Definition Swap

Weinberg

There is a large and multi-pronged effort out there to define certain words in such varied and nebulous terms as to rob them of any concrete meaning whatsoever. The word in particular I want to address is “God” but it is not alone, “Truth” is another excellent example of the sort of selective redefinition I’m talking about. Both of these words are used so often, and in so many differing, contradictory, and utterly subjective ways that one could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually have objective definitions at all.

I say one could be forgiven, but never excused; misinformation no matter how well meant or innocent of intention should never be excused, it must be unapologetically corrected. “God” with a capital “G” can safely be defined (at least by the dictionaries I checked) as “The one supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.” The concept of “God” is a creation of the Old Testament, which is the defining and original source of the idea of monotheism. It is responsible for the very idea of a single all-knowing all-powerful deity. Before its advent the capitalized “God” did not exist. Before its spread the only concept of deity was that of “god” (note the lowercase) or rather of “gods”. These were lesser, limited creatures with finite abilities and knowledge. This word “god” is a word you don’t really see much in the world anymore, having been largely stamped out by the proponents of its capitalized cousin.

As I said in the opening the effort to change the definition of God is multi-pronged. Pantheists like to claim things like “God is the universe!” while moderate Christians or fundamentalist moderates like to say “God is love” or “God is the best parts of ourselves” and spiritualists and mysticists add to the clamour with “God is energy!” and “God is the laughter of little children” or whatever you like in substitution. They all have different definitions, or redefinitions, but their motivations for changing the definition are all basically the same.

I do not think that the perpetrators of this definition sleight of hand choose their words at random. I think that the words “God” and “Truth” were chosen for very specific reasons. The word “God” morphed from its true definition referring to the all-powerful monotheist god Yahweh to become the anthropomorphized spirit of every good thing once people began to recognize the unquestionable monstrousness of the original character. As we advanced as a species we learned more, we grew more moral and more sociable and unsurprisingly the personality of God laid out in the Old Testament lost its luster for some. Rather than move on from the mythology entirely however some simply kept the parts of god they liked, and discarded the rest. The evolution of the definition of God is exactly the same sort of selective interpretation that fundamentalist moderates use when deciding which parts of their various holy books to advocate and which to dismiss.

Now we come to the second word I mentioned, another victim of constant redefinition and rebranding, the word “Truth”. This word we hear all the time, and most of us would probably say we have a good idea of what it means. I think it’s fair to say that at its simplest and most direct truth means “that which is in accordance with reality or fact.” This definition of truth is the basis of all knowledge, scholarship, science, and critical inquiry. It’s what makes mathematics work, it’s what makes planes fly…and there are large groups of people in the world who want you to believe that it doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you the all truth is subjective. They’ll say that we each have our own truths and that they are all equally true and all equally valid. “It is overly simplistic,” they’ll chorus, “to assume that something is false just because there is contradictory evidence.” If there is no objective standard for truth, if everything is true then there is no basis for criticism and no mechanism for challenge or reform. This is exactly the type of atmosphere religion and theism in general require to not just survive but thrive.

So with “God” safely sanitized to fit their particular attitudes or proclivities and “Truth” relegated to the realm of opinion it becomes impossible say that ANY definition is incorrect because it is true to them. So the pantheist who declares that the universe is God is just as right as the fundamentalist moderate who says that god is love. It is faith without conviction, it is Old Testament fan fiction.

A lot of atheists will be quick to say “the bible isn’t evidence.” I do it myself all the time. Yet I will concede that the bible is better evidence than your unsubstantiated personal relationship with infinity. Subjective truths are very real and very valid, we all have them. A rational reasonable person learns to differentiate between the subjective truths of their individual reality and reach deeper to the fundamental real objective truths of reality.

Wrong Again Religion!

marriage

I’ve noticed a growing trend of Christians complaining about being “attacked” for their beliefs about the “sanctity” of what they call “traditional marriage”. My first impulse is to point out the fact that Christianity is not the oppressed minority under siege from a massive and powerful conspiracy to destroy and deny it its rights. It is not the victim in this situation, but the victimizer.  I’ve tried that tack however and had very little success with it so I’m going to try something a little different.

Since I’m trying to build an argument to make Christians understand, it seems only right to start with the bible. It is, after all, the Christian instruction manual for life; it must contain their concept of “Traditional Marriage” and lay it out plainly, right?

Shockingly however, in the Bible, marriage is not limited to a consensual union between one man and one woman. There are, in fact, any number of acceptable forms of marriage laid out in the pages of the Bible and most forms of marriage it mentions don’t even require both parties to consent! Not only is consent not required but there are SEVERAL variations of non-consensual marriage.

Genesis tells us of Judah, who forced the wife of his dead son to marry and sleep with his other son. (Genesis 38:6-10)  In Deuteronomy 21 we learn that soldiers who are attracted to enemy women are allowed to take them as their wives so long as the soldier in question waits a month between taking her and raping her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) In the next chapter we learn that rape is considered an acceptable form of marriage proposal so long as the man is willing to pay his victim/fiance’s father the required fifty shekels. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and in Exodus we learn that a master can force his slaves to marry regardless of their will. (Exodus 21:4)

However the Bible isn’t all non-consensual rape marriages, as I said it is open to many interpretations of nuptials. For instance, according to the Bible, Yahweh has no problem with polyamorous or polygamous relationships. According to (1 Kings 11:1-3), King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Christians today make the claim that God punished Solomon for his polygamy, yet the fact is the Bible says quite plainly that Solomon was punished for marrying foreign women who lead him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-2, 9-10). According to  (1Chronicles 3) King David had seven wives. Regardless of modern spin on the situation both men are generally regarded as paragons of scripture and high in god’s favour, and nowhere in the text is there any question about whether their version of marriage was a correct one.

Christian apologists will tell you that Jesus defined marriage in (Matthew 19:4-6) “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” yet this is not a definition. Christ never condemned the previously mentioned forms of marriage or said that this was the only acceptable form of union. At most what you’ve got here is yet another form of marriage in the text further demonstrating the elasticity of the term in the scriptures. And a careful reading of the passage and his concluding statement “let no one separate” reveals that Jesus’ primary intent in those verses was to forbid divorce—something which modern Christians readily ignore.

There is, I assure you, much more than can be said on the subject of biblical marriage but suffice it to say that the modern conception of consensual one-man-one-woman marriage is, by the lights of the Bible, a new and radical departure from what the fathers of the faith would call a traditional marriage.

As for why conservative Christian views come under scrutiny from secular society the answer to that is simple. When one looks back through history the positions of conservative Christianity are, almost without exception, horrendously  backward and bigoted positions based largely on personal bias, ignorance, and of course selective interpretation of the scriptures. Let’s look at some examples.

SLAVERY

Perhaps the most striking example of conservative Christianity’s failure to evolve with the times is the conservative defence and fostering of the practice of slavery. The abolition movement met constant and often violent opposition from the faithful when it came to the question of freedom for slaves in America and England. The Reverend Alexander Campbell one of the founders of the Restoration Movement famously  said: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”

That is an opinion that was shared by Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America as evidenced by the following quote:

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”

                How did they justify this position you ask? They turned to the ultimate authority on law and morality of course. They delved into their bibles and came up with examples like the following to show that God wanted slaves right where they were.

 “Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Genesis 16:9

“There were still people left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizzites, Hevites, and Jebusites. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land whom the Israelites could not exterminate to serve as slave labor. As it is to this day”  1 Kings 9: 20-21

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:5-8

WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Female equality in our society was a long fought battle that met with strong opposition from both men and women. One of the groups strongest in their opposition to this equality was, inevitably , Conservative Christianity. The idea being that it was unnatural and sinful for women to reach above the subservient, weaker position they’d been given by god. This position, they assured us, was upheld by holy scripture and they used bible verses like those that follow to anchor their prejudice.

 “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”  1 Corinthians 11:8-9

 “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7

                Now I hear the Christians screaming “There were Christians fighting for suffrage and abolition too!!” and they’re right. There absolutely were Christians working for abolition and suffrage, and their work would have gone a whole lot easier if it hadn’t been for the Parties of God pretending they have some unique understanding of morality or private warrant to decide “right” for all mankind.

I’ve written it before and I’ll likely write it again. Religion provides no unique benefits to the world, it does how ever have unique pitfalls which make it an unnecessary and dangerous extravagance. The Christian viewpoint has been on the wrong side of every major social change in history. The “gay marriage debate” shouldn’t be a debate. Once again the bible has provided, as it always does, a justification to cling to outdated stigmas and stereotypes. The rest of us, secular society, will once again drag you kicking and screaming toward modern morality and basic humanistic consideration for your fellow humans. We’ll do it because you don’t get to choose how we live, and when we’re done and we’ve finished all the work you can all sit around and declare that, just like the Church freed the slaves and gave women the vote,  the Church brought equality to “the gays”.

Paley’s Watch is Broken

broken watch

A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.

     That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.

The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.

We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky?  The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.

The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself.  By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.

The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any  attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.

This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin.  Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them

Pascal’s Wager…A Sucker’s Bet.

pw

“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.

The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.

Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.

Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:

“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter

Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.

Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.

Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.

Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.

No True… Reason

scot

We’ve all heard variations on “No TRUE Christian  judges or condemns others.” Or “No TRUE Muslim  supports violence.” It’s one of those arguments one hears from both the secularized moderate believers who pick and choose what to believe, and the hard line fundamentalists who take their holy text literally. These two groups  use the argument very differently ( and often against each other)  yet they DO share a point of similarity.

Both groups make absolute claims about the nature of their faith and those who share it then when they’re shown evidence that demonstrates that those claims are false they respond with  “well then they’re not true Christians!”  ( or Muslims, or Hindus etc) This argument has a name; it’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It is, at it’s simplest, a rescue of a false generalization by re-characterizing the generalization.  Basically the person making the statement simply redefines the term in question to make their argument unassailable.

The “No True Scotsman” fallacy was advanced by the British philosopher Anthony Flew.  His example went as follows:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Heraldagain; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”

Obviously this fallacy is not limited to just religious people. It does, however, crop up regularly and predictably in religion. It demonstrates perfectly, I think, not just the irrationality of their thinking but the desperation with which they cling to these ideas even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  For example: when confronted with the violence and atrocity fostered and promoted by the Catholic Church throughout it’s history they’ll say “well that’s not true Christianity” all the while glossing over the fact that their beliefs are the result of a text designed by that church and spread through the very means they deplore.

The NTS fallacy provides an ever present “get out of jail free card” to the moderate theist who is confronted with the violence and intolerance of their religion. They’ll tell you that suicide bombers aren’t TRUE Muslims, and anti-abortion terrorists aren’t TRUE Christians; they’re just violent people who misuse their faith to sate their violent impulses.  Of course in order to make this line of thinking work you have to gloss over the specific injunctions to violence and intolerance at the core of most religious  faiths, but the moderate theist or “open-minded” apologist is generally expert at such intellectual acrobatics.

On the other side of the coin the fundamentalist can use the NTS fallacy to justify spreading their  hatred and even violence against not just disbelievers, practitioners of other faiths, and people with “objectionable” lifestyles, but against followers of their own faith as well. If the moderate Muslim or secularized Christian isn’t a true Christian then any protection offered by the faith can be safely withdrawn or overlooked.

The danger of this kind of thinking is that the definition of “true” in the NTS fallacy is dependant upon the person making the statement. A “true Scotsman” is a Scotsman like me. A True Christian is a Christian who interprets Christianity like I do.  This kind of thinking  further insolates the believer from evidence of reality  and the actual impact of religious belief. It creates  even more  division and elitism in a system already rife with both.

The kind of thinking demonstrated by the NTS fallacy is just plain dishonesty, an unwillingness to accept an obvious truth. In Flew’s example the truth is that Scotsmen are obviously as capable of sex crime as Brits. When it comes to religion the truth is that an objective look at its doctrine will show you that religion often demands  intolerance, hatred, ignorance and division.  To come to any other conclusion you have to cherry pick or use false reason like that in Flew’s fallacy.

Wake Up.

clk

The following is a word doodle that happened my my head while feeding my baby lunch. My first stab at “Anti-devotional” poetry. Thoughts welcome:

Wake up and dispell the darkness

Arise and dismiss the dreams

Throw off the obstructing haze

Truth isn’t as scary as it seems.

Look out upon the brilliant day

see the wonder beyond illusion

I know you think the dream protects

but the dream becomes delusion.

Break your chains and stand up tall

reach for truth and understanding.

There are no answers in the dream

just smoke and ghosts commanding.

You only get this one brief life

and it’s loaded down with glories

You don’t have to live on your knees

or be a slave to stories.

There’ so much to life you’re missing.

There’s much more than you see.

Life is so much greater

than your dream will let it be.

I hope you wake to wonder

and see the truth like shining dawn

I know that in it’s cleansing light

you can find all your phantoms gone.

-Adam

Too Many Messiahs

Messiah, the word means “anointed” and the title declares the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a word we hear often associated with Christianity and the character of Jesus of Nazareth, but is it deserved?  The New Testament is full of assertions that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies from the Old Testament and therefore was the promised Messiah, but a great many of those prophecies seem to be misinterpretations, corruptions, or not actually prophecies at all. (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_lippard/fabulous-prophecies.html)

Aside from whether or not Jesus merited the title is the fact that he wasn’t even close to the only one to claim it. There where at least seven possible claimants to the title between the years of 4bc and 36 CE, Jesus of Nazareth being only one.(http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html)

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian most responsible for giving us a non-biblical source of information in this region at this time, records several other leaders of groups who likely saw them as the Messiah. These men led groups similar to, and in some cases larger than, the character of Jesus of Nazareth and in many cases they demonstrated actions and personalities more in keeping with the tradition of David (king, military leader etc)

One of these was Simon of Peraea. (Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities17.273-277; Tacitus, Histories, 5.9.) Simon was a slave to Herod the Great who named himself king after Herod’s death and led several thousand revolutionaries who attacked and burned the King’s palace at Jericho and several other royal holdings in the area. The account tells us that Simon was seen immediately as a threat and the Romans quickly mobilized to destroy him. Simon was beheaded in 4bc and every one of his followers was crucified. It should be pointed out that Josephus gives more words to the tale of Simon than he does to the story of Jesus. Does this mean he gave it more importance? Maybe not, but it does demonstrate that he didn’t give any SPECIAL importance to Jesus’ claim.

Athronges ( Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.60-65 and Jewish Antiquities17.278-284.) was a shepherd who declared himself king and messiah and along with his brothers and their followers led a rebellion against Rome and their puppet king Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great. According to Josephus their rebellion killed a great many of both the Romans and the king’s forces. Athronges’s rebellion might have gone on for as long as two years, using raiding tactics against Roman supply trains and other targets before it was finally whittled away by the legions. Josephus’ account does not tell us what became of Athronges himself but it does say that two of his brothers were killed in various battles, one was captured and one surrendered when it became clear the cause was lost.

While both of these figures and the character of Jesus of Nazareth may have claimed or been claimed to be the messiah by others none of them actually meets the requirements laid out by the prophets of the Old Testament. The text lays out very specific requirements and ways by which the Jews will know the Messiah:

1) He must be Jewish. (Deuteronomy 17:15, Numbers 24:17)

2) He must be a member of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and a direct male descendent of both King David (I Chronicles 17:11, Psalm 89:29-38, Jeremiah 33:17, II Samuel 7:12-16) and King Solomon. (I Chronicles 22:10, II Chronicles 7:18)

3) He must gather the Jewish people from exile and return them to Israel. (Isaiah 27:12-13, Isaiah 11:12)

4) He must rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1)

5) He must bring world peace. (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:3)

6) He must influence the entire world to acknowledge and serve one G-d. (Isaiah 11:9, Isaiah 40:5, Zephaniah 3:9)

All of these criteria for the Messiah are best stated in the book of Ezekiel chapter 37:24-28:

“And My servant David will be a king over them, and they will all have one shepherd, and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them, and they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant…and I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever and My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their G-d and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”

If an individual fails to fulfill even one of these conditions, he cannot be the Messiah.”

(http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/DebunkingChristians/Page26.htm)

A later figure than any of the three already mentioned comes much closer to meeting the requirements laid out above than the Nazarene, Simon, or Athronges. His name was Simon ben Kosiba and he was active against the Romans in Jerusalem a full century after the supposed time of the death of Jesus. Ben Kosiba appears in several Jewish sources as well as early Christian and Roman sources. In 132 ce he led a successful rebellion against the Romans routing the Tenth Legion and retaking Jerusalem. He reintroduced sacrifices at the place where the temple had once stood and was declared the Messiah by Rabbi Aqiba the official religious leader of the Jews in this age, though of course there were those who disputed it.

Simon ben Kosiba waged one of the most costly and successful campaigns that the Romans faced in Judea. So successful that the Emperor Hadrian was forced to bring in three legions and several auxiliary units of reinforcements as well as one of his best generals from Britain to meet the challenge.

Even with all of this manpower however the fighting was brutal and in the end the Romans were forced to wage a slow and ugly war of attrition using terror and atrocity to dishearten the Jewish rebels. Cassius Dio the Greek historian put the number of Jewish dead at 580, 000 and said that fifty of their most important outposts and 985 well known villages were destroyed. (Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.13.2-3) For three years however there was an independent Jewish state where there had only been a Roman client kingdom for centuries before. ben Kosiba’s revolt came closest of any messianic claimant in antiquity to meeting the old testament requirements.

Why did so many men in such a relatively short time seek, or have given to them, the title of Messiah? The answer, put simply is hope, anger, frustration, oppression, and desperation. The Jewish people were an oppressed people in their own land, ruled by a line of gentile kings supported by a foreign army. They were heavily taxed, their traditions, and indeed their very way of life was, it must have seemed to them, polluted every day by these alien invaders. Is it so surprising that rebels should arise, or that they should use the religious zeal of their fellow Jews to recruit followers and strengthen resolve?

Like so many other examples older traditions stolen, mutated and adapted into Christianity the use of the title of Messiah was no more than a way to make it easier to fold Jewish adherents into the flock, to incite existing passions and make assimilation easier. The fathers of Christianity used the apparent messianic nature of the character Jesus to justify the stature they gave him, but it wasn’t a unique title, and it wasn’t a title that he had any right to. The man Jesus no more met the requirements of being the Jewish Messiah than any other claimant in history thus far; and in fact that he didn’t even do as well as some others. As with every other claim made about the character Jesus when the evidence is looked at dispassionately we get, to paraphrase Shakespeare “A tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

The Ad That Never Was…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0ZqQznblZo

I don’t care about sports, I’m not one of those people who watches the Super Bowl just for the commercials, and I only use YouTube to look for specific things so I had no idea what this was when I clicked on it. For about two minutes I was absolutely delighted: here was a well made and compelling advertisement for Atheism. Could it be that this was really aired on Super Bowl Sunday? No. Sadly it wasn’t. Sadder still this add I enjoyed so much was originally made for, of all things, Scientology!   here’s the real one if you haven’t seen it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TyVyzQARh4

“Cause in the eternal debate for answers what’s true is..space lizards” Really? My problem in this post  isn’t with the Scientologists though.  That’ll have to be another post (and it will be, stay tuned 🙂 ) no my problem here is that you’ll never see anything like the first version on t.v. No advertiser would make it, and no network would run it even if they did it’d be a nation wide scandal ten minutes after it aired.  Let me say I’m well aware the first version isn’t without its own problems. Atheism isn’t a movement it’s a single position, advertising for it is problematic because of that. The last thing I would propose is giving theists actual ammunition to claim that Atheism is a belief system. How about Anti-Theism? If it’s not a movement as far as I’m concerned it should be, a loud and busy movement. I’d like to see some more Scientology commercials for instance, made by people outside of Scientology.

Should we be recruiting and proselytizing? I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself but I think that anti-theism should be spread, or rather it should be voiced more loudly and broadly than it is. I think there are a great many hidden anti-theists out there who want to express their feelings but feel judged even by other atheists and so they don’t. There are a lot books, articles,  web pages and what-not  out there yet the sad reality of our world is a lot of people just don’t read, a lot of people just aren’t willing or able to search out this material. I honestly think a few good powerful ads would do more to jump-start the conversation than can be imagined.  Anyway these are just a few of the thoughts that occurred to me when I saw these two commercials. As always I welcome your thoughts

A Question of Faith

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Is faith a virtue? Is it a thing of real calculable value, something to be aspired to? Is it an irrational vice, a crutch useful only to justify beliefs and actions not supported by evidence or based in reason? If you don’t believe faith to be a virtue; why? Is  it the thing itself which is inherently flawed  or is it simply the things we choose to apply faith to that need to be altered?

A couple of things have to be noted first off before we can proceed. The first is that I myself have never had any use for or liking of the term (or the practice of) faith. I personally find the idea of believing something not only without evidence, but in spite of evidence, at best quaint and at worst a dangerous and limiting form of intellectual complacency.   The second is that I’m not talking about trust or confidence. I’m not interested in usages of “faith “ which are based on previous experience, a reasonable expectation of success, or some other appreciable and understandable criterion. Faith as I mean it here is a belief not predicated upon or requiring evidence to sustain it, indeed a belief sustained in spite of evidence. In short I’m talking about religious or “spiritual” faith.

The simple truth is that  most of the people on the planet profess one type of faith or another. These people often get great comfort and support from their various faiths, and said faiths can often lead them to great humanitarian actions and outlooks. These are a lot of the arguments you’ll hear in favour of faith.  Does any of that make faith a rational, reasonable  outlook on reality? Is it hubris to assert that we, a small minority of the population, know better than the billions of believers around the globe? I don’t think so at all. The sheer amount of people who believe a thing is not a measure of it’s validity, and it is certainly not a measure of it’s rationality.

There is absolutely no rational logical reason to suppose that any person ever walked, unassisted, across a body of water. Nor is there any solid rational foundation for believing that Muhammad broke the moon to frighten his enemies. ( and this leaves aside the argument that even if there was a good solid reason to believe that, for instance, Jesus existed and actually walked across water, that wouldn’t be a good reason to believe there is actually a supernatural force governing existence.) To believe that these things actually occurred is as patently irrational as believing, in this day and age, that Zeus and his court are actually sitting in state atop a mountain in central Greece, or that the world truly does rest on the back of a giant turtle. ( A belief shared by several different cultures throughout history, just to further my point about numbers not equalling truth.)

So what? Even as I write this I hear someone ask “Who cares if it’s irrational? You know, empirical studies show people who have faith are on average happier than people with none.” Why, theoretical heckler in my head, you’re absolutely right! Those studies do exist, but is individual happiness the only benchmark we should be shooting for when we’re choosing how and why we believe things? There are, I am sure, lots of ecstatic suicide bomber candidates out there, who wake up with a smile and a bounce in their step. I’m also quite certain that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t bent over with self loathing and regret as they paint their colourful and hateful picket signs and set off to desecrate some poor innocent’s funeral rites.

The answer to “who cares if it’s irrational?” is that irrational beliefs lead to irrational actions, or at the least  they open a person up to manipulation, how can they not? If your view of reality isn’t grounded in what’s observable, what’s testable and verifiable you’re asking to be deluded and controlled. What you think affects how you think, it colours your attitudes toward other people, toward societal progress, even toward things such as medical intervention, life saving procedures, and the ethics of certain incredibly promising research areas.

It is not only what we choose to have faith in that’s is the problem. It is the idea of faith itself. The idea of accepting any proposition without due evidence, and consideration is, in my opinion, folly. Critical thinking is the key to understanding, to appreciation of reality, indeed it is the key to true wisdom and it can not be achieved without inquiry, study, and a solid basis of objective fact. Faith, no matter what the faith, removes the value from inquiry and evidence and places it on wish-thinking. It is dangerous and foolhardy nonsense.

For me though the most important argument is this: faith divides, it fosters elitism and exclusivism. It throws up false barriers and distinctions between people and fosters antagonisms that  have no objective meaning or value. We are all made of the same stuff,  yet the various faiths would have us believe that some of us are somehow more (or less) than our fellows. That some are more (or less) loved by some eternal judge. How can this lead to anything but disaster?  Faith is a barrier to understanding between peoples, it’s a stumbling block to true unity and a blind fold which obscures the truth which is that we’re all basically the same, that all we have is each other, and that the old adage is true, a house divided cannot stand.

They’ll Like Us When We Win

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Earlier today I read a blog post entitled “Is it Time for an Atheist’s Rights Movement?” The author wondered if the scattered and divided “Atheist community” (if such a thing can even be said to exist) could agree enough to get behind a movement to protect the right of Atheists to be Atheists free of discrimination or persecution. He noted that even in the supposedly “enlightened” west Atheists are often discriminated against in family court decisions, in private organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, and even in the constitutions of seven American states. This is without even going into the various theocracies around the globe.

I responded in the comments by saying that while I agree in spirit with this idea. (The idea of protecting Atheists from discrimination and persecution) I think  the “Atheists’ Rights” is a small part of a much larger battle, and that if there is to be a movement the movement should be concerned with the larger war and not a single skirmish.

I don’t say this because I don’t think it’s important to protect non-theists from discrimination, I do. I don’t say it to denigrate the work done by those who are fighting for this very thing right now in various places around the globe. They’re doing important work in often life threatening conditions and that should be respected and commended. Where my disagreement comes into play is here. If there is going to be an organized, concerted effort on the part of non-theists it shouldn’t be about trying to achieve an equality of position, our positions aren’t, to my mind, equal. If there’s going to be a movement the movement should have one aim: the abolishment, or at least marginalization of theistic thought around the globe.

Now, do I mean outlawing religious thought? Punishing believers for said belief and the like? No. What I mean is working to drastically curtail the temporal power of the various faith groups and parties of god around the world. What I mean is a concerted, unified effort to demonstrate the value of our position, to show the benefits of secularism, rationality, critical reasoning, and Humanism. We should be working harder to dispel the fog of myth and superstition, not just to educate but to enlighten. As an example, noted Atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said that one of the things that made her question Islam as a child was reading “Nancy Drew” books. Intense and dramatic change is often the result of such simple, even mundane catalysts. A concerted and unapologetic campaign designed to undermine theistic thinking using such mundane and seemingly “inoffensive” materials, would be an example of one avenue that,  as far as I’m concerned, is likely to have great success. The key is that the effort must be concerted, unapologetic and multi-pronged. Polite disagreement only gets us so far. Individual activism only gets us so far. If there is ever going to be true secular victory it’s going to take a widespread unified movement. Civil rights didn’t come about because a couple of minority activists wrote and spoke and protested. It came about because a people united, demanded action, gathered allies and fought.

That being said I don’t think that the wider atheist “community” will ever unite in such a way. Atheism is not after all a belief system. It’s a single point of commonality, and aside from that single point Atheists are a disparate group with a varied collection of social and political views.  It’s difficult to imagine how such a movement could be forged. Especially since there is even disagreement on how theism should be treated by Atheists. Some, like myself, see theism as a dangerous and destructive influence that should be abolished. Others are indifferent to theism so long as it stays out of their face, so to speak, and still others think theistic views should be respected, a live and let live sort of philosophy.

Perhaps then the idea of unifying Atheists is hopeless. No movement can reasonably expect 100% support or participation after all, not every African American was part of the civil rights movement, and not every Frenchman was part of La Resistance.  Perhaps Anti-Theists, those of us do care and do recognize the threat that theism offers to the future, would be the best candidates for such a movement. Maybe those Atheists should be the ones organizing to undertake the campaign I mentioned above.  I myself would be more than happy to take part in such an endeavour.

When it comes right down to it those Atheists who are the most seriously persecuted in the world are not going to be delivered from persecution by anything less than all out ideological attack on the theocracies that oppress them. There is no hope of tolerance or equality because nothing can be “equal” to the will of god in the eyes of these theocrats and god has made his will quite clear concerning infidels and apostates. “Atheist Rights” in these places can only be achieved by a complete removal and replacement of the existing construct. Sadly the situation might not be much better here at home when it comes to “Atheist Rights”. However those rights will come as a by-product of victory in the wider struggle. Or put another way:  they’ll like us when we win, and we’ll win when we start to fight in earnest.