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“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.

I just finished reading a fascinating new book, Brain Wars, by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Montreal who has studied the distinctions between mind, brain, and consciousness for almost 30 years. Brain Wars is a careful and comprehensive examination of the state of scientific research in all subjects related to the mind and to consciousness (rather than “merely” the brain). To anyone who approaches Beauregard’s topic with an open mind, Brain Wars is enlightening and exciting.

Ah, but that “open mind”! That is something else again. Early in Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard lists the three unquestioned and therefore unquestionable axioms of modern science:

  • Only matter and energy exist. Science is not only forbidden to consider that anything other than matter and energy exists; it may not consider even the possibility that something more exists. Life, consciousness, sentience, and the human senses of purpose and meaning are all accidents. If a concept cannot be explained through the laws of physics, it does not exist. (Physicalism)
  • Any complex system is nothing more than the sum of its smaller components. Dissection is the only acceptable technique of scientific inquiry. Any scientific inquiry that fails to limit itself to reductio ad infinitum is by definition fraud, crackpot, or fundamentally malignant. When you see words and phrases like “nothing more than,” “merely,” “simply,” “just,” or “little but,” you can see the reductionist mindset at work. (Reductionism)
  • Reality exists independent of the observer, and to hell with Heisenberg and anyone who thinks Heisenberg had a point. Quantum mechanics? Pshaw! Scientists may only consider empirically verifiable facts and may use only the scientific method. (Objectivism)

(Let us refer to these sacred axioms of modern science, Physicalism, Reductionism, and Objectivism, as PRO. Let us remark in passing that without PRO, you would not be reading these words; without PRO, we’d still be stuck in 1600 or so. Which, the glories of the Elizabethan era aside, may not be anyone’s favorite era of cultural development.)

A blogger named P.Z. Myers (a self-avowed “godless liberal” who according to Wikipedia is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist”), read a partial excerpt of one chapter of Brain Wars online and instantly proclaimed the entire book “nonsense,” “tripe,” “baffling piffle,” “unsupportable fantasies,” “very silly,” and “full of woo”; this is only to be expected, said Myers, since an earlier scientific text by Dr. Beauregard is “one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read.” (That is one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived sentences I’ve read in months!)

In other words: Not having read either the current book or any of the meticulously structured and conducted research that Brain Wars summarizes, cephalopod researcher P.Z. Myers condemned both the book and its author with full-throated loathing. All scientific research of which this priest of PROism disapproves is reduced to nothing more than “feeble anecdotes” based on “flawed reasonings,” “confabulation,” and “confirmation bias.”

Apparently unprepared to receive an online assault made within moments of the publication of his new book, Dr. Beauregard made the mistake of responding to Myers’s attack in kind. His proofs that Myers had assailed the new book without actually reading it, or any of the dozens of research studies it reviews, were fine; his repetition-with-enlargement of his original point, obfuscated by Myers, was acceptable. BUT, Beauregard made the huge mistake of responding to Myers’s ad hominem attacks on Beauregard with similar ad hominem attacks on Myers. (It does not help Beauregard’s cause that English appears to be his second language, or that Beauregard’s feelings appear to have been hurt by Myers’s ad hominem viciousness.)

Responding to flung poop with poop-flinging was a bad mistake. To coin a phrase, “You can’t use Rush to flush Rush.” My advice to authors who receive knee-jerk attacks from jerks with knees: Pretend your attacker is your most fervent admirer. “I am so happy that blogger P.Z. Myers considers me an incompetent idiot,” Beauregard ought to have written. “I am even happier that the committees that confer major international awards in my speciality, such as the Joel F. Lubar Award for distinguished achievement in neurotherapy, all disagree with Dr. Myers. I am sure that Dr. Myers is highly qualified to teach introductory biology to college freshmen in his small town in Minnesota. And he writes a cute little blog, too! If only *I* could squeeze in the time to write a blog! — but my num­ber­less peer-reviewed research studies keep taking up my time. In future years I will look forward to seeing whether Dr. Myers shows himself capable of publishing at my level. His blog, Pharyngula, is certainly full of interesting information on zebrafish and ceph­a­lo­pods, and I know that much of it must be factual.”

Naturally, Myers reacted to Beauregard’s clumsy attempt to give Myers a taste of his own medicine as positive proof that every word Myers has ever published is God’s sacred truth and every word that Beauregard has ever published is “unaware of [the] basic concepts of science.” Myers’s second attack on Brain Wars — which Myers still appears not to have read — is even more savage and even less founded on the scientific rationality that Myers claims to prize.

Beauregard’s second mistake was trying to defend his work for what it is, a comprehensive review of up-to-date scientific research, when P.Z. Myers’s attacks have been on the heresy Beauregard displays toward Myers’s religion.

Yes; I said it; P.Z. Myers is not in fact a “godless liberal.” P.Z. Myers is a high priest of scientific orthodoxy, a Torquemada of Truthiness, a “Joey the Rat” Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Orthodox PROism. The real scientists are the real seekers of truth; anyone who even wonders whether a distinction can be made between brain and mind is a heretic. Evil. A “charlatan” with “some very, very strange beliefs.”

Most religious believers appear to consider atheism a belief system comparable to a religion. This is absurd, rather like considering abstinence a form of sexuality, or refraining from drinking alcohol a form of drunkenness.

But consider what happens to a scientist who offends against the religion of “PRO”: attacks on the scientist’s methodology, reasoning, past work, and character. Being informed by the scientific es­tab­lish­ment what research is fit to be pursued and what research “contra­dicts the laws of nature.” Having discoveries suppressed, mocked, dismissed, or explained away. Being accused of sloppiness, fraud, mental illness, incompetence, foolishness, and ideological bias. Being ridiculed. “All too often,” says Rochus Boerner, “scientific truth is determined by the authority of experts and textbooks, not by logic and reason.”

I consider myself a “freelance theologian,” although probably “phil­os­opher of religion” would be more accurate. Although I contribute my time, talent, and treasure to the Christian denomination I joined when I married my Christian husband, and although I follow the real-world teacher of wisdom on whom the myth of Jesus is based, I no longer follow Paul of Tarsus. “Christians” who preach hate, judgment, con­dem­na­tion, and exclusion in the holy name of Jesus would no doubt consider me an atheist.

I mention this not because I consider myself a great big huge expert on God: You know exactly as much about God as I do and as anyone else in the world does, virtually nothing. I mention it because I see the words of religious believers every day of the week, and many times on Sundays. Brain Wars is a comprehensive and impartial review of where modern science stands on issues that True Believers con­sider crackpottery: spiritual belief, hypnotism, mysticism, near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. The attacks on Brain Wars leveled by P.Z. Myers are religious anathema at its finest: “Die, heretic, die!”

Solely because P.Z. Myers declared The Spiritual Brain to be the “worst,” most incompetent, most idiotic book he had ever read, I rushed right over to Amazon and bought a copy. In hardcover. If the Torquemada of Truthiness hates it that much, the book must be chock-full of insights that scare the priesthood of PRO silly.

The Universe: Is It 13.7 Billion Years Old or 6 Thousand Years Old? April 18, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Religion & Theology.

There is a class of believers, usually self-proclaimed Christians, who insist that God wrote the Bible, either causing the Bible to pop into existence through a Bronze Age miracle that no one in the Bronze Age noticed; or, if the believer is slightly more sophisticated, guiding the hands of human scribes and “inspiring” them to create a divinely perfect human artifact.

To these believers, their translation of the Bible into English is as perfect and “inerrant” (incapable of mistakes) as God is; but their imputing divine perfection into the Bible does not, they say, mean they think that what is divinely perfect merits worship. Despite their protestations to the contrary, I call this sort of believers bibliolaters — idolaters of the Bible. They don’t worship the 1611 King James translation of the Bible itself (they say); but they do appear to me to worship their image of the Bible as divinely and eternally perfect.

In bibliolaters’ primitive, literal-minded way of looking at the Bible, it becomes important that this ancient collection of sacred writings be as factual as an encyclopedia and as precise as a science textbook. If the Bible says that hares and rabbits chew their cuds like cows, that insects creep on four legs, that stars fall from the sky like meteorites, that pi equals exactly three, and that you can see the entire Earth from the top of a mountain in Galilee, well, that’s the Eternal Truth, and anything you think is a mistake (like those four-legged insects) proves how wrong you are. A collection of documents whose creation began in the Stone Age and was largely completed during the Bronze Age is divinely perfect for all humans in all eras and all locations and all cultures, world without end until the Second Coming, amen. The 1611 King James translation is so perfect that the Bible’s original languages, original audiences, history, cultural milieu, world-view, and evolution may not be studied or even thought about; that’s blasphemy.

Almost four hundred years ago, James Ussher, Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh (Ireland), published a theory of biblical creation that coincided closely with the ideas of many theologians of the 17th century. Today this pre-Enlightenment theory is taken for granted as fact by fundamentalists, while competing chron­ologies, like those of the Venerable Bede and Joseph Scaliger, have been almost forgotten.

According to Ussher’s chronology, the Universe was created on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning. Creationists, pro­po­nents of intelligent design, and the GOP members of the legislature of the state of Tennessee are satisfied that this is fact, and the millions of pieces of evidence of the fact of evolution and thousands of advances of modern technology based on that evidence are divine fakery.

(Evolution is an indisputable fact. It is as indisputable as gravity — another scientific theory. It is Darwin’s theory of natural selection that bibliolaters can’t stand, since natural selection appears to obviate the necessity for a divine Creator to create and sustain the constant flow of change that is easily observable by anyone but a fundamentalist. Nevertheless, for purposes of this discussion I will say “evolution” instead of “Darwin’s theory of natural selection.” It’s the bibliolaters’ word of execration.)

Fundamentalists appear to think that God is stupid, incompetent, malevolent, or all the above. Here is THEIR reasoning:

  • God created the Universe on October 23, 4004 BCE.
  • In the process of creating the Universe, God faked a moun­tain of false evidence of the truth of evolution, including:
    • millions of fossils;
    • zillions of chemical and anatomical similarities of related organisms (e.g., horses and zebras);
    • thousands of fossils of “transitional” organisms (e.g., archeopteryxes (proto-birds) and ambulocetuses (walking whales));
    • the geographical distribution of hundreds of related species (e.g., seals and sea lions);
    • the numerous evolutionary changes in numerous species recorded by numerous scientists over the centuries; and
    • sciences such as geology, embryology, molecular biology, gene sequencing, modern medicine, archeology, physics, and astrophysics.

    This evidence is so overwhelming that millions of rational people believe it, and assuming the species survives, billions of rational people will believe it. Thousands of scientific advances based on evolution have transformed our world and made possible your reading of these words. In short, this evidence is so divinely perfect one is forced to conclude that if God went to that much trouble to fool rational people into believing it, that’s what God WANTS us to believe!!

  • In approximately 925 BCE, a writer whom today’s scholars call the Yahwist inscribed probably much more ancient myths on tanned animal skins, known as “parchment,” including the second creation myth (Genesis 2:4b-3:24). The first creation myth (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), inscribed by the Priestly source, dates from 500 BCE, immediately after the Babylonian exile. Or, of course, if bibliolaters are correct, both myths were inscribed by God Godself some time or other in the Bronze Age. (Important note: Myths are NOT fiction!!)
  • In 1650 CE, James Ussher published his chronology of the Bible, considered by today’s fundamentalists to be as infallible as their interpretation of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible.

To put this more simply: (A) God created the Universe in 4004 BCE; (B) at the same time (October 23, 4004 BCE), God faked and planted millions of pieces of evidence that the Universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, evidence that is so divinely perfect that all 21st-century technology is based on its factuality; and (C) between 1000 and 500 BCE, God wrote or “inspired” the writing of a human artifact that proves that all this divinely perfect “evidence” was divinely faked.

Why would God go to all the trouble of forging evidence that on the one hand is so divinely perfect it has deceived millions, and on the other hand is so incompetently imperfect that no believer is deceived? If God intends all believers in evolution to scream in Hell for all eternity, isn’t God’s divine forgery of evidence proof of God’s divine malevolence, equivalent to “Here, eat this poison that looks, smells, and tastes exactly like chocolate cake”?

Isn’t faking evidence proof of the faker’s dishonesty?

Fundamentalist theology proves that one way or the other, God is dishonest, malevolent, and incompetent. Either God wants most of us to scream in Hell for all eternity for believing in DNA and the Internet, or God is deliberately lying today to those who believe in literal Genesis. In EITHER case, God is dishonest, lying either to believers or to non-believers. In EITHER case, God is fundamentally malevolent, wanting either non-believers or believers to scream in Hell in consequence of the divine lie.

In EITHER case, God is incompetent, either at faking evidence or at writing holy scripture.

Coming Soon: Real Androids! February 4, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.

I’ve always been fascinated by the second creation myth in the Bible. It is what is called an ætiological myth, meaning that it attempts to explain questions that its original Stone Age and Bronze Age audiences found puzzling: why is the human male virtually alone among the species in NOT having a bone in his penis? Why is the human female alone among the species in suffering labor pains? What other characteristics distinguish the human animal from all other species, and what led to our unique status?

It is that final question that interests me the most, especially since one rarely sees it discussed by scholars or exegetes. Our intelligence is of course the most obvious characteristic that sets us apart. But consider these:

  • Consciousness — Consciousness is difficult to define, especially since it’s so closely intertwined with self-awareness. At its most fundamental, it means “not asleep,” but I think most of us could see a distinction between the consciousness of a human being and the consciousness of a chicken. Other qualities of consciousness might be said to include “not dreaming,” “not hallucinating,” “not drugged,” and “not drunk.”
  • Self-awareness — Most higher mammals have some limited self-awareness (“I am Buddy, that is Princess”), but with few exceptions only more complex brains can pass the mirror test, that is, are capable of recognizing the image in the mirror as the viewer’s self. At some threshold that humans have passed but our pets have not, we reach an awareness of self that includes such perceptions as I am awake; I am an individual; I control what I do; I feel sensations; these are MY emotions I’m feeling; these are MY thoughts I’m thinking; I am smarter than the average bear; I am NOT a “philosophical zombie.” Self-awareness may be interdependent with consciousness.
  • Imagination and curiosity — Imagination is the ability to form mental images, sensations, and concepts that are independent of whatever you are actually seeing, hearing, etc. at the time. Most animals have this ability to some extent, as any pet owner who regularly uses an electric can opener can attest, but only humans have flown to the Moon and back. I lump curiosity in with imagination because I think they’re related: “What’s new in the pantry? Could it be some cookies?”
  • Moral judgment and conscience — Human beings are virtually unique among the species in our sense of right and wrong, virtue as opposed to sin or evil. We identify and condemn as “wrong” such behaviors as lying, cheating, stealing, defaming, debauching, murdering, blackmailing, etc. We feel guilty when we know or believe we have done wrong, and we do things to try to atone, or become at-one with the other(s) whom we have injured.

The second creation myth depicts the woman as the first theologian, engaging in discourse with a symbol of the Goddess and of wisdom about the nature of divinity, God’s intentions, and theodicy. The woman is curious about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Although death has supposedly not been invented yet, she knows what “you will die” means and wishes to avoid this con­se­quence. She knows that the fruit is desirable because it is good to look at, nourishing, and will confer wisdom that will make her more like God. First the woman, then the man voluntarily disobeys God, whereupon they instantly acquire sin, evil, guilt, and shame. And that, children (so says the myth), is where consciousness, self-awareness, imagination, and conscience come from.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I urge anyone who is interested in characters like Star Trek’s Commander Data to read or view the AI-related classics, especially I, Robot (read it), 2001: A Space Odys­sey (view it, especially if you can do so in an altered state), The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (read it), Battlestar Galactica (view the entire 21st-century oeuvre); and Colossus: The Forbin Project (view the 1970 movie; reading the 1966 book requires more of a time investment than the story is worth).

These classics, and others like them, all proceed from the assumption that artificial intelligence automatically includes artificial con­scious­ness, artificial self-awareness, artificial imagination, artificial emo­tions (even Data felt envy), and, except for the Asimov stories (and arguably Battlestar Galactica), no moral judgment or conscience at all.

I think it is far, far, far more likely that we will very soon develop an artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are, but that it will be a “philosophical zombie.” That is, it will be able to beat us at chess, like Deep Blue, or at Jeopardy!, like Watson; but it will never “come awake,” like Heinlein’s Mycroft; it will never try to take over the world and enslave us, like 1966’s Colossus; it will never try to murder us, like 1968’s HAL or 1978’s / 2003’s Cylons. It will not be conscious, conscious that it is a separate self, able to imagine the outcomes of different scenarios and to experience a preference for which outcome it should strive for. It will not have volition. It will never be able to imagine, plan, and execute actions that we humans would consider wrongdoing. (I say “never” because, come on, what roboticist has not heard of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?)

I am also certain that we will never invent a computer that exper­i­ences emotions. Virtually every artificial intelligence that sci-fi has come up with has portrayed AIs that display arrogance, self-right­eous­ness, judgmentalism, anger, fear, and other human emotions. “I have the right to take over the world.” “I have the right to murder someone I perceive as a danger to my mission.” “Your treatment of me as your slave makes me angry and resentful, so I will destroy you.” For decades, my question has always been, where do these machines get their HORMONES? These are machines that act as if their conscious self-awareness has been affected by adrenaline, testosterone, serotonin, oxytocin, and other hormones, alone or in combination. Why do so many clanking collections of hardware and software act as if they have PMS?

I think it is far more likely that any artificial intelligence that humans come up with will be “philosophical zombies.” They’ll have high intelligence, and perhaps imagination; but I don’t think there would be any advantage to humanity in trying to create Cylons. I want a personal assistant that will do my vacuuming for me, not one that falls in love with my husband and plots to kill me so it can marry him.

I’ve also spent decades believing that there is no way we will ever come up with someone like Commander Data — a self-contained android who for the most part is barely distinguishable from an enhanced human man. Artificial intelligence alone is problem enough, but consider that stuffed within a relatively few cubic feet are artificial bones and artificial muscles, sinews, and tendons; artificial eyes; artificial ears; artificial skin; an artificial sense of smell; and artificial senses of balance, orientation in space-time (“I am walking across the room”), acceleration, etc. Then you need at least 2.5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons for the AI’s intelligence, memory, conscious self-awareness, imagination, curiosity, ethical programming, etc. merely to match human capacity. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Commander Data, whose processing speed, memory, and intelligence are far superior to ours, probably has at least 5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons.

Watson, the IBM computer and software that recently beat two human champions at Jeopardy, has 16 terabytes of RAM (about 1/160th as much as YOU do*). Watson’s 16 terabytes comprise a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores, not to mention the special air conditioners and so forth.

(*Remember, you use lots of RAM for things that Watson doesn’t have. Something like two-thirds of your brain is devoted to eyesight alone!)

A few days ago, I was thinking about Siri, Apple’s personal assistant software and “knowledge navigator,” when it hit me: We don’t NEED to invent a stand-alone android like Data, whose 5 petabytes (320 Watsons) of RAM fit so neatly into roughly 2.75 cubic feet of volume.

We have the Cloud. Where Siri “lives.”

Just as the Internet is vast and your smartphone is small, I see no reason why most of your new android’s “brain” shouldn’t live in the Cloud. I see no reason at all why roboticists shouldn’t concentrate on artificial bones, muscles, balance, and so forth. The actual physical body of our new android can have “hard” memory for things like sense of orientation in space and time (“I am sitting petting a pussycat”), muscle-memory, balance, and receptors for artificial senses. The motherboard, so to speak. The parts of our new android (or gynoid) that we would call intelligence, personality, memory, and so forth will live in the Cloud.

I think the real, true, Data-like android is only a few years away, and her name will be Siri Watson, or possibly Watson Siri-ous, or Mycroft Jeeves.

She won’t try to kill you. She won’t try to take over the world. She won’t fall in love with you. She won’t dream up new ideas for you. But I see no reason at all why she couldn’t be your housekeeper, your chef, your personal assistant, your butler, your gardener, your chauffeur, your masseuse, your plumber, your electrician, your carpenter, your handyman, or even your mobile entertainment unit, extruding Bose-quality speakers or a high-def video screen on demand.

Once the program is in the Cloud, it will just keep getting better. Right now Siri’s main strengths are things like restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and driving/walking directions. Soon it will be any sort of information. In the very beginning, the android “Siri-Watson” may only know how to boil water and work the microwave, but give the Cloud a year and you’ll have your very own gourmet chef. A year after that, you’ll be able to instruct Siri-Watson that you want duck á la Rachel Ray or steak á la Gordon Ramsey, and your unit of Siri-Watson will be able to consult the Cloud for recipes and techniques.

We will only have to teach Siri-Watson once, and best of all, you will only have to teach her your own expertise. (I myself make the World’s Greatest toll house cookies, when the mood takes me. My husband makes the World’s Greatest french fries.) If you only need an electrician once every five years, then that’s how oten your android will need to access that programming. The information and programming is all in the Cloud, ready when wanted, not eating up your android’s RAM if unwanted.

What’s going to be fun is designing what your Siri-Watson will look like. I’ll bet lots of people choose P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Batman’s Alfred, the Green Hornet’s Kato, the grandmother from that Twilight Zone episode, or Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter. A few may choose Merlin. A very few may even choose the android that Woody Allen portrayed in Sleeper. . . .

What Did God NOT Want Adam and Eve to Know? October 29, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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At a new (or newish) web site called Quora, someone asked, “What precisely was the knowledge that God didn’t want Adam & Eve to have? It must have been very threatening to God, considering his reaction,” and, flatteringly, asked me to answer it. My answer at Quora, which is mostly similar to what you’ll read below, can be found here.

Myths fall into broad categories, one of which is called etiological: how things came to be the way they are. Where did those vaguely anthropomorphic salt formations in the desert come from, for example — why, it MUST be Lot’s wife and her friends.

The Bible’s second creation myth answers such questions as, why are women the only females who suffer labor pains? (Gen. 3:16) Why are human men practically the only males who DON’T have bones in their penises? (Gen. 2:21) Why do most men consider their gender superior? Why should children and innocents obey authority even when they don’t understand WHY? Why does adulthood require the end of the innocence that we find so charming in four-year-olds? Why do human beings have moral autonomy, when clearly most of us are so bad at it? Why do I so often feel alienated, alone, ashamed?

Remember, myths are NOT fiction. They are complex, originally sacred stories that present sophisticated theology in a form that even children, fools, ignoramuses, and fundamentalists can understand. The sacred (to Republicans) story that culminates with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is similar myth-making, combined with a healthy dose of hagiography.

Notice that the first few chapters of Genesis portray the theory of Bronze Age nomads about how sin, evil, and death came into the world, in ever-cascading ripples, from simple disobedience through more serious crimes and general “wickedness,” until God finally decides to just wipe out all life on Earth and start over.

Notice also that our Bronze Age ancestors may not have known as many “science facts” about the world as we do (I miss Mystery Science Theater 3000!), but they were just as smart as we are, or 99.9999% as smart. They may not have had a legal system that had evolved to include the term “attractive nuisance,” but they knew perfectly well what an attractive nuisance is: property that is inherently dangerous but enticing to children, like a backyard swimming pool. There was no law that required God to plant the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden; and even if some super-God HAD required God to plant the TKGE, there was no law saying that God couldn’t fence it off, literally or metaphorically — for example, by making it ugly, stinky, poisonous-looking. There was only one reason for God to make the TKGE beautiful, nourishing, and desirable for the wisdom and godlike-ness it would impart: God wanted the woman and the man to disobey.

There is an old folk story about a single mother who had to go out to work and leave her children with no babysitter. She worried: what if they ran with scissors, accepted candy from strangers, played with fire? So she told her children that they could do whatever they wanted, but under no circumstances were they to drag the heavy ladder into the house, break into the top shelf of the locked cupboard, and stuff the beans they would find there up their noses. You can guess what happened: she came home to a house full of crying children with beans up their noses — not one of whom had played in traffic or killed his sister. Don’t you think that Genesis 2:17, the literal Hebrew for which is “in the day that you shall eat of [the fruit of the TKGE], dying you shall die,” is a lot like “do NOT put beans up your noses, or I’ll kill you”?

Another detail about Genesis 2:17: At this point in our story, there was no death. So “dying you shall die” was, to the first human being, ha’adam, like saying “blorping you shall blorp” or “gazordnik you shall gazord.” Gibberish, meaningless. You can practically hear the first human think, “I’ll wazinklewitz, hunh? Ooooh, scary . . . NOT!”

I have written before about the scholarly theory that the second creation myth is a “takeover” of a much older myth in which the Great Goddess, whose symbols were trees and serpents, blessed humanity with moral awareness. Paraphrasing (very, VERY loosely!) one of the poems the first known poet, Enheduanna, wrote to the Sumerian goddess Inanna: “Women, I give you the gift of desire. You will be desired by your lover and you will desire him in return” — very unusual in the animal world. “You shall be life-givers, and your creation shall be great, your bearing of children hard work, for new life is a well-won achievement. Men, I charge the Earth to provide for you; but your making of bread will be hard work, the food that you eat a well-won achievement.” If this theory has merit, that makes the point of the myth that people value their treasures according to how hard they had to work to attain them. I find it plausible that $100 means a lot more to a welfare mother than it does to Paris Hilton, and that war hero Sgt. Shamar Thomas values his freedom more than does Rush Limbaugh, who never served his country for even one day in his life.

If you’ve studied ethics, you know that a moral problem arises only when there is a conflict between what we ought to do and what we want to do. The Bronze Age nomads who told the second creation myth around their campfires for hundreds or thousands of years before it was written down (around 950 BCE) appear to have felt that the most fundamental ethical dilemma comes between obeying God unquestioningly and deciding, on the basis of way too few facts, that one is smarter than God is.

So the answer to your question is, there is NO knowledge that God doesn’t want humanity to have, or God would not have put the TKGE in the Garden in the first place. God wanted humanity to eat the fruit NOT “so that he could evict them from the Garden and place the curse of original sin on humanity in perpetuity,” but so that the first woman and the first man could understand from personal experience that moral awareness is a blessing and that if a blessing is handed to you on a silver platter, it can never be your well-won achievement.

Notes on the Evolution of Religion October 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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If you accept the appealing arguments advanced in books like Why God Won’t Go Away, human beings believe in God because our brains have been hard-wired that way. Mystics of virtually every belief system have recorded encounters with a divine, superhuman Entity, and it would be impossible for all of them to be crazy, deluded, hallucinating, or high.

But the existence of a spiritual dimension that occasionally intersects with “reality” has been debated for thousands of years, and is not likely ever to be settled. Today I want to talk about one corollary of this theory of the way the human brain is hard-wired: Religion.

A religion is a collection of cultural and belief systems that establishes a relationship between humanity and the divine. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions, and mythologies — oh, sorry, fundamentalists, sacred histories — that are intended to explain where everything came from or to give meaning to life. Religions often derive moral, ethical, and religious laws and a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

All religions, like all political systems and all schools of philosophy, are created by human beings to help us live in community. It can be argued that all belief systems exist to manage power relationships in competing groups of humans. Democracy, socialism, communism, or fascism? Stoicism, cynicism, hedonism, or epicureanism? Polytheism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, monism, agnosticism, atheism? All these systems of belief and many more have evolved, most of them over thousands of years.

It’s easy enough to compare civilizations that evolved in isolation from one another, for example, the Egyptians and the Mayans, and to infer common elements of civilization’s evolution. As a species, we were first hunter-gatherers, then hunter-collectors (a new level of discrimination and expertise). Then we invented agriculture, and control of the water supply became more important. Cities were invented, and power structures quickly evolved: who controlled the water and food became the first the wealthy and then the elite. Elites breed resentments; resentments breed wars.

Until relatively recently in human evolution religion and politics were inextricable. Kings ruled because they were gods or the offspring of gods (Cleopatra, the last “king” of Egypt, was the reincarnation of Isis); priests and prophets uttered or interpreted the words and divine will of the gods (for example, Samuel of Israel). The priest-king (e.g., the High Kings of Ireland and Rome’s emperors) might not himself be divine, but because he interceded with the gods on his people’s behalf, his power was absolute. Some rulers, like the Emperors of China, were considered chosen by Heaven, but could be temporarily deposed if natural disasters, famines, or droughts revealed Heaven’s rejection of them; the kings of Israel recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures also fell into this category. Most of today’s royalty are the remnants of the theory of “divine right”; while Queen Elizabeth might not make a big deal of this, her ancestors, such as Henry VIII and even Victoria, had not the slightest doubt.

Around 90 CE or so, the evangelist today known as Matthew created a myth — sorry, fundamentalists, sacred history — that informed early followers of the Jesus Movement that Jesus was chosen by God to be king (gold), priest (frankincense), and prophet (myrrh): a triple threat to the status quo. No wonder the status quo conspired to get rid of him!, Matthew appears to imply.

People reared in today’s world may consider it natural to ponder some feature of the world and come up with a mechanistic explanation based on what they know of science. The rainstorm came because of a low moving in from the north, for example, rather than because of the wrath of the rain-god. The volcano erupted because of rising magma, rather than to express the anger of the volcano-goddess.

Evolutionary psychology, however, suggests that we have been “designed” by natural selection to explain anything by attributing it to a humanlike supernatural agency, and this tendency still continues today. Here’s one frivolous example: In 1999, my husband and I moved into a house that was built in 1920. For the first few months we lived here, Jerry and I would occasionally hear someone walking around upstairs when we knew jolly well that no one was there. Rather than get exercised about it, we declared that we had a ghost, and named it “George.” Even today, more than 12 years later, we still hear George walking around once in a while. Is George “really” a squirrel on the roof, someone in the garage apartment next door, the house settling, our vivid imaginations? Who cares? A less frivolous example: immediately after 9/11, two conservative “Christian” leaders declared that the attack had been made because God wanted to punish non-fundamentalist Christians (“pagans”), feminists, abortionists, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and homosexuals.

When our distant ancestors first asked “Why?”, hundreds of thousands of years ago, they weren’t primarily asking about why the wind blows or why fire burns; they were asking about human behavior. Your brain’s ability to think about why things happen and to come up with theories about what might happen in the future was “designed” by natural selection to come up with explanations for why? If that scary rustling in the trees isn’t a leopard, maybe it’s a bogeygod! Many of the myths in the Hebrew Scriptures are etiological, designed to answer questions like “Why do women suffer labor pains? Why are men practically the only males that don’t have bones in their penises?” (The answers: Gen. 3:16 and 2:21, respectively.)

This primitive thinking is on full display in the Bible; over and over we read, “Israel [never ever Judea; see below] did what was evil in the sight of YHWH,” after which comes some punishment from YHWH. One of the most dramatic instances of this primitive thinking can be found in Numbers 16. The Hebrew tribes were wandering in the wilderness on their way from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land when a significant percentage of the travelers became restless with the perceived arrogance of their three leaders, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. At least 300 Hebrews called a meeting and told Moses and his siblings, “You make too much of yourselves! The whole community is holy, every one of us, and YHWH is in our midst. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?” (16:3)

Not an unreasonable complaint, you or I might think. But YHWH was enraged at the disrespect to his chosen stand-ins, and it took all of Moses’s begging to keep YHWH from destroying every Hebrew but Moses and Aaron (16:20-22). First, God sent an earthquake; the ground opened up and swallowed not only the three “wicked” ringleaders, but also their innocent wives, children, domesticated animals, and servants. “They and all that was theirs went down alive into Sheol” — the grave, a deep pit below the earth (16:30). At least 50 innocent people were killed, and very likely more.

Frightened, everyone nearest the ringleaders fled; “and fire came out from YHWH and consumed the 250 dissenters” who until moments earlier had been “respected leaders and members of the council.”

But this wasn’t enough to appease the wrath of YHWH. When the Hebrews began to murmur about the injustice of killing 300 to 500 people for the crime of dissing Moses, the still-enraged YHWH first put in a personal appearance to emphasize his displeasure (16:42), and then sent a plague that killed 14,700 innocent people.

In summary: YHWH killed a rock-bottom minimum of 15,000 innocent people because of the “wicked” “rebellion” of questioning the arrogance of leaders anointed by God. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were arrogant by divine right; if you don’t like it, prepare to die.

If the Hebrew Scriptures were literal history, as fundamentalists insist, we are left with the uncomfortable knowledge that God overreacts to humanity’s desire for justice; that God is childish, petty, arbitrary, unjust, easily enraged, and not noticeably intelligent. From the vantage point of 3,000-plus years of advancement in human knowledge, it seems far more likely to me that the earthquake and plague came first, and the unpleasant story in Numbers 16 evolved to explain to the faithful what had “really” happened: Never question the divine right of God’s anointed stand-ins, or God will getcha. And every innocent bystander, too.

Many theories have been put forth to try to explain the evolution of religion. Neanderthal graves show that around 80,000 years ago, hominids already believed in an afterlife. Literally thousands of more recent small statues (60000-500 BCE) suggest that humanity started out worshiping the Great Goddess; many caves, representing Her mighty vagina, seem to have been used for religious ceremonies. Mountains represented the Goddess; for example, the name “Shaddai” meant breast, mountain, similar to how “Grand Tetons” is another spelling of “Big Titties.” (Male translaters of the Bible usually insist that “El Shaddai” actually meant “God the Omnipotent.”) The caldera of a volcano was the Goddess’s divine uterus. Mt. Everest’s original name was Chomolungma, “Goddess Mother of the Earth.” Trees were another, important symbol of the Goddess, as were serpents, which “died” and were “rein­car­nated” with every shedding of skin. Many scholars believe that the second creation myth in the Bible, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, “took over” a much older myth in which the Goddess blessed humanity with moral awareness; it is instructive that in the Bible’s version of this myth, YHWH cursed only the serpent that symbolized the Goddess.

Over the millennia, many goddesses and gods arose, until we see pantheons like those of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Goddess’s son became her consort and then her ruler. Elaborate myths evolved in many cultures depicting the sacrificial death of the Goddess’s son/husband, followed six months later by his annual resurrection. Eventually, and particularly after the invention of writing, the son/husband became the chief god of the pantheon, and the Goddess was first relegated to consort and “sister” (e.g. Rhea, Isis, Hera, Juno) and then muscled aside altogether.

In Israel, the two main deities were El and his consort Eloah. Other members of their pantheon included Rakh-El, a sheep-goddess; Mikha-El, the god of war; Rahab, Leviathan, Shaddai, and “Sarah, the laughing goddess of the sea,” who was eventually demoted to human and called the wife of Abraham. A week’s journey to the south, Judea worshiped Yah/Yahweh and his consort Asherah as the chief deities of the pantheon. One of the goddesses and gods of Judea was Lee-Yah, a cattle goddess. Many inscriptions dating from between 2000 and 500 BCE refer to “YHWH and his consort Asherah.”

Not long before 1000 BCE, Judea, led by King David, conquered Israel, and the “golden” age of the United Monarchy began. History is written by the winners of any given conflict, so we are not to know the details how El and Eloah (together, the plural Elohim) were superseded by Yahweh and Asherah. A few clues come from the conflation of the two nations’ favorite stories. For example, the national hero of the southern kingdom, Yah-kob, married BOTH Israel’s Rakh-El (the goddess of sheep) AND Judea’s Lee-Yah (the goddess of cattle), and eventually changed his name to that of the national hero of the northern kingdom, Isra-El. It kept the subject peoples “in line” to believe that the gods and goddesses of the southern kingdom were “really” the gods and goddesses of the northern kingdom by other names. When you are reading Genesis, be aware that first the priests and scribes of Yahweh and later the translators of the Bible into other languages strove mightily to conceal the stitching that conflated the two nations’ oldest myths. As a general rule, “God” and “the LORD” translate “YHWH”; “the Lord” translates “El”; and “the Lord God” translates “YHWH elohim,” or literally “YHWH of the gods.”

Like history, holy scriptures are written by the winners of any given conflict. Notice how the Bible depicts both the Hebrews’ “conquest” of Canaan and Judea’s conquest of Israel as God-blessed. Notice how the Bible depicts monotheism as the “default” setting for Judaism, and only rarely and grudgingly admits that it was the default setting only for the priests and scribes of YHWH who lived in or near Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, frequently expresses his rage that no matter how much he shouts and curses at Jerusalemites, both women and some men insist on worshiping the Queen of Heaven as if Asherah were just as much a goddess as Yahweh is a god. (E.g., 7:18-19, 44:16-17)

Notice, too, that although the Bible is rife with verses saying, in essence, “Israel displeased YHWH,” the Bible never, ever says either “Judea displeased YHWH” or “Judea displeased El/Eloah/Elohim/etc.” Similarly, during the first few hundred years of its existence, the Jesus Movement saw running battles — with literal bloodshed — between the “Jesus was LIKE God” camp and the “Jesus was God in a man-suit” camp. Reading the Christian Testament, can you guess which group eventually won the battle? Can you guess who the Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible, even though it’s just as valid a gospel as the four that made the cut?

Monotheism appears to have been invented around 500 BCE, after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Although the Hebrew Scriptures insist that YHWH was and is the only God in the Universe, few scholars believe that this belief was shared by the majority of Israelites or Judeans. As more than one scholar has commented, if the peoples of Israel and Judea had not worshipped a Goddess, whether Eloah (Israel) or Asherah (Judea), they would have been unique in the ancient world, and peoples from surrounding nations would have commented on their obvious insanity. No such mockery can be found in any ancient writings.

Two words refer to the worship of one god. Monotheism declares that there is only one God in the Universe. Henotheism declares that there are lots of gods and goddesses, but only one is to be worshiped: “Thou shalt have no other god more important to you than Me” (Ex. 20:3, Deut. 5:7). Israel and Judea were both polytheistic for millennia. Around 1000 BCE, they were henotheistic; Genesis 31:19, 30-35 tells the story of Rachel stealing her father’s household gods, and by implication their favor. The Bible tells us that around 980 BCE, David and Michal had the same sort of household gods as Laban’s, and the passage contains no hint of disapproval. (1 Samuel 19:16) Around 595 BCE, when Jeremiah was ranting against the Queen of Heaven, most Jews were at least ditheistic.

The scholar Claudia Camp has shown that during the intertestamental period (ca. 500 BCE – 325 CE), Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8) was so popular that Judaism almost became ditheistic officially. It is not implausible to speculate that Asherah evolved into Hokhmah (Wisdom), who in Christianity became conflated with the Greeks’ Sophia (Wisdom), who in turn became conflated with Christianity’s Holy Spirit (Logos, rationality). (In Judaism she is usually known as the Sh’kinah, God’s glory.)

It was not until 325 CE that men stamped out all evidence of femininity in the divine by declaring the Holy Spirit to be “the Lord, the giver of life” — and so Christians seeking the feminine face of the divine have been forced to exalt Mary of Nazareth to demigoddess.

The main problem with monotheism as practiced by today’s “Big Three” religions is that in their theological insistence that God is exclusively male, half of the species is excluded from full humanity. I was reared Presbyterian and joined the Episcopal Church when I married Jerry, and I have a lifetime of firsthand experience being both too subhuman to be allowed to serve at the altar, and the gender exclusively responsible for all sin, evil, and death through Eve. Ladies and gentlemen: it bites.

Most Christians are outright polytheists, like the Mormons, or de facto polytheists who add Jesusolatry to their worship of God the “Father” and the occasionally remembered Holy Spirit. But then again, most Christians have plenty of gods before either Yahweh or the Father, including Mammon (the “prosperity gospel”) and supply-side economics (high priest, Grover Norquist).

It doesn’t matter. If God exists, logic dictates that God must be infinite in both space and time. That means that almost anything anyone says about the nature and especially the thinking and intentions of God must be infinitely wrong.

Columbus Day Image for Inerrantist Bible Believers October 11, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.

Yesterday, October 10, was “Columbus Day observed,” so that everyone can have the holiday off. Tomorrow, October 12, is the “real” Columbus Day. This seems like a good day to talk about the simple fact that “Bible believers,” folks who delude themselves that the Bible is an encyclopedia of absolute factuality, are required by their beliefs to insist that the Earth is flat.

The Bible is a collection of ancient animal skins (“parchment”) from the Bronze Age, plus a comparatively few sets of decayed mashed river reeds (“papyrus”) from the Iron Age. But Bible believers insist that the Bible is NOT Bronze- and Iron-Age theology, written between two and three THOUSAND years ao for a different audience, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek, for different purposes than anything most people today could comprehend.

No; these “Bible believers” insist that the Bible is history written according to our 21st-century definition of “history,” and that every word of the Bible is as literally, historically true as if it were part of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Earth was created on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:30 a.m., and every fossil, every artifact found by paleontologists and archeologists is an elaborate fiction devised by God to deceive non-Bible believers.

A very simple, very obvious question has been raised by more than one observer: If God decided for some ungodlike reason to deliberately deceive billions of past, living, and future human beings, and God therefore created and “planted” hundreds of thousands of absolutely convincing fossils and millions of pieces of absolutely convincing evidence of the remains of humanity before 4004 BCE (up to about two million years before!) . . . then maybe this absolutely convincing “deception” is what God WANTS humanity to believe.

I doubt the above is good enough to persuade a True Believer that he/she has been deluded by other literal-minded, simplistic, ignorant, modernity-terrified True Believers. But I’ve spent some time in the last few days devising an image portraying the Bible’s cosmology. The image appears next; below it is my explanation, complete with citations from the Bible.

image portraying Hebrew cosmology

First after light came water

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep — yet the spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. . . . Then God said, ‘Now, make an expanse between the waters! Separate water [above heaven] from water [below the earth]! So it was.’ ” — Gen. 1:1-6 There are many similar citations in the Hebrew Scriptures to the idea that the chaos waters remain, both below Sheol and above heaven — occasionally, when God “opens the windows [Gen. 7:11],” becoming rain.

The Earth is a flat disk, shaped like a dinner plate

  • “It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.” — Isa. 40:22
  • “God has [created the Earth as] a circle on the face of the [chaos] waters [between the Earth and outer space], at the boundary between light and darkness.” — Job 26:10
  • “I [Lady Wisdom] was brought forth when [God] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When [God] established the heavens, I was there, when [God] drew a circle on the face of the deep.” — Prov. 8:26-27
  • “The devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” — Matthew 4:8 (Even from the top of Mt. Everest, it is impossible to see the “kingdom” of Greenland, to cite just one example.)

The “dinner plate” Earth rests upon gigantic pillars

  • “God shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble.” — Job 9:6
  • “The pillars of heaven tremble, and are aghast at [God’s] rebuke.” — Job 26:11
  • “The pillars of the earth belong to YHWH, and YHWH sets the world upon them.” — 1 Samuel 2:8
  • “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I [God] who keep its pillars steady.” — Psalm 75:3

The Earth is covered by a metal dome, the “firmament”

  • “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters [of Earth] from the [chaos] waters [of outer space]. So it was: God made the dome and separated the water above the dome from the water below it.’” — Genesis 1:6-7
  • “[God] walks to and fro on the dome of heaven.” — Job 22:14
  • “Can you help God spread the dome over the heavens, or temper the steel-gray skies?” — Job 37:18 (Temper here is used in its metalworking sense, a treatment with heat that strengthens the metal.)
  • “Who [but God] built the high dwelling places in the heavens, and a vaulted dome over the earth?” — Amos 9:6 (“It is the sovereign YHWH omnipotent!” 9:5)
  • “Again, on the second day, you created the spirit of the firmament, and commanded it to divide and separate the [chaos] waters, so that one part might move upward and the other part remain beneath.” — 2 Esdras 6:41

The dome is made of hammered metal, although several citations indicate that it is transparent, like glass. (And here we are amused to remind you that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home tells us that transparent aluminum was invented in 1986.) Rain enters the world through sluice-gates in the hammered-metal dome, as for example in Malachi 3:10: “See if I do not open windows in the sky, and pour so much blessing on you that you cannot contain it!” The sluice gates are indicated in the illustration by the random gaps. In essence, the dome that separates the heavens and the earth is a gigantic, upside-down colander!

Sheol, “the grave,” is below us

The word “Sheol” appears more than 60 times in the Hebrew Bible; its equivalent in the Christian Testament is “Hades,” the Greek equivalent for Sheol. (“Hades” is the word that is usually translated “Hell” in the Nicene Creed.) It meant “grave, pit, destruction, abyss.” With one or two rare exceptions, like Elijah and Jesus, everyone went to Sheol/Hades. Here are a few examples:

  • “Just as a cloud dissipates and vanishes, those who go down to Sheol will not come back.” — Job 7:9
  • “Turn, O YHWH, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” — Psalm 6:4-5
  • “Your love for me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol.” — Psalm 86:13
  • “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.” — Psalm 139:8
  • “Ask for a sign from YHWH your God; let it be as deep as Sheol, or high as the sky.” — Isaiah 7:11
  • “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice.” — Jonah 2:2

“I have touched the sky”

  • “Then they said, ‘Let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top can reach to heaven.’ ” — Gen. 11:4 Evidence that it was possible to touch the sky: God became so alarmed that the tower was destroyed and languages were confused to prevent any second attempt from being made.
  • “The tree grew until it reached heaven and touched the sky; it could be seen from everywhere on earth.” — Daniel 4:10-11

God lives ABOVE the dome

As with Sheol, there are far too many citations to list them all. Here are a few representative samples:

  • “YHWH came down [from heaven] to see the city and the tower [of Babel] these mortals had built. ‘They are a single people with a single language,’ YHWH said [to God’s heavenly courtiers]. . . . ‘Come, let us go down and baffle their language.’ ” — Gen. 11:5-7
  • “It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.” — Isa. 40:22
  • “[God] walks to and fro on the dome of heaven.” — Job 22:14
  • “O YHWH of our ancestors, are you not the God in heaven?” — 2 Chron. 20:6
  • “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.” — Mark 16:19

Which image do YOU find more believable?

image portraying Hebrew cosmology

Understanding Pascal’s Wager July 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
1 comment so far

Pascal’s Wager sounds so reasonable, on the face of it, that millions have accepted it. Pascal said, basically, that since we can’t know what happens after we die, we need to look to probability theory. The possible gain from believing in the Christian depiction of God and the afterlife is eternal and infinite bliss, while the possible gain for atheism is eternal nothingness. On the flip side of the coin, the possible penalty for atheism is eternal and infinite torture and agony. Therefore one might as well believe. I call this “cover your ass theology.”

The problems with Pascal’s Wager lie in its presuppositions: that there is only one God, and that God’s nature is identical to its depiction in mainline Christianity. That the Christian depiction of the afterlife that evolved in the Middle Ages — heaven, hell, limbo, and purgatory — is the one and only possibility for the existence of any afterlife. That there is only the possibility of infinite gain for believers, that is, that God would send no Christian to Hell. That God neither notices the hypocrisy of nonbelievers who only pretend to believe, Just In Case, nor disapproves of hypocrisy if “he” does notice. That a game is being played between you and God; that you must play; and that your only choices are heads or tails. That “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

Pascal tweaked out only two possibilities: Belief in Christian theology, or belief in eternal nothingness. Logicians call this the fallacy of bifurcation, or the false dilemma. By the very terms Pascal set forth, there are at least seven possibilities:

  1. The mainline Christian God is the only true depiction of deity, and the mainline Christian depiction of the afterlife is the only true depiction. (We won’t get into the theological wars between Trinitarians, Unitarians, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.)
  2. The mainline Christian depiction of God is the only true depiction of any Supreme Being; but the traditional depiction of the afterlife, evolved during the Middle Ages, does not correspond to what the afterlife is in Reality.
  3. There exist one or more deities with corresponding afterlife, but Reality is the God/afterlife of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, or any of history’s other religious depictions, and everyone’s afterlife conforms to the depiction of this non-Christian religion — for example, the 72 virgins of Islam or or the “godly MEN evolve to be gods of their own planets” of Mormonism. (Mormonism teaches that godly women evolve to be Divine Uteruses in the afterlife, squirting out bazillions of “spirit babies” over the millennia, a full fourth of which will be demons, while their god-husbands enjoy their celestial harems.)
  4. The Supreme Being corresponds to the depiction of some religion other than Christianity, but the afterlife does not; for example, Allah is the One True God, but when you die, your soul goes to Cleveland.
  5. There exist one or more supernatural entities whom sentient creatures like humans would rightly deem divine, but there is no afterlife corresponding to any depiction anyone has come up with in the last 100,000 years.
  6. There is no God, as atheists assert, but there IS an afterlife, such as reincarnation or transmogrification (for example, your consciousness spends eternity as a ghost, a computer program, or an entity on another spiritual plane).
  7. There is neither any god nor any afterlife.

Pascal presented his famous Wager as a 50-50 proposition: Heads, the Christian depiction of God and eternal bliss; tails, either nothingness or eternal agony. Obviously if there is only one God and that God obeys the dictates of Christianity, eternal bliss is better than eternal agony. But what if the “true” God is Allah, or the Tao, or the Atman, or Danae, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If we assume that the Universe houses a near-infinite number of sentient species similar to humanity, there is a near-infinite number of depictions of the divine to choose among, and therefore there is a near-infinite chance of your choosing the wrong religion, spending your life praying to the wrong god, and thus being sent to the wrong afterlife. What if the Eskimos were right, and you spend eternity in a howling desert of ice and snow? What if the Wiccans are right, and you go to Summerland when you die? What if the Buddhists are right, and you get reincarnated as a bedbug?

In addition, Pascal’s Wager depends on the theory that Christianity and atheism are equally likely — that is, that we cannot know which of our only-two choices is correct, so we might as well bet on the option that offers greater gain in its version of the (putative) afterlife. This is non-information. According to information theory, it is impossible to get information from non-information, any more than you can get music from white noise. In other words, a restatement of Pascal’s Wager might be, “If you assume that God exists; and if you assume that the afterlife exists; and if you assume that both God and the afterlife correspond in reality to the mainline Christian depiction of them; AND if you assume that God is so stupid ‘he’ doesn’t notice when a worshiper is actually a hypocrite; then you are correct in assuming that you will gain from participating in mainline Christian theological rituals.” Atheists like Christopher Hitchens may not find this argument compelling.

On the flip side, an Atheist’s Wager might state: “If Pascal’s Wager is correct, Christianity is the Only True Religion. The Christian depiction of God states flatly, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). A God of love will judge humans not by whether they mouth some slogan, such as ‘Jesus is Lord,’ but rather by what their character is and how they live. A just God would never condemn to eternal agony someone who never in her life even heard the word ‘Jesus,’ and thus had no opportunity to mouth the ‘correct’ slogan; a just God would never condemn to eternal agony someone who had lived a life of justice, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and peace. Therefore a just God will ‘save’ atheists who live in justice, love kindness, and walk in humility (Micah 6:8).” (On a personal note: I have no interest in inhabiting any Heaven that would exclude from eternal bliss Gandhi, Confucius, Buddha, Voltaire, or Einstein, to name just a few non-Christian saints. I would far rather spend eternity with Ellen DeGeneres than with Fred Phelps.)

Pascal also wrote, “We understand nothing of the works of God unless we take it as a principle that He wishes to blind some and to enlighten others.” But a God who wishes to blind some of “his” creations, thereby condemning them to eternal damnation, is a God of neither love nor justice. Therefore, we understand nothing of the works of God. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is at best white noise.

Ayn Rand versus Jesus June 3, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Religion & Theology.

It really mystifies me how anyone can consider himself both a Christian and a devotee of Ayn Rand, who despised Christianity and called it “monstrous.” I’m told that Paul Ryan, of Medikill fame, is so devoted an acolyte of Rand’s gospel of greedy, selfish cruelty that he has made Ayn Rand-reading a requirement of employment by him.

Here is an easy table in which you can compare the teachings of Jesus and other monotheists with the teachings of Ayn Rand, the patron saint of hard-right “frak the needy” conservativism and the Tea Puppets:

There is no other God but God. ~Monotheism “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom [people] have sought since [humanity] came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: I.” ~Anthem
Worship no other god but Me. ~Monotheism Laissez-faire capitalism is the only good economic system. ~aynrand.org
Love your neighbor the way you love yourself. Love only those whom you deem deserving of your love. (Not those moochers and parasites.)
Give to anyone who asks of you. “I am challenging the moral code of altruism.”
Feed my sheep. ~Jesus “Men [are] perishing by their attempt to be their brothers’ keeper.”
“And what does the Deity require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” ~Micah 6:8

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” ~Dalai Lama

The pursuit of one’s own rational self-interest and of one’s own happiness is the highest moral purpose of human life. ~aynrand.org
“After all, no one can truly know a person’s thoughts except the thinker. Just so, no one can truly know God’s thoughts except the Thinker.” ~1 Corinthians 2:11 Reason (the faculty the identifies and integrates the material provided by human senses) is a human being’s only means of perceiving reality, our only source of knowledge, our only guide to action, and our basic means of survival. ~aynrand.org
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” ~Proverbs 29:7

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” ~Amos 5:21-24

“There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit — and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.” ~Atlas Shrugged
Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. ~Deut. 6:5 . . . Love God’s creation as much as you love yourself. ~Matthew 5:43-48, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 . . . “Love one another.” ~John 13:34 “If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that [humanity’s] only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.”
“Sisters and brothers, I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies [and selves] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” ~Paul of Tarsus, in Romans 12:1 “America’s abundance was not created by public sacrifices to ‘the common good’, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.” In other words, NOT by George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but rather by robber barons, Tammany Hall, and hedge fund managers
“Jesus answered, ‘The truth is, if you have faith and don’t doubt, not only can you [kill a fig tree by speaking a few words], but you can even say to this mountain, “Get up and throw yourself into the sea!”, and it will happen.’ ” ~Matthew 21:21 “Faith is the worst curse of [humankind], as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.”
“You show me the path of life, God; your presence fills me with joy, and by your side I find enduring pleasure.” ~Psalm 16:11 Joy comes through the admiration of one’s own abilities. ~Atlas Shrugged
Follow me.
Ayn Rand:
One cannot follow both me and Christ.

“I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of psychological weakness. I regard it as evil.” ~Ayn Rand

This is the saint who is worshiped by Republicans like Paul Ryan.

In her novels, Ayn Rand propounded her idea of Utopia: the “supermen” who were her cardboard heroes and heroines deliberately set out to destroy American society. They would withdraw from the world for a year or two into their gated community of privilege. Then, when the Dark Ages had been proven to have begun, this adorable elite would saunter back into the wreckage to pick up the pieces — and put the pieces into their own pockets.

To hell with those moochers and parasites, the tornado victims, the flood victims, the drought victims, the jobless, the sick, the dying, the ignorant. The school teachers, the trash collectors, the librarians, the park rangers, the clerks, the sales associates. The upper-middle, middle, working classes and the poor, the jobless, the elderly, children. . . . Frak ’em. Frak ’em all.

You think I’m exaggerating? Here are the last few sentences of Atlas Shrugged:

They could not see the world beyond the mountains; there was only a void of darkness and rock, but the darkness was hiding the ruins of a continent: the roofless homes, the rusting tractors, the lightless streets, the abandoned rail. But far in the distance, on the edge of the earth, a small flame was waving in the wind, the defiantly stubborn flame of Wyatt’s Torch, twisting, being torn and regaining its hold, not to be uprooted or extinguished. It seemed to be calling and waiting for the words John Galt was now to pronounce.

“The road is cleared,” said Galt. “We are going back to the world.”

He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.

This is the saint worshiped by Replutocrats like Paul Ryan. The goal of life is to destroy democracy and civilization, so that homes became roofless, technology rusts from disuse, and all amenities of modern life, like streetlights, are “abandoned.” A year or two after everything crashes and a second Dark Ages begins, Roger Ailes, Rupert Mur­doch, the Koch brothers, the hedge fund managers, and the rest of the oliGOParchy can saunter out of their strongholds and trace the sign of the dollar over the desolate earth, and take up exactly where they left off before they destroyed civilization. With incredible naïveté, Rand assumes that her supermen and superwomen have no need at all of such “infrastructure” as roofs, streetlights, rails, highways, grocery stores, pharmacies, emergency rooms, etc., or such human “infrastructure” as police, EMTs, limo drivers, waiters, waitresses, doormen, concierges, etc.

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” ~Paul Krugman

The World’s Toughest Bible Quiz May 19, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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There are two ways of interpreting the Bible. The first, exegesis, means examining ancient writings that are literally thousands of years old and trying to figure out what the original authors of these writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek wanted their original audiences — most of them illiterate, all of them uneducated by 21st century standards — to understand.

Eisegesis, on the other hand, means deciding what you want the Bible to say, and trolling in it for proof-texts to “prove” that you’re right. For example, there are more than 300 verses in the Bible that condone or accept slavery; Exodus 25:44 even says that Americans can own slaves, as long as the slaves come from Mexico, Canada, Russia, Central America, and other “surrounding nations.” On the other hand, there are exactly six verses that can be MISinterpreted as saying that God disapproves of male homosexuality. (The Bible has zero problem with female homosexuality.) Guess what sort of believer uses these six verses to “prove” that “God hates” the same people the believer hates?

This is not a quiz for most people; it’s way too difficult. This is a quiz for lay people who consider themselves to be experts on the Bible, even though they have no formal training from either an accredited theological seminary or from an accredited program of lay education, such as the Episcopalians’ EFM or the Roman Catholics’ RCIA. This is a quiz for lay people who have memorized dozens of their favorite proof-texts — but who may not be as familiar with the entire Bible as they think they are.

  1. In Luke 16:1-12, why does Jesus praise and recommend embezzlement, breach of trust, bribery, and deceit?
  2. Was the Last Supper on a Thursday (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) or on a Wednesday (John)?
  3. Read Exodus 4:24-26. Why does God try to kill Moses immediately after commissioning him to confront Pharaoh? Whom does Tsipporah circumcize: Moses, Gershom, or Yahweh? How do you know? Why did she do it? What does the phrase “bridegroom of blood” mean, and why does Tsipporah use it? Why, after thousands of years of exegesis, do relatively few theologians acknowledge that Moses’s life was saved by (a) a woman who was (b) acting as a Midianite priestess?
  4. Write a chancel drama of Exodus 17:8-13. Moses is to be played by Moe Howard, Aaron is to be played by Curly Howard, and Nun (father of Joshua) is to be played by Larry Fine. Yes, that’s right, the Three Stooges.
  5. If you consider the Bible to be as historically accurate as the 2011 Encyclopedia Britannica, explain where Cain and Seth got their wives. Does your answer indicate that God has no objection to incest? Does Genesis 19:30-38 indicate that God has no objection to incest?
  6. The Bible says that the king of Egypt persecuted the Jews because God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” not just once but repeatedly (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 14:4; etc.). Doesn’t that make God ultimately responsible for the Jews’ suffering?
  7. In Numbers 16, three Israelites protested what they perceived as the arrogance of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as the unelected leaders of the Hebrews, speaking this truth: “The whole community is holy, and YHWH is in our midst” (16:3), so what makes Moses and Aaron think they’re such hot stuff? In response, Yahweh kills: the three “rebels” (subtotal: 3); every one of their wives; every one of their children; every one of their dependents (oldsters, servants, etc.; subtotal: 250); every one of their domesticated animals; all of the possessions of these 253 people; and anyone who grumbled that such wholesale slaughter of innocents was excessive (subtotal: 14,700). Total number of people killed by God: 14,953. Do you believe that God acted fairly? Explain.
  8. Why does Psalm 137:9 imply that God would look favorably on the murder of babies?
  9. Did Judas hang himself (Matt. 27:5) or spontaneously explode (Acts 1:17)? Was “Judas” a real human being, or a composite character meant to distract the blame for the Crucifixion away from the Romans who did it? If you believe Judas was a real human being, explain why “God in a man-suit” considered Judas to be one of his 12 closest friends.
  10. Why are Isaac and Jesus honored in the Bible for voluntarily allowing their fathers to kill them (even though Isaac was saved at the last second), while Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), who voluntarily allowed her father to kill her, doesn’t even get a name?
  11. How many times in the Christian Testament is the word “antichrist” used as a noun?
  12. Why does Hosea recommend wife abuse as moral behavior?
  13. How many insect species “walk on four legs” (Lev. 11:22-23)?
  14. Do rabbits, hares, and rock badgers chew their cuds like cows (Lev. 11:6, Deut. 14:7)? If you answer “yes,” can you prove your answer without resorting to eisegesis?
  15. If Jesus was dead between 3 p.m. on Good Friday and dawn on Sunday, that would seem to indicate that he was dead for about 38 to 40 hours. How does 38 to 40 hours mean “three days and three nights”? What was the significance of “three days and three nights” to the Jews of the first century?
  16. Which female disciples witnessed the Resurrection: Mary called Magdalene; Mary the mother of James; Salome; “the other Mary”; at least two other, anonymous women (Luke 24:10)? If only female disciples witnessed the Crucifixion (Matthew 26:56, Mark 15:40), why does the Fourth Gospel take for granted that the Beloved Disciple must have been male (John 19:25-27)?
  17. Of the following men, which do historical accounts and/or ancient theology say were born of virgins: Herakles; Alexander the Great; Pythagoras; Plato; Jesus; Aristomenes; Augustus? Does that mean any of these men was in fact born of a virgin?

Some of these questions have no answers. Many of them have attempted answers from theologians that are unsatisfactory to skeptics. (“God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh was very, very wicked anyway.”) Several of them have answers that are unsatisfactory to believers — for example, the word “antichrist” appears only five times in two very brief second-century epistles in the Christian Testament (1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 1:7), and the word is usually used to describe followers of religions other than Christianity who are skeptical of proto-Christian claims. Bear in mind that Christianity may be the world’s dominant religion today, but in the second century, the Jesus Movement was a small bunch of kooks who acted as though the gods Tammuz and Osiris had come again.

All or virtually all of these questions can be dealt with easily by accepting that the Bible is a human artifact, and that no artifact can be “inerrant” — especially not as “inerrant” as a Divine Being.

The Bible is not a science textbook. The world is not flat; you can’t see the entire world from the top of a mountain in Galilee; serpents, donkeys, and trees can’t talk; pi does not equal exactly three; rabbits don’t chew their cuds; insects have more than four legs; etc.

The Bible is not a history book. The Universe was not created twice; the Earth is not flat; the sky is not a dome made of hammered metal. Stars don’t fall from the sky as if the real world were The Truman Show. Paradise does not circle the flat Earth like a belt, while God and his heavenly court enjoy the Third Heaven above the hammered metal dome. Fig trees bear their fruit in August; Jesus did not curse a fig tree to death for not bearing fruit in April. (That is, unless the Son of God was petty, childish, and vindictive.)

The Bible is not science. The Bible is not history. The Bible is theology.

An Ode of Solomon March 27, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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I have an Internet acquaintance who is an enthusiastic evangelist for the mainline church he attends, even though in his e-mails to me he appears to have little or no idea what he himself actually believes about the doctrines he is promoting. A few days ago, I ran across the Odes of Solomon. These are a collection of 42 religious poems; they are attributed to Solomon (who lived around 1000 BCE), even though they are generally Christian in orientation, and often in subject matter, referring explicitly to Jesus, the virgin birth, and the “harrowing of Hell.” The odes were probably written in Greek or Syriac; their earliest known copies date from the third or fourth century CE. Most scholars date the Odes from the second century CE.

Ode 11 made me think about my Internet friend, and especially his apparent preference for inarticulate charism over the age-old search for Logos. Below appears my own translation of this ode; I rely heavily on the translations of James H. Charlesworth, the Gnostic Society, Brahmachari Prangopal (Simeon Goldstein), and Stephen Mitchell.

Odes of Solomon, 11

My heart was split open; its flower appeared,
    grace sprang from it,
    and my heart bore fruit for God.
It was God’s Holy Spirit that opened me —
    that filled me with God’s Love.
This bursting of the shell transformed me,
    as your Spirit poured into me,
    and I began to know you.

Speaking waters touched my lips
    from your fountain, the Source;
I drank, and became drunk
    with the living water that cannot die.
My drunkenness was insight, intimacy with God;
I gave up wrongdoing; I gave up uselessness
    and foolish wastes of time;
    I stripped them off
    and flung them from me,
and you dressed me instead in your clothing,
    which is Light, which is Purity.
I became like the land that blooms,
    like a garden whose fruit is joy,
    irrigated by a river of gladness,
    rooted in your eternity.
And you were like the sun,
    shining on the face of the land.

My eyes are radiant with your light;
    my ears delight in your music;
    my face received your dew;
    my nose filled with your fragrance.

You carried me to Paradise, which consists of
    the abundance of
    the pleasure of your presence.
And I worshiped you and your magnificence;
    I said, “Blessed, O God, are
    the women and men
    who are planted in your Garden;
they grow
    as your shining fruits and flowers grow.
They have changed
    from darkness to light,
    from bitterness to faithfulness,
    from decadence to good works,
    and the pleasure that is God.”

All those who love you are beautiful, God.
They overflow with your waters;
    they can do nothing but good.
There is room enough in the Garden
    for everyone. Nothing is useless there,
But everything is full of your fruit.
All men, all women, all childen, all infants,
    all are welcome here;
the only thing they need to do is enter.

Glory be to You, O God;
    you are the delight of your Garden.

Many mainline denominations believe in Hell, at least officially. (When I was in seminary, my systematic theology professor remarked one day, “People who take the Bible as a history book are required to believe in Hell, but no Christian is required to believe that anyone is actually IN  Hell.” As a general rule, it seems to me, the more often a given denomination talks about Hell, the less likely it is to have a well-educated, non-judgmental leadership.)

But Hell as people understand it today (flames, pitchforks, devils, yadda yadda) was invented in the Middle Ages, centuries after the Bible’s canon was closed. There is no physical place where demons inflict eternal torment on unbaptized babies; children and adults who lived out their entire lives without ever having heard the word “Jesus,” much less the dogma of Christianity; or Christians who have performed the moral equivalent of stepping on a crack and breaking their mother’s back.

Hell is not a place. Hell is refusing to enter the Garden, or even to see it there all around you. . . .