toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist

In Douglas Hofstadter's GEB (Godel, Escher, Bach) he mixes some fairly deep discussions of math and programming with these real cool dialogs between various imaginary characters. One dialog that always stuck in my head was an unaccompanied conversation loosely based on a Bach solo violin composition. The idea is that you only hear half of the conversation or music but your mind fills in the rest so you have the effect of hearing the whole thing.

As an experiment I thought I'd post my half of some conversations I've had with various Christians. Partly this is so I don't have to feel bad for publishing someone's emails that were intended only for me and also for fun since it might be interesting to try to figure out what's going on in the other part of the conversation. Also I'd appreciate any advice on better ways of stating positions or factual/logical corrections.

In any case, here is part one. I'll refer to my interlocutor as OGNG (O great and noble genius) which might sound obnoxiously sarcastic, but it was actually mutually humorous title without malice in context, so I'll just stick with it. We join our conversation about 9 or so months in progress:

SUBJECT: Epistemological foundations of atheism - or not.

Perhaps epistemology is too "highfalutin" a term. Let me recapitulate how I initially arrived at my current beliefs and what my current beliefs actually are. Then we'll try to determine if this is epistemology and/or how this relates to positivism.

As I had mentioned before I was very active in church and Christian youth groups up until I went to university. I felt a strong conviction that I should start evangelizing. As a geek who was into math and science and computers I decided that I needed to prepare a logical argument for convincing others of what their beliefs should be. I was totally unaware of the vast literature on this subject, I was just a kid trying to figure out how to share the good news and being a self reliant, introvert I tried creating my own system for doing this.

So I thought to myself how would I convince someone that god exists and the importance of salvation etc. I role played both sides of the conversation between a believer and and non-believer. I realized after a while that much to my surprise that the hypothetical disbeliever in my head argued me out of my beliefs. It was then that I realized that all of my beliefs in god, bible, etc were merely things that I had been told were true and had just accepted them uncritically. I guess at the outset I was expecting to develop a Euclid's Elements of belief. Starting from certain obvious givens I'd be able to construct proofs on this, show how god must certainly exist, etc. Obviously not a well conceived plan, but as a geek it made perfect sense to me at the time.

In a sense I had independently discovered Cartesian doubt but unlike Rene I was unable to rebuild. That it what I mean by becoming a non-believer for epistemological reasons. I wanted to understand how you could verify that god exists and the bible is true. Using common sense and logic the best I was capable wasn't able to get me any where near my goal.

So how does that make me an atheist? It doesn't. In a sense I'm an extreme agnostic. I don't know if there is a god and I don't know how you would even go about showing that there is one. In fact I'm pretty extreme about my skepticism about everything. Maybe it's just a bad habit but I can doubt anything given the time and energy. So why do I call myself an atheist? I'm sure you are familiar with Russell's tea pot example. Also take the example of astrology. There is no word for non-believer in astrology or even agnostic about astrology. To me the words atheism and agnosticism are about marketing. It somewhat slants the argument to define yourself as a "not" something. I don't need the word, but atheist is a nice short hand for giving an interlocutor a clue as to what sort of conversation they are in store for. I'm an atheist in the sense that if I ask myself if think there is a god the answer I give myself is no. It is not a tightly reasoned position, it is just what I happen to believe. I am also an atheist about the tea pot, but I could be wrong. I fully expect someone to launch a teapot into space sometime just to defeat this argument. I have seen recently that a book called "God: The Failed Hypothesis" came out which aims to show that god doesn't exist rather than saying proofs for him are invalid, unsatisfactory. But that's a ways down my reading list.

So that is how I came initially to believe what I do and a clarification of what I do actually believe.

I guess if you want to call this positivism you are free to. As long as I'm sleeping in on Sunday morning, you can call it anything you like. When we get to your rebuttal of positivism I'm sure I'll have more to say.

Let me know if you need more details or clarification before we move onto the next item.

[NOTE: I did promise this individual that if he found it obnoxious for me to publish this other half like this I would stop, because I'd rather keep the conversation going]


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Christian pr0n

One thing I've learned from listening to Christian talk shows is that porn addiction is a big problem for Christian men. A big throbbing penetrating problem. (Sorry, I can't help it). I wonder what the Biblical basis is for saying porn is anti-Christian. Perhaps it was in the Sermon on the Mount. (get it? mount? this stuff practically writes itself). The book that is frequently recommended is "Every Man's Battle". Furthermore there are software packages that will keep a log of where you visit so others can check up on you. You can even have this log shared with another person struggling with porn addiction so you can check up on each other. I can only imagine this is mostly used inadvertently as a porn recommendation service.

Which brings up a business opportunity. I guarantee you will make a million dollars off of this idea. If I wasn't already busy serving Satan in other ways I'd totally do this. So here's the concept for you: Christian themed porn. Get spiritual and horny at the same time.

For centerfolds we have the sultry and seductive ladies of the Bible:
  • Bathsheba
  • Mary Magdalene (the harlot)
  • Salome
  • Jezebel
  • almost all the women mentioned in the old testament are prostitutes so it should be pretty easy to get material

A few video scenarios:
  • Missionaries come to the door (like the pizza guy in regular porn) the female evangelee (and her nubile roommate) get really hot and
    bothered about accepting Jesus and you can guess the rest. Note my restraint in not making a missionary position comment.
  • Show some of the hot and nasty action in Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • and of course before the fall Adam and Eve ran around naked. That has to be good for something. (hint: Eve, naughty snake, interspecies erotica - do I have to spell it out?)

For a phone service you can confess your sins to a nun who knows how naughty you've been and forgives you over and over and over again (in a sexy voice). Try to break *that* habit (habit, get it? OK, I'll stop). Hmmm... there should also be an escort service that features nuns, but I suspect that is already being done.

Considering the number of gay pastors in Colorado alone I'm guessing you should have a whole gay Christian porn site as well, but I'm not going to give you any ideas because it makes me feel a little bit icky (but curious) to think about that.

So there you go. If you make a million dollars off of this idea, please send me some. The one thing missing is a name for this company, but I can't do everything. If you are feeling creative please make a suggestion in the comments.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Post Christian Europe

OK, I confess. I'm totally addicted to Christian talk radio and Christian news broadcasts. It ranges from fascinating to hilarious. Today I learned the phrase "post-christian" (starts at 1h:31m). Well, they are doing something right over there. But I'm pretty sure if they knew about purity balls they'd change their wicked ways. I mean, what's not to like. There's balls and there's purity.

*sigh* I think I was born on the wrong continent. (again) .


Monday, March 26, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-03-26

Hmm... am I a non-christian or a non-christ follower?

"They tried to teach my baby science"

Try saying purity ball with a straight face. I dare ya!

Decent interview with Dawkins. I especially liked the last couple of minutes.

What do female suicide bombers get?

The antichrist will wear birkenstocks

Please don't let your children watch YouTube

First GodTube and now IslamTube

Time for a pop quiz



Sunday, March 25, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 02 - Some Questions About Science

More attempts to reach across to believers. I have to hand it to him though. He really does a great job of making a firm case without being condescending. Well, OK he does use the analogy of believing in Santa Clause, but everyone loves Santa, so I'm sure no believers took offense. *grin*. It would be fascinating to know what sort of readership he actually got for this book. Did many/any believers pick this book up? It seems like the people who need it most (e.g. hard core fundamentalists) would just say: "No matter *what* you find about religion as a human/social phenomena, it is holy, sacred, divine so it will continue no matter what findings you determine." Dennett doesn't seem to address this issue specifically but intuitively it is what I imagine any true believer would be thinking. In fact it seems a little loony to even think a believer would read a book like this. But I hope I'm wrong.

He tries to use the thought experiment of music listening as a way of putting himself in the believers shoes. What if music was determined to be bad for you and society; so much so that we needed to ban it, limit it, etc. It's an OK analogy I guess, but it doesn't do much for me. If music was demonstrably bad then I'd want to know and make an informed decision. But religion, I imagine, for most believers is not a spectator sport. If you believe that in the end everything works out and this world is a temporary phase before the heavenly reward why would you care what an atheist scientist/philosopher thinks? You could show that religion causes cancer and it would just be seen as a test by god. God's ways are above ours, etc. (That's probably one of the most diabolically clever religious memes by the way.)

So to repeat, he does about as good a job as one can imagine of sincerely reaching out to believers, but I just have a hard time imagine he's reaching far enough or that anyone has their hand out across the gulf.

In this chapter Dennett discusses that we can study religion scientifically and we should. The "can" part is easy. We have developed lots of powerful strategies and techniques for studying people and groups in the last century. It turns out that religions are composed of people in groups, so we should be able to learn something about them.

Of course inherent curiosity is enough for many people to study religion but Dennett allows for a certain combination of facts that would make religion off limits: (1) if religion has net benefits to the world and (2) these benefits won't survive the investigation process. It seems like he doesn't come up with a good example of a phenomena that doesn't survive investigation but the one that comes to my mind is a specific instance of a placebo effect. If someone is getting real relief from a certain placebo and no other treatment has worked then it would be cruel to convince them that it's not a real technique. The relief might survive, but it doesn't seem like a worthwhile risk. Ignorance is bliss in some cases.

Of course there are many examples (probably the overwhelming majority) where analysis may have caused some upset but in the long run things were better off. His extended example was sexual behavior.

Dennett fully admits that he is an atheist AND he's trying to talk people out of their religion. He tries to keep them interested by arguing that he is just as interested in making the world a better place as they are so they should consider listening to his proposals, but by the end of this chapter it's almost impossible to imagine believers still reading.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 01 - Breaking Which Spell?

I first read Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" when it originally came out. Since reading "The Mind's Eye" which he co-edited with Douglas Hofstadter, he has been one of those authors that I have to get a hold of everything he writes. Unfortunately (well mostly fortunately, actually) my son had just been born about the time this book came up in my queue so I was seriously sleep deprived and time constrained when I read it. Since then I've had the nagging feeling the last year or so that I didn't give it the full attention it deserved and there was a lot in there that I really wanted to absorb. So even though my reading time is at a ridiculously high premium these days I'm re-reading a book. Shocking, I know.

One thing that really bugged me when reading this book the first time is the seemingly condescending tone as he tried to keep the hypothetical religious audience engaged. I'm not getting that vibe this time through, so I've either modulated my expectations or it wasn't as bad as I had remembered. Any way on to the book.

There are two "spells" to consider. The first spell is the taboo against studying religion in a scientific way. The second is the actual spell of experiencing religion. It is this first type of spell that he wants to break. It is interesting to consider that if the second type of spell has some real value and it is impossible to attain once the first spell is broken then we could be doing something genuinely awful by studying religion this way. Of course the catch is we don't know until we start looking.

Religion is a learned natural phenomena like language. We don't need to assume there is no supernatural component to study the observable properties and interrelationships. It striking how boring this observation is to me whereas I can imagine this could cause great stress for certain believers.

While I don't find the book as condescending as I remember (actually I find it pretty respectful of religious sensibilities) I do have a yearning for the book just a few doors down from this in idea space that was written for the skeptic and not as a invitation to believers. I'm sure someone will write such a book in the near future, but this book is close enough for now. In any case I'm really happy to be reading this book again and will do my best not to completely degenerate into fanboy-ism.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Atheist Fantasy Syndrome

"Man, if I could only sit down and talk with that guy for like a half hour I'm sure he'd see the folly of his ways. I mean how can an otherwise rational person believe in all that nonsense?"

Do you suffer from Atheist Fantasy Syndrome (AFS)? AFS is the belief that you could talk someone out of their faith with your clear logical arguments. Many people suffer from this often unrecognized disorder, but now there is help. Through my Facing Reality by Interacting with Believers (FRIB) program you will lose your misguided notion that freedom from the snare of religion is just a short friendly chat away.


Mike: "I used to suffer from AFS. But now I see that I'm not going to change any minds no matter how hard I work. Thanks evtujo for showing me the light."

Joan: "I can't believe all the time I wasted. I always thought I was one more discussion away from converting them from their beliefs. Instead of arguing with believers I now just watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns. Thanks evtujo!"

Start using the FRIB program today. We guarantee results. The steps are simple:

(1) Identify a believer who you'd like to "talk some sense into". This can be someone you know or a random person on the internet. Go to (2)

(2) Identify specifically what their beliefs are and put these in a list. Order these from most to least pernicious. Go to (3)

(3) Pick top item from the list. Go to (4)

(4) Use any persuasion technique you like and start the conversation. Go to (5)

(5) Having failed but still feeling like there is a chance, go to (3) and pick next item on the list or if you are feeling a sense of despair go to (6).

(6) If you feel that you could have succeed with someone else go to (1). Other wise go to (7)

(7) You are now a graduate of the FRIB program. Welcome to enlightenment. (STOP)

(8) You succeeded in your goal of convincing someone through rational dialog. You'll note that the FRIB plan doesn't get you to this step. If you know how to get here please share with the rest of us. (Sam Harris I'm talking to you.)

NOTE: Don't be fooled by self directed conversions! Sometimes believers spontaneously convert. This may have happened to you. If you happen to be talking to someone when this occurs you may be tempted to think that this was your overwhelming reason. If so you may need to repeat the FRIB multiple times to reach the full effect.

Good luck!


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Platinum Rule

In reading "The Great Transformation" it is suggested over and over again that the Golden Rule is the greatest moral teaching ever. It occurred to me recently that this formulation is not quite right. It assumes that other people are basically the same as you and that what you like or hate is what they should like or hate. So rather than being the most elegant moral formulation, the golden rule is the the most arrogant, ego-assertive principle possible.

To fix this multi-millennial over sight let me introduce the "Platinum Rule":
Do unto others as they would have done unto them.
Don't impose your view of right/wrong on others. Do them the courtesy of knowing what they want even if it deviates from what you think they *should*.

I'm not endorsing this as the ultimate philosophy, but I do think it fixes the inherent brokenness of the Golden Rule.


The Great Transformation: Thoughts and Reflections

So I guess I'm a pretty crappy atheist. And by that I mean I'm wishy-washy in my condemnation of religion. But the truth is I am only more fascinated by religion the more I learn about it. While I think as a system of facts its all just wrong, wrong, wrong; as a window into cognition and as an example of a spectacularly contagious mental virus it never ceases to amaze.

Karen Armstrong has been high on my reading list ever since reading her "History of God". The first couple of chapters on proto/early-Judaism alone were just amazing. This book goes into even more detail on the Jews and does a similar job on the Chinese, Indians and Greeks. As just a historical reader on a fascinating span of history it's already worth reading. But even more compelling is her overall argument that all religions are basically the same at the core and responsible for moral advance in our world and are reacting to a real "otherness" in the universe and not just purely a figment of the imagination.

Honestly when I hear something like "all religions are the same" I definitely start rolling my eyes. I had yet to ever hear a cogent argument that this is the case. Usually this is something gushed by some new age type based on nothing but wishful thinking. But Karen knows here stuff and makes an excellent argument that this is indeed the case. Of course you have to keep in mind that the world religions as they exist today don't seem to bear much resemblance to the ur-religions of the Axial Age. So you are forgiven for not seeing the inherent sameness of Buddhism and Judaism in modern times. I'm willing to grant her this as a fact. All the big religions in existence from today are surprisingly similar at their core.

It gets a little more speculative to say that religion is responsible for moral advance and that there really is a spiritual dimension that these sages were responding to. As far as their really being a god or something, what can you say? If there is I'm either spiritually tone deaf or other people are imagining things but for now I'm thinking that I'll stick with my default skeptical stance

As far as whether religion has been making the world better or not, this is not obviously true at all to me and she never really makes a very strong case for this. In fact I think you can make a pretty good case that our moral compass is completely independent of religion. With respect to violence I recently came across this great little blurb by Steven Pinker on his thoughts about why violence is on the decline (and without too much of a stretch, why other unethical behavior is also declining). In summary his picture goes like this: (1) with a growing power of the state with a monopoly on violence there is no need for (and an inability to) indulge vendetta like behavior (2) before growing standards of health, life was perceived more cheaply (3) with increased peace there are more non-zero-sum games in town, so in other words you are worth more to me alive than dead and (4) Peter Singer's "expanding circle" shows that more and more of the world is becoming part of our perceived village that we would naturally expend resources on.

In any case it's not obvious that religion has been making the world better over time. And for that matter it's not obvious that religion has made the world worse. It's easy to point out particular nasty little episodes but I haven't ever sat down with a list of all the good things and all the bad things that are directly attributable to religion, weighted each by some utility factor and then summed it to see whether the world is better or worse off in the long run for there having been religions. It seems pretty obvious to others but I don't know how they do this particular calculus or if they are just going with their gut. Maybe I'll never know but it seems like a pretty interesting question but certainly one that is still open.

So in the end I know a little more about world history and some important religious trends. Truth be told I thought this book was completely engrossing and would recommend it for your short list if you are interested in trying to understand religions. But I must confess that my biggest question is how can Karen still be religious knowing all that she knows about various religious histories? Is it simply the fact that she has epilepsy and that this predetermines her affinity for religious thinking? I look forward to reading her biography someday to learn more about this "freelance monotheist".


The Great Transformation: Chap 10 - The Way Forward

The final chapter shows where the various faiths end up going after the highs of their various Axial Age accomplishments and then points the direction for a new sorely needed modern Axial Age.

The first things the Chinese do when their country gets a little bit stable is to burn all the books that don't agree with the official view of things. I know I love books too much but it always pains me to read something like that. Interestingly the Chinese philosophies (were any of these systems religions?) become very inclusive and it common for people to espouse different systems at different times of their life and in their different roles.

After a 500+ year dark age the Indians return to a less lofty religion with the popularization of physical representation of the various gods. Rituals and beliefs have been "McDonald"-ized so all the common man can partake fast food style in a spiritual life without having to commit large amount of their time and resources to being a monk.

The Jews continue to emphasize the golden rule as the main message of their scriptures (seemingly in spite of the actual contents of their scriptures). But I have to admit I'm won over by some of the rabbinical teachings and anecdotes. In one case an argument is raging between two rabbis and God's own voice booms down in favor of one of the two speakers. The other speaker basically informs the voice that his own opinion is just as valid. For me that is the best part of Judaism, when Abraham or Moses or others basically respond to God with a "What-you-talkin-bout-Willis" and try to get reasons for his commands or fight for a more ethical policy (e.g. Lot and Soddom and Gemorah). If there is a God and he cares about our affairs, then this is the type I could believe in.

As footnotes to Judaism, Christianity and Islam are quickly discussed. She does a great job of making Christianity out to be an almost Buddhist type metaphysical thing based on compassion and extreme humility. I wish I could meet one of these early Christians some time and get them to spread a little of their faith around in the present. They seem like a reasonable sort of cult.

You could write entire books on what I don't know about Islam and certainly people have. Including Karen Armstrong. Her view of Islam is one of compassion and humility so different from the picture presented by Sam Harris. So I guess I'll have to read her biography of Muhammad some time.

The Axial Age sages are united in thinking that life is tough but if you discipline yourself to follow the golden rule and eradicate egotism you can advance to a higher level of humanity. Or in Karen's words, "The practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield intimations of transcendence". Sounds good, sign me up. I've always wanted an intimation of transcendence.

Important principles for achieving the above are: (1) unflinching self-criticism and (2) practical action over dogmatism or a retreat from the world.

And, so, there you go.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Great Transformation: Chap 09 - Empire

300 - 220 BCE

As I mentioned before, Chinese history is really growing on me. Another attempt to enforce order on a war-wracked region: the Legalists. These guys seemed like hard nosed realists. Forget ethics, forget the spiritual quest. We've got a state to get in order and you do it with stern but fair laws. For them the idea of a sage king was oxymoron. And like them or no they did bring stability to an entire empire. Taoism also makes an entry during this time. I'll admit off the bat that I have had a soft spot for Taoism ever since read Smullyan's "The Tao is Silent". If nothing else I admire the way the Daodejing seems to say nothing but always gets my brain buzzing with speculation. It was interesting to learn that this fundamental Taoist text was originally written for rulers and that somewhat confusingly was absorbed by these hardheaded realist the Legalists. I'm not sure I have any better understanding of Taoism but at least I have a better understanding of the context in which it was created.

The Greeks are long past their Axial Age but still doing interesting things. Alexander the Great has conquered the known world. The various schools of Greek philosophy are really just echoes of their former greatness and never really reach the heights that the other cultures reach (at least with respect to morality and golden rule type thinking).

A passing mention of the Jews is made basically as a reminder that everyone in the region just seems to tromp on these guys over and over.

The Indians produce the Bhagavad Gita. This actually sounds like a halfway interesting story (but only halfway). Basically Arjuna and Krisha have a debate about how to be moral and be a warrior. The answer to this stumper is that as long as you are just doing your job and aren't attached to the results of your work you can so what ever the universe directs you to. If ever there was a philosophy custom tailored for the manipulation of the masses, this is it.

Yeah, only one more chapter to go!


The Great Transformation: Chap 08 - All Is One

[I'm on vacation this week and with god as my witness I *will* finish this book - even if my 1 year old decides to wake up every morning at 1 am to run a diagnostics test on his vocal cords]

400 - 300 BCE

Still no news from those spunky Jews.

In China the Axial Age is in full bloom. Even though Taoism doesn't exist yet the philosophers speak of "The Way". The philosopher Zhuang Zi emphasizes the idea that everything is in a state of flux so you shouldn't get attached to anything. Unlike Buddhist enlightenment, Chinese enlightenment is considered something that you have to continually work to maintain, which seems like a more reasonable way to think about enlightenment to me. The more I learn about Chinese history the more I'm intrigued, having not learned much of this before. I'm stuck by how strongly my conception of what religion is is tied to my knowledge of Western flavors of monotheism and just how narrow that view is. It turns out there are so many other spectacular ways to be wrong about the nature of the universe.

For the Indians the Axial Age is mostly over. The main concern now is how to reconcile Axial Age thinking with the reality of living day to day in the world. For instance how to be moral and be a professional warrior. Indian philosophy/religion continues to do little for me. I wish she'd throw a curry recipe or something in just to liven things up.

In Greece this is the era of Plato and Aristotle. I remember reading lots of Plato while I was getting my minor in philosophy and I always enjoyed it. I guess the presentation of philosophy as a dialogue is just more palatable than dry chapters of Kant. On the other hand, except what we learn about the life and times of Socrates, Plato's ideas are mostly nutty and don't even seem worth thinking about to me now. The Forms? The parable of the cave? Killing everyone over the age of 12 and starting a new Republic? All atheists should be killed? And our friend Aristotle. It's amazing how he could have been so wise and yet considered women deformed men without souls. It's interesting to note that while Christian thinkers for 100s of years used his Unmoved Mover argument to prop up their theological conceptions of god, he most definitely didn't think of god a personally involved in human history. Furthermore he considered thinking about things to be the ultimate good. He may have a point there.


Infidel Links - 2007-03-17

Ahh, this takes me back to my grade school science text. No, really.

Does your candidate believe in Jesus?

It's official: there is at least one politician in this country who is not a theist. Good-bye presidential ambitions.

Fortunately there is a plan for congress to prevent this bad apple from destroying our country.

And of course Sam has some comments on this issue.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos for Rednecks.

God made me gay as a test.

I think godtube is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Please, won't someone think of the ants!

God may not answers prayers, but perhaps, just maybe he answers meta-prayers.

Give a godless pint.

WWJP (What would Jesus pose?) - Models for Christ.

Abstain with me all night long, baby!



Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Intelligent Design Challenge

Maybe someone can explain the intelligence or design behind this for me.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

My new favorite phrase: Theological Pornography

Point of Inquiry interview with Robert Price.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-03-10

Nothing gives believers fits like an atheist talking about morality

No sincerer form of flattery

Man, can't swing a dead cat without hitting a news story about the new atheist assertiveness

Shocking news about Biblical illiteracy among Christians

I want this shirt: Pfft

Oprah is the devil

GodTube: I hate when parody and actual beliefs are too similar to differentiate

Global warming caused by the devil.



Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bible Study: Daniel - Summary (or my 3 year old ate my home work)

This weekend I found that my 3 year old was using some of my notes from reading the book of Daniel to do her art projects on. Besides being a better use for the paper, this reminded me that I had neglected to writeup a summary on what I had learned from reading Daniel and the "controversy" on this book's date of authorship.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I took up a challenge from "L" (my occasional guide to the world of evangelical Christianity) to read a certain Bible commentary by Glen Miller and see for myself that Daniel was an authentic example of prophecy. Now the problem is that in all honesty I didn't give this any chance of accomplishing that goal, but at the same time I was intrigued to see why a seemingly sane and intelligent person could believe that it is the real deal. To give you some minimal background: the debate on Daniel comes down to whether it was written during the Babylonian exile by Daniel in 600 BC (early dater's hypothesis) and predicted events hundreds of years in the future or if it was written during the Maccabean rebellion (ca. 150 BC) as a "pious fraud" for giving moral support to the troops (late dater's hypothesis). "It was predicted hundreds of years ago that we would win! Charge!"

So to prepare for this I read the book of Daniel and then gathered up all the pro and con literature I could find on the web and started poring thru it. I purposely read the early daters (true prophecy) stuff first so I wouldn't "poison" my mind too much and could give it an honest (as possible) hearing. And I'll tell you the truth I was amazed at how good a case they could make. Just to be clear, it's not so much that they made a good case that prophecy occurred (how would you actually "prove" that a document over 2000 years old foretold events that happened over 2000 years ago?) but they made a surprisingly good case that this wasn't necessarily a "pious fraud". Maybe that doesn't seem very impressive, but I guess I was expecting bigger and uglier problems with the early dater view. While in the end I don't think the early dater case is very plausible it's certainly not obviously wrong on a first reading. In fact if I didn't ever read the late dater rebuttals I'd probably have been left with a lingering sense that something interesting was going on with Daniel.

But, for me at least, the late dater arguments are much more compelling. In fact I've developed a litmus test for determining which way you will go on this issue. Do you believe the Bible is the 100% inerrant word of God? If yes you will find the early daters more convincing. Otherwise (independent of your religious affiliation and degree of belief) you will find the late daters more compelling.

The next step of my project was to read the Glen Miller essay(s) and make my judgement. So I printed out these essays and decided I'd work thru them on our next long family car trip. My wife gets carsick when she's not driving which suits me just fine. I read the essays and very quickly it became apparent that I have no chance of addressing his issues. Glen Miller has a slightly unique take on the problem of dating Daniel (at least I haven't seen it brought up on other apologetics sites). It has to do with the logic of how various documents were dated from the Dead Sea scrolls collection and comparing these with other non-canon documents. The argument is a bit involved but it basically comes down to claiming that scholars have ignored certain facts when dating Daniel and have made special exceptions for dating it that they didn't for other similar documents. In other words if the scholars were consistent they would give Daniel a pre-Maccabean authorship date (he doesn't shoot for anything as ambitious as the 600 BC date, but it's sort of implied). Interestingly his argument almost entirely ignores the actual contents of Daniel and the accuracy of it's prophetic statements. The problem is that there is almost no chance that I will ever track down the numerous sources Glen uses to justify his positions. If I had no job and I wanted to become a Daniel expert it would probably take me a year to work thru all of his materials and give it a fair investigation. So in a sense he wins. I can't critique his arguments since I won't/can't follow all of his leads.

This is a little disappointing to me since I was hoping to have a final package where I could point to how all Daniel arguments come down on the side of the late daters. But I suppose that's how historical research goes. You will never *really* know what happened in the past. You can just make guesses and find as much evidence as you can for various theories. But in the end you will just have a list of theories with a number next to each one indicating how well it is supported by the evidence. In any case even if after my hypothetical year of study, Glen Miller's thesis held water, from my perspective *all* the other evidence points towards the late daters case. So you can either throw away all the late dater's evidence or you can assume that there is something wrong after all with the one piece pointing towards the early dater's case.

One interesting tidbit about Glen Miller's essays that helps tip the balance is that he used to have a couple more essays. The most obvious speculation would be that they covered the more typical parts of the arguments that the other sites cover. But he removed them. I can see that some of the counter apologists used to point to the essays he has removed. I can only conclude that he saw that their criticisms were right and removed his bad arguments. But I haven't seen the actual content so can't say for sure. He has a notes on his site saying he will rewrite them any time now (6 years ago.) I actually wrote him and asked about this. He wrote back saying he's pretty busy and probably won't be getting to it any time soon and that he should at least update the message. I also wrote to a scholar on the late dater side. He was kind enough to answer some questions but, while he was polite enough, I got the sense he was sick to death about hearing crackpot theories on Daniel. So I didn't pester him too much.

So for a complete amateur like my self it comes down to which experts do you trust. And until I have read all the books and become an expert myself I can't really hope to do much else. Of course this is mostly true in most areas of my life anyway. I was just hoping to have some sort of useful insight on the matter to share with "L". But I don't, which is not too surprising considering that people on both sides of this issue spend years of their life researching this stuff and I spent a couple of months of free time.

What's strange about this whole experience is that while I think Christian apologetics is wrong headed it's much more robust than I would have guessed. In fact an expert on Christian apologetics talking to a random disbeliever would probably run circles around them (except for stuff like Noah's ark -- I mean, come on!). If you don't know all the history very well and aren't versed in the tricks of the trade that apologists use, you'll probably lose a debate on any of these topics. So as I've said before you can be a smart person and believe in the literal interpretation of the bible. In fact I'll just expand that thesis out a little: any one of any intelligence level can believe anything. How's that for epistemological nihilism?

While I can't really weigh in with any major insights on Daniel this was a worthwhile project. In fact I have a total bug for Bible history now (it all comes down to the Babylonian exile in one way or another). This was one of the reasons I started reading "The Great Transformation" so I could fill in some details on the big picture of the OT. Now when I come across rantings about all sorts of Biblical predictions of the end times I recognize a lot of it comes from Daniel. And I also recognize just how badly they are distorting the text.

I fully expect to return to Daniel again some day and give it another pass. But for now I've got miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep...



Monday, March 05, 2007

Chatting with Believers

So how often do you talk about religion? It's probably a bit of a subconscious bias on my part, but I find the topic comes up more and more frequently. While I'm not holding my breath that I'll be converted to anything in the near future, I'm endlessly fascinated by the varieties of belief (and disbelief). Besides being interesting in their own right, I think these conversations help immunize me from thinking about believers in stereotypical ways. People's belief systems are rarely as out and out thoughtless and anti-intellectual as some would have you believe (and as I tend to suppose when left to my own devices). In fact except for the actual little detail about believing in a supreme being, I'm often surprised how much I have in common intellectually with believers. Of course I'm still surprised that they *do* in fact believe, but it's fascinating to explore the exact geographical delineation between belief and non-belief. Well, at least for me.

So how about you, do you like talking about religion? Why or why not?


Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Great Transformation: Chap 07 - Concern For Everybody

(450 to 398 BCE)

An interesting aspect of the Jewish return from Babylonian exile: the Jews who were left behind were given second class citizenship by the sophisticated and literate returnees. Otherwise not much information on the Jews in this chapter. Their axial age is done. I can't help but wonder if we'd know of the Jews today if the Christians and Muslims hadn't exapted their faith.

The Greeks are starting to develop a distrust of reason. Zeno and his paradoxes make it seem that you can "prove" things that just aren't so (e.g. nothing ever changes, an arrow in flight only "appears" to move). Still this is the golden age of philosophers. Many of them are treated like rock stars; crowds come to see them and they live lavishly. The group of teachers called the Sophists begin to arise. Their primary aim is to educate citizens in the art of persuasion. Amid the growing uncertainty of the efficacy of reason as a guide to wisdom and the teaching of persuasion independent of a fixed ethos comes Socrates who seems basically to want to make everyone realize that we know nothing. Apparently his idea was that after you realize that you know nothing you can start trying to build a solid foundation of true knowledge. Unfortunately he never seemed to get to this second part of the plan but nevertheless he was really good at undermining everyone's sense of certainty. As with many of these axial age sages it's interesting to see the parallels to Christ. In Socrates' case there was his turn the other cheek philosophy, the fact that he heard divine voices that guided his behavior and that he willingly faced death for a crime he didn't commit.

Initially the Chinese thread of this book was my least favorite, but I'm finding as things go on that it has really captured my interest. The latest sage to come along is Mozi or "Master Mo" (really). I could totally see my self committing to a religion founded by a guy named "Mo". "Hi my names Mo, welcome to my club house of worship. There are chips and drinks in the back, but otherwise just mingle and try to stay in tune with the Tao." Mozi was inspired to proselytize empathy since the region was being torn apart by escalating violence. In a sense I'm happy to see that the warring was becoming more modern. There is something really creepy about "gentleman's" warfare that proceeds by strange rules of chivalry. Now they were moving to the idea of just going out and kicking each others butt in the most direct way possible.

Another interesting aspect of Mozi was that he had created the first Chinese books on logic and argumentation. These were developed to help with spreading his ideas on empathy and peace in the most logical way possible. Also interesting is that Mozi was a monotheist who referred to the "High God".

Next we return to our friends in India. I'll start by pointing out that Buddha was a dick. He may have reached enlightenment and all that but as far as I'm concerned he was a grade A jerk. I guess I hadn't considered an important part of his origin story before. He left his wife and child one night when they were sleeping to go seek the spiritual path. And as far as I can tell never went back to them or even felt remorse for this. Likely his whole story is apochryphal, but the fact that this is what the story makers came up with and that this point is never emphasized is really disappointing to me. Any way besides being a dick, I do like his basic 4 fold path principles and rules for escaping the cycle of pain and all that.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Free Legal Advice

Dear Christian weight loss cult glue stick murderers,

I've been thinking about your plight. IANAL, but I offer you this free legal advice in the hopes of helping you triumph in the face of this obvious assault on your freedom of religion.

Beating kids (to death) with glue sticks just doesn't sound too good. Honestly this will be one of your biggest challenges. I think thefirst thing you need to do is show a "regular" glue stick of a couple of inches in length as purchased from Office Depot and imply how ridiculous it would be to beat someone to death with something like that. If they claim that these were 1 ft long glue sticks then look at them like they are crazy. You might then rhetorically ask "Where does one even get a 1 ft glue stick?" [BTW, I'm curious, is there any legitimate reason to have something like this that is not related to corporal punishment?]

Next, belonging to a Christian weight loss cult might seem like a liability as far as seeming sane goes but I think you can really make this work toward your side. First of all I believe the failure rate for dieting is about 101%. In other words for every 100 people who try to diet 100 people fail and another person just randomly starts getting fat. Does your group have a proven success rate? If so I think that is a bona fide proof of a miracle. Clearly if you have miracles then God is on your side. If God is on your side (and he has an infinitely long glue stick) then no one can stand against you. I would make the presence of your powerful glue stick wielding deity as apparent as possible to the court so they realize that they have no power over you. In my experience this is best done with a shaking fist though speaking in tongues doesn't hurt either.

Now that you've convinced them that God exists and is all powerful, point out that the OT is very clear about how children are to be dealt with. If they are skeptical point them to the chapter in Leviticus (I don't have a Bible with me right now, but you know the one I mean) dedicated to the various offenses that require a beating by glue stick and the various lengths and diameters of glue sticks that should be used.

Good luck!