Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Many years ago, when my kids were little, we visited my parents in California for Christmas. When we went to mass, my mother complained about how hard it was to find a pew because of all the people who only showed up on Christmas. I did not tell her that I was one of those people. Ever since then, I have attended the earliest available mass on Christmas morning. It is easy to find a seat and the priest doesn't use his sermon as an opportunity to reach those Catholics that he knows he won't see again for another year. Everybody is happy to see anybody who shows up. That is the reason for the season for me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Does the Resurrection Make Sense of the Facts?

I ran across the following statement at Victor Reppert's dangerous idea blog:
If you don't believe in the Resurrection, then I think there are a bunch of inconvenient facts out there that are hard to make sense of.

Reppert doesn't list the "inconvenient" facts in this particular post, but I would guess that they are the usual facts cited by Christian apologists, e.g., the story of the women finding the empty tomb, the apostles belief that Jesus had appeared to them, the conversion of Paul, the willingness of the apostles to die for their beliefs, the rapid spread of Christianity.

Assuming arguendo that these are really facts, it is hard to make sense of them to the extent that they violate the normal patterns of cause and effect that we observe in the world around us.  For example, people normally don't invent stories for propaganda purposes if the stories don't advance their agenda.  Therefore, we should expect the evangelists to invent the story of women finding the empty tomb because making women the primary witnesses would have undercut the story in first century Jewish culture.  It is hard to make sense of the appearance stories because Jesus appeared to multiple individuals at the same time and people don't normally share hallucinations.  It is hard to make sense of the willingness of the apostles to die for their beliefs because people normally are not willing to die for something that they know not to have happened.  In every instance, the reason that it is hard to make sense of these stories is because things happen in them that don't follow the usual patterns. 

The resurrection of course does not follow the usual pattern either and most Christian apologists acknowledge this, however, they insist that we must not dismiss the possibility of a supernatural being who can interfere with those natural patterns of cause and effect that we observe. Once we allow for this possibility, the Christian apologist insists that the resurrection makes sense of all the "inconvenient" facts.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that if we allow for the possibility of supernatural interference with the laws of nature that we observe, then we no longer have any basis to say any ancient story is any harder to make sense of then any other ancient story.  If we don't think that the patterns we observe act consistently at all times and places, then there is nothing that doesn't make sense in a story that undercuts a storyteller's agenda, in shared hallucinations, or in people willing to die for a lie.  We can say that every story makes sense, or perhaps, that the notion of making sense becomes moot. 

Christian apologists demand that every possible explanation for the gospel stories be evaluated according to the normal patterns of cause and effect that we observe in the world.  That is, every possible explanation but one.  They insist that we ignore those patterns when we evaluate the possiblity that Jesus really rose from the dead.  I don't see how this makes sense of anything.

Friday, December 17, 2010

FCIC Republicans "We Can't Handle the Truth"

The Republicans members on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission have decided that they can't be bothered with actually figuring out why the global financial system nearly collapsed in 2008 if they might have to acknowledge that the incentives of the free markets might actually lead to perverse results upon occasion.   Instead they have decided to stick with blaming the government and liberals for everything that goes wrong anywhere in the world.  In this case, the Republican members of the FCIC have issued their own report on the financial crisis that absolves Wall Street and places the blame for the housing bubble on the Community Redevelopment Act, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.

The word "deregulation" is not found in the Republican report.  There is no mention of the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 which prevented the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from undertaking any regulation of over-the-counter derivatives like credit default swaps. There is no mention of the SEC's decision in 2004 to exempt Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley from net capitalization rules permitting them to increase their leverage rations to previously unknown levels. There is no mention of the repeal of Glass Steagall. There is no the hands-off philosophy that guided the Federal Reserve Board under the chairmanship of Alan Greenspan.

For a nice summary of the issues to which the Republicans closed their eyes in an "exercise in willful ignorance," see 10 Questions for GOP Members of Financial Crisis Inquiry by Barry Ritholtz at  The Big Picture.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Franken on the Tax Compromise

If this is the prelude of a permanent extension of the Bush tax breaks for the super-wealthy, we're in big trouble. We'll lose our ability to make the investments we need to grow our way out of long-term budget deficits: education, infrastructure, and research and development. And I am taking the president at his word that he will fight harder to put an end to these wasteful tax breaks in 2012 than he did in 2010.

Al Franken on his decision to vote for Obama's tax compromise.

I think that Franken's heart is in the right place and he seems like a smart guy, but I don't think that there is any "if" about it. Moreover, I cannot imagine any reason why Obama would fight harder in 2012 than he fought in 2010.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Congressman is a Twit

On December 6, Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam, along with Michelle Bachmann and other members of The Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a critical letter to President Obama. The problem? Obama doesn't refer to "God" often enough.
[D]uring three separate events this fall, you mentioned that we have inalienable rights, but consistently failed to mention the source of our rights. The Declaration of Independence definitively recognizes God, our Creator, as the source of our rights. Omitting the word 'Creator' once was a mistake; but twice establishes a pattern.
According to the Prayer Caucus, Obama is "doing a disservice to the people [he] represent[s]" and is "casting aside an integral part of society.

I suppose this means that the Framers of the Constitution also did a disservice to the American people since they didn't mention "God" or "the Creator" even once. I wonder what this gaggle of twits would say if Obama started making references to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," which is after all, where the Declaration of Independence grounds those "unalienable rights." No doubt they would howl like banshees.

The Caucus was particularly upset that Obama referred to "e pluribus unum" as our national motto. No matter that "e pluribus unum" is in fact a motto and it appears on the Seal of the United States that was adopted by Act of Congress in 1782. Apparently, we can throw out the will and sentiment of the Founding Fathers in favor of a Congress filled with reactionary Republicans that declared "In God We Trust" to be our national motto in 1956.

Of course the Caucus was eager to appeal to the Founders when they could quote mine something useful.
John Adams said, "It is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand." If Adams was right, by making these kinds of statements, you are removing one of the cornerstones of our secure freedom. We unravel the tapestry of freedom that birthed America.
That's right! By citing a motto that served the country perfectly well for 174 years, Obama is unraveling "the tapestry of freedom."

It is always interesting to track down the source of the Religious Right's favorite quotes. One might think that the Adams quote comes from his Inauguration Address or a speech to Congress. In fact it comes from a personal letter to his cousin Zabdiel Adams who was a minister and the context is quite interesting.
Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue; and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies. You cannot, therefore, be more pleasantly or usefully employed than in the way of your profession, pulling down the strong-holds of Satan. (emphasis added)
So it is Obama's failure to heed a letter in which Adams was buttering up his cousin that is going to destroy our country.

The Caucus claims that in his statements, Obama "does not accurately reflect America and serves to undercut an important part of of our history."   An ironic accusation from group that is throwing American history down the memory hole as fast as it can.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tax Cuts and the War on Christmas

The annual distraction has begun: conservatives screaming about the War on Christmas. Anything to distract the base from the fact that the Republican who campaigned as deficit hawks have extended the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Did the Disciples Hallucinate?

According to Christian apologists, it is unreasonable to think that the post resurrections appearances of Christ to the disciples were hallucinations because the relevant scientific literature contains no examples of shared hallucinations. Of course the relevant scientific literature also contains no examples of people rising from the dead, but if the skeptic points this out he is accused of anti-supernatural bias.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mormonism and Christian Apologetics

I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven which tells the true story of a fundamentalist Mormon in 1984 who believed that he had received a revelation from God instructing him to kill his brother’s wife and baby daughter. Apparently, the fundamentalist’s wife had not responded favorably when he decided that he should start practicing polygamy and his sister-in-law had encouraged his wife to take the children and leave him. The fundamentalist was assisted by another brother who was convinced of the validity of the revelation. The story is set against the backdrop of the strange history of the Mormon church going back to Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the Angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York in the 1820’s.

The history of the Mormon church provides an interesting test case for many of the arguments that Christian apologists make.

If Jesus hadn’t actually been raised from the dead, the Romans or the Jews would have produced his body and that would have nipped Christianity in the bud.

There has never been any shortage of people to point out the absurdity of the Joseph Smith’s claim that the American Indians are descended from tribes of Israelites who migrated to the New World hundreds of years prior to the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, there has never been any shortage of Mormons who would happily dismiss such criticisms as deceptions of the devil. The notion that religious enthusiasms are subject to logical refutation is not supported by the evidence.

The rapid spread of Christianity couldn't have happened if it's historical claims had simply been invented.

It has taken less than two centuries for Mormonism to grow to almost 14,000,000 adherents. Although we do not have accurate figures for Christianity's growth its first 200 years, it is hard to believe that Mormonism compares unfavorably.

Nobody knowingly dies for a lie. Early Christians would not have willingly endured persecution if the resurrection was a hoax.

Early Mormons followed Joseph Smith from New York to Ohio to Missouri. In Missouri, the governor called out the militia to exterminate the Mormons or drive them from the state. Vigilantes killed many Mormons and the Mormons moved to Navoo, Illinois where Smith was arrested and lynched. Nevertheless, many Mormons willingly endured great hardships to follow Brigham Young. If willingness to endure hardship and risk persecution is proof of a religion's claims, then it is reasonable to believe that the Garden of Eden really was somewhere in Missouri.

We have no record of any of Christianity's early critics disputing that Jesus was a real person or that his tomb was empty.

If we only had the records preserved by the Mormons, we would have a much different picture of the Church's history than we have today. For example, when the Mormons slaughtered 120 settlers in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, the official LDS position was that the Paiute Indians were responsible. If not for independent investigations establishing Mormon responsibility, the church would have continued to deny it. If we only had Mormon sources, we would believe that the LDS had abandoned polygamy completely in 1890 when in fact its leaders continued to take multiple wives for many years thereafter. Since the earliest records of Christianity are the ones that the Catholic Church chose to preserve, we cannot take much comfort from the fact that we lack records of people who challenged orthodox beliefs.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How Stories Grow

In Galatians 1:15-19, Paul describes what he did after his conversion:
But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother.

Paul doesn't say what he and Cephas talked about, but many Christian apologists think that Cephas gave Paul the creed that is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
I do not personally find this argument persuasive.  When Paul says that he delivered what he received, I think he is talking about the message of salvation that he received by revelation from God, not a particular creedal formulation of that message that he received from Cephas.  I think this is consistent with the way Paul uses the word "received" in other places.  I think that Paul would have known the elements of the creed before he went to Jerusalem since he had already been preaching for three years, but I don't think we have any evidence of when or where those elements were put into the particular creed found in 1 Corinthians 15.

Many people do not share my reservations about the apologists arguments.  I frequently come across people who assert that Paul got the creed when he visited Jerusalem as if it was an incontrovertible fact.  When I point out the fact that Paul never says this, they will cite apologists like William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas or they will simply assert that it is the consensus position of biblical scholars.   I think that mostly they accept it because it "makes sense" that Paul learned the creed on his first visit to Jerusalem.

I think this is probably a very good illustration of the way that the stories in the gospels may have grown over time.  When people pass along stories, they add details that make sense and those details are accepted as part of the story.  In our literate culture, it is possible to look at what Paul actually wrote, but that doesn't prevent people from accepting added details as facts.  In an oral culture, there would be no way to determine which details in a story were original and which had been added in the retelling because they made sense.

It is very easy to imagine how details could be added incrementally to create a story.  For example, Paul never says anything about the empty tomb or how Jesus was buried in any of his letters.  For all we know, Paul might have believed that the Romans had thrown Jesus' body into a common grave for executed criminals.  However, it would have made sense that Jesus' body was no longer in the grave because Paul said that Jesus was physically resurrected.  Someone who was retelling the story of the appearances that he heard from Paul might simply have added the empty tomb.  Once you've got the empty tomb in the story, it would have made sense that someone had seen it empty.  In order for someone to find the tomb empty, it must have been a specific tomb rather than a common grave.  In order for a crucified criminal to receive an honorable burial, it makes sense that there would have been a prominent person who had some political pull but was nonetheless sympathetic to Jesus.  Before you know it, you have the story of Joseph of Arimathea.

It fascinates me that Bible believers can so easily accept as fact the content of Paul's conversations on his visit to Jerusalem when it fits the narrative that they want to believe, but they recoil in such horror at the notion that the stories recorded in the gospels might be the product of a similar series of embellishments.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Crappy Little Plastic Toys

America has the highest obesity rate in the world, but Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman seems to think that there is a constitutional prohibition on any government action that would infringe upon the right of corporations to exploit the poor decisions that human beings make.
Now, there are many places where the government ought to be: between a citizen and a mugger, between the polluter and the sky, between us all and al Qaida. But the space between a diner's hand and a diner's mouth is not one of them. 
Chapman is up in arms over a San Francisco regulation that would prohibit McDonald’s from providing free toys with Happy Meals that are loaded with fat, sugar and calories.

I don’t know whether the San Francisco rule is a good idea or not, but I don’t understand why McDonald’s right to exploit poor parenting decisions which are harmful to the health of children trumps all other concerns.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can Evidence Ever Prove a Miracle?

The reason we think that fingerprints on a gun might tell us who used that gun to commit a murder is that we think that we understand the natural processes by which the unique patterns in the skin on the human finger might come to appear on another object and, just as importantly, we think that those natural process are unvarying.  If we thought that those patterns just appeared randomly on objects or if we thought they appeared by divine fiat, we could not say that fingerprints on murder weapon constituted evidence of anything.

Unfortunately, miracles don't follow natural processes and they do not occur uniformly.  We cannot claim that the Shroud of Turin constitutes evidence of the resurrection of Christ because we have no idea what happens when a human being is supernaturally raised from the dead.  We have no basis to assert that any particular piece of evidence is more likely the result of a miracle than a natural cause because we have no idea what kind of evidence a miracle is likely to produce.

Christian apologists will claim that this is simply an anti-supernatural presupposition that skeptics bring to the table, but that is not where the problem lies.  The problem lies in the logic of the "inference" tool that we use to draw conclusions from evidence.  We infer anything from any particular piece of evidence without some knowledge of the way in which particular causes produce such evidence.

Friday, November 5, 2010

We Are So Screwed

I would just go back to the way in which the market was muscled under the GSE’s [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] to do zero down payment loans because the presumption was that we wanted to get everyone into a house.
Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California who is hoping to become Chairman of the Financial Services Committee on the grounds of his knowledge and experience. 

Those poor bankers. They're the real victims. They didn't want to generate huge fees and bonuses by securitizing crap mortgages. They were "muscled" by the government.

Republican candidates may have ranted and raved about bank bailouts, but anyone who thinks that the new congress won't be as big a lackey for Wall Street as the Democrats is delusional.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reflections on the Election

A great day for the Republicans, but I am not so sure that it was such a great day for the Tea Party.  A couple of very vulnerable Democrats, Nevada Senator Harry Reid and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, managed to keep their positions because voters were scared off by Tea Party opponents Sharon Angle and Bill Brady (although the Illinois race is still in doubt).  The Democrats managed to hold on to Colorado where I would have expected the Tea Party to do well.  Rand Paul won in Kentucky but he did it by playing ball with the establishment Republicans.  Even in Caribou Barbie's backyard, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller is still in battle with a write-in establishment Republican. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cutting Other People's Benefits

The Big Picture has an interesting post that notes that the above average growth in the use of food stamps in some of the states where the Tea Party is strongest and individual counties that voted decisively for Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Misanthropic Quote of the Day

"Obviously I don't have any knowledge of what motivated his postings, none of us do."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on why student Declan Sullivan tweeted "Holy f*** holy f*** this is terrifying" before he was killed when high winds knocked over the lift from which he was filming football practice.

Really?  I tend to think that there are many, many people who have no doubt whatsoever why Sullivan tweeted that.  Perhaps Swarbrick has no knowledge of why he was sent up there in those conditions and perhaps he doesn't know whether the conditions were different at the time the decision to send him up was made, but it strikes me as shockingly callous to suggest that there is anything puzzling about the terror Sullivan felt before his life ended.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (14): Paul's Silence

Upon what did the Galatians, Romans, Corinthians, and Thessalonians believe their faith was founded.  Did they think (1) that the gospel message was based on the teachings of a first century itinerant Rabbi that had been passed along by the original disciples who had been taught by that Rabbi,  or did they think (2) that the gospel message was something that had been directly revealed to Paul by a divine being?   If we only had Paul's writings to go on, we would have to conclude that Paul's revelation were the source of his followers' beliefs. 

I have raised this point numerous times with both liberal and conservative Christian who have offered various reason why Paul's letters never disclose the fact that the source of the gospel he preached was the teachings of the historical Jesus rather than the revelations of the divine Christ.  The most common  explanation boils down to "It just never came up."  According to this line of thinking, the epistles Paul wrote were directed towards issues that never required him to say anything to indicate when or where Jesus lived or what he said or did during his life.  Another explanation lies in the competitive tension between Paul and Peter.  Paul was trying to establish his authority in various theological disputes with Peter and acknowledging that Peter and others had been taught directly by Jesus would have diminished Paul's standing.  I don't find either explanation terribly convincing, but even if I did, they would still leave a basic problem unaddressed.

These explanations leave open the possibility that Paul and his followers did believe that Jesus was a recently deceased miracle working teacher, but they don't give us any reason to think they did.  Paul letters are the earliest Christian writings and our best source for understanding the early church.   They tell us the kind of questions that were in dispute in the early church, and the kind of arguments that were considered dispositive of those questions.  We shouldn't expect these letters to include absolutely everything that Paul and his followers believed about Jesus, but for those beliefs not reflected in the letters, we need some reason to think they were a part of the early faith.

One reason to think that Paul and his followers believed something would be to show it to be a generally held belief during their time.  After all, Paul acknowledges that there were others preaching the gospel at the same time he was.  If a belief can be shown to held by Paul's contemporaries within the Christian community, it would seem likely that it was part of Paul's faith, too.

When we look at the other early epistles, we don't find much evidence of others thinking that Jesus was a first century teacher whose message was spread by his original disciples.  Like the Pauline epistles, the pseudo-Pauline and the Johannine epistles, along with Hebrews and James are focused on the supernatural risen Christ to the almost complete exclusion of a human Jesus who actually walked the earth.  Only when we get to later epistles like 1 Timothy and 2 Peter do we get any indication that people known to the authors had personal knowledge of the things Jesus did prior to his crucifixion.

The gospels of course do describe the human Jesus as someone who initiate the proclamation of the gospel, worked signs and wonders, and taught his original disciples the meaning of his life, and coming death and resurrection, but they are nonetheless problematic.  The date of their composition cannot be established with any confidence.  Their authors are unknown.  The place of their composition and their intended audiences are unknown. The specific questions that they were intended to resolve are much less certain than those addressed by the epistles. The extent to which they were meant to be understood historically rather than theologically is not clear.   Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the lack of unambiguous external references to the gospels until well into the 2nd century.  Even if we accept dates for their composition that are nearer to Paul's time, we cannot establish that they were generally accepted or in general circulation until much later.

Even if we conclude that Paul believed that Jesus had been a flesh and blood human who walked the earth prior to his crucifixion, there does not seem to be any way to establish that Paul or his followers thought of him as the 1st century preacher described in the gospels.  Paul could have thought of Jesus as someone who had lived at a indeterminate time and place like Job in the Old Testament.   Paul does tell us that he knew others to whom the risen Christ had earlier appeared, so it might be reasonable to think that he believed others had received earlier revelations, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Paul thought that anyone he knew had received any teachings from the human Jesus during an earthly ministry.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (13): James the Brother of the Lord

I have been having another interesting discussion with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University on the question of whether our earliest Christian sources support the idea that Jesus was a recently deceased authoritative teacher.  I don't think they do for the following reasons:

  • The earliest epistles don't indicate when or where Jesus lived or died.
  • The earliest epistles don't indicate that any members of the believing community knew Jesus personally.
  • The earliest epistles never refer to any teachings that Jesus delivered during his earthly ministry.
  • The earliest epistles never discuss the meaning of anything Jesus did during his earthly ministry.

The only reference that would seem to establish that Paul thought that his own contemporaries in the community had known Jesus personally is found in Galatians 1:19-20. "Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.  But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." Obviously, if Paul thought that James was Jesus' biological brother, he must have thought that Jesus had lived recently and been known to people within the community.  Dr. McGrath seems to rely heavily on this point.

Dr.  McGrath also cites two other passages in our discussion.  In Romans 1:3, Paul writes "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," and in Galatians 4:4 he writes "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law." These verses indicate that Paul thought of Jesus as a human being who walked the earth, but give no indication of when or where that might have happened. They don't provide us any evidence that Jesus was any less mythical or legendary than Adam and Eve.

Given the lack of any other reference that would establish that Jesus was a contemporary of others in the early church, it seems to me that we must consider the possibility that Paul was referring to a spirtual relationship between Jesus and James rather than a biological one.  For example, when Paul lists Christ's appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, he mentions one appearance to "brothers" and another appearance to "apostles."  Perhaps these were two different groups within the early church.  Perhaps what Paul meant in Galatians 1:5 is that he met with Peter who was one of the apostles and James who was one of the brothers.

Dr. McGrath criticized me for "working hard" to find alternative meanings for the text, but I don't think his criticism holds water.  Biblical scholars regularly consider the possibility that a less obvious interpretation may be the better one if the more obvious interpretation does not fit with the rest of the author's writings.  Given the fact that nothing else in Paul indicates that he thought that anyone he knew had personally known Jesus, and the fact that Paul routinely uses the word "brother" to indicate a spiritual relationship, it doesn't seem like any great stretch to conclude that maybe Paul wasn't referring to a biological relationship here.  The church itself began doing so before too long when many of the Apostolic fathers concluded that Mary must have been a virgin for her entire life.

I also raised the possibility that the text of Galatians had been corrupted.  There were 150 years of copying between the time Paul wrote it and our earliest manuscript.    For all we know some well-meaning scribe copying a manuscript of Galatians in 150 A.D. added "the Lord's brother" in order to clarify which James Paul was talking about.

Raising the issue of interpolations with a biblical scholar can be like waving a red cape in front of bull and Dr. McGrath's response did not surprise me.

But if you want to play the unrestrained emendation game, I can grant your emendations and simply posit earlier excisions of verses that seemed to make Jesus seem too human.

If we had different evidence, we'd draw different conclusions. But mainstream scholarship is about making sense of the evidence we have, not emending it so that it doesn't inconveniently provide evidence, however minimal, that runs counter to the beliefs we already hold.
I understand that we have to make sense of the evidence we have, but we also have to acknowledge its limitations.  Some very eminent textual critics think that it doesn't even make sense to talk about what the original manuscripts contained because we don't have them.  The best we can do is talk about the understanding of the communities that produced the manuscripts that we do have.  We have to be circumspect in asserting certainty about what the "original" meaning of any passage was.

Moreover, I don't think that I am suggesting "unrestrained" emendations.   Given the length of time between the composition of the originals and our earliest manuscripts, the probability that any specific verse was altered can't be trivial even if it may be small.  Because it is small any interpretation that depends on hypothesizing multiple emendations must necessarily be speculative.  However, if positing a single emendation radically changes the evidence for a particular interpretation, I would think it must be taken seriously.

More importantly, I don't need to rely on the possibility that the text was corrupted.  I merely have to posit that a less obvious reading rather than a more obvious reading is correct.  When I do, the case for a recently deceased Jesus who had been known personally to the earliest community gets very shaky, very quickly. The possibility of corruption simply adds an additional level of uncertainty.  Surely my agnosticism is not completely unwarranted.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Effects of Fact Free Education

The Hill reports that the Center for Disease Control, found that the lowest rate of teen pregnancies are found in states that have not gone in for "abstinence education," while the highest rates are found in those that do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (12): The Banned Mormon Cartoon

Dr. James McGrath of Butler University claims that the origin of Christianity is better explained by the hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person rather than the hypothesis that Jesus was a purely mythical creature.    He often cites mythicist's inability to explain how first century Jews came to believe that the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament had been fulfilled in the person of a crucified criminal if in fact there were not an actual crucified person who was believed to be the Messiah.

Conservative Christian apologists make a similar argument to defend not just the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, but the historicity of all the events described in the gospels including the actually physical resurrection of Jesus.  They claim that a literal intepretation of the gospels is necessary to adequately explain the conversion of Paul, the willingness of the first Christians to die for their believe in the resurrection, the empty tomb, and various other elements of the gospels which they claim are "facts."

These arguments came to my mind as I watched a video known as "The Banned Mormon Cartoon" which purports to describe the beliefs of the Latter Day Saints.  H/T to Ken Pulliam at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity.

(I say "purports" because the cartoon was produced by an ex-Mormon Christian in order to discredit Mormonism.  As such, it exaggerates and distorts many Mormon beliefs.  For example, from what I can gather, it was never official LDS doctrine that Jesus had three wives or that Elohim physically had sex with Jesus' mother Mary.  Nevertheless, it seems that most of the stuff in the cartoon has been believed or taught by at least some Mormons at one time or another even if it is not presently LDS doctrine.)

What is the explanation for a church based on such beliefs growing to more than twelve million members in less that two centuries?   There is some evidence that upstate New York in the early nineteenth century was particularly fertile ground for innovative religious beliefs.  Perhaps sociologists and psychologists could tell us something about the strength of Mormon communities today and the hold they exert upon adherents.  Perhaps as one commenter on Pulliam's blog suggested, Rational Choice Theory provides the best framework to understand the phenomenon.

One place I do not think I would look for an answer is in the actual historical reality of anything that Joseph Smith believed or taught.   I don't think that the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints is in any way explained by the historicity of Jesus' appearance in America shortly after his resurrection, or by Moroni burying golden plates in the fifth century A.D. which described the history of Jesus' followers in America, or by Joseph Smith actually finding those plates and translating them by sticking his head in a hat and reading them with seer stones.

By the same token, I wonder whether positing some historical reality behind the gospel stories actually adds anything to our understanding of the origins and growth of Christianity in the first two centuries.  The example of Mormonism demonstrates that a religion can enjoy phenomenal growth among reasonably advanced people regardless of the plausibility of any of its historical claims.  I cannot help but think that the best explanation for the origin of Christianity lies in the sociological and psychological susceptibilities of its first century adherents, not in the historicity of the things they believed.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.

Matt Taibi in The Rolling Stone

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Think We Are Screwed.

Barry Ritholtz wrote a post at the Big Picture on Monday titled The Left Right Paradigm is Over: Its You vs. Corporations which resonated with me as I read an article in The Economist concerning the banking industry's opposition to Elizabeth Warren as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Ms Warren faces two main criticisms: that she lacks experience of how the financial industry works, and that she is predisposed to seeing the big banks as devious. She has talked of “tricks and traps” in the fine print of contracts, of Wall Street as an “old boys’ club”, and of the middle class as having been served up to financial firms “as the turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner”.
Has it really come to this?  Are Wall Street lobbyists so powerful that they can veto the appointment of a regulator simply because she is not inclined to take its assertions at face value?  We are in this mess because the prevailing regulatory policy for the last thirty years has been to the financial industry's judgment.  Unfortunately, the industry has become so powerful that it will not be possible to appoint regulators who will do anything about it.

I cannot help but wonder where the Tea Party is?  Everyday I hear some wingnut on the right railing about the debt that the government has incurred in bailing out the banks.  How about a little outrage at the banks that have completely captured the regulators?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fannie and Freddie Didn't Do It

Free market ideologues refuse to acknowledge that it was a lack of government regulation rather than too much government regulation that caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Instead, they claim that government policy forced banks to make loans to borrowers who were not creditworthy.  Their primary boogie men are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government sponsored enterprises that facilitated mortgage lending to low and middle income Americans.  However, any rational analysis of the evidence will lead to the conclusion that Fannie and Freddie, however poorly they might have been run as businesses, were casualties of the crisis rather than its perpetrators.

As Professor Karl Smith of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte writes, "The proper question is not: What story is consistent with my general philosophy or worldview?  The proper questions is: What story is consistent with the facts?"

The wave of housing price increases was kicked off by changes in private label securitization. These changes left Fannie and Freddie with a smaller market share and lower absolute level of securitizations. Fannie and Freddie attempted to adjust their basic business practices to stay competitive in bubble markets and among aggressive borrowers.

These adjustment left Fannie and Freddie exposed to a large decline in housing prices. This is exactly what happened and Fannie and Freddie reaped enormous losses because of their exposure.

Had Fannie and Freddie stuck to their traditional role of guaranteeing low value traditional loans rather than trying to stay competitive in bubble areas their losses would have been substantially less.

In short, attempting to subsidize the American dream for low and moderate income families may be a fundamentally bad policy. However, it does not appear to be either the origin of the housing bubble or the source of Fannie and Freddie’s trouble.
 Reprinted at The Big Picture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

From my favorite financial blog, Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture:
I am not a Democrat, because I have no idea what their economic policies are; And I am not a Republican, because I know precisely what their economic policies are.
Ritholtz's blog consistently provides objective analysis of how the economy got where it is and the prospects for getting somewhere else.  Anyone interested in cutting through partisan bullshit explanations for the financial crisis would be well-served to start with Causation Analysis: What “But Fors” Caused the Crisis?

13 Bankers

Yesterday on CNBC, economist Steve Liesman and blowhard Rick Santelli were discussing the current state of the economy and Santelli proclaimed "The question isn't how we got here.  The question is the best way to move forward."  Just as George Bush never wanted to play "the blame game" by looking at the screw ups that contributed to 911, Katrina, the War in Iraq, and the financial meltdown, Santelli doesn't care to consider why the economy is in the shape it is today.  The reason is simple, Santelli is an Ayn Rand loving libertarian who thinks that markets should be left free to work without government and he has no interest in discussing the fact that this ideology is precisely what led to the crisis in the first place. 

13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown by Simon Johnson and James Kwak is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are.  Simon Johnson is a former chief economist with the International Monetary Fund.  In that role, he had the chance to observe third world oligarchies whose financial systems were looted by government insiders and their cronies.  Before the IMF would assist such countries it demanded real reforms in their banking systems and it required that the costs of those reforms fall upon those who had caused the problems, or at least upon some of those who had caused the problems. In the United States, however, the mega-banks that caused the financial crisis have for the most part emerged bigger and more powerful than ever.

Unlike the third world countries where oligarchies control government policy through corruption, the mega-banks built their power in large part by selling the laissez-faire ideology that less regulation is always better and that any financial innovation that succeeds in the market is necessarily good for the economy.  Of course the revolving door between Wall Street and the regulators combined with generous campaign contributions didn't hurt, but in large measure, Wall Street was allowed do run wild without government interference because the conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle among Congressman, Senators, regulators, and Presidential administrations was that what was good for Wall Street was good for America.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Republican Strategist Wants to Push Down the Middle Class

Is it my imagination or are Republicans giving each other a lot more crap then they usually do? Tea Party candidates Christine O'Donnell and Sharon Angle have been getting flack from establishment Republicans and last Thursday on the Fox Business Channel, former GOP Senator Al D'Amato ripped into Republican strategist Jack Burkman for being a "nasty racist." The exchange came in a discussion of what to do about the Post Office after Burkman commented that "most of these guys working in the Post Office should be driving cabs, and I think we should stop importing labor from Nigeria and Ethiopia. That's the skill level." D'Amato called this "racist bullshit" and suggested that Burkman have his mouth washed out.

While I agree that Burkman is a racist, I was even more interested in what he had to say when the host offered him the last word on the subject:

If you want to have the debate, the reality is that many in the American quote-unquote middle, like postal workers, are really unskilled labor who should have been pushed down for market reasons but because of union and government pressures, we import labor at the bottom and we keep these people here. That’s a very true statement.
Burkman doesn't think that postal workers or tax drivers belong in the middle class.  They shouldn't aspire to jobs with which they can support their families or jobs that offer health care or jobs that offer the potential to retire in anything other than abject poverty.  They especially shouldn't expect to find such jobs mooching off the government.   The middle class and above should be reserved for people who contribute something valuable to society such as lobbyists like Burkman who petition the government for favors on behalf of wealthy clients. 

When I "googled" Burkman after watching this clip, I was mildly surprised not to find an interview in which he discussed the profound effect that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged had on him as a teenager.  I suspect that he read the book and loved it.  I was interested to find him on a list of "Top Christian Activists" as a result of his lobbying efforts on behalf of The Family Research Council.  Apparently pushing people out of the middle class is in no way inconsistent with Christian family values.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

God Will Make Some Magic

During a discussion of the Monica Lewinsky scandal on Politically Incorrect in 1998, current Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell insisted that people should tell the truth at all times and in all circumstances.  When asked by Eddie Izzard whether that applied during World War if Nazis were at your door asking whether you were hiding Jews in your house, she said it did.
I believe if I were in that situation, God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously. . . . I believe that!  You never have to practice deception. God always provides a way out.

No he doesn't.  Bad things happens all the time to people who are trying to do the right thing.  That doesn't mean there is no God.  Nor does it mean that the person to whom the bad thing happens won't be rewarded in the hereafter.   Nor does it mean that doing the right thing wasn't the best choice under the circumstances.  What it means is that rational human beings don't make decisions based on the assumption that God is going to come to the rescue if things go badly.  I suspect that part of the reason we went to war in Iraq was because George Bush was sure that God would make everything work out alright.  

I have no problem with religious people in politics if they have the attitude of the priest who prayed with a high school football team before the game.  One of the players asked him whether God would really help them win the game.  The priest replied, "He will if you block your man."  Religious faith is not a substitute for intelligence and competence.

If you like Sarah Palin, you are going to love Christine O'Donnell. She's prettier and her sentences generally have nouns and verbs in the right places. Unlike Palin who got flustered by softball questions from Katie Couric, O'Donnell regularly went on Bill Maher's show and maintained her composure when bantering with quick-witted intelligent people like Maher, Izzard, and Martin Mull.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The More Things Change

Ever wonder why Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota get to elect 15% of the U.S. Senate even though they only have about 1% of the United States' population?   I suppose there is nothing shocking about the idea that Republicans pushed for the admission of these states to the Union late in the 19th Century as their pro-business policies had managed to dissipate the popular support the party of Lincoln had enjoyed in the years after the Civil War, but it wasn't something I knew until I read Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox Richardson.  Interestingly, while the disproportionate power of these sparsely populated states is most clearly felt in the Senate today, at the time they were admitted, the single Representative each state sent to Congress were even more highly prized by the Republicans.  In those days, Senators were not yet popularly elected and Republican control of the Senate was secure.  However, the House was much more evenly split and the extra Republican Congressmen made a big difference.

It was also interesting to see 19th Century Republican administration pursuing tax policies that favored the wealthy--in this case tariffs--while attempting to maintain popular support by whipping up fear that Americans were going to be attacked by members of an alien culture that in fact posed little threat. The Sioux Indians had been thoroughly subdued and the only reason there was unrest on the reservations was the governments failure to supply the food it had promised when it forced the Indians to give up their land. At the time of the Wounded Knee in December 1890, the results of the November mid-term election in South Dakota were still in doubt.  Thus, President Harrison's administration was eager to show that it was prepared to do whatever it took to protect white settlers in the state.  Simply treating the Sioux fairly would have been much more effective, but not nearly as impressive to voters as sending in the army.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Worst Lie About 9/11

"The World Changed on 9/11."

The world did not change on 9/11/2001.  Everything that was part of the geopolitical landscape on 9/12/2001 had been there on 9/10/2001.  What happened on 9/11/2001 was that America's ignorance about the forces and factions at work in the world was exposed.

However, the answer to ignorance is understanding and the neoconservatives didn't want to learn anything that might deter them from their dream of reshaping the world.  So they sold the lie that everything had changed so that what was already known could be disregarded.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Apologetics Study Bible

The Apologetics Study Bible:  Understand Why You Believe

The subtitle to this book strikes me as supremely ironic.  This study Bible cannot help anyone to understand why they believe.  If they believe because of the information and arguments in this book, then they must already understand them.  If they don’t already understand them, then they must have some other reason for believing which this book does not address.   The reasons for believing must be antecedent to the beliefs.

This is the logical flaw in all Christian apologetics.  Apologists purport to describe the reasons for belief but they can't because the beliefs come before the reasons.  A better subtitle might be Understand Why You Would Like to Think that You Believe.  Or perhaps  Understand Why You Would Like Others to Think that You Believe.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (11)

I frequently point out the fact that Paul doesn't say anything about Jesus being a recently deceased, miracle working rabbi.  Conservative Christians usually claim that this is a matter of little consequence. "It's assumed" they will say, or "Paul was writing epistles, not gospels."  Despite this feigned indifference, I find that apologists want very badly to use Paul to corroborate the gospels.  I recently ran across this from Tim Keller:
Paul's letters, written just fifteen years to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus's, provide an outline of all the events of Jesus's life found in the gospels--his miracles, claims, crucifixion, and resurrection.  This means that the Biblical accounts of Jesus's life were circulating within the lifetime of hundreds of who had been present at the events of his ministry.  
The Reason for God p. 101.

I guess that Keller gives himself some wiggle room by only claiming that Paul "provides an outline," rather than asserting that Paul corroborates that Jesus was a miracle worker or that he made "claims."   Without having Paul on board, the apologist has to deal with the possibility that the Biblical accounts weren't circulating earlier than forty to sixty years after the events.  That leaves aside the question of how long it took for the gospels to get into general circulation after they were composes.  If we were to go by unambiguous external references to the gospels, we would find it hard to establish that the stories of Jesus as a miracle working rabbi were circulating much earlier than a century after the events.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why I Am Not a New Atheist

Most insects are pests, but we know that their eradication would disrupt the eco-systems that sustain us, and ultimately make the world uninhabitable.

Similarly, religion may be noxious, but perhaps, for all we know, a world without religion would be a much worse place than it is today.

A resolution seems to require a prediction about the future that is beyond our powers - we cannot compute all the relevant variables involved in an alteration as dramatic as the final departure of religion from human life.
Would the world really be better without religion? by Tamas Pataki

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (10)

The issue that continues to feed my doubts about the existence of the historical Jesus is the failure of the earliest Christian writings to substantiate any of things that we are supposed to be able to know about him.

Historian E.P. Sanders asserts that the following facts about Jesus' public career are "almost beyond dispute":

  1. He was born around 4 B.C.E.
  2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth;
  3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  4. He called disciples;
  5. He taught in the town and villages and countryside of Galilee;
  6. He preached "the kingdom of God";
  7. Around the year 30 C.E. he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  8. He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  9. He had a final meal with his disciples;
  10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities;
  11. He was executed on the orders of Pontius Pilate.
    The Historical Figure of Jesus pp. 10-11.

    Of the facts pertaining to Jesus' public career, almost none of them can be confirmed by our earliest sources; mostly the genuine Pauline epistles, but including almost all the epistles other than the Pastorals and 2 Peter.
    1. The early epistles don't indicate where or when Jesus was born;
    2. They say nothing about where he lived;
    3. They never mention John the Baptist;
    4. They say nothing about Jesus having disciples;
    5. They say nothing about Jesus having a teaching ministry;
    6. They do not claim that he said anything during his life about the kingdom of God;
    7. They don't say he went to Jerusalem;
    8. There is nothing about a disturbance in the temple;
    9. Paul says that Jesus instituted a Eucharistic meal, but he doesn't say anything about disciples being in attendance and Paul attributes his knowledge of it to revelation;
    10. There is nothing about an arrest or interrogation;
    11. The earliest writings don't mention Pilate.
    All this leaves me wondering whether Paul would have recognized the itinerant preacher described by Mark as the man he preached about being exalted after his death.  He might have, but I don't think that there is anything in Paul's writings to compel that conclusion.  It seems clear that Paul didn't think there was anything about Jesus' life on earth that was necessary to understand the meaning of his resurrection.  Perhaps he thought that Jesus lived his life in such obscurity that nothing could be known about him prior to his crucifixion.

    I recently had a chance to raise some of these issues with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University when he returned to one of his favorite topics with a post titled "Why Can't Mythicists Be More Like Creationists?"   Normally when he posts on this topic, he draws comments from a swarm of belligerent mythicists and I am lucky if I can get him to address more than one or two of the questions that interest me.  For some reason, however, the only one of the usual suspects who showed up was Steven Carr and he was rather subdued.  As a result, I was able to engage Dr. McGrath in a fairly extended dialogue.  I enjoyed the exchange, however, Dr. McGrath didn't really give me any reason to think that historicists have really engaged the issues.

    I was particularly struck by one (or two) of the questions that McGrath put to me:

    Vinny, please explain to me why, in your view, it is illegitimate to allow a Gospel and a no longer extant source written within a few decades of Paul's letters to complement the information we have in them. In your view, why is the universal consensus in all early Christian literature that Peter and others were followers of Jesus during his public activity to be excluded from consideration as potentially historically accurate?

    I think the legitimacy of allowing the gospels to complement the early writings depends on the question being asked.  If the question is, "Do the earliest writings corroborate the gospels?" then we can't simply allow the gospels to complement the epistles because that assumes the answer rather than determining it. The only way to answer the question is by examining the epistles to determine what information in them corroborates information found in the gospels.  

    Moreover, if it legitimate to allow one source to complement another, why isn't it legitimate to allow them to stand separately?  Is it wrong to allow Paul to have his own distinctive voice about the significance of Jesus' sojourn on earth without insisting that his writing be harmonized with someone else's narrative?  Should we insist that Paul's Jesus is a recently deceased miracle working Rabbi if Paul never says so?

    Sunday, August 8, 2010


    Periodically, I see someone brag about having read the entire Bible cover-to-cover multiple times. I'm never quite sure whether this is really something to brag about, but it is handy thing to throw out in an argument when someone questions your knowledge. Unfortunately, I have never had the discipline to wade through the entire Old Testament and sometimes I run across passages in the New Testament that I had never noticed before.

    It can be embarrassing to find that I don't know the New Testament as well as I thought I did, but it can be delightful as well. Finding some new oddity is sort of like running across an episode of Gilligan's Island that you've never seen before. For example, until yesterday, I never realized that Jesus performed coin tricks.

    When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?" When Peter said, "From strangers," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are exempt. "However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me." Matthew 17:24-27
    I'm surprised this passage isn't cited regularly as proof of the historicity of the gospels.  I am hard pressed to answer the standard apologetic question, "Why would anybody make that up?"

    On the same theme, here's a little sacrilege from South Park:

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    No Matter How Cynical You Get . . . .

    . . . it's almost impossible to keep up.

    The Democrats are unable to pass a bill to provide health care for 911 first responders because they want to pay for it by closing a tax loophole.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    I Give Up - 9/11 Responders Bill
    Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

    Friday, July 30, 2010

    How Much Theological Consistency Is Too Much?

    Ken Pulliam has an interesting post at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity discussing the question of infant salvation/damnation.  Evangelical Christians believe everyone is born in a state of original sin that can only been erased by being born again.   This should mean that an infant who dies is separated from God and condemned to hell for eternity with all other unbelievers.  Of course this doesn't sit too well with anyone who has ever lost a child, so most evangelicals also subscribe to some notion of an "age of accountability" prior to which a child who dies gets to go to heaven rather than hell.  Under this view, the child starts saved, becomes lost as soon as they figure out what is going out in the world, and the perhaps gets saved again.

    The point in Ken's post that generated the most comments was his assertion that he admired the consistency and honesty of evangelical theologian R.C.Sproul who refused to distinguish between infants and any other unbelievers who die without coming to faith in Christs.  On the one hand, it is hard to admire someone who who embraces the doctrine that infants who die in the crib spend eternity in the flames of hell.  On the other hand, is it any more admirable to fudge the beliefs one doesn't like rather than acknowledging that there is something wrong with a system of theology that requires infant damnation?

    I think this kind of question comes up time and again for anyone who wants to treat the Bible as a magic book.  Does one acknowledge the ability of science to explain the world around us while clinging to some role for God by advocating "intelligent design" or do you put all your chips on the Bible and embrace young earth creationism?   Is it better to admit that the texts of the New Testament were corrupted somewhat in transmission while arguing that the essential doctrines have been preserved or is it better to insist that God worked some sort of miracle of preservation with the King James translation?  Some bible-believers argue that the resurrection of Jesus can be established by objective historical methodology while others go in for "presuppositional apologetics" which (as I understand it) argue that only believers are capable of applying logic and reason to the evidence.

    In can't say that I really admire someone who embraces ideas like young earth creation or infant damnation, but I suppose I can respect the sense of intellectual integrity that compels them to follow their theological beliefs to their logical conclusions.  

    Sunday, July 18, 2010

    Science or Supernatural?

    For all the Bible believing bloggers who insist that belief in miracles can be based on evidence, I would like to suggest the following hypothetical:

    Imagine sitting on a jury in a murder case.  Three witnesses testify that they saw the defendant shoot the victim three times in the chest.  These witnesses testified at great personal risk because the defendant is a powerful man in the community.  They also testify that there were twenty other people in the room who saw the shooting.  (For this last point we have to assume that the judge doesn't understand the rules of evidence.)  On the other side of the coin, an expert testifies that ballistic testing shows that the bullets in the victim's body could not have come from the defendant's gun.  The bullets in fact match a gun belonging to another person who was at the scene and gun powder residue from that gun was found on the other person's hand. 

    If I were sitting on that jury, I would vote to acquit.  Ballistics experts are highly confident in the techniques that are used to establish whether a particular bullet came from a particular gun (at least they always are on TV).  I might not be able to explain why all three witnesses identified the wrong man as the shooter, but I believe that the witness is much more likely to be wrong than the science.

    If, on the other hand, I were a Bible believing Christian, I suppose I would have to vote to convict.  As convincing as the science might be there could have been some supernatural agent that altered the bullets so that when they were tested they appeared not to come from the defendant's gun.  After all, if I am convinced that the laws of nature were suspended two thousand years ago based on stories recorded decades after the fact just because I believe that the ultimate source of those stories was eyewitness testimony, how can I doubt the testimony of eyewitnesses that I have heard directly?  Wouldn't it just be anti-supernatural bias that would cause me to prefer the science of the ballistics test to the testimony of the eye witnesses?

    It seems like every week or two I hear some story about a man being released from prison because DNA testing that was not available at the time of his conviction now shows that he could not have committed the crime.  Often the man had been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.  I wonder how many Bible believers read these stories and worry that naturalistic presuppositions which favor science over eyewitness accounts might be putting dangerous criminals back on the street. 

    Saturday, July 17, 2010

    "Common Sense" from the WSJ and the AEI

    Today's Wall Street Journal features an article on the history of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) by Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing think tank.  While Satel concedes that PTSD is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis, she carefully crafts the impression that there is something fishy going on and that liberals are to blame.

    Veterans with unrelenting PTSD can receive disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, said last week, the mental injuries of war "can be as debilitating as any physical battlefield trauma." The occasion for his remark was a new VA rule allowing veterans to receive disability benefits for PTSD if, as non-combatants, they had good reason to fear hostile activity, such as firefights or explosions. In other words, veterans can now file a benefits claim for being traumatized by events they did not actually experience.

    The very notion that one can sustain an enduring mental disorder based on anxious anticipation of a traumatic event that never materializes is a radical departure from the clinical—and common-sense—understanding that disabling stress disorders are caused by traumatic events that actually do happen to people. This is not the first time that controversy has swirled around the diagnosis of PTSD.
    My common sense would tell me that multiple extended rotations in a high risk environment where every pile of rubble potentially hides an improvised explosive device has the potential to cause harmful levels of stress.  However, I would question whether it even makes any sense for a psychiatrist to talk about about "common-sense" understandings of "disabling stress disorders."  Would Satel appeal to "common- sense understandings" of autism or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?  Sometimes unusual problems defy common sense.

    Interestingly, the article seems to concede that common sense got things wrong for a long time.  According to Satel, during World War I, the common-sense understanding was that soldiers suffering from "shell shock" had some personal mental shortcoming.  "Otherwise well-adjusted individuals were believed to be at small risk of suffering more than a transient stress reaction once they were removed from the front."  As time went by, however, psychiatrists came to the conclusion that that every soldier had a breaking point.

    By the end of the article, Satel article even seems to concede that the common sense to which she appeals may be wrong:  "For some non-combat servicemen and women, anticipatory fear of being in harm's way can turn into a crippling stress reaction."   If this is so, why does she characterize this as a "radical departure"?   As is usual when you find the Wall Street Journal and the American Enterprise Institute appealing to common sense, there is some eggheaded liberals to be bashed. In this case it is the opponents of the Vietnam War who pushed the legitimacy of PTSD as a psychiatric diagonsis.  Satel doesn't dispute that legitimacy.  She just wants us all to know that there is a political agenda at work.

    She Just Sounds Like a Nut

    Today's Wall Street Journal features Stephen Moore's interview with the Republican challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle:  Writes Moore:
    Liberal groups and Mr. Reid are gleeful that a "right wing extremist" has won the GOP nomination. At a recent fund raising dinner for the majority leader in Las Vegas, President Barack Obama labeled her "extreme, even for a Republican." Some Republicans privately grumble that she may be unelectable because of her staunchly conservative stands. And to be sure, some of her positions, such as banning fluoridated water or providing massages to rehabilitate convicts, seem a bit, well, odd.

    But is she the kook Mr. Reid portrays her as in his TV ads?

    I met with Mrs. Angle twice, first in Washington, D.C., late last month, then again during the Freedomfest conference last week in Las Vegas. In person, she seems anything but a threat to the American way of life. She is petite, has Irish red hair with and a pretty round face. She's friendly, but businesslike, and unlike most politicians, comes across as sincere in her convictions. Her husband, Ted, a 35 year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management (he explains that he's a conservative who worked to protect property rights, not violate them), stands constantly by her side as a confidant and de facto campaign manager.
    There never seems to be any shortage of conservative pundits ready assure voters that these candidates from the far right only sound like shrill ignorant nut jobs when they speak in public.  If everyone could just sit down for a one-on-one chat with Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle or Michelle Bachman or George Bush as the pundit has, they would see that they ooze common sense and sincerity.  Pay no attention to candidate Angle who expects doctors to take a chicken in place of a co-pay, Moore and the WSJ are here to assure us once again that irrationality is no disqualifier when it comes to a candidate who will pursue a pro-business agenda.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (9)

    Dr. James McGrath of Butler University has once again trotted out his mythicist-creationist analogy at Exploring our Matrix, stirring up the usual response from those who doubt and/or deny the existence of the historical Jesus.  In a recent comment he wrote the following:
    In the case of Jesus, we have someone writing about him as a human being, born of a woman, born as a Jew ("under the Law"), descended from David according to the flesh (one mythicist I spoke to recently resorted to calling that "allegory" in order to avoid Paul's obvious meaning), and crucified. And the last point is crucial, since the idea that someone would invent Jesus and proclaim that he was the Davidic anointed one, expected to restore the kingship to David, but was crucified by the Romans and yet you should believe in him anyway boggles the imagination. Could someone have done it nevertheless. Of course - anything is possible. Is it more likely than not that someone did this, rather than the early Christians engaging in post facto theologizing to try to make sense of why the person they believed was the Messiah was crucified? No, definitely not.

    All of this has been discussed here before, hence my tendency to get somewhat frustrated when asked to cover the same ground for the umpteenth time. :)

    I can appreciate Dr. McGrath's frustration because I still can't figure out how Paul helps the historicists' case.

    Suppose that our earliest source for the Sioux chief Sitting Bull did not know when or where Sitting Bull lived, did not know much of anything that Sitting Bull said or did during his life, claimed that what he did know he learned from Sitting Bull's ghost, and claimed to know others who had encountered this ghost.  Suppose that he never claimed that anyone he knew had ever met Sitting Bull during his life, but did refer to certain people as Sitting Bull's brothers.   Suppose that this source's interest in Sitting Bull is limited to the activities of his ghost and the only importance he attaches to Sitting Bull is the influence that his ghost has upon the living.  Would we consider this source particularly good evidence that Sitting Bull was a historical person rather than merely legendary?

    I think this pretty well captures the problems that Paul poses for historicists.  His letters don't prove that Jesus didn't exist, but most of what Paul has to say about Jesus sounds much more mythical than historical.  When he does describe something about Jesus that can be characterized as historical,  Paul does not indicate any source for the information that can be characterized as historical.

    Historicists often claim that Paul would have learned about the historical stuff about Jesus from Peter and James or from the cult that he persecuted prior to his conversion.  However, this is only true if we have already concluded that Jesus was a real historical person.  If Peter and James did not know an actual person, Paul would have learned that.  If the cult that he persecuted had worshiped a mythical Messiah, Paul would have learned that.  We can't use the assumption that Paul knew whether Jesus was historical as evidence that he was historical.

    Perhaps the most frequently cited proof that Paul considered Jesus historical is his reference to James as "the brother of the Lord."  In my Sitting Bull example, this probably wouldn't carry any weight at all since the Sioux used "brother" to describe many relationships other than biological ones.  Given the rest of the information, we might well conclude that "brother" referred to a relationship with Sitting Bull's ghost. I am not aware of such an expansive use among first century Jews, but Paul does use "brother" frequently enough in referring to spiritual relationships that I think the possibility has to be allowed.

    What I think I find most puzzling is the argument that the invention of a crucified Messiah is so mind boggling that a real historical Jesus who was really crucified is definitely more likely.  Is their anything more mind boggling than the claims of Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard? History provides plenty of examples of people making mind boggling claims which they attribute to supernatural sources.  Sometimes these claims are believed by large numbers of people.   In each and every case where it has happened, we would have to assess the likelihood of inventing such a story and having it believed as small a priori, but it happens often enough that I don't see how we can assess the probability that it happened with Paul as definitely less than that of any other scenario. If this is really a crucial point in the case against mythicism, I think Dr. McGrath is going to be frustrated for a long time.

    Historians may have perfectly valid reasons for thinking that Jesus was a historical person.  I just don't see that Paul helps their case.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010

    The Great Courses

    I am a big fan of The Great Courses from The Teaching Company which I can borrow from my local library.  The one I am listening to now may be the best yet.  It is  Philosophy and Religion in the West taught by Phillip Cary of Eastern University.

    I have listened to about half the course so far:

    1.Introduction—Philosophy and Religion as Traditions
    2.Plato's Inquiries—The Gods and the Good
    3.Plato's Spirituality—The Immortal Soul and the Other World
    4.Aristotle and Plato—Cosmos, Contemplation, and Happiness
    5.Plotinus—Neoplatonism and the Ultimate Unity of All
    6.The Jewish Scriptures—Life With the God of Israel
    7.Platonist Philosophy and Scriptural Religion
    8.The New Testament—Life in Christ
    9.Rabbinic Judaism—Israel and the Torah
    10.Church Fathers—The Logos Made Flesh
    11.The Development of Christian Platonism
    12.Jewish Rationalism and Mysticism—Maimonides and Kabbalah
    13.Classical Theism—Proofs and Attributes of God
    14.Medieval Christian Theology—Nature and Grace
    15.Late-Medieval Nominalism and Christian Mysticism
    16.Protestantism—Problems of Grace
    17.Descartes, Locke, and the Crisis of Modernity
    18.Leibniz and Theodicy
    19.Hume's Critique of Religion
    20.Kant—Reason Limited to Experience
    21.Kant—Morality as the Basis of Religion
    22.Schleiermacher—Feeling as the Basis of Religion
    23.Hegel—A Philosophical History of Religion
    24.Marx and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
    25.Kierkegaard—Existentialism and the Leap of Faith
    26.Nietzsche—Critic of Christian Morality
    27.Neo-orthodoxy—The Subject and Object of Faith
    28.Encountering the Biblical Other—Buber and Levinas
    29.Process Philosophy—God in Time
    30.Logical Empiricism and the Meaning of Religion
    31.Reformed Epistemology and the Rationality of Belief
    32.Conclusion—Philosophy and Religion Today

    I have come across most of these topics before, but I have never had the chronology and interaction of the various traditions laid out so well and so clearly.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Does God Make the Resurrection More Likely?

    I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is naturally impossible. But that’s not the question. The question is, is it improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead?  William Lane Craig

    If I am outside on a pitch black night and I feel water falling on my head from the sky, I will no doubt conclude that it is raining. I would not be inclined to believe that I had been attacked by a CIA predator drone armed with squirt guns even if someone told me that that was what had happened. I would reach this conclusion because I am thoroughly familiar with the phenomenon known as rain. It is well understood and well documented that the overwhelming majority of occurrences of water falling from the sky are rain storms.

    One factor that would not effect my conclusion is whether or not I believed that the CIA actually possessed the technology to arm drones with squirt guns that could simulate falling rain. If they did, that would only move the probability of a drone attack from zero to infinitesimal. Whether you call the principle “parsimony” or “Occam’s razor,” logic dictates that a common ordinary explanation is preferable to an extraordinary unprecedented explanation. There is no need to even examine the feasibility of the CIA attack.

    Myth and legend may not be quite as common and ordinary as rain; however, I would still deem them to be as common and ordinary when compared to reliable accounts of supernatural events as rain is compared to predator drones armed with squirt guns. I agree with Craig that the resurrection is more probable with God than without God. Nevertheless, the well documented phenomenon of myth and legend is still a more likely explanation than one set of anonymous ancient writings being the only known source of reliable objective accounts of supernatural events.

    From Sunday School Teacher to Atheist

    I dropped in yesterday on a gentleman who had been one of the pillars of the parish in which I grew up.  He was a lector at both Sunday and daily mass and he served on various committees.  His son and I have been friends since kindergarten, but I got to know him better in high school when I was in his religious education class.  In those days, I didn't know what I believed, but I enjoyed the discussions and I came to respect him very much.

    After we chatted for awhile about his children and grandchildren, and his wife who had passed away last year after sixty-one years of marriage, I asked him whether he was still active in the church.  With just the slightest hesitation, he confessed that he could no longer bring himself to recite the creed at mass because he no longer believed that any of those things were so.  He did not say exactly how long he had felt that way but he said it was something he and his wife had come come to together.

    He said it had started with the sexual abuse scandals in the church.  He did not see how those priests could truly believe the things that the church taught and do the things they did without taking their own lives.  He told me that he had listened to Bart Ehrman's course from the Teaching Company,
    From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, and he had read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  After that, he could no longer believe the stories he had been told all his life.

    I cannot help but admire the intellectual integrity it took to reexamine the beliefs he had held for the better part of eighty years and to abandon them when he found them wanting.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    The Money Losing Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Page

    My favorite financial blog is Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. In Art Laffer Make Up Your Own Facts Here, he eviscerates the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed page and supply side economics shill Arthur Laffer:

    In his OpEd, Mr. Laffer confuses causation with correlation, ignores market history, makes spurious argument, and simply make up crap as he goes along.

    It is, to any thinking person, an embarrassment.

    For example, Laffer pontificates that "It shouldn't surprise anyone that the nine states without an income tax are growing far faster and attracting more people than are the nine states with the highest income tax rates. People and businesses change the location of income based on incentives."

    Ritholtz points out that "This is mostly true, but misleading."

    First, 7 states have no income tax; the other two tax — New Hampshire and Tennessee — only tax dividends and interest income.

    Many of the states without income taxes — think Texas, and Alaska — are blessed with natural resources. (Nevada’s blessing is Innumeracy). They don’t have income taxes because the lease licenses to the mining and oil industry throw off so much revenue, that these taxes are not needed. Confusing correlation for causation is a Freshman college error, and we should expect better from Laffer.

    Note: 5 of the 9 have a corporate business tax: Alaska has a state corporate income tax, Florida has a corporate income tax (5%); New Hampshire has a Business Profits Tax (8.5%); South Dakota has a financial institutions income tax; Washington has a Business and Occupation Tax. Since these are the fastest growing states according to Laffer, is the lesson to other states to add a corporate tax?

    Ritholtz also takes Laffer to task for giving tax cuts the entire credit for the economic expansion of the 1980's.
    Reagan had the good fortune to take office at the tail end of a 16 year secular bear market, just as Paul Volcker fed the economy its distasteful medicine. Inflation was broken, and interest rates began their 25 year slide towards zero.

    To ignore the reality of these factors, and credit tax cuts as the sole cause of the 1980s and 90s expansion is simply to discard reality because it does not fit your neat ideological universe. That is a surefire recipe for losing money as an investor . . .

    Ritholtz finishes off by taking a swipe at the Wall Street Journal:

    Indeed, I have railed in these pages against the ideological, fact-free OpEd in the WSJ — not because of the politics, but because they have been such consistent money losers. That would not matter so much if it were the NYT or the Podunk Press, but this is the Journal, for crying out loud, It is supposed to be the paper of record for investors.

    That the money losing OpEd page of the WSJ produces its most well read articles goes a long way in explaining one thing: Why 80% of money managers underperfom every year. Filling your head with Ideology, becoming a “magical thinker,” ignoring data, making up your own facts — these are a recipe for under-performing asset managers.

    If I were to create a list of questions to ask potential managers of my money, one of them would be: “Do you read the WSJ OpEds?”

    If the answer were yes, I would not walk but run in the opposite direction.
    For an example of Arthur Laffer's forecasting ability, watch his appearance on CNBC in August 2006 where he argues with Peter Schiff.  Schiff correctly predicted a severe recession within the next couple years because the U.S. economy didn't manufacture anything anymore, but relied instead on consumer spending that was ultimately fueled by foreign debt.  Laffer insisted that Schiff did not understand how the Chinese were actually paying us for maintaining the banking system rather than simply lending us money.  According to Laffer, Alan Greenspan's monetary policy was the product that the rest of the world was happy to pay for.

    Of course you will never here CNBC's cheerleaders pointing out how badly Laffer missed the boat.  Here's Larry Kudlow kissing Laffer's ass yesterday.