recently unsealed.
https://usrtk.org/pesticides/mdl-monsanto-glyphosate-cancer-case-key-documents-analysis/

Clicking on it gives a long list that looks impressive. This is a tactic of using a bibliography as if it is evidence itself. Many people will see that and accept it as legit and move on.

The first one I looked at (4th in the list) was “Order denying Monsanto motion to increase page limit”. It was 4 sentences long, saying “FURTHER ORDERED that Monsanto Company shall be permitted …. in opposition of up to 25 pages in response to Plaintiff’s Rem..” I couldn’t read it all because there was a big “DENIED” stamp over it.

So, I started going through them. The first was a motion to keep some notes sealed, saying, “Compelling reasons and good cause exist to redact portions the Motion to Compel and the Rowland Rough Transcript”. There was no scientific information and no specific evidence of anything.

The next was a lengthy answer from Monsanto of allegations and amounts to nothing more than a legal denial. Studies are cited, but the document could not be used to determine truth of either side.

The third is about a 1996 case of false advertising. You can look that history up anywhere.

The 5th one says they can question a guy. I skipped a couple because they looked like more of same.

Then “Monsanto’s motion to strike plaintiffs’ reply exhibit 1…” is interesting. They are accusing their accusers of making a frivolous and illegal filing of an irrelevant document. It would be interesting to see how that one turns out.

I skipped the back and forth about Rowland.

In the request for the production of all original re-cut slides in study BDN-77-420, something is redacted. I don’t know if the request is reasonable or not, so I’ll withhold judgment on that one.

“Monsanto discovery dispute” is a long discussion about the IARC ruling on cancer risk. That could be interesting if you haven’t already read up on it.

I thought maybe I finally found the evidence discussed in the article at “Jess Rowland documents unsealed”, but this was 100 pages about the review by IARC that led to the cancer ruling, and other studies that conclude glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

Documents “unsealed” (227 pages) looks like a general declaration of what the IARC is about. That entry also says “key documents on pp. 203-4”. The words “involving experts” and “ghost-write” are used in that memo. That was the only remark I found that was relevant to the article.

I found nothing to indicate Monsanto concealed anything, or any evidence of pseudo-science. The article correctly states that “plaintiffs allege”, but I didn’t see the links to their studies. There were over a thousand pages, so I might have missed something. It seemed a bit misleading to me to mention 50 lawsuits, and that court documents have been unsealed, but then find those documents are mostly very common legal wrangling. The article states the papers are “being gathered” on a whistleblower website, but that site is run by RTK, which is affiliated with this globalresearch.ca, which looks shady. This is “guilt by association”; create an accusation, create a group that documents accusations, document it there. The documents themselves don’t contain much as far as I can tell.

None of this helps me make any decisions about what I should eat or what I should buy, or who I should believe. My opinion; eat whatever you want, but don’t use articles like this to help you decide. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Doubt

From the book, Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht, her closing statement:

Cicero ended his study, “The Nature of the Gods”, by picking a winner among the doubters and the tradition is worth keeping up. The contest I want to judge however is not between various doubters but between the great doubting tradition and all the other traditions of religious thought. Theistic religions all have in them an amazing human ability; belief. Belief is one of the best human muscles. It can be very good. The religions are all beautiful and horrible, filled with feasts, sacrifices, miracles, wars, songs, lamentations, stained glass, onion matzahs and intense communal joy. Everyone kneeling, everyone rocking, everyone silent, everyone nose to the floor.

The religions have also been the energy behind much generosity, compassion and bravery. The story of doubt however has all this too, it also has a relationship to truth that is rigorous, sober and when necessary, resigned. And it prizes this rigorous approach to truth above the delights of belief. Doubt has its own version of comforts and challenges. From doubt’s beginnings it has advised that if you create your own desires and model them after what you actually experience, you can be happy. Accept that we are animals, but ones with special problems. And that the world is natural, but “natural” is just an idea that we animals have in our heads. Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, money, politics and pleasure.

Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently. It’s best to stay agile, to keep an open mind. Anyway, if you live long enough you’d likely find yourself believing something that you’d never believe today, or disbelieving. In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt. Expect change, accept death, enjoy life. As Marcus Aurelius explained, “the brains that got you through the trouble’s you have had so far, will get you through any troubles yet to come”.

Throughout history many great thinkers have argued that the study of these questions could give life meaning, grace and happiness. Many heartily suggest, indeed insist that doubters should do some practices, some therapy, some art to tune themselves to a manageable relationship with a universe that very possibly has no humanness at all. Doubters in the modern world have all sorts of philosophies and communal experiences in which to engage and participate. And it is not uncommon for doubters to compose a sacred but secular for themselves out of reading philosophy of some sort, taking part in psychotherapy, art and poetry, meditation, dance, secular solemnities and festivals.

The only things such doubters really need that believers have is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history. I hope it is clear now that doubt has such a history of its own and to be a doubter is a great old allegiance deserving quiet respect and open pride for its longevity, its productivity, its pluck, its warmth, its service to friend and foe and its sometimes ruthless commitment to demonstrative truth. I give the palm to the story of doubt.

Monday, March 27, 2017

My Bibliography

In case you're wondering where I get my ideas. This is about 20 years of reading.

             Christian days
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time – Dominic Crossan
Something by Marcus Borg
The Doors of Perception  -
Religious America, Secular Europe? Peter Berger and Grace Davie. 2007
Iron John – Robert Bly
The Gospel of Inclusion – Carlton Pearson
The Great Emergence- Phyllis Tickle
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
Abraham: A Journey to the – Bruce Feller – Well researched look at how the 3 monotheisms draw from one tradition.
Jesus for the Non-religious John Shelby Spong
                Not so Christian days
Blessed Unrest Paul Hawken – about organizations working for peace and justice
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The Imitation of Christ Thomas Kempis
Dante's Divine Comedy – actually, I couldn't finish it
Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach
The Meaning of Life A Short Introduction – Terry Eagleton
The Story of Philosophy Will Durant – excellent complete coverage
Reason, Faith, and Revolution – Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton, 2009
Spinoza on Ethics - Surprisingly strong emphasis on god and the impossibility of uncaused events.
50 Voices of Doubt
                Definitely not Christian days
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him – Sheldon B Kopp
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet – fiction, but paints a picture of the time when there were two Popes
Siddhartha -
What's So Great About Christianity – Dinesh D'Souza – Terrible, complete cherry picking of history, ignores anything bad about it. It was recommended by a liberal Methodist Bishop so I include only as an example of something that a Christian could be fooled by.
The Daily Show and Philosophy – not that great
Fire, Water, Spirit – Malidoma Some. A biographical story, not theology, some history, mainly mythology.
Banned Questions from the Bible – mostly for teens, a few high points.
Compassion – Karen Armstrong (I think I read her History of God)
Critical Thinking books recommended by Russell of ACA
                Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan (read parts of it)
                Innumerncy –John Allen Paulos (ways people are fooled with math)
Who Wrote the Bible - Friedman
Mistakes were Made but not by Me – About psychology of belief
Not the Impossible Faith – Richard Carrier. Why Christianity flourished.
Tony Jones A New Atonement
The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin – Amir D Azcel – this was more history of the man and his political problems and not much about this religious philosophy.
How the Irish Saved Civilization – Thomas Cahill – fills in a few gaps in history
The Liberation of Theology – Leonardo Boff – religion is politics
The Botany of Desire – Michael Pollan – has a great bit on the Genesis creation story as a metaphor for the dangers of pagan rituals involving hallucinogenic drugs
Sir Gwain and The Green Knight
Bertrand Russell History of Philosophy – Comprehensive, reviewers have said it contains inaccuracies
God’s Philosophers – James Hannam – A rare look at early science in the Middle Ages, but it has some historical errors and leaves a lot out.
Everything Must Change – Brian McClaren
Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity
Quest for Jerusalem – about recent histiography on Columbus
Free Will – Sam Harris
Infidel  Ayaan Hirsi Ali amazing story of a woman escaping Islam
I am Malala – the girl who was shot in Afghanistan for going to school
Wittgenstein’s Poker – A fun history of 20th century philosophy, including Karl Popper
Sense and Goodness Without God – Richard Carrier – rare idea for philosophy incorporating all modern knowledge
Wild – Cheryl Strayed – Not about religion, but a about a journey of healing.
And God Said Billy – Frank Schaeffer – bizarre, but a look into the fundamentalist mind
Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God – Frank Schaeffer. Cherry picking, but at least he admits it.
Snowy Tower – Martin Shaw
Branch from the Lightning Tree – Martin Shaw – these are about myth, they are essential
American Gods – fiction, but a fun play on mythology and how the European gods followed people to the US
Think – Simon Blackburn Descartes to modern era
A.D. 381 Charles Freeman – covers the history of the theology of the 4th century. Amazing.
In Faith and In Doubt – Dale McGowan – for mixed secular/religious relationships, but also has some interesting data on belief and how it doesn’t match the given identified denomination
The Brothers Karamzov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Man's Search for Meaning – Viktor E Frankl. Totally amazing.
Why I am Not a Christian – Richard Carrier
Hitler Homer Bible Christ – Richard Carrier
The Tao of the Dude – Oliver Benjamin – fun, just sayings mostly
The Christian Delusion – John Loftus, a collection, got it for the Carrier chapter mostly
Eve – William Paul Young (Author of The Shack), fiction. Uses Genesis creation narrative to tell the story
The Way of the Heathen – Greta Christina
Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World – Miroslav Volf, disagree with it, but it's still interesting
Islam and the Future of Tolerance – Sam Harris, Maajid Nawwaz
How to Defend the Christian Faith, Advice from an Atheist – John F Loftus, very sarcastic
Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower – Tom Krattenmaker. Disappointing, very religious.
On the Historicity of Jesus – Richard Carrier
A Christian and an Atheist Walk Into a Bar – Shieber and Rauser.
Doubt – Jennifer Michael Hecht
Why I Left, Why I Stayed – Tony Campolo, Bart Campolo
What Is the Bible - Rob Bell
War on Science - Shawn Otto

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Resistance is inevitable

I was at a Christian camp the other day, not as a Christian, it was a cross-country skiing group. I like to poke around their libraries. This one was just a bookshelf will old Bibles, old Sunday School guides, except one book from 1982 by Francis Schaeffer, The Christian Manifesto. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, so I’m not sure just what the “manifesto” was, but I’m pretty sure he was promoting violent overthrow of the US government. That might sound like something from a 60’s radical rather than a leader of evangelical conservative Christians, but it was definitely in there. His justification was that the government was allowing, and in fact supporting the killing of innocent children, via abortion.

I’m not going to dwell on the violence part too much, and he doesn’t lay out any kind of plan. What was interesting was how he made parallels to those 60’s radicals and lots of other radicals through history. He kinda of made violently overthrowing your government sound completely rational and logical. I’ve seen this sort of thing in my travels with counter cultures. When I took a paid position as a canvasser against the transportation of nuclear waste for example; it would have been right about the same time Francis was writing this book. One night, an anarchist joined us and took a few minutes to explain that she thought the only way to ultimately end the nation’s support of nuclear weapons was to violently overthrow the government, take control of said weapons, and of course, she and her minions would do the right thing and dismantle them. She didn’t say too much about killing untold numbers of people in gaining that power, but it seemed to be her plan. No one joined her army that night and I have no idea what became of her.

Schaeffer takes a longer view of history. In this book for instance, he builds his case by listing many of the wars that took place between Protestants and Catholics. When the Protestants won, he tells the story about an evil Catholic King who was deposed and the people of that kingdom were saved further oppression, because they now had a Protestant ruler and were free to be, well, Protestants. When the Protestants lost, he said they were martyred. Just as modern news of war talks of the brave soldiers defending freedom and is less generous about those who die daily from our constant shelling, these stories soften you up for the call to action.


He then further builds his case using a “just war” theory from Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince; a Dispute for the Just Prerogative of King and People, published in 1644. Apparently this is a quite famous work. As shown in the bottom paragraph here, Shaeffer, using Rutherford’s logic, believed it was the duty of the people to execute God’s will when the government body does not. On the next page, he compares this to Bob Dylan. He says the differences in language changes nothing, although I would say Rutherford is a little stronger in his suggestion of an actual uprising, and Schaeffer later minces no words at all.

There certainly were those who listened to Dylan and were inspired to shot at cops or bomb government buildings, but Dylan was not telling them to do that anymore than the Beatles were sending secret messages to Charles Manson. I couldn’t copy the whole book, but on page 110 Schaeffer says it is time to use appropriate forms of protest, and in other places, he is definitely leaning toward what Rutherford called “lawful resistance”. He was suggesting doing more than marching around with cardboard signs. On this page he is talking about how the ACLU  has taken God out of the schools. In later pages he speaks to the problem of the government supporting abortions.


To be very clear, I advocate none of this. I don’t want people to have abortions, but there are better ways to reduce the need for them than by picketing abortion clinics. Until it becomes a regular part of our government to throw people out of their homes, or force people to worship one way or the other, or to lock people up for their thoughts, I’m not ready to take up arms against them. I know those things happen, and more often than I’d like, but we still have legal means to undo them and to punish our police when they need to be policed. There was a time in my life when I broke the law on a daily basis, but I never thought that the system of law itself was unjust. It has unjust aspects, but that’s part of living in a democracy, you aren’t supposed to like everything about it. Nor are you required to. If you don’t, you can work to change it.

So, back to this book. I could be wrong about what Francis Schaeffer actually meant. A central point of it though, and I think he does a good job of making this point, is that the idea of there being a higher law, one that transcends temporary governments and power structures, has been around for a long time, perhaps for as long as there have been power structures. There has always been a resistance of some sort. Most of them we don’t hear about, because they don’t have the power and never get it.

It doesn’t matter if that resistance is fighting for “free love” or for “moral power”, the rhetoric will sound very similar in either case. They will call the law makers law breakers, or worse they will call them rapists and murderers. What Schaeffer is a little less quick to mention, is they, or someone who hears them, will then justify bending the rules just a little in the name of their higher authority. When you can convince someone that you have tapped into the transcendent reality, and that they are now privy to that special knowledge, you can get them to do just about anything.

I’m trying to present all of this without judgment. When you are unfamiliar with the background information of a culture, something like a doctor being shot in cold blood for performing abortions or a protest erupting into violence can be a shocking story with no rhyme or reason. But rarely do such things come out of nowhere. Manifestos by people living in shacks in the woods are rare, and typically less coherent. Anarchists like the one I met, show up, break a few windows and fade into the background. But organizations like the ACLU and the Evangelical Church will probably be around for a while. We’re going to need to find ways to get those two camps together.

If you click around the link to the L’Abri Institute above, it’s more than just an introduction to who Francis Schaeffer was. It tells of his work that included trying to understand just what the 60’s counter culture wanted, something I'd like to see more of from that side. If you follow the link to the ACLU, you’ll see they fight for everyone’s rights, not just against religion or for liberal causes. And as we found out last November, there is something they are not listening to either. If you are unfamiliar with one or the other of these histories, I can see how it would seem like there is some evil force in the world that needs to be countered. If you are unfamiliar with both, the world would seem chaotic indeed.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Compromise is Anathema

I'm just going to park this here, so I don't lose it. It's a story as good as Romeo and Juliet or Ruth from the Old Testament.

Ex-Westboro TED talk

Monday, March 6, 2017

Back to the Shack

There are no what I would call “spoilers” in this review. The trailer tells you that the little girl is killed in this movie. That is the central story. It is not a murder mystery, and I won’t talk about those parts anyway. It’s an unusual movie with a lot of quiet conversations, sitting around a table or a campfire. There’s plenty of story too, and no gratuitous violence. But, if you want to form your own opinions, see the movie first.

So, I went to see the movie “The Shack” this weekend. I liked it much better than the book; partly because it only lasted an hour and a half. But seriously folks, go see this movie. The book has sold over 20 million copies, so someone you know has likely read it, although they might not be talking about it.  That might be because the best parts of this story are the ones that aren’t on the surface. I see three layers.

The first one is the obvious one; man has a difficult childhood with his church-going but abusive father and never quite buys into Christianity, then comes into the fold in the end. The next layer is a little deeper, revealing a softer, modern theology, but one that still holds on to Jesus is real, prayers are answered sometimes, and there is a heaven and our lack of faith is the reason for hell. This is the layer that the author of the book talks about in interviews. It’s the theology that he wanted to describe through story, for his children, when he wrote the book. The third layer comes from his life experiences and is not expressed directly in much of the dialog. It appears in the book, sometimes seemingly by accident then disappears as he goes back to hammering you with the speeches by “Papa” the God figure, His Son, and a few words from the Spirit.

In the movie, you are spared those lengthy dialog. You still get the big questions, like “why does God let bad things happen”, and you get the same inadequate answer, that He doesn’t “purpose” them. But then, there is no adequate answer to the problem of how to be perfectly loving and perfectly merciful and all powerful. You can’t allow people to be who they are, and forgive them when they harm others, and also love everyone but not use your power to protect them. Those who try to make this system work, have to give up something or add some ad-hoc reasoning. Paul Young does it by reducing God’s powers. Also, like many theologians, amateur or otherwise, he puts some of the burden on people. When Augustine does this, you end up with “original sin”, making people responsible for their own suffering. When Young does it, it almost comes out like humanism. We can’t save the world, so we have to forgive each other when we fail.

One scene from the book I had forgotten is when Mac, the hero of the story, meets Wisdom. She sits on the throne of judgment, where Mac has been sitting all his life without realizing it. You might know someone like this. But Mac’s judgment was not tempered by wisdom. She offers, and then insists that he take that seat. She shows him many images of people deserving of retributive justice, and Mac gladly condemns them to hell. Then he is shown his own father. Then he sees that man as a boy, being abused himself. Knowing who to judge suddenly gets more complicated.

This does not cure him of being judgmental; there is no way to stop that. If we don’t judge, we don’t know good from bad. But it widens his perspective on the whole of humanity. Not long after that moment, he sees how his anger at the man who killed his child has blinded him and separated him from the love of his family. Now he has judgment tempered by wisdom, the ability to forgive, including forgiving himself.

Unfortunately, the movie, or what I remember from the book, doesn’t give you much more on this. If we all had the power of God to forgive and also the power to love people so much that they would do less of the things that needed forgiveness, the world would be a more peaceful place. But we don’t. Bad things happen. Evil exists. Forgiveness is necessary. But forgiveness is what comes after. We still need to judge good from evil, and be aware of intentions, and take actions to prevent evil when we can.

That’s the humanist message I was talking about; we can’t change what has happened, but we can look at what led to it happening, we can understand that people usually do the best they can given the circumstances they are handed. We can learn from the mistakes and work together for something better. We can hope that people eventually see the error of their ways, or that some good comes from bad. But that is not guaranteed. It may take a generation or longer to see something grow out of whatever ashes someone left behind. We may be left with nothing but a bad example to remember and to try to avoid. In the end, all we have is each other.



Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Milepost100?

I've been focusing less on creating new Milepost100 sermon helpers and instead adding to my background knowledge. One big source for that has been Richard Carrier's recent work, “On the Historicity of Jesus”. In this peer reviewed scholarly book, he applies modern tools to the questions surrounding Jesus and discusses how two approaches to the New Testament have failed; the religious apologist, who attempts to find the meaning that has been handed down by the theologians for centuries, and the historian who looks for some historical truth behind the text.

“Modern apologists respond with implausible ad-hoc harmonizations, while historians attempt to isolate the historical truth behind the conflicting accounts. This method has been found invalid. If the gospels are myth, both efforts are futile. Both assume the author is recording a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead they are intending to construct myths about Jesus, we don't expect historicity, they aren't trying to distinguish fact from fiction, so the text does not give it to us. External evidence helps, and we can't use this approach to disprove historicity, but it does limit our ability to determine historicity. Instead our focus would be to extract the mytho-symbolic meaning and intent.” 

To answer that question, it is more important to look at the background information, the history of what was happening while the scripture was being written, and what earlier scripture they would have had available to them at the time. This is the opposite of how Christianity is presented to us now, beginning with the birth of Christ and following through to later letters written about him as if he existed. It is presented that way, but in actuality, those letters were written first, by someone who never claimed to have met a living Jesus. The accounts of his actions in life, came much later by different authors.

To begin before that, at the beginning, with Genesis and one family, is to ignore all the other creation stories that were being written at the time. It ignores that there were very few who could write at all. There were no fact checkers, no media watch dogs. If you wanted to write a counter narrative to someone else's myth, you wrote another myth, using the same characters, but added a new element that expressed your values and your desired outcome.

Any phrases inserted on an ad-hoc basis that claim the writing is true are there to attach the value message to the story. These were not notes to future readers in future millenia, these were devices for the illiterate, telling them to simply remember the name of John and don't be like those who are like Thomas. The listener then could express their values through that simple formula and had no need to remember a chain of logical arguments or even a list of what the values are. If anyone asked, they could refer them back to the story.

Biblical writing has special challenges because we have so many translations, so many copies and so many differences across those copies. The slight changes made back when copies were done by hand could have been mistakes, or they could have been purposeful redactions to steer the political message in a new direction. We know that this type of changing of the narrative happened in modern times and have no reason to believe it didn't happen back then.

It doesn't help that Romans were attempting near genocide of the Jews just as the gospels were being written in the late 1st century, or as the Romans would have said, “repressing a rebellion”. They lost track of who the authors actually were and they had far fewer tools than we do now for determining truth from fiction in the writings they were left with in the early 2nd century. We can't be certain what later emperors were thinking, but just as myth writers are more concerned with message over facts, the 3rd and 4th century co-opting of the message of this tiny Jewish sect  certainly helped both the emperors and the Catholics.

The rest is history, and history that we can become increasingly more confident about as we get closer to the present. We also get better at interpreting earlier history. We find more artifacts and we determine by the lack of evidence, that some things are highly improbable. We are also very far removed from any conquering Roman emperors who might not want us asking pesky questions.

So I will leave the medieval history to the historians. I may mention it occasionally, but only to point out how a particular verse led to a later belief. I may also mention an early church father who was just as sceptical as I am about the truth of a particular passage. Primarily, I want to put myself into the mind of peasants under extremely difficult living conditions, hearing a message of hope for their people.

Milepost 100. The sermon helper that doesn't tell you what to think.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Liberals aren't hearing from Conservatives, and vice versa

Half a lifetime ago, I went to a community organizing planning meeting and someone brought up the issue of providing child care. The event that was being planned was going to be out of town, with an overnight stay and families were invited. Surprisingly, the idea of child care was met with some opposition. People with children were expected to figure out how to attend and function in adult group sessions and, I don’t know, keep their children quiet or something. I was a single young man at the time, so I had no reason to care until someone pointed out that I should and I realized I was being thoughtless. I’ve brought this issue up at almost every group I’ve been part of since, and not much has changed.

To put a fine point on it, this includes my stint as a board member for a group called “Kids Against Hunger”. KAH events require children to be at least 8 years old, but the organization is geared around encouraging kids to participate. It’s in the name. It’s a family fun time, packing meals for other children who need food. It reinforces the education of what chronic hunger is by having them participate with their bodies and relate to people who look just like them. But my other board members balked at the idea of providing child care. Did they not realize that families with 8 year olds in them also often have children less than 8 years old in them? Did they not realize that they were forcing those families to send us only one adult and leave the other at home to take care of the toddlers?

This is what conservatives mean when they tell liberals that we are forgetting about families. Liberal events tend to be marches, letter writing campaigns, protests, speeches and book groups. Conservatives are generally what you think of when you say “hog roast” or “spaghetti dinner”. But there is no silver bullet I’m proposing here. The Lesbian Wiccan Bikers for Peace aren’t going to pull off a Corn Feed and expect soccer moms to show up. Even if they provide child care.

Another story about KAH illustrates how this divide cuts both ways. I was asked to speak at the County Fair to the inter-denominational service on Sunday Morning. A sizable collection was taken and it was put in the charge of the church that organized the service, earmarked for a future KAH event. After that service, someone from that church came up to me and asked if I believed the Bible was the literal word of God. I didn’t give him a straight answer, but he knew my answer was “no”. I told him we are a 501(c)3 non-profit, not a religious organization. That event never happened. My phone calls were not returned.

If I can’t talk about family with people who want to fight conservative politics and I can’t talk about the politics of chronic hunger without passing a religious test, we’re all screwed. People who care only about themselves will use those divisions to keep us from working together and even working at direct odds against each other. They know how to speak to both sides and get what they want from either. They will profit from our pain. They will sail off in their yachts while we argue about what color and shape our bread should be and where our strawberries came from and the size of our guns and how we wear our pants and when we can kneel and when we shouldn’t and how many terrorists there are and how afraid we should be and what you can say on TV and what the President shouldn’t say and who can buy a wedding cake and where the universe came from and what we are all doing here anyway.


"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Everything old...

Before I could vote, I called older people “The Establishment”, and thought maybe Russia might have some good ideas. I thought our government was not legitimate and didn’t care too much about other people outside my little world. I thought laws were too strict and repressive. 

Then I grew up. I realized we have a pretty decent system of agreeing how to deal with our differences, and sometimes war and imprisonment are necessary. But in the last few months, it seems like those childish ideas are the ones getting voted in. So I made this comparison between now and 40 years ago.

1977

  • Considered communism as a potentially viable government system for the USA. 
  • Supported protests against lying and war mongering government that was building toward  nuclear war.
  • Pretty much nihilist and self-centered moral compass. 
  • Called older people “the establishment” and thought they were out of touch.
  • Advocated for the reform of marijuana laws and jailing of people for minor and harmless crimes.
  • Pretty sure the lies coming out the White House were the “tip of the iceberg”.
  • Questioned the legitimacy of the President (unelected President Ford and Vice President Rockefeller).
  • Uncomfortable with patriotic celebrations like the bicentennial.
  • Wondered if there was a conspiracy in the government, a secret hidden government.


In between now and then, up to just a couple years ago, my trust in government grew, I understood the complexities of compromise and economic trade-offs and that conspiracies are usually not true, or are quite transparent and get discovered within a matter of years, not decades or centuries. Most elected officials are honest and try to do what they say. That’s still true. Much of the above seemed childish and uninformed when I looked back on it, up to just last summer. 

The difference today is half of the government officials are publicly saying they want to destroy the progress we’ve made in the name of some unclear political agenda. So that leads to the comparative list for this year:

2017

  • Understand that socialism is what we actually have and we’re a leader among the other free countries with a mix of democracy and socialism and a republic.
  • Support protests against a Republican party that supports dictatorships currently killing children and taking over weaker countries.
  • Have an ethical system (basically “moral realism”, if you want to google it).
  • Don’t use the word “establishment” anymore. People of all ages can be corrupt and violent and self-serving and ignorant. Older people, as well as younger, are supporting foreign governments, defending their self-centered morals, and labeling others instead of getting to know them. Many of them adopted the attitudes from above, attitudes I had when I was 17 years old.
  • Drug laws have actually progressed, more people are getting high and not getting busted, but the privatized prison system has become a version of debtor’s prison out of the Dark Ages .

The rest of list from above had pretty much dropped out of memory, until this last few weeks. I hope that reverses again soon. We have made such progress toward a healthier and more inclusive world, one that works for everybody. Let’s not throw it all away.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Grain of Sand

You are as insignificant as a grain of sand. It takes so many grains of sand to make a desert, each grain is insignificant. Even if that grain is taken up by an oyster and makes a pearl, then the pearl is insignificant. It's merely a reaction to an irritation.  It doesn't matter to the desert. It doesn't matter to the ocean. It doesn't matter that the ocean gives life or that it is lined with beautiful coral reefs. Those reefs are just there to be eaten by the fish and excreted as sand to be washed up on a beach and blown back into the desert. 

All of that is part of something so large that it is beyond comprehension, rendering each part insignificant. It is a vast, incomprehensible collection of insignificant things, rendering the whole just as insignificant. It could be nothing else. There is nothing against which we can judge significance. 

Your statements, your thoughts about the "is" that it is, are meaningless to all the interactions of all the galaxies and all the waves on the all the shores. Your thoughts are just that, yours. You think them. You write them down.
You speak them. You live with them.