Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sam Harris very politely disagrees

Sam Harris' response to Andrew Sullivan has been up for awhile, but I've only gotten round to it now. The most notable thing about Sam's new response is how it differs from my own and Dan Clem's on superciliosus.

Last time I blogged about the Harris/Sullivan debate there was a lot of overlap between how I responded to Andrew and how Sam did. We each addressed the same basic points Andrew made but with different examples and arguments. This time Sam touches on points I didn't cover and I touched on points he didn't cover. There is almost no overlap in which aspects of Andrew's argument that we've each addressed. That's in part a measure of how much was wrong with Andrew Sullivan's argument but also because, for the most part, Sam doesn't deal with Mr. Sullivan's essay any more than necessary. Sam wants the questions he has already asked in his past essays answered.

In all probability we could find all Andrew's arguments refuted in Russell Glasser's and Matt Dillahunty's counter-apologetics encyclopedia, Iron Chariots ( We don't really need Andrew to learn about Christianity and Catholicism. We need Andrew only to find out about Andrew, one man with his own peculiar interpretation of his religion.

I just ignored Mr. Sullivan's claim that "we are evolutionarily programmed for faith," while Sam notes that this is debatable (I'd say very debatable) and then Sam accepts it for the sake of argument to show how it doesn't support Andrew's implied claim, that since we are programmed for faith there must be something out there to have faith in. Sam shows how we can't conclude that any specific religious doctrine is likely to be true or even say that religious faith is desirable in our own time, or even compatible with our long-term survival as a species.

Sam on the other hand ignores Andrew's remark that, "God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea." I used that line to launch into several paragraphs on how the idea of God-as-love is an immense contradiction considering how the biblical God supposedly damns people to eternal Hell and how his behavior in the Old Testament was deeply antagonistic and controlling. I noted biblical passages such one about how the Midians were killed, on God's instructions, all of them except the virgin girls.

That's an absurdly tough kind of "love" we find in the Bible. Fundamentalist religions tend to see the world in terms of a battle between good and evil. This Manichaean paranoia is built into the Bible and moderate religion cannot hide it. There is a dualism between good and evil and God and all his acts are, by definition, good. But "good" is NOT really the opposite of "evil." The opposite of "good" is "bad." The opposite of "evil" is "'gracious,' 'nurturing,' 'merciful,'" etc..

This Manichaean paranoia is also evident in the fundamentalist Bush Administration where they see the world in terms of “you’re either with us or against us” which is seen in their specious claims that any criticism of the war in Iraq, or indeed, the Bush Administration is the same as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. They are convinced that their actions are sanctioned by a higher power. This is how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power.

The only real overlap comes from Sam and me both commenting on Andrew's remarks about death. Sam actually made an argument and noted that it's not as difficult to imagine one's own nonexistence as it seems. We don't find it hard to accept that we didn't exist before we were born, so why is it difficult to believe that we'll cease to exist after we die? To quote one of Sam's better lines: "The 14th century got along fine without you (well, not so fine)." Sam even asks, "How is your last essay anything but exhibit A in a criticism of religion as 'the denial of death'?"

I quite agree, and that does seem to be a key factor religious belief; to deny death. However, I didn't make the argument Sam did. I just noted that Andrew mentioned fear and existential panic and then I asked "what is to fear in death?" Death is a reason to be sad, you're saying good-bye to everything you know, but it is Christianity that has tried to make us to fear death with its threats of Hell. Then I noted some ideas on how humanity's idea of the afterlife had evolved to include Hell long before Christianity used the concept and before Judaism adopted it.

Life is indeed too frail and too short for our tastes and we want more. Religion promises us more. It promises us knowledge and hope beyond what science can give us. It's no wonder people feel compelled explore religious claims. We aren't born knowing how the world works and I explored religion myself. I was raised Christian and when I started questioning I read lots of books and I hung around with some liberal Christians and fundamentalists too. Then later I looked at other religions and tried Transcendental Meditation. And after awhile I finally decided religious people didn't really know what they thought they did. There were always these horrible plot holes in their stories. I gave them the chance and they failed to earn my faith. Other ways of knowing, science and skepticism, earned my faith and trust.

Andrew has said, on his blog, after the flaws in his reasoning had already been pointed out by Sam:
Reasoning about faith is a paradox. Some readers have asked when I'm simply going to surrender to Sam. Well: in many ways I have surrendered. I'm fascinated by what reason can illuminate about faith - and have found Sam's arguments enriching to my own faith. But I can no more be reasoned out of faith than I was reasoned into it. I really have no choice in the matter. But I hope to understand it better and to see it in the truest light possible.

Andrew's claim that he can not be reasoned out of a faith that he was not reasoned into is absurd from a rational perspective and there seems to be an assumption of something supernatural in his faith (indeed, it's explicit in some Christian doctrine that faith is a supernatural gift, a grace, from God). This isn't normal human faith. Normal human trust and faith has to be earned. For example, many Americans trusted Bush and Cheney in the run up to the Iraq war. Why not? The majority of Democrats voted for giving Bush the power to start the war. Evidence was offered at the U.N. about aluminum tubes Iraq had that could only be used to process nuclear material. Our government supposedly had access to information we didn't have and it was their job and not ours to know these things. We just expect some kind of competence we can't achieve, without making it our job, from our government when dealing with these details that are over our heads.

For many Americans it was reason enough to trust them and just go on with their lives and let the Bush administration do its job. Voters didn't have a choice until they got to vote again. As they started seeing the claims and predictions of Bush and Cheney falling short their trust fell away and most of us voted for another option, Democrats. There were no WMD. The aluminum tubes weren't used to process nuclear material. The insurgency was not in its last throes as Cheney had claimed. And naturally, as these failures accumulated, more Americans, including Andrew, started to doubt the honesty and/or competence of the people they had elected. Most of Americans stopped trusting them as we naturally should. The Bush administration failed to earn our faith when they had the chance. Even Andrew Sullivan looks upon those who still have faith in the Bush administration today as being a bit irrational. Now why doesn't Andrew's faith in Christianity fail him as much as his faith in the Bush Administration has? Was the fact that Andrew was reasoned into this faith in Bush the reason he could be reasoned out of it? That line of argument doesn't actually make sense.

The evidence against Christianity is stronger than the evidence against the Bush administration's case for war. Yet, Andrew's faith in his religion is not shaken like his faith in Bush was and he doesn't even try to present evidence for having faith outside of mentioning vaguely a few very subjective experiences.

The other side of Andrew's claim, that he did not acquire his religious faith through reason, is rather vague. How did he acquire it? I assume he really acquired it during childhood. He grew up Catholic. However, I think Andrew, if pressed, would claim his faith is really a supernatural gift from God, for that is Catholic teaching, and he really doesn't see it as something he was indoctrinated into as a child. A child has good reason to trust his parents and his teachers and so when they tell the child there is a Santa Claus, there is a God and Jesus loves you, the child trusts them, he has faith in those who are teaching him. These parents and teachers earned this faith by actively supporting a child who can't live on his own. The child as easily believes in Santa Claus as he believes there is continent called Australia where kangaroos hop around. The child isn't reasoned into belief in either Santa Claus or God or Jesus or Australia, children simply trust those whom they depend on and drink in whatever they are taught. This is where Andrew really got this faith (that he was not reasoned into) and if he had been raised by Buddhist or Muslim parents instead he'd have acquired a different faith and on some level Andrew knows this.

There is a big hole in Andrew's logic on this point. Other religions believed with the same sincerity as Andrew's, as Sam points out, speak heavily against Andrew's evidenceless faith being the supernatural gift he seems to think it is. Andrew says he has no choice in the matter. If so, he is saying he doesn't have the ability to consider his own faith rationally when confronted with the evidence Sam has offered. Andrew can't even imagine any evidence that would change his mind. Not Jesus' bones, not the written letters of Roman frauds discussing how they were inventing Christianity for profit, not a message out in deep space written with glowing plasma in letters several times the mass of Jupiter explicitly explaining no religious books are true. Absent from Andrew's considerations is any idea that reason and argument can challenge his faith. His faith is magically above argument and reason. It is supernaturally irrational.

When Sam gives Andrew the Monty Hall deal of offering Andrew three theological choices, it's because Andrew forces Sam into calling out Andrew on what it is Andrew explicitly has faith in for Andrew can't even say what that is. This is the Monty Hall deal Sam offered:
I'd like you to focus, however, on a few competing doctrines in terms of their plausibility:
(1) There is no God.
(2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.
(3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.

Sam asks, "How much money would you (Andrew) be willing to wager on the divinity of Jesus? Would you bet your life on it?" It should be noted that early Christians did bet their lives on it and they became lion food. Andrew has not bet his life, he has only invested time, energy, and emotion in being a Catholic. And given the benefits Andrew claims from his faith, Sam says, "This seems less like an investment and more like a withdrawal of funds." And that maybe more of a cut at Andrew's rational thinking than Andrew realizes. The New Testament and early Christian history is full of the heavy prices the followers of Jesus paid. Andrew's claims of benefit ring hollow in context.

Sam suspects that if proposition (2) were revealed as true, Andrew would be both consoled (who wouldn't?) and not surprised to learn that Christianity was wrong. Considering Andrew's evasiveness about what it is exactly that he believes I'd say Sam is making a smart bet. Wishful thinking and the denial of death seem to be the foundation of Andrew' s faith so far.

Consider the ability of Nigerian scammers to con people out of money often depends on such wishful thinking.

I've gotten spam email telling me I've won the lottery or that a relative has died and left me a fortune. There is a part of me that wants to believe it, but my rational mind tells me this has got to be a scam when I see the scammer wants money from me first or simply too much information, enough to steal my identity. It's called advance fee fraud and it is a confidence (faith) trick in which a sucker is persuaded to advance relatively small sums of money in the hope of realizing a much larger gain.

According to Wikipedia, "The Nigerian scam is hugely successful. According to a 1997 newspaper article they: "have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months,' said Special Agent James Caldwell, of the Secret Service financial crimes division. 'And that's just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don't report them.'"

If you can't confront just how dubious these propositions are then you might just get taken in by a Nigerian con man, or buy a copy of "The Secret," the book by Rhonda Byrne, or fly an airplane into a skyscraper because of your faith. The more faith one invests in these dubious propositions the harder it becomes to evaluate specific claims or article of faith.

A Christian's life is supposedly a pathetic little thing to give in return for his reward in eternity. Are they heroes of truth or are they suckers who got scammed? Or are they something else?

I'd like to see Sam continue that line of speculative questions. Would Andrew sing while being feed to the lions? Have the benefits of his faith been worth the price he might be asked to pay?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

That's Michael Egnor, not Michael Ignore. Dr. Michael Egnor.

Michael Egnor is da bomb. No, wait, Michael Egnor is getting goggle bombed.

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon who has been expressing his support for intelligent design and against evolution. Dr. Michael Egnor has become something of a star on Panda's thumb because of his classically goofy creationist logic. Michael Egnor is also the new star of the Discovery Institute for the same reason.

So, some people are going to google bomb Michael Egnor and I'm doing a little bit here to help google bomb Michael Egnor.

Feel free to drop your own Michael Egnor link into my comments.

UPDATE: Tara C. Smith has a new blog post on Michael Egnor, called "Egnor just doesn't know when to quit."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Want to help some reporters nail the Bush Administration?

TPM is asking readers to comb through thousands of pages of documents looking for damning evidence. Go Here.

Reporters and investigators have to deal with over 3,000 pages of documents in the last huge document dump found on the House Judiciary Committee's website, they've started reproducing 50-page pdfs of the documents.

Also, bloggers might want to mine the comments the readers are digging up to high light the more damaging evidence and put it in context.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rob Knop and the Gospel according to Harvey

Jason Rosenhouse wrote "Replying to Knop" and asked:
...someone will have to explain to me Knop's point. He writes that the creation and appreciation of art is not science. Indeed it isn't. It also is not knowledge. What is it, exactly, that I can be said to know as the result of pondering great works of art?

This what Rob Knop wrote:
Consider, for example, art. Yes, there is science in understanding how materials combine to make sculptures, or how pigments combine to make colors. Yes, there is science in understanding what it is about human cognition and/or sociological predisposition that leads people to find some kind of art more pleasing than another. But the art itself-- the creation of it, the appreciation of it, and the understanding of it's meaning for what it is itself-- that is not science. That can be very creative, it can be very deep, it can require tremendous intelligence, and it can involve scholarship... but it's not science. This is what people are talking about when they talk about “other ways of knowing” besides just knowing the empirical results of scientific experiments and the additional predictions of theories supported by those experiments.

Ever see the movie "Harvey," Jason? It's one of Jimmy Stewart's best performances and one of my favorite movies, right up there with "It's a Wonderful Life." (Okay, it's no "Clockwork Orange" but it's a good example of its type.) I think there is a kind of knowledge that can be gained from that movie, any movie, and it's not science and it is knowledge.

Jimmy Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd, a middle-aged eccentric bachelor living in a small Midwestern town. He doesn't have a job and he lives on his deceased father's and his sister's money. He's a great guy, the kindest, friendliest man in the town and he's got a warm smile for everyone he meets. He is well known and well liked and he is seen around town a lot, the library, the market, the barbershop. However, he's an embarrassment to his socially prominent sister, Veta Louise, and his niece, Myrtle Mae. Elwood's "eccentricities" render the ladies "socially questionable." So, they make arrangements to have Elwood committed.

Elwood, you see, has an invisible friend, a six-foot rabbit named Harvey. Harvey goes everywhere with Elwood and is, among other things, everything you want a friend to be; intelligent, kind, truthful, a clever conversationalist, always willing to listen and full of good advice. Elwood, as the cliche goes, doesn't suffer from insanity, he enjoys every minute of it.

What you can learn from that movie about Rob Knop and your question is that Elwood is like Rob Knop. It's a parable in the "Gospel of Harvey." Rob too is an embarrassment to the other science bloggers because of his religious "eccentricities."

Sometimes Elwood can get a little irritated with his sister, and other people, when they are bumping into Harvey or sitting on the same bar stool. They just ignore Harvey altogether, like he wasn't really there and hard for Elwood to understand at first. He's there, right in front of their faces, so rude. They just won't look at him. How can you fail to see a six-foot tall white rabbit? Other times Elwood can tell you're pretending to see Harvey and trying to fool him and he almost admits he knows that other people can't see Harvey. Elwood can handle reality but only in small doses.

And so, we see too that Rob can get a little irritated with ads on science blogs and other bloggers who don't know how to avoid stepping on his god's toes.

One of Elwood's favorite places is the town bar. Elwood likes a little drink now and then. When telling us about what Harvey and himself do with their time, Elwood says, I paraphrase:
We sit in the bar, have a drink or two, and very soon the faces of the other people turn towards me and they smile . . . We came as strangers -- soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they've done and the great big wonderful things they're going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he's bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed.

A lot of people feel the same way about Jesus:
"And He walks with me,
And He talks with me,
And He tells me I am his own.
And the joy we share
as we tarry there
few others have ever known."

So, seeing Jesus may not differ much from the charming, humorous, harmless dementia of an aging alcoholic. Now, see what you're learning?

On the way to the asylum Elwood wanders off and Veta Louise is committed by mistake before anyone notices the mix-up. The asylum doctors aren't all that quick witted, you know scientists. Psychology is often the object of a disdain in movies. It's always the cold, clinical voice of modern science, droning at us to straighten up and get in line while missing the point of what makes life worth living. Psychology is just trying to break the beauty and intricate design behind the human brain, the choices we make with it, and the personalities it forms into a mass of electrochemical impulses popping in our synapses which we have no real control over.

Rob and Elwood are at war with that and as Elwood says to his shrink; “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.

You guys want to return Rob to reality, even if reality is the last thing he needs, same as Elwood. As Elwood is about to receive his treatment, another character observes, “After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” All things considered, insanity may be the only reasonable alternative. It's not a real religion, but just an incredible soy substitute.

Life is, after all, a constant battle to fight off maturity and only the ephemeral is of lasting value. It doesn't have to make sense. It just has to work. Reality? Who needs reality, there are dirty dishes in reality. And another problem with reality is there's no background music. I didn't create reality... I'm just trapped in it, but Elwood did create his reality.

Andrew Sullivan talks death

Andrew Sullivan's latest reply to Sam Harris is up and it's called, "The Undiscovered Country."

Andrew says:
...I found myself a little embarrassed in retrospect by the forthrightness of my claims to faith. I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways. I'm not a trained theologian nor a priest nor even someone who thinks of himself as a good Christian.

That was Andrew surrendering his faith to theologians he doesn't understand very well because of their vagueness, obfuscation and doublespeak. He'd rather do that than thinking for himself.

Sam, according to Andrew, argued that Andrew's:
...notion of God "doesn't have much in the way of specific content (apart from love)." I have indeed held back a little (although God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea).

It's also an immense contradiction considering this God-as-love supposedly damns people to eternal Hell. In the Old Testament God's character is fairly consistent, the Bible portrays Moses as someone who talked God and took orders from him. This God then told Moses to go around and kill people for various absurd reasons, and that's in addition to his own previous terrorist actions like flooding the Earth. This is what the Old Testament tells us about how the Midians are killed, all of them except the virgin girls:

Numbers, Chapter 31

On God's instructions, Moses sent soldiers against the Midianites in response to some of the Israelite men having had sex with some of the Midianite women. Moses then ordered them to slaughter all the captives, saving only female virgins. The latter were apparently kept for purposes of rape. Verse 35 talks about 32,000 virgin captives; this implies that there were probably about 32,000 young boys killed.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2: ... the seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.

Joshua 6:21: And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

In the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites, after the walls of the city of Jericho fell, the soldiers ran into the city, and killed every man, women and child, even infants and newborns. Their goal was to entirely wipe out the Canaanite culture by destroying its people. It is, by definition, genocide. When Moses orders the worshippers of the golden calf killed it's an example of murderous religious intolerance:

Exodus, Chapter 32
Exodus 32:26-28: "Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men."

God had responded to the people's desire to change their religious beliefs by killing off thousands of them. This contrasts with the concept of "separation of church and state" in an extreme way. Current laws in most of the civilized world allow individuals full freedom to change their religion. It's only in a few of the Islamic countries where religious beliefs are enforced.

Mass murder of fighters for democracy:
Numbers 16:2-3: "And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown: And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?"

Numbers 16:20-39: "And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment... the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up..."

Num 16:41-49: "But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD...And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment..."

Fundamentalists don't appear to have a problem with the violence of God, assuming as many do, that God's wrath will not be aimed at them. However, the majority of liberal traditions in all three religions that are rooted in the Old Testament image of God do have a problem with this. They devise all sorts of complex theologies, obfuscations and Orwellian doublespeak trying to contain the poison. Christianity may have been the first attempt to contain the dangerous beliefs in an Old Testament God that lead Jewish zealots to their self-destruction.

Remember "1984" and the Party's slogan: "WAR IS PEACE." Using the term "GOD IS LOVE" is also doublespeak because if we look at God's behavior in the Old Testament he more often acts out of hate, he punishes and destroys. He drowned the world, flamed 2 cities, ordered Moses to kill thousands... He sends non-believers to hell for eternity in the New Testament. What is love if it is not nurturing and helping? What does punishment that last for eternity accomplish in shaping behavior? At the very least God's love is highly conditional. "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY" applies to Christian thinking too. While I might feel free doing what I want, it just makes me a slave of Satan. Believing eventually comes down to obedience out of fear, the same reason a slave obeys, but it is supposed to make us "free." The Old Testament is a record of the horror God supposedly inflicted, the New Testament is a promise of horrors to come when the Jews failed to inflict those horrors on the Romans and then got pushed out of their land in 70 AD.

This Christian doublespeak is used by politicians like George W. Bush now. Consider the way Bush throws around terms like "evil" as in "axis of evil." Like bin Laden he tries to paint a picture of a battle between good and evil. But "good" is NOT the opposite of "evil." The opposite of "good" is "bad." The opposite of "evil" is "'gracious,' 'nuturing,' 'merciful,'" etc.. The opposite of 'that which deprives of benefit' is 'that which shares benefit.' "Nothing is evil lest thinking make it so" and "evil" is simply an ungracious assessment of ungracious acts. Thus good and evil are relativistic unless we clearly defined the terms in ways other than "what God wants" especially if the only people telling us what God wants can't be tested for such communication. If this were not a Christian country more voters would have seen through Bush's Christian doublespeak.

Andrew knows that his...
...refusal to say outright that because I believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the tenets of other faiths - Islam, Buddhism, Judaism - must be logically false. Mine, you insist, is a solid truth-claim that requires being addressed, especially because these mutually contradicting truth-claims are the source of so much conflict and dissension. You're right, I think, to judge me "a little evasive" on this score.

That is a remarkable confession Andrew just made about his own evasiveness. Unfortunately when Andrew tries to get a little less evasive this is what he says:
As a Christian, I do deny Islam's claim that Jesus was not actually divine. I deny Judaism's claim that the Messiah has not yet come. I deny any other number of truth-claims held by people of other faiths.

Interesting how he puts it in the negative frame and leaves it as minimal as possible. He doesn't like his Christian dogma, does he?

…nature of the phenomenon we're discussing - faith - has no universal rubric upon which to rationally decide one claim over another.

The idea that faith has no "rubric" is Christian doublespeak. The rubric would be things like trust and promises and duty. The idea that faith and trust between people needs to be earned is somehow left out.

"IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH" is a reverse of "Knowledge is power." The New Testament tells you faith is more important than the world's logic or knowledge: 1 Cor.1:19 "For I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." 1:27 "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;" The dependence on faith and seeing doubt as a sin is an attack on gaining knowledge.

I am very much aware that humans have no common rubric by which to judge these religious truth-claims except their internal coherence, their congruence with historical data, their longevity, and one's own conscience.

Isn't internal coherence and congruence with historical data enough to shoot down biblical claims?

For example, I pointed out in my review of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" how one of Ted Koppel's theologians started arguing for the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky. So, where did his body go? Does he think heaven is up in the sky? What's up there is 350,000 feet worth of atmosphere and then the vacuum of space and the Van Allen radiation belts. Where did Jesus' body go? Is Heaven hiding behind a cloud?

The idea of the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky is based on an ancient and very wrong model of our world where they actually thought that heaven was upstairs in the sky, either beyond the crystal spheres or the dome of the sky. It shows up in other biblical stories, like when God comes down to smash the tower of Babel because it's getting too close to heaven.

… a pragmatic and a religious move - pragmatic because I want to live in a peaceful world (I like my iPod and my civil society), and religious because the violence such certainty provokes violates the very teachings of the God I worship. I'm tolerant because I am a Christian.

Does Andrew think he would be less tolerant if he were not a Christian? And where does he get tolerance from his Christianity? From a God who would damn all who don't believe in him? From a God who orders Moses to kill whole nations, including their children?

... all these alternative modes of understanding - science, history, etc - are as contingent in the human mind as faith itself.

No, Andrew, as you know, science is not as contingent in the human mind as faith. That's a bald faced lie. Faith should be earned, honestly earned, by all who ask for it. What other institution and book would you give such faith to in the absence of evidence and with so many overt contradictions and divisions over interpretation?

… some avenues of knowledge are less contingent than others. And you have a point there. The question soon becomes one of relative contingencies. Is scientific thought less contingent than theology?

Yes. Science is remarkably less contingent than theology. That's why it's the same science across the globe, but the religions are different.

I was intrigued, as I'm sure you were, by the recent piece, "Darwin's God," in the New York Times Magazine, that posited an evolutionary origin or a neurological accident for the universal human tendency to believe that something is "out there" when, empirically, it isn't.

Sullivan might be unaware of the debate Scott Atran and Sam Harris have had over at

My own faith came alive most fully when I believed I was going to die young. It came alive as I watched one of my closest friends die in front of me at the age of 31. During that "positive hour," to quote Eliot, I also experienced religious visions, I heard a voice inside of me with a distinct tone that seemed to me divine, I experienced a moment of terrible doubt followed by a moment of complete, unsought-for relief. Maybe all this was a function of fear and existential panic. Maybe it was all a coping mechanism.

A function of fear and existential panic? Andrew seems to admit that it is the fear and denial of death that drives his faith. But what is to fear in death? Death is a reason to be sad, you're saying good-bye to everything or to a loved one, but it is Christianity that has tried to make us fear death with its threats of Hell.

If you read ancient mythology you can see humanity's idea of the afterlife evolving. You can see how the theologians kept simplifying and pumping up the volume on their portrait of the afterlife. The Egyptian afterlife was a complicated mess where kings had multiple souls and multiple afterlives. No other civilization devoted as much attention and resources to their dead as did the ancient Egyptians. Their elaborate funeral rites, their painstaking mummification technology, their vast Necropolis and their huge and complicated literature about the afterlife, all are witness to this fact.

In earlier Egyptian civilization, it seems only the Pharaoh and his family had an afterlife, and they became gods. The massive pyramids constructed during the early dynasties happen here. By the end of the sixth dynasty, the afterlife is expanded to include nobles. Then, with the cult of Osiris, the slain and resurrected god, in many ways a very Christ-like figure, the democratization of the afterlife is completed, and all were given souls.

As Egypt began to decline their view of the afterlife was simplified, the mummification got cheaper and faster, the rituals less involved and less expensive. As this happens the Greeks take over and there is some crossbreeding between the religions. In the ancient Greek religion, Tartarus was the closest thing to Hell and it was only for the especially wicked characters and enemies of the gods. That's where Sisyphus must repeatedly push a boulder up a hill for eternity and where Tantalus is kept just out of reach of cool water and grapes for sharing the secrets of the gods with humans. Tartarus is where enemies were cast after being defeated by the gods, including the Titans and Typhus. Elysium, or the Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain, seems borrowed from Egypt and it was the closest thing to a Heaven in their religion and it was inhabited at first only by the very distinguished, but later by the merely good. There are no streets of gold or pearly gates. Instead the Elysian Fields are characterized by gentle breezes and an easy life like that of the gods.

When Rome takes over, Tartarus became the eternal destination of sinners in general. Then Christianity pumped these threats and promises up to maximum volume with a Heaven and Hell and the ultimate simplification presented in seemingly the vaguest language possible.

Before Christianity we can see that death was not feared as much by how the Romans and Greeks treated death.

Maybe these psychological and spiritual experiences are simply the best way that humans have devised through countless millennia for coping with their own conscious knowledge of their own mortality.

Man's attitude toward death has changed. Christians force their fear of death on the rest of us. Consider the right-to-die advocates like Jack Kevorkian. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide have been advocating its legalization for those who are terminally ill but our Christian society resists. Some of us think a suicide is the best way to die if you're terminally ill. You have choice. You have control. You’re ready.

And how can we not be human? And who would want not to be human?

Being human doesn't mean you have to let some priesthood pull your puppet strings with phony hopes and fears.

What you are asking for, as I have argued before, is salvation by reason.

There is no salvation of the kind you're asking for, Andrew. There is only living better and dying better. There is only facing the reality that death is the end of us.

But even after you have been saved by reason, you will die, Sam. And what will save you then?

He will say good-bye to everything he knew and then he won't care about anything because there is no him to care any more. This is the same thing that will happen to Andrew in spite of all his faith.

How does this trackback work?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A reminder: Lynn Margulis, Monday, March 12, at Pharyngula

The Lynn Margulis blog tour begins this Monday morning. If you're interested, click this PZ Myers link on Monday and join me over at Pharyngula. According to PZ. Margulis will send a short article that PZ will post that morning. Comments and questions will be addressed that afternoon or evening if she finds them interesting. I'll probably only show up in the afternoon myself.

The blog tour is being done to promote her new imprint of science books called Sciencewriters Books.

If you don't know who Lynn Margulis is, here are some interesting bits of information:

1) She worked on the endosymbiont theory. More.

2) She was married to Carl Sagan.

3) She is a critic of neo-Darwinian theory, but not a Creationist or an Intelligent Design advocate. Her criticism, as far as I can tell, has to do with a neglect of the endosymbiont theory in mathematical neo-Darwinism. I guess those genetic algorithms might be improved if the writers incorporated a little endosymbiosis into their code.

4) According to her wikipedia entry she thinks HIV is not the sole cause of AIDS.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Are we losing this generation?

I found this, "Religion's Generation Gap Growing," on They claim there is an alarming increase in religious belief in young people:
An increasing number of teens and young adults who were raised in nonreligious or nominally religious families are getting swept up in religious fervor.

More alarming is that many parents don't realize this is a serious problem:

In a time when many teens are having sex and taking drugs, his parents mostly consider his piety a blessing. They get upset, however, when Kevin explains that he doesn't believe in evolution. "To me, this is appalling," says his mother, Karen Byers, who has a doctorate in strategic management and was raised a Methodist. "We get into arguments, and voices get a little louder than they should." Kevin says: "I don't want my parents to go to hell for not believing in God. But that is what's going to happen, and it really scares me."

While parents of newly devout offspring often consider religion a benign if not positive influence, some say they are disappointed that their children have chosen a lifestyle so different from their own. Some of these teens and young adults are forgoing secular careers in favor of the ministry, moving away from home to religious enclaves, skipping family celebrations and changing their given names.

"My joke is, they liked them better when they were on drugs," says Pastor Peter La Joy, who directs the student ministry at Calvary Chapel in Tucson, Ariz.
Did you get that? Parents prefer to have their kids on drugs. supplied some data that this is a serious and growing problem:
...some groups that minister to the young report big gains. Young Life, an evangelical Christian ministry that focuses on children "disinterested" in religion, says more than 106,000 teens attended its programs on a weekly basis during the 2005-2006 school year, up from 66,362 12 years ago. "Mecca and Main Street," a new book by Geneive Abdo, a senior analyst at the Gallup Organization's Center for Muslim Studies, argues that a significant number of young U.S. Muslims are becoming substantially more devoted to Islam than their parents. In the Jewish community, a growing number of formerly secular young people are embracing an Orthodox lifestyle.

Our culture is full of aggressive God-pushers and the media turns not only a blind eye to their irrationality and the brain damage caused by religious faith they help promote this insanity.

"God has called me to go and make disciples of the youth of America. That is what I am going to try to do, and if you try to stop me I am going to break your face." -- Stephen Baldwin, self-proclaimed "Jesus Psycho."

Stephen Baldwin's youth ministry has gathered tens of thousands of decision cards and faith-professing e-mails. He is just one of many pitching evangelical Christianity and right wing politics to young Americans. Another group is Teen Mania Ministries, Inc.

Teen Mania Ministries' leaders claim that they receive direction, provision, and motivation directly from the God. Founded in 1986 by Ron Luce they want to create a massive movement of young people from all over the world for strategic missions. Each year youth groups from over 50 denominations attend Teen's "Acquire the Fire" conventions held in 26 different cities across North America.

Absolutism reigns in these evangelical youth movements. They're pitching a dumbed-down fundamentalism and a reductive, brainless theology. It's full of anti-intellectualism and their biblical interpretations would have Jesus' bones spinning in his ossuary.

Now if you don't want your kids going to Jesus Camp and praying to a cardboard cut-out of George Bush then early intervention is the best way to help your child. Be aware of the signs of fundamentalism by following these guidelines:

If your child is experimenting with religious belief and prayer, it's possible he (or she) is doing everything possible to keep this hidden. The last thing he wants is for his parents to "hassle" him about his new-found beliefs. However, continued religious belief will affect your child's behavior, attitudes and even choice of friends. Here are some signs to look for, if you think that your child may be falling under the influence of God-pushers:

1) New Friends

If you child is worshipping, chances are he will begin hanging out with an unsavory crowd with similar interests. Has your child suddenly turned away from his old friends? Is he hanging out with an older (driving age) group or with those that you suspect are God-drenched?

Do his friends resemble any of these people:

Stephen Baldwin

He preaches that free will is a lie of Satan and that we must shut off our brains and be led by what God tells our hearts. He thinks that efforts to end global poverty and violence are just the sort of "stupid arrogance" that incur God's wrath, which we'll be feeling any day now in the coming apocalypse.

Rev. Jerry Falwell

This nationally known Baptist evangelist is chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He blamed terrorist attacks in the United States on pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union and People For The American Way, saying "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

Rev. Ted Haggard

This leading evangelist and vocal opponent of gay marriage was found out to have a gay prostitute lover who sold him crystal meth.
“The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem,” Haggard wrote. “I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

Here we see him down on his knees waiting for someone to put something in his mouth.

Kirk Cameron

This fire-breathing Evangelical nutcase was once a child actor and he now uses his fame and influence to produce a Christian reality show, called The Way of the Master.

"Most people in the world are not Christians and their ungodly lifestyles can wear on us day after day."

Rev. Peter Popoff

This infamous money-lusting false preacher who in the early 1980’s was pulling in over 4 million dollars a year before being exposed by James Randi is still in business.

Today he sells Miracle Spring Water.

According to the testimonials he reads, it'll fix anything. One woman had her electric bill paid by the Lord after she used the water.

2) Physical Evidence

Have you found unexplained items around the house or under his bed? Any paraphernalia like crucifixes, Bibles, prayer books or bottles of Miracle Spring Water?

3) Attitude and Mood Swings

Has your child developed a negative attitude towards science and rationality? Most teenagers go through normal mood swings, but look for extreme changes -- one minute they'll be happy and giddy followed by sudden fits of anger or rage just after seeing an advertisement for a Discovery Channel show on human evolution or seeing Richard Dawkins on the news. This is a sign that they have adopted a creationist theology masquerading as science that will have an adverse effect on your child's science literacy.

4) Overt Signals

Has anyone ever told you that your child is attending prayer meetings or other Christian gatherings? Have they told you that your child has been asking other kids if they "know Jesus"? Have you ever heard him speaking in tongues?

5) Their taste in art becomes noticeably lame and saccharine

The fact that I find the message behind Christian art and music dubious, to say the least, shouldn’t, in principle, prevent me from liking the music or appreciating the images. But, when I find Christian rock on any radio station, it's always remarkably lame, unimaginative, cliché driven and sappy. I don't even have to hear the lyrics nor do I have to know which station I've stumbled onto before I sense in only three chords that some low-quality, saccharine power ballad on valium will soon sing the name Jesus.

Part of the problem is obviously the fact that these are people who can't make it in the mainstream and so they find a market in the fundy subculture where their work is sold in Christian bookstores. And when you hear the term 'Christian band,' you know it means propaganda, someone with an agenda.

But beyond the not-make-it-in-mainstream and propaganda driven nature of the music there seems to be something else in the message: Jesus is a drug like valium and it dulls your emotional responsiveness to the world around you. It destroys your artistic edge and blinds you to the function of good art.

Even Jack Chick knows that music belongs to the Devil:

Again, many of these changes could be attributed to just growing up or simply the onset of schizophrenia. But if you have noticed a pattern of several of these "signals" your child may be a fundamentalist.

What can you do when your child starts experimenting with such mind destroying theologies or actually falls in with a fundamentalist crowd?

Here's what you do:

1) Blame yourself because you're an utter failure as a parent

While there are many things that happen to kids that you shouldn't blame yourself for, such as your kid becoming a psychotic mass murderer, your child becoming a fundamentalist is not one of them. If it happens then you have only yourself to blame. You have completely and utterly failed as a parent. It is a sign that you have failed to teach the kid how to think rationally and critically.

No doubt you will have a hard time coming to grips with this news, but you must consider the evidence. You raised a kid that is too stupid to figure out that modern scientific knowledge annihilates most fundamentalist beliefs.

Don't get me wrong, I don't expect teenagers to understand all the data on the age of the Earth or the evidence for biological evolution. I'm talking about a simpler and more basic kind of stupidity, not the ignorance of someone with only an incomplete high school education.

For example, I pointed out in my review of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" how one of Ted Koppel's theologians on the show that followed "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" started arguing for the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky. I asked myself; where did his body go? Does he think heaven is up in the sky? What's up there is 350,000 feet worth of atmosphere and then the vacuum of space and the Van Allen radiation belts. Where did Jesus' body go? To the Moon? Is Heaven hiding behind a cloud? If it all weren't so tragically insane it would be funny.

The idea of the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky is based on an ancient and very wrong model of our world where they actually thought that heaven was upstairs in the sky, either beyond the crystal spheres or the dome of the sky. It shows up in other biblical passages, like when God comes down to smash the tower of Babel because it's getting too close to heaven. In the Koran a winged horse takes the prophet to heaven.

This is one of many clues to the fact that the Bible, New Testament and Old, is just plain wrong about a lot of things. It's also an example of the kind of thinking your child has failed to do. And your child has failed because you didn't teach him.

Another thing you should blame yourself for is the fact that kids are also seeking answers to the questions of who will look out for them, who will love them, who will tell them how to live. They're going to preachers for these answers because you've failed to give them any.

And when you do this blaming of yourself, it's very important to make sure the kid is around because it will really give him a hell of a guilt trip.

2) Encourage your child to have safe sexual adventures

There's a reason these fundy preachers don't like the normal teenage rites of passage involving sex, drugs and rock and roll and declare these things sinful; it makes religion less important and significant to kids.

Vilayanur Ramashandran, a neurologist and his colleagues at the University of California in San Diego, did an experiment where they hooked up temporal-lobe patients and healthy controls to a machine, similar to a lie detector that measured changes in skin resistance to test their emotional responses to words flashed up on a screen. Three groups of words were presented to the patients: neutral words, like chair or table, profane words, sexual words, and finally religious words.

Normal people set off the response meter when they read curses and sexually expressive words. There was no response to the neutral or religious words, even in normal volunteers who were devout. But some patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy gave the monitor a jolt when they were presented with religious words -- and not when they heard curses or sexual words.

It tells us, perhaps, that some forms of religion want to live in those areas of the brain where sexual reactions live. About 25 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy are obsessed with religion. Some temporal lobe patients walking into Ramashandran's lab wore huge crosses and carried hundred-page tomes on the nature of God. Some psychologists have theorized that such temporal lobe epileptics were the people who have started major religions.

3) Encourage your child to use psychedelic drugs

If your child is claiming to have had a born again experience it's going to be tough to convince him that the experience was just in his head, just neurons firing and producing a waking dream. Such experiences can seem incredibly real and they always have a heavy emotional weight. The cure for this might be more such experiences but had through a different method; psychedelic drugs. These drugs demonstrate that such experiences can be easily and regularly induced with a subtle change in brain chemistry and are not gifts handed down by God. If you want to see God, just look in the mirror because your God is created in your own image.

Timothy Leary's "The Religious Experience: Its Production and Interpretation" claims that when giving religious professionals LSD his 'conservative' estimate was that 75 percent of the subjects reported "intense mystico-religious responses, and considerably more than half claim that they have had the deepest spiritual experiences of their life."

Unfortunately the nature of an LSD trip depends a lot on expectations, set and setting. "...if the expectation, preparation, and setting are spiritual, an intense mystical or revelatory experience can be expected in 40 to 90 percent of subjects ingesting psychedelic drugs... It is hard to see how these results can be disregarded by those who are concerned with spiritual growth and religious development," wrote Mr. Leary. The same expectation and setting influence on events is true for non-drug induced experiences also. That's why people raised in a Christian culture tend to see Jesus Christ while those raised in an Islamic culture might experience Muhammad and a Buddhist might experience a past life.

Such expectation guided hallucinations can even happen in our normal waking state without us being aware. Consider what happened to Rene Prosper Blondlot, a French physicist who claimed to have discovered N-rays. Other scientists even confirmed the existence of N-rays in their own labs. But, N-rays don't exist. They all deceived themselves into thinking they were seeing something when in fact they were not. They saw what they wanted to see, not what was actually there.

Now, you may be thinking this is all some kind of joke (and you'd be a moron not to think so) so to hammer home the seriousness of the problem take a look at this shocking evidence:

This is your brain:

This is your brain on drugs:

This is your brain on religion:

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Religion's war on science, Part 1

Christian libertarian Vox Day has just come out and openly declared sides in the war on science that Chris Mooney wrote about in "The Republican War on Science." - (find a sample chapter here)

Vox Day wrote "The case against science" for World Net Daily and he has declared there:
... there is real cause to doubt the continued benefit of science to modern society, or even its right to a respectable place within it.
Just what meaning of "science" is Vox Day talking about? There is no one meaning to this word "science," especially when coming out of the mouth of a Christian libertarian who writes for World Net Daily. Science is knowledge gained by testing ideas against reality. Is Vox Day really against that? Or will the meaning of science shift through a half dozen shades of meaning and metaphors?

Watch how he does it:
... the benefits of science are hugely exaggerated. Most of the advances in human technology are a function of the wealth produced by capitalism and human liberty, as may be seen in the retarded technological development in countries with no shortage of education and scientists, but handicapped by anti-capitalist, anti-libertarian ideology.
Is he talking about the anti-capitalist, anti-libertarian Soviet Union who beat us into space and started a space race that got us investing more government money in science and inspiring President Kennedy to announce the goal of landing a man on the Moon?

Most inventors are not scientists and most scientists are not inventors; whereas Oppenheimer and Einstein gave us the nuclear bomb, Steve Wozniak gave us the personal computer and Al Gore gave us the Internet. It's worth noting that the inventors of what is considered to be the most significant invention of the century, the silicon chip, were not scientists but electrical engineers.
Really? I thought Robert Noyce, who invented the silicon chip, was a physics major at Grinnell College as well as an electrical engineer. Isn't physics science?

Science, invention and business are far more intertwined than Vox Day wants you to believe. Technological change and the underlying body of growing scientific knowledge upon which it draws are so deeply interconnected that it's impossible to draw such clear lines between them and Vox Day's notions of a clear separation don't even qualify for the 17th century.

They may not even qualify for Archimedes, an ancient Greek who did pure science and invention before Christianity was born.

Consider that what James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, the guys who discovered the structure of DNA, did was pure science. Pure science that is now becoming several technologies, like genetic engineering, gene therapy and genetic medicine.

Follow the road that their pure science started into the territory that J. Craig Venter is exploring, where the lines between pure research and invention get blurred.

J. Craig Venter, who helped map the human genetic code, now has a new start-up called Synthetic Genomics and he plans to create new types of organisms that would produce hydrogen, secrete fuel or be able to break down greenhouse gases. He wants to create micro-organisms that could be used to create alternative fuel sources.

To get this idea off the ground the first thing he does is pure research. He started exploring the globe in a luxury yacht called the Sorcerer II on an expedition that updates the scientific voyages of Charles Darwin looking for undiscovered micro-organisms. The genomes of these micro-organisms will be sequenced and studied and used to form a body of knowledge that will allow us to better genetically engineer organisms that do what we want.

Is this the "science" that Vox Day objects to? He's certainly proved he doesn't understand it.

Now watch him shift definitions:

Sciencists (those who believe in science as a basis for dictating human behavior, as opposed to scientists, who merely engage in the method),...
Excuse me? Did the definition of science just shift? And what scientist is dictating human behavior? Where does that even come from? Is this behavior we're dictating merely our objecting to having restraints on stem cell research or something? Are Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett forcing Vox Day to become an atheist? to posit that Man has evolved to a point where he is ready to move beyond religion. A more interesting and arguably more urgent question is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind.

Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere two centuries of science.
So, what exactly is the choice here? To move forward and learn what kind of universe we live in or to run away from scientific knowledge and live in stagnation until those societies that aren't afraid of scientific truth decide we'll make great cattle? I guess Vox Day would rather be an Eloi than a Morlock.

The aspects of Day's article I don't pick up on here are covered by PZ Myers.


Monday, March 5, 2007

Censorship at HuffPo?

After writing TV review: "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" here I decided to do a little self-promotion of my blog by linking the review on a few other blogs talking about the show. One of them was Bruce Feiler's blog, in a post called "The Jesus Tomb Meets the Internet," over at the Huffington Post. In doing so I may have discovered someone curiously censoring my posts when I link my blog.

I wrote a comment and included this taste of writing from my blog:
Mr. Jacobovichi also argued how his own evidence was better than that of an archeologist who believed that back in 1990 the tomb of the "Caiaphas" family had been discovered and that this tomb had the bones of the very "Joseph, son of Caiaphas" that was the Jewish high priest who organized the plot to kill Jesus. The Caiaphas who convinced the Sanhedrin that Jesus should die and was also involved in the trial of Jesus after his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

If this Jesus isn't the Jesus of the New Testament, then why believe that their Caiaphas is the Caiaphas of the New Testament? Did anything in their tomb suggest any of that Caiaphas family had been high priests? Well, if that archeologist had anything it was edited out. It was a point that didn't boost Jacobovichi's own credibility but rather one that gave me less confidence in biblical archeology overall, which was pretty low to begin with.

The comment never showed up. Well, it takes time, so I tested it by writing a comment that didn't include a link to my blog. That got posted in the comments. I knew two things by then, first only comments with the link to my blog were never showing up and that it is not a general policy of theirs not to publish links to blogs because two other people there, EndianaDOTcom and Sevenstarhand, both put links to their blogs in their posts.

The linked blogs are:

Next I went to Bruce Feiler's site:

I found a "The Jesus Tomb Meets the Internet" post there and left a comment asking about the censorship on HuffPo. It hasn't shown up yet, it's moderated.

Then I did a bit of research on Bruce Feiler, author of seven books, including Walking the Bible, Abraham, and Where God Was Born, and the host of the series Walking the Bible on PBS. I plugged both the name Caiaphas and Bruce Feiler into Google and got some hits, like this one:

Cradle in the Sun

UPDATE: My comment on Bruce Feile's blog showed up.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

TV review: "The Lost Tomb of Jesus"

I have to say that "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which just ended on the Discovery Channel as I write this, was a lot more interesting than Mr. Cameron and Mr. Jacobovichi's first documentary that claimed to have "proved" the Exodus. But, please, don't take that to mean this was a good show or that Mr. Cameron and Mr. Jacobovichi have gained much credibility in my eyes. They did make a fairly nice detective story out of it instead of the naked claims and argument that made up the old Exodus show. But how much of that detective story is fictional? It was all a little too neat, too lined up like an argument with one bit of evidence after another making a neat chain of "facts." A chain of evidence that says 10 small limestone ossuaries, discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb may have held the bones of the New Testament's Jesus and his family and that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a son.

There were also odd things that were not done that damaged the program's credibility in my eyes. For example, they got DNA from the Jesus and Mary ossuaries, but why not all of them? It might have been a tomb full of unrelated people. They just assumed it was a family tomb and if Jesus and Mary were not related, then they therefore had to be married. And it was only mitochondrial DNA which can only tell if they had the same mother.

Later, when Ted Koppel interviewed Simcha Jacobovichi in a special extra program that came after the Tomb show, Mr. Jacobovichi claimed that he couldn't get DNA from the other ossuaries. That claim I hope will be put to the test and only if others prove him honest on that will I believe him. We have yet to learn how much fiction got into the program and some of Koppel's first two experts suggested a lot did.

Amazingly, to me, none of Simcha Jacobovichi's critics brought up the fact that Jesus' tomb had supposedly been found hundreds of years ago. They built a church on the site called "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre," the "holiest" Christian site in Jerusalem and Israel. It was supposedly built on the location where Christ was crucified and buried. A church originally built by Constantine I the Great in 333 AD, after he supposedly became Christian, and then turned Christianity to the official religion of the Roman empire.

I had a lot more sympathy for Mr. Jacobovichi when he had to face Ted Koppel's theologians at the end. The program got absurd for me when hearing one of the theologians arguing for the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky. I mean, dude, where did his body go? You think heaven is up in the sky? What's up there is 350,000 feet worth of atmosphere and then the vacuum of space and the Van Allen radiation belts. Where did Jesus' body go? To the Moon? Is Heaven hiding behind a cloud? If it all weren't so tragically insane it would be funny.

Mr. Jacobovichi offered an alternative to the dogma of standard Christianity about Jesus rising into the sky and he suggested it was only Jesus' spirit or soul that ascended into heaven. And they called it Christian Realism.

Okay, if he didn't rise up into the sky as described in the Bible what about all the other miracles? Do Christian Realists believe Jesus cast demons into pigs, walked on water, did he change water into wine, curse a fig tree and make it wither or heal blind people by spitting? I don't know what Christian Realism entails about other supernatural events except for Jesus' body not rising up into the sky. So, I Googled "Christian Realism" and got a Wikipedia note on it but it didn't make things much clearer for me:

Christian Realism is a philosophy advocated by Reinhold Niebuhr. Christian Realists believe that the "kingdom of heaven" ideal is one's supreme concern. Unfortunately, according to Niebuhr, the kingdom of heaven can not be realized on Earth because of the innately corrupt tendencies of society. Due to the natural injustices that arise on Earth, a person is therefore forced to compromise the reality of the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

Well, at least they didn't make Christian Realism up to cover their asses, I'll give them that.

In the end, after Koppel was through trying to tear Mr. Jacobovichi's show apart, it wasn't as compelling as they claimed, but it was still an interesting, though doubtful, possibility. I would like to see more archeological work done on this. And I also think Mr. Jacobovichi made a few good points about this possibility being overlooked for more than a decade because Christians can't accept Jesus leaving bones behind. What was clear after hearing those theologians was that if they ever did find Jesus' bones and proved it many Christans still wouldn't accept it.

Mr. Jacobovichi also argued how his own evidence was better than that of an archeologist who believed that back in 1990 the tomb of the "Caiaphas" family had been discovered and that this tomb had the bones of the very "Joseph, son of Caiaphas" that was the Jewish high priest who organized the plot to kill Jesus. The Caiaphas who convinced the Sanhedrin that Jesus should die and was also involved in the trial of Jesus after his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

If this Jesus isn't the Jesus of the New Testament, then why believe that their Caiaphas is the Caiaphas of the New Testament? Did anything in their tomb suggest any of that Caiaphas family had been high priests? Well, if that archeologist had anything it was edited out. It was a point that didn't boost Jacobovichi's own credibility but rather one that gave me less confidence in biblical archeology overall, which was pretty low to begin with.

For me, the interesting stuff wasn't the program's core theory about Jesus' bones and family, but the little surprising details like the fact that in Jerusalem they have these superstitious beliefs that make them put pipes into the tombs that stick up through the ground so spirits can rise up out of the ancient tombs. And there's also the fact that there are these ancient tombs under these apartment complexes in Jerusalem and there are only concrete slabs over them keeping you from getting in. Nice set up for a Poltergeist type movie.

PZ Myers has a review up now which gives a more detailed timeline on the show. Check it out if you want to know more.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Deepak Chopra's music of the mind

Deepak Chopra's second part to "Why Robots Love Music" (I ignored the first part) is up and he begins by making a dangerous confession, he admits that brain research is useful - but only for things like treating Parkinson's disease or aiding in the recovery of stroke victims, and only if the following factors pertain:
-- A brain function has gone awry in some organic way.
-- The impaired function can be isolated.
--The impaired function can be observed.
-- The mechanics of correcting the impaired function are well understood.

But Chopra thinks that where music is concerned, those factors are not in play:

-- No brain function has gone awry.
-- The brain functions that produce music are complex and mysteriously connected
-- The actual transformation of noise signals into meaningful music cannot be observed physically.
-- The mechanism whereby music arose in every society is not at all well known, since there is no evolutionary advantage to healthy brain function.

Deepak wants to claim that the whole model in science of mind and brain is fundamentally wrong. He says: "Music points to a truth that science isn't set up to accept: music is a function of the mind." And in Deepak's "mind" there's a difference between mind and brain. He doesn't agree with neuroscientists that say that "Mind is what brain does." He probably doesn't even know any neuroscientists that say that. Instead the "mind" is some sort of free floating consciousness that doesn't need anything physical for it to work.

From these assumptions Deepak might have a hard time believing some of these facts, such as when he says, "No brain function gone awry" he ignores the fact that there are brain areas that when damaged will interfere with musical ability and appreciation. There is in fact a condition called amusia and here's someone losing their ability to carry a tune or whistle after brain injury: Link.

After a fall that caused a traumatic brain injury she lost her ability to speak, read, write and carry a tune, or even tolerate the din of any music. As part of her therapy she taught herself to play the fiddle and discovered it gave her a kind of focus and comfort that nothing else could at that point. Turns out learning an instrument following a brain injury or after a stroke is good therapy.

Because listening to music and playing it is a complex process that involves many brain areas it helps one relearn other old skills. Thus come practical benefits unanticipated by Deepak.

Brain disorders can also cause musical hallucinations.

Another of Deepak's claims; "...transformation of noise signals into meaningful music cannot be observed physically," is also wrong. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can brain scan while you listen to the music. We also know that there are striking structural differences in the brains of professional musicians compared to non-musicians. Musicians have a larger than average corpus callosum (a fiber bundle connecting the left and right hemisphere of the brain) which may result in enhanced communication between the two halves of the brain. Furthermore, brain regions responsible for movement planning and movement execution as well as brain regions responsible for hearing were found to be larger in musicians compared with matched non-musician controls.

And Deepak's last claim, that there is no evolutionary advantage? And how does he know that? Simple, because he can't imagine one and the limits of Deepak's own imagination must be the limits of reality -- according to Deepak. And here again Deepak is just dead wrong. There are people who can see an evolutionary advantage to music? For example, Mario Vaneechoutte and John R. Skoyles who put "The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates" on the web.

They think that songs, musicality, underlie both the evolutionary origin of human language and it also evolved as a means to establish and maintain pair- and group-bonding. Examples exist of tropical song birds, whales and porpoises, wolves, gibbons where song - with regard to its capacities for reinforcing social bonds. Anthropologists find song has this function also amongst all human societies.

There are a ton of other flaws in Deepak's short little essay, but I'll leave them to others commenting on his blog. Again, Deepak reads one pop science article about music and the brain and he suddenly thinks he knows everything science knows about the brain. Is that not stupid?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Terror Free Tomorrow?

I found a Christian Science Monitor article called, "The myth of Muslim support for terror" about a poll conducted by an organization called Terror Free Tomorrow that claims to show that Muslim countries have fewer pro-terrorist attitudes than Americans do.

The article begins with this paragraph:
"Those who think that Muslim countries and pro-terrorist attitudes go hand-in-hand might be shocked by new polling research: Americans are more approving of terrorist attacks against civilians than any major Muslim country except for Nigeria."

According to the article U.S. citizens are more approving of "terrorist attacks" than most Muslim countries. However, I smell a rat. Maybe I'm paranoid and too deeply distrustful of Washington but something doesn't add up.

The author of the Christian Science Monitor article is Kenneth Ballen and he happens to be the founder and president of Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in Washington, D.C. whose advisory board is headed by Senator John McCain and Lee H. Hamilton.

According to Mr. Ballen's article only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified," while 24 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified."

Wait a minute, is "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" an acceptable definition terrorism? If it is, then is not George Bush a terrorist when he bombs civilian areas? Are Carl von Clausewitz's concepts of total war and absolute war terrorist concepts? It's the idea that wars tend to escalate in violence toward a theoretical absolute and that total war, targeting civilians, is an acceptable strategy in the theoretical absolute war. During World War II we fire bombed Dresden and dropped two nukes on Japan. Those were terrorist acts if we are calling terrorism "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians."

I'm not sure I can accept that definition. If someone asked me if "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified" I would have said "no" because there are a few, very rare, cases when it is justified and America has done it. When you're invited to the dance of total war you have to go.

Contrast that with how they phrase the information about a 2006 poll of the world's most-populous Muslim countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, and found that 74 percent of respondents in Indonesia agreed that terrorist attacks are "never justified." In Pakistan, that figure was 86 percent. In Bangladesh, 81 percent.

But were they asked the same question, or were they asked this different question about terrorist attacks being justified? Ask me if terror attacks were never justified and I would have said "yes, they are never justified" because the objective of a terror attack is to cause terror, the most dangerous and unpredictable emotion you can induce in people.

The word "terrorism" lacks definition and is easily refuted with trite truisms like "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and "Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." The word is just a subjective epithet and not a well defined military tactic. The use of that word has been nothing but a manipulative tool throughout this so called "War on Terror." It's nothing but a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning. The only definition of "terrorism" is a subjective one; "any violence that I do not support."

While total war, fire bombing Dresden and nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly caused terror, the military objective was also to cripple production, to destroy war-production factories, supply routes or military installations. Most Americans would probably accept the necessity of those two acts. We believe they worked for us and helped us win WWII and both required us to intentionally attack civilians. Terror is only a side-effect and one that has to be countered with assurances of reconstruction and a helping hand when the war is over.

Mr. Ballen claimed in his article that his organization, which sponsored the surveys, has shown that Muslims reject terrorism as much if not more than Americans, and that even those who are sympathetic to radical ideology can be won over by positive American actions that promote goodwill and offer real hope.

While I tend to agree with that broad thrust of this idea of changing hearts and minds and how that needs to be our goal, I'm think they are either trying to candy coat Muslim attitudes or missing some important point with these surveys. Do these Muslims who reject terrorism also think that killing apostates is a bad thing? Do they think the honor killings of their women is a form of terrorism?

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that violence against women has increased alarmingly, with some of the incidents incited by Mullahs opposed to women's emancipation. In Pakistan recently, a minister and fighter for women's rights was killed by an Islamic fanatic. She was Zilla Huma Usman, 35, Pakistani, a minister for social welfare in Punjab province, shot dead by an Islamic fundamentalist just before she was about to address a meeting of party activists in Gujranwala, 120 miles south east of Islamabad.

The assassin, Mohammad Sarwar, after his arrest, told a television channel that he had carried out God's order to kill women who sinned. "I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path, if I am freed again," he said. Sawar had been previously held in connection with the killing and mutilation of four prostitutes in 2002, but was never convicted due to lack of evidence.

Is Mohammad Sarwar a terrorist? I would say yes, and so is James Kopp, and Paul Hill, and Peter James Knight, all of whom were accused of murder in relation to their anti-abortion activities. In the late 1990s, prior to George W. Bush's election to presidency, there was a spate of murders of doctors who practiced abortion and the bombing of abortion clinics in the United States. It was one the more successful terrorist campaigns around because it worked. It became very hard for women to find doctors who would provide the service.

Would Christians in the United States call that terrorism? Would they call bombings and violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland terrorist?

Polls also show that, in the United States and Europe, nearly half of Westerners associate Islam with violence and Muslims with terrorists. Given the many news events in which Islamic radicals have committed violence in the name of Islam around the world, that's an understandable result. It's also true that there is a unique element within Islamic societies that is not like other cultures. What other religious culture today kills apostates and women who fight for equal human rights?

If we wrongly attribute radical views to all of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims it might perpetuate the myth that marginalizes our potential allies in the war on terror. I would agree that the stereotyping and lumping of Muslims into this terrorist supporting mold is clearly wrong. For example, I don't think Sufism would lead to terrorism.

In fact, Sufi stories and jokes like this might undermine terrorism:

"One woman says to another, "Poor Maisie really has suffered for what she believes in."
"And what DOES she believe in?" asks the other.
"She believes that you can wear a size six shoe on a size nine foot."

However Saudi Wahhabism and Islamic Shari’ah law may not be so blameless.

We are fighting an ideology and not a state and the ideology seems to be contained in these kind of religious movements. Islamic Shari’ah law contains no conception of universal human rights, women's civil rights and individual freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and belief and freedom from religion. Apostasy is punishable by death under Shari’ah hudud laws. It thus forcefully opposes free thought and freedom of expression. Accusations of apostasy are waiting to silence any voice of dissent. One is born Muslim and is forced to stay Muslim to the end of their life.

Even good Muslims can be accused of unbelief, blasphemy and heresy as well as of apostasy for various other causes, including skepticism and atheism and not fully implementing Shari’ah. leaving the door wide open for denouncing other Muslims as infidels liable to the death penalty in a process known as takfir.

In countries that are considered Islamic states, like Iran, the Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, we already saw the effects on TV. Christiane Amanpour did a TV special showing us a woman being shot in football stadium under Taliban rule. We know about the stoning to death of women exercising their right to personal freedom. We read about random accusations of blasphemy with a mandatory death penalty being used to settle personal grudges and public hangings for apostasy, real or alleged.

Can we defeat terrorists by ignoring such things?

Religious moderates think there is a clear separation between extremist and moderate religion. But the Bible and the Koran both remain perpetual engines of extremism because the God of the Bible and the Koran is not a moderate. In both books you find reasons to live like a religious fanatic, to fear hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, to oppress women.

Moderates cherry-pick scripture but the pickings are slim, and the more fully one gives credence to the claims in those two books, the more one will be committed to a world view where infidels, heretics, and apostates should be violently opposed.

Should we be ignoring research published in the March issue of Psychological Science that may help elucidate the relationship between religious indoctrination and violence? The researchers compared aggression after reading a quotation that enjoined subjects to "take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD." That has shown that getting God's permission increases levels of aggression.

Toward the end of the article we are given this over simplistic notion:

"In truth, the common enemy is violence and terrorism, not Muslims any more than Christians or Jews. Whether recruits to violent causes join gangs in Los Angeles or terrorist cells in Lahore, the enemy is the violence they exalt."

I'm not against lessening violence, but what about the fact that one of the people on Terror Free Tomorrow's advisory board is Senator John McCain who wants to escalate the war in Iraq? Isn't that violence too?

Something doesn't add up here.