A Blogging Experiment

In previous years, my blogging was quite sporadic and inconsistent. This year, I tried writing one blog post a week, and it seemed to be fairly successful, both at getting ideas out and at writing more consistently.

I plan the same for 2014. Enjoy!

When Principles Collide

One of the things about growing up with a sheltered life is that you rarely ever have to stand up for your principles. This could be due to several reasons: maybe they’re not really your principles, but your parents’; maybe you’re just not placed into situations where conflicts occur; maybe your principles themselves seek to avoid confrontation. I recall so many times when I was younger that I had some well thought-out idea for something but then instead went along with someone else’s idea without question, in the interest of avoiding conflict. I’m not saying that you should always insist what you’re doing is correct, but I think on the spectrum I was too far on the side of passivity.

Throughout college (and perhaps starting senior year of high school), I found myself more often at points where I needed to disagree. It wasn’t really conflict for the sake of conflict, but rather to get to the truth or to make a situation better, by challenging faulty ideas or plans. I think this change is evident on my blog: in the past, most of the topics I wrote about were very non-controversial, but recently, they have been more questioning of commonly held ideas. Granted, my online persona (including on Facebook) and my real life character are still quite different—in real life I don’t go around seeking to criticize peoples’ religious beliefs, an activity that is reserved for the internet. That’s another topic.

Contradictory Principles

For a really simple example, consider the principles “be honest” and “don’t be a jerk.” Everyone follows these principles, and most of the time they support each other. You’d be quite a jerk if you lied to your friends about so many things to the point where nothing you say has any credibility. However, when you find minor fault in something someone did, you could be honest and tell them, but most of the time it’s better to be silent about it. Of course, the best choice depends all on the situation.

contradiction-signs
I respect both ownership rights and aesthetic cleanliness—do I pollute whitespace by citing the image source, especially if the image isn’t all that special?

Perhaps a more pertinent contradiction is that between tolerance of others and… tolerance of others. For example, most of my audience probably tolerates the LGBT community. Yet, there are many people in America who do not. This leads to a tolerance paradox (that I think many of us don’t think about): Is is possible to simultaneously be tolerant of LGBT individuals and tolerant of people who are intolerant of them? Is a hypothetical all-tolerant person also tolerant of intolerance?

This depends somewhat on how you define tolerance, but it points to a deeper issue, that simply using the principle “tolerate others” is insufficient in these fringe cases. There must be some overriding principle that tells you what to be tolerant of and what not to be tolerant of. I think that being intolerant of intolerance is still tolerant.

In chess, one of the most important principles, among the first to be taught to new players, is to never lose their queen unless they can get the opponent’s queen as well. While this is a great principle 99.9% of the time, there are cases where losing your queen (for no pieces or just a pawn in return) is the best move, and there are even cases where it is the only non-losing move. It’s because the principle of “win the game” overrides the principle of “don’t lose your queen.”

Interestingly enough, even meta-principles can contradict one another. For me, “stand up for your principles” is a good principle, and so is “be open-minded about your principles.” Often blindly standing up for principles is a very bad idea (in the typical novel/movie, the antagonist may have good intentions but focuses on one idea or principle to the exclusion of all others, thus causing more overall harm than good; on the other hand, this principle seems required to become a politician).

Throughout my first two years of college, I wanted to go into academia, and I naively shunned finance because I thought people went into it just for money. Of course, once you start thinking about what to do after college and the need for money comes closer, you realize that you need money to live(!) and that despite the negative outside perception, the industry is not all evil people trying to figure out how to suck away all your money. Of course, on the “stand up for your principles” front, this change fails pretty hard, but it follows “being open-minded about your principles,” which I consider to override the first in this case. After all (to add one more layer of contradiction), it is standing up for the principle of being open-minded.

Response to a Response

  • Original post (“On God and Victim Blaming”): [link]
  • Response: [link]

I am glad that you are willing to lay down your thoughts and discuss them. We are in agreement about most things, and that is good. We both agree that many bad things have been done in the name of Christianity. As you said, “I agree with you that people have said pretty bone-headed things using the Bible for support, as you have duly noted at the beginning. Justification of slavery, rape, polygamy, war, almost everything under the sun has been done ‘because of the Bible.'”

Where we disagree is what the cause is. I argue in various blog posts that these “bone-headed things” are intrinsic to the common properties of religion, and the fact that we as a society has progressed this far is in spite of religion, with the recent social progress (women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights) being closely connected to religion’s declining oppressive power in society. On the other hand, you argue that the “bone-headed things” follow from wrong interpretations of Christianity, and that those who take Bible passages literally, often out of context, are not true Christians.

This is partly a definition difference as I am defining Christianity currently to be the religion based on Jesus Christ, whereas you seem to be defining Christianity currently to be the good parts that remain after society deems some parts of it good and other parts of it bad. To avoid seeming too abstract, I want to give a concrete example of what I am saying here. You said:

But before attributing this to Christianity, I want you to ask what kind of “Christianity” they actually believe. It might not, and probably in most circumstances isn’t, be even compatible with the Bible except for maybe the few verses they’ve pulled out of context. The whole tirade on gays by certain “Christian” groups (God hates gays), for example, clearly contradicts Jesus’s teachings. And not just superficially, it utterly runs counter to it.

It is interesting that you mention gays. The Bible is very, very, very clearly anti-homosexual. But as you pointed out, this seems to contradict some of the main messages of Jesus like to not judge and to love everyone equally. It is of course more complicated than that, but there are several ways to resolve this paradox:

  1. The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are actually invalid, and therefore should be ignored. This runs into a couple of issues. First, this betrays the sacredness of the Bible. From what I’ve seen, some Christians are extremely reluctant to admit even a part of the Bible as invalid. This makes sense because the Bible is supposed to be an infallible, holy book. If even one passage is wrong and should be ignored, that makes the whole book no longer infallible, and every other passage is now open to question. Secondly, it destroys the concept that morality comes only through God or only from the Bible. If it’s up to us humans to decide which parts of the Bible to follow and not follow, then on what basis are we making that decision? Clearly not from the Bible.
  2. The parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality are merely outdated, and therefore should be ignored. This is slightly different from the first case, as maybe God decided that homosexuality was bad only in ancient times, and that it’s okay now. In addition to running into the same issues as in the first case, this runs into the issue of why the Bible should even be used today at all. Maybe pillaging a village was okay by ancient standards, but that would be considered barbaric today. So why take any lessons at all from a two-thousand-year-old book?
  3. The Bible actually does not condemn homosexuality, and in fact, upon a “true reading,” it supports marriage equality. I would feel quite offended if I were a discriminated member of the LGBT community upon hearing this after decades of hellfire speech. “Sorry, we read it wrong for so many years and condemned you so much but it was all because we were just waiting until the last moment to agree with the rest of society. But don’t worry, we really supported you all along.” Really? While this seems to be a happy ending on the surface, it only demonstrates how religion is a reactionary system that must keep (reluctantly) adapting its ancient values to modern society to not lose its followers. Plus, this runs into similar issues as above. If we were all wrong about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, could we all be wrong about other things? Like contraception? Or abortion? Maybe upon a “true reading,” the Bible is actually very strongly pro-choice and treats the pro-life view as ungodly.

However, even if Christians are divided today about an issue such as marriage equality, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Christians in the year 1900, for instance, were against it. (Heck, even from recent years, only 27% favored same-sex marriage in 1996, whereas a whopping 48% did in 2012; in 1996 only 6% strongly favored it, while in 2012 it was 22%.) So if it really is the third and most optimistic case, that the Bible is wrongly interpreted, then why would it be wrongly interpreted for two thousand years? Would a benevolent personal God have his Word written in such an ambiguous way that, due to popular beliefs of the time, would certainly be misconstrued to cause persecution of a group for two thousand years?

If option 3 were to be generally agreed upon (and I think it’s quite likely in the near future), I fear it will only be used to further justify a messed up system. It will only advance the Christian rhetoric of “God is great. He supported same-sex marriage all along, and our wrong interpretation for two thousand years only goes to show how flawed humans are and how we are all subservient to the almighty God.” This is the main difference in our points of view. If #3 occurred, I assume based on what you wrote that you would consider that as more evidence of Christianity’s benevolence (correct me if I’m wrong). In contrast, I would consider that as evidence of how flawed Christianity is as a system. For instance, I think this “war on marriage” debacle could have been avoided from the start if we had abandoned the use of religion as moral guidance.

So yes, Christianity is extremely slow to change to match social progress sparked by more noble human values. One might object, “But that’s not true Christianity, ideally Christianity would adapt quickly.” But I would wonder if this is just doing further definition adjustments, namely defining Christianity to be what is currently considered good (or selective Bible passage-picking to achieve this means), with the circular result that Christianity is good.

As pointed out earlier, since we are changing what is considered to be a correct interpretation of the Bible, if Christianity suddenly accepts homosexuality, then it must reconsider its views on everything else as they were all based on some interpretation of the Bible. Christianity cannot simply go “Okay homosexuality is okay now, by the way abortion is still wrong.” Of course, there is a high probability of precisely that happening.

Now, back to your response. You spend a great percent of the response justifying the Bible passages I cited, and provided contexts for them to argue why they are not what it might seem they are saying. However, even with the “context” and the different interpretation, they still send very wrong messages. I’ll keep the original statements in bold and add the context you provided.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

-Ephesians 5:22-33

Even with this context, it is still a blatantly sexist passage. Wives are told to submit to their husbands, whereas husbands are told to love their wives. How are submitting and loving on the same level? Should a slave submit to their master merely in return for the slaveowner loving the slave?

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:13-25

Even when talking about “servants” and not necessarily about “slaves,” this passage still promotes blind obedience and submitting to authority. In the end, it blatantly promotes being a “sheep.”

The Isaiah passage is quite long so I will quote your explanation here:

Prepare slaughter for his sons
    because of the guilt of their fathers,
lest they rise and possess the earth,
    and fill the face of the world with cities.

First, note that this is specifically talking about Babylon, the nation. Second, the literary style is is more figurative and poetic in nature. This is not a mandate to wantonly kill sons for the guilt of their fathers. So since we are talking about Babylon, the use of the pronoun “his” is clearly referring to the Babylon. In other words, it’s saying prepare slaughter for the Babylonians because of the history of Babylon, lest Babylon rise and possess the earth and fill it with tyrants. I think this is comparable to saying prepare destruction for Hitler’s Germany, lest it tyrannizes the earth. Obviously there are differences, such as God did not destroy the Babylonians immediately, but waited for quite a while. Second, it does not follow that God told Israel to commit the “slaughter,” or even that he allowed them to even participate in it. This is a taunt. Rather, God declares that He will be the one doing the destruction.

I still find it strange that you would worship a God that would wantonly slaughter. There are so many issues relating to the problem of suffering that would relate to this passage as well. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent entity even be in a situation that He needs to taunt His own creation that is evil because He made it? But even on the current topic, I still don’t see how the context makes wanton murder, even by God, justifiable.

Next, also with your response:

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Now, 2 Samuel, regarding the story of David and Bathsheba. There’s not much context here to speak of besides the entire story itself. Basically, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and indirectly kills Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Because David chose to sin, God responds with punishment. Not exactly sure how this is victim blaming or anything like that. Rather, the issue I see here is one of theology; namely, why does a good, omniscient, and all-powerful God permit evil, or is this God even coherent? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question, because it is way too complicated to deal with in an already long response, but many people have written on this subject. However, to give a taste of a response, I think if God, in permitting evil, can bring about a greater good, then it is more reasonable to accept. This is not the same as the ends justify the means, because God is omniscient. Again, this is not meant to be fully laid out argument.

Do you not consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Rape in “broad daylight”? Does something being permissible from God make it moral? Nor does it justify how punishing the son for the sins of a father is acceptable.

Regarding Deuteronomy 20, I am slightly surprised that you would include this passage and not the next few verses. Anyways, here it is.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as theLord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 20:10-18

Again I ask you, does the context really justify it? Your explanation was:

First, this is specifically for the nation of Israel, regarding the conduct of war. Note that this is ONLY conduct; it alone does not imply that Israel should go out and conquer and rule over other lands in an imperialistic fashion, oppressing the people there….

Obviously war causes different conduct. But in modern times we don’t put every male to the sword and take all the women and children as plunder. In the context of my original article being about rape victim blaming, that was my main point. Even for war standards, it’s still a barbaric code of conduct.

Finally, you attempt to justify 1 Timothy 2:12.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

And how is that not incredibly sexist even with the context?

First, it is not consistent with scripture to say that women are not valued…. Second, God has used women throughout Scripture in many important ways (Rahab, Esther, Deborah, etc), including prophetesses, so its not as if women cannot hold authority over men or to teach in the general case.

Do you really want to argue that the Bible is not sexist?

The traditional Christian view of men and women is not equality in the modern sense, but compatibility. That is, men and women play different roles, but neither is inferior to the other. Rather, they complement each other. It’s like saying what’s more important for human life, water or oxygen? If you want to call this sexism, then fine. It’s nothing more than saying there is a difference between a woman and a man. So then the question is in what ways are men and women compatible, and is that coherent? I’m sure there’s much debate on this particular topic, as there is on this particular verse, even among Christians. At the very least, it does not follow from this verse that women are inferior. And for the record, I have no personal objections to female leadership and remain open-minded about this particular subject (and I hope I’m not subjugating other women, though others should probably tell me if I am).

I’ve never heard this view seriously expressed before. I guess I’ll see what other Christians have to say about that view. At first impression though, it reeks of the “separate but equal” sentiment. I’m not saying you’re subjugating women, but if you are going to continue to defend 1 Timothy 2:11-15, then your views aren’t far from it.

Overall your defense of these passages was quite surprising to me. Have you ever seriously considered the possibility that some of these passages might simply be wrong?

Now I have numerous objections to your paragraph on Hell and on the next paragraph, so I will break them up.

With regards to hell, I think it is important to have a coherent theology of it. Even Christians disagree on what exactly it is, other than something that’s really bad for all eternity.

It is really hard to justify how “something that’s really bad for all eternity” is compatible with a benevolent God. For the problem of suffering, even passing over suffering on Earth for a moment, how can you possibly justify Hell? How can you justify why an entity that would create Hell is worthy of worship?

So first, did God create something flawed? No, humans were originally perfect, although they had the capability of being flawed, as demonstrated by the Fall

This makes no sense.

Second, what exactly is the punishment for sinning? Ultimately, it is being separated from God. But if God is the source of all good, then being removed from the source of all good means that there is nothing good left, hence the terrible descriptions of fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth.

In other words, punishment for sinning is Hell. Your suggestion that God might be the source of all good affirms my argument that you are merely wishfully defining Christianity or God to be that which is “good” (yet obviously what we think of as “good” is determined by our society).

In other words, it is impossible to enjoy good things without God. One may argue that in the present world, people who never believe in God still enjoy good things, but that’s because God has not completely stepped back from the picture, but is still involved.

This also doesn’t really make sense. How does God’s involvement with the world affect whether people who do not believe in God enjoy good things? Furthermore, what do you mean by “believe in”? Does a nominal or cultural Christian believe in God?

I will agree with you in that I have doctrinal issues with the statement “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it.” So what is meant by this statement is that, God gives people a choice: either to be with God or be separated from God. The first is heaven, the second is hell, due to the nature of who God is. There are doctrinal disputes on what exactly hell is, if God actively/passively punishes people in hell, etc. but it’s not particularly relevant at this point. Now, more directly to the question of why God would create man if He knew that certain people were going to suffer for all eternity? This is much more complicated, and I would be a fool if I told you I had an answer. However, I think you’re conflating omniscience with causation. Just because God knows the action of men, does that mean He’s inherently responsible for them? I don’t think so, because He did not create humans as flawed beings. However, then this leads again to the problem of evil/suffering, where for some reason God allowed a world in which people could choose to sin, and they did.

I think you’re on the right path here.

I think I’ve covered most of the points you’ve talked about, at least briefly. What I’ve said here is definitely not complete, and I’m sure there are subsequent issues that remain to be dealt with. I personally don’t even think these are the toughest passages to swallow.

I wasn’t choosing the passages that I thought were toughest to swallow. I was choosing passages that demonstrated the support of victim blaming in Christian doctrine.

I will also agree that the Bible has been used to justify terrible things. However, that does not mean that it was a valid interpretation of the Bible.

How do you determine what is a “valid” interpretation of the Bible? As objected in the first part of this article, defining a valid interpretation to be the one that society happens to accept the most doesn’t actually defend Christianity.

At the same time, before criticizing what the Bible has to say, which you have every right to do, I would ask that you not misuse or misquote the Bible. At the very least, learn what the traditional view of Christianity says on the topic and why before you present your own counterpoint to that view, because virtually none of these challenges are new. The Bible IS over 2000 years old, after all.

Since we are defining whatever we want, how do you know you are not misusing or misquoting the Bible more than I am? From my perspective, for instance, you are the one misusing the Bible by taking a work of fiction so seriously as nonfiction, thus contributing to bringing about intolerance and impeding social progress. Also, the original post was not to present new challenges to Christianity, but to present new ways of looking at feminism and religion, namely the similarity in victim blaming of rape victims and of God’s victims. It’s probably not a new idea, but at least its something that most people don’t consider. Finally, the Bible being 2000 years old is reason enough for it to NOT be used as moral guidance for modern society. All the objections to individual passages are just a bonus.

In addition, there is one last minor point I wish to address:

I know very little of the Qu’ran, so I will refrain from commenting on that. However, I do hope to study it in the future, even though a supposed “true reading” of it requires knowledge of Arabic.

While lack of knowledge is a noble reason to refrain from comment, you mentioned as a caveat that a “true reading” of the Quran requires knowledge of Arabic. Depending on how you define “true reading,” this may be true, but the caveat misses the point. Typically, the argument that the Quran must be read in Arabic is to hide it from criticism (Christianity does its fair share too of coming up with ways to discourage people from criticizing the Bible). Perhaps a “true reading” of Mein Kampf requires scholarly knowledge of German, but that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize its ideas after reading an English translation, or even after knowing that Hitler wrote it.

Even then, I think all these minor points are somewhat missing the big picture, though I did want to clarify my views. The big picture argument is as presented in the first part of this post, that our definitions of Christianity are different, and that (based on your defense of the various Bible passages and also your statement on gays) you seem to think of Christianity as having all these positive views or tolerance of certain groups when it in fact reluctantly accepted them only after decades or centuries of oppressing the ones who had those views or belonged to those groups. You think of “true readings” or true interpretations to be definitionally the ones that agree the most with what we currently think in 2013 (like scanning for obscure interpretations of Nostradamus’s writing to show that he “predicted” something, when we are in fact imposing what we already know is true into ambiguous writing). Throughout history, those being oppressed by Christianity (blacks, women, scientists, “witches,” homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, followers of other religions, etc.) couldn’t voice their criticism of the system because they couldn’t criticize something that is defined to be that which is good. But of course, under a “true reading,” Christianity was supportive of all of them all along.

Game of Definitions

The single most frustrating thing I’ve encountered recently in discussions of religion is the confusion that arises when one word has multiple (and sometimes a spectrum of) definitions. Just to illustrate an obviously nonsensical case:

Him: You believe that nature exists, don’t you?
Me: Yeah, of course.
Him: And might you consider God as the laws of nature?
Me: Umm, sure, that kinda makes sense [metaphorically].
Him: Ah, good then, I see that you’ve just accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

As an example of the fallacy called equivocation, clearly the naturalistic “God” in the third line is much different from the specific theistic God implied in the fifth. The vast number of differences between the laws of nature and the Judeo-Christian God prevent you from simply saying, “Nature is awesome, therefore Christianity is true!”

“God”

While this kind of argument is typically not used as directly as stated above, it’s abused so much in discussions of God’s existence. Even though I introduced the argument as an “obviously nonsensical” one, I’ve had that discussion in person at least once.

God_Nature_Demotivational_Poster

After the “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” argument (which is like saying “You can’t prove that Fairies don’t exist” as proof of the existence of Fairies), definition-twisting seems to be the next go-to defense of God’s existence.

  • God is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore God must exist.
  • God is Love, and you’d be a cold, heartless person to not believe in Love, therefore you think God exists.
  • God is the Unknown, and you can’t possibly know everything, therefore God exists.
  • God is Wonder, and we wonder about things, therefore God exists.
  • God is a Higher Power.
  • God is Fate
  • God is Chance.
  • Etc.

Logically, these are all empty statements. If God literally meant “Nature” and everyone in the world who considers themselves religious actually just appreciates nature very enthusiastically, then of course God (by definition) exists, and I wouldn’t be calling myself an atheist or wasting my time talking about this on the internet.

  • (The Flying Spaghetti Monster is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists.)

Unfortunately for the world, God as the target of mass worship is not Nature, or Love, or the Unknown, or Wonder. In America, it primarily refers to the Christian God which behaves as prescribed in the Bible. This difference is of crucial importance. When a more religious Christian refers to God, they are referring to a completely different concept than that of a Deist or naturalist.

As interpreted by a vast number of Americans, God has done particular things in the past and has particular views on many social issues, and for an apologist to claim that God equals Nature is utterly wrong and misleading. Nature doesn’t tell a father to sacrifice his son on the altar and then call it off as a test at the last moment. Love doesn’t wipe out cities or command mass murder. The Unknown does not forbid homosexuality as a sin. Wonder does not set a death penalty on people who work Sundays. Redefining God as something good does not make the entity of the original definition worthy of worship.

“Religious,” “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim”

There is no similarity between the “God” of Albert Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” and that of John McTernan’s “The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.”

Einstein has said, “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” And also: “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”

Though hurricanes hitting New Orleans are in the realm of nature, McTernan’s “God” is obviously not Nature, but a being with a purpose or goal, acting in a highly anthropomorphic fashion. Here’s a link to the original article:

The fact the events are seven years apart is very significant as this number is biblically important. It is the number of completion: God created the universe in seven days. The church, city and nation have not repented and the homosexual agenda is far worse than it was in 2005. New Orleans is still hosting Southern Decadence with open homosexuality manifesting in the streets of the city. It could be that God is putting an end to this city and its wickedness. The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.

Now hold on a second, says the liberal Christian. How can a true Christian say such demeaning things about homosexuals? A true Christian would be open and nice and caring and all those good things!

Of course, the conservative Christian would say the same thing back: a true Christian follows the Word of God! Are you denying that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin?

This is the No True Christian fallacy, where both sides claim to be Christian and condemn the other side for not being Christian. It means so little when someone says, “I’m a Christian” (unless your name is Christian!). Proclaiming Christianity gives virtually no information regarding one’s religious beliefs.

According to a Pew Research study on Jewish Americans, 62% of American Jews stated that being Jewish is mainly a matter of “ancestry/culture” while 15% stated it was mainly a matter of “religion,” the other 23% saying both. Adopting the terms (though clearly not the stats) for Christianity, we can roughly divide Christians into two groups: cultural Christians and religious (or biblical) Christians. It should be obvious for most Christians which group is closer to them.

Most Christians I know are cultural Christians, and even many non-Christians would identify with being culturally Christian. This only magnifies how vague the term “Christian” is.

The term “Muslim” makes the definition gap even wider, given how much more extreme the religious side is. Is a true Muslim the one who carries out a suicide bombing or “fights” for Islam, or the one who “sits at home”? Interestingly, the Quran itself contains an answer (hint: it’s not the peaceful option), though of course apologists will take the most positively propagandized interpretation of that and present such statements in the Quran as evidence that Islam as a religion of peace. I have no doubt that most Muslims are actual peace-seeking, friendly people; however, when a cultural Muslim says, “I am a Muslim,” that means an entirely different thing than when a religious Muslim says, “I am a Muslim.”

It would be so much easier to discuss this if there were different words for, say, cultural Muslim and religious Muslim, as saying two words gets tedious and these particular phrases still emphasize that the term Muslim is shared in common, though it is only an incidental similarity.

For example, in Nazi Germany (at the risk of upsetting Godwin’s law), obviously not all Germans were Nazis; in fact, many Germans held views against the Nazis and were actually persecuted by Nazis. But let us suppose that the exact same word were used for both “German” and “Nazi,” say the word “Gerzi.” Then when a British intellectual writes an anti-totalitarian criticism of Gerzism, which looks like a criticism of Gerzis, the Gerzis get upset, saying they don’t support totalitarianism and that the Gerzis being criticized are not true Gerzis. Thus the intellectual is forced to retract their statement for offending the Gerzis, all criticism of Gerzis is henceforth frowned upon (and is labeled Gerziphobia), and in the end, the uncontested Gerzis attain totalitarian power and start a world war. Fortunately, the Gerzis don’t have nuclear weapons.

“Cameron Diaz”

This is an illustrative passage from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell:

Suppose instead that I was convinced that I did have a secret helper but that it wasn’t you—it was Cameron Diaz. As I penned my thank-you notes to her, and thought lovingly about her, and marveled at her generosity to me, it would surely be misleading to say that you were the object of my gratitude, even though you were in fact the one who did the deeds that I am so grateful for. And then suppose I gradually began to suspect that I had been ignorant and mistaken, and eventually came to the correct realization that you were indeed the proper recipient of my gratitude. Wouldn’t it be strange for me to put it this way: “Now I understand: you are Cameron Diaz!” It would indeed be strange; it would be false—unless something else had happened in the interim. Suppose my acquaintances had become so used to my singing the praises of Cameron Diaz and her bountiful works that the term had come, to them and to me, to stand for whoever it was who was responsible for my joy. In that case, those syllables would no longer have their original use or meaning. The syllables “Cameron Diaz,” purportedly a proper name of a real individual, would have been turned—gradually and imperceptibly—into a sort of wild-card referring expression, the “name” of whoever (or whatever) is responsible for… whatever it is I am grateful for.

It’s pretty clear what this is a reference to. (But hey, at least Cameron Diaz exists.)

“Faith”

Yet another definition-game word is faith. Faith in its usual sense is belief lacking absolute proof, which is very different from belief absolutely lacking in proof, its extended definition as a religious term. As written before on this blog:

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.

In this case, normal faith is associated with lending to the billionaire. You obviously don’t have proof that the billionaire will return the investment, but you are reasonably sure. More hardcore faith is needed with the beggar: maybe you know some additional information or are a good friend of the beggar and know of his future job opportunities; point is, there is some conceivable scenario where you might give $100 to the beggar (at worst, some person now has some means of living for a while). However, religious faith in this analogy would be like taking your favorite box, emptying it, putting your $100 in there, burning the money, sealing the box, and then opening the box every year for the next ten years expecting to find $50 magically appear every time. No thinking person would ever do that.

“Atheist”

Of course, what it means to be “someone who doesn’t believe the existence of a god” will depend on the definition of “God” or “gods.”

There is a slight difference between not believing “…that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree” (summary taken from internet meme), and not having “a sense of wonder about the natural world.”

A couple of months ago, for instance, when swimmer Diana Nyad was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her show, Nyad considered herself an atheist but Oprah responded by telling her she was not. From Hemant Mehta:

The part that struck a chord with me — and many other atheists — was Winfrey’s dismissal of Nyad’s non-religious label. Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an Independent. Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.

If you define God in a way such that everyone believes in God, now you’ve shown that everyone believes in the new definition of God, but that doesn’t change what the original concept of God was, and it doesn’t make the older version any more likely to be true.

“Conclusion”

Talking about definitions these days is a banal task. Thanks to postmodern relativism (or whatever you call the phenomenon), we are used to questioning definitions of everything that can possibly be questioned—which is usually a good thing!—a bit too far. What is truth? Is all truth subjective? Is there nothing objective to be said? Is everything just a matter of biased perception, flavored by the individual? While these are great cognitive exercises, this thought process is unfortunately being applied to things that are not simply a matter of personal taste. “Is Islam justified in carrying out terror because it’s their cultural right to do so? Is it allowed to force women to wear veils because that’s what it means to be a woman in their culture? What makes you think your (Christian) interpretation of God better than theirs?” And so on. You cannot just define God to be whatever you want it to be and then immediately conclude that all the rest of the baggage of religion follows.

On God and Victim Blaming

For the response to a response to this article, see link.

Everyone is familiar with God rhetoric and with victim-blaming rhetoric. But what people don’t seem to realize is that the two are very similar, and when you think about it, you find that God (as the fictional character in the Bible) is the ultimate victim blamer. The following screenshot is from the comment section of a post by “allallt” called “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering“:

Victim Blaming

Sure, so if God kills a thousand people in an earthquake, then it’s the peoples‘ fault for settling there, not God’s. What about hurricanes? Well duh, 21st-century America is just asking for God to send them. (Ignoring even the most basic science, let’s analyze this from the perspective of someone who really holds these views.) Of course, the religious user ends the discussion several comments down with “I will pray for you.”

The “just asking for it” rhetoric is absurd. Does this imply that if someone didn’t “ask for it,” they will be spared of the full consequences? Former Representative Todd Akin (from last year, Republican of Missouri) seemed to think so:

At the time, the press correctly made a huge deal out of this (as well as of other fellow religious Republicans). The trouble is, if you thought that was bad, then you may be shocked to hear that even the most fundamentalist Christians with the most primitive views about rape don’t come close in comparison to fundamentalist Muslims, who have a much more degrading view of women and have given one woman a 200-lash sentence for the crime of being raped. Well, to make it better, she was originally sentenced to only 90 lashes, but then since her lawyer tried to bring this absurdity to light in the international press, the Saudi Arabian court extended it to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison sentence. I really wish I were making this up.

sharia-justice

In 2005, Australian Muslim preacher Faiz Mohamad said in a 1000-person lecture, “A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world…” You know it’s a sad state of the world when a whole class of people make Todd Akin seem like a feminist in comparison.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most extreme victim blamers are often the most religious? I would argue it is not a coincidence, and that the two are very intertwined.

God, the Ultimate Victim Blamer

Now that I have your attention, I would like to take a step back and explain the purpose of this article. In general I think many well-meaning people (both religious and nonreligious) completely ignore the relation between religion and society, or at least publicly ignore it due to the taboo against discussing it. On the contrary, there are very significant correlations between religion and social/political views, and it’s some of these that I would like to bring more awareness to.

So why is God the ultimate victim blamer?

All the rapes, murders, and genocides in the Bible indicate not only that God approves of humans doing the victim blaming, but also that He does the victim blaming himself.

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)

What a great leader, showing such shining examples of paragon virtue to His followers! Of course, many Christians instinctively say, “But that’s the Old Testament, and that doesn’t apply because Jesus.” That objection is technically invalid because Jesus and the New Testament explicitly say the Old Testament still applies. This is often denied, and even if the Old Testament were completely ignored, it’s not as if the New Testament is made up of radiant moral perfection.

God is also the ultimate sexist, who, even besides all those passages about rape, said infamous things as

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

And even without citing particular passages, some of the central messages taught to everyone reek of victim blaming. The New Testament says plenty about Hell, but what other is Hell than God’s punishment for beings that He himself created? In the moral behavior setting, if someone sins and deserves going to Hell, then why did God create such a person who would commit that sin in the first place? “I created something that was flawed, therefore I must punish it for being flawed.” The whole mentality of “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it” is practically the definition of victim blaming. I would urge anyone to compare that to the “they asked for it” mentality. Finally, the predestination setting is just as bad, if not worse—now you are being punished for being the victim of pure chance.

While the Bible is quite horrible at talking about gender equality, there is one book that is arguably worse: the Quran.

. . . If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (4:34)

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (2.228)

Of course, now I’m going to get the “You’re taking it out of context!” objection. So please tell me, what kind of context I am supposed to take 1 Timothy 2:12 under that makes it okay to tell women to shut up? I’ll await your answer in the comments.

In all, the rhetoric of religion and that of victim blaming are very similar, if not identical. Their similarity is moreover not a coincidence, but rather a lingering effect of a time when people believed every word of the Bible/Quran (and many still do). In our age, it seems that to be a “good” Christian is to follow as little of the Bible as possible. So does the best Christian completely ignore it?

The Signal and the Noise, and Other Readings

The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise

Since last year’s presidential election, everyone has heard of the legendary Nate Silver, who predicted the outcomes of all 50 states correctly. Given that he also correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election, this repeat feat seemed like clairvoyance, not coincidence. So the question is, what did Silver do right that so many polls and pundits did wrong?

Statistics.

The Signal and the Noise (2012) is basically a popular applied statistics book, with more history, philosophy, and psychology than formulas. The first half of the book illustrates the failures of prediction including the 2007/8 financial crisis, elections, sports, and natural disasters; the second half explains how to predict the correct way, using Bayesian probability. Overall it does an excellent job at explaining the concepts and not going into mathematical detail (which is probably a plus for most people; even for a math person like me, I know where to look up the details).

Sidenote: While I was reading the chess section, my mind literally blanked for about 10 seconds upon seeing the following:

signal-and-the-noise-chess-error

My chess intuition immediately told me that something was wrong: there is no way this position could have occurred “after Kasparov’s 3rd move.” Since Kasparov was white, this implied the white position must have 3 moves, but clearly there are only two moves: the Knight on f3 (from g1) and the Pawn on b3 (from b2). Yet this book was written by Nate Silver, so he couldn’t have gotten something wrong that was so simple. Once I realized it must have been a mistake, I looked up the game and found that at this point of the game, the g2 pawn should be on g3. I thought it was an interesting mind lapse.

Breaking the Spell

Breaking_The_Spell

This book argues that scientific analysis should be applied to religion. Namely, the title refers to the taboo of preventing rational discussion of religion, and that to “break the spell” is to break the taboo. In addition, it discusses the theories as to how religion arose; ironically the names for such theories are evolutionary theories, as they concern how modern religion has evolved over time from ancient spiritual beliefs (e.g. which specific doctrines maximize a belief system’s chances of survival, etc.).

Reading this means I have now read at least one book from each of the four “horsemen”: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Of the four, Dennett is by far the least provocative. While the other three make arguments that outright use logical analysis on religion, in this book Dennett is the one carefully arguing that one should be allowed to make arguments that analyze religion just as one can on any other phenomena. This book should be nowhere near as controversial as The God Delusion or The End of Faith.

Overall the book makes good points but is quite slow, makes overly cautious caveats, and has a very formal tone. I think if someone like Dawkins had written this, it would be much more readable. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have a lot of interest in philosophy.

CEO Material

CEO_Material

The main competitive advantage of this book over the typical leadership book is that it quotes very often from 100+ real CEOs. Overall these first-hand experiences supplemented the author’s main points quite well. However, for the sake of privacy I presume, the quotations are not labeled with the speaker, so it is sometimes difficult to tell how any particular passage applies to a given situation. For example, do I want to listen to the advice of a food company CEO on a particular issue and apply it to run a tech company? Perhaps the overall message is similar but clearly the details matter. Some say that context is everything, and without the context of who said it, each quote has much less power.

Most of the points seemed like common sense, although that is to be expected—the system is efficient enough that if the most effective behavior for a CEO were radically different from what we already do, then we would have adapted to that already (hopefully). Even so, there are still some interesting points made with real justifications, though again it would be helpful if we knew who said each quote, even for a few of them. In all, Benton did make points that changed the way I look at things, so it was worth reading.

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind_Watchmaker

While The Selfish Gene focuses on how genes propagate themselves and how they dynamically compete over time (evolutionary game theory), The Blind Watchmaker covers an entirely different issue: How did complexity arise?

Some of its answers, written at an earlier time (1986), seem somewhat outdated now, ironically more so than The Selfish Gene which was written even earlier in 1976. This is probably due to The Selfish Gene being more of “Here’s the progress we made in the last decade” when it was written, while The Blind Watchmaker is more along the lines of “Here’s why this work from 1802 is nonsense” and that this counter-argument doesn’t particularly need to invoke the most up-to-date findings.

But anyways, we don’t judge books by how outdated they seem in 30 years, so let’s move on to the content. Due to its premise, the book is more philosophical than The Selfish Gene, which is itself more scientific, hardly addressing at all the conflict between evolution and religion. While The Blind Watchmaker still has a formidable amount of science, it addresses some philosophical questions as well and confronts the conflict head-on. I would recommend it to those looking to question philosophical beliefs, whether of others or of their own.

Mortality

Mortality_Christopher_Hitchens

Of the books in this post, Mortality is the answer choice that doesn’t belong with the others. While the other four are strict nonfiction works that try to explain or teach certain something, Mortality comes off more as a dramatic story, the story of coming to terms with terminal illness. Hitchens opens up with the stark statement, “I have more than once in my life woken up feeling like death.” As usual, Christopher Hitchens’ signature writing style and tone are apparent.

“What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”

“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.”

“The politicized sponsors of this pseudoscientific nonsense should be ashamed to live, let alone die. If you want to take part in the ‘war’ against cancer, and other terrible maladies, too, then join the battle against their lethal stupidity.”

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”

“I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”