Monday, December 12, 2011

"The More I Learn About People, The More I Like Dogs"

Who said that? Was it George Carlin? Hunter S Thompson? WC Fields? Arthur Schopenhauer? Napoleon Bonaparte? Tecumseh? Voltaire? Thomas More? Julius Caesar? Aristotle? Confucius?

The answer is: yes. They all said that. As have countless other people, speaking and writing in many languages, all over the world, for thousands of years.

The date of the earliest known specimen of writing keeps being pushed further back, as older specimens are found. You think writing began "shortly before 3,100 BC, either in Egypt or Mesopotamia"? You're a little bit out of date. Right now it's not certain which artifact of writing is the oldest currently known, because, for one thing, the dating of these artifacts is not always very exact, and for another, there are some things upon which lines were carved before 3,500 BC, which could be the oldest-known writing, if we were sure that the lines are writing, but we're not yet sure about that. Part of the problem is defining what writing is. It developed from pictures, and mankind has been making pictures for tens of thousands of years, and occasionally a picture really does say a thousand words or so.

Anyhoo. One of the oldest known specimens which everyone agrees is writing is located on a cliff in Egypt, a little bit of graffiti scratched into the cliff. It may actually be the oldest piece of writing yet discovered. It's definitely older than 3,200 BC. Most often the oldest heiroglyphs we know have an official character, having to do with kings and religion, but this message is quite informal, as if a court scribe took a break from his official duties to write what he really thought. It's one short line of symbols, among which can clearly be seen a man and a dog. The dog is especially well drawn. He -- it is definitely a he -- looks happy and frisky, with his short tail and triangular ears standing straight up.

The graffiti says, "People stink and dogs are great." That's an attempt to give you the flavor and sense of the message. A much more literal translation would be, "People bring plague. Dogs bring the sun."

PS None of what I said in this post is true, unless I got something right by accident. One or more of the people I listed may actually have written the title phrase. But all of it should be true.

PPS I like dogs an awful lot, but I still like cats even more. And in rare cases, people are actually the best.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

BIG Questions? Really?

Brandon G Withrow, Christian theologist, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at Winebrenner Theological Seminary and Huffington Post blogger, claims to think that big questions are good. I've got a few for him, we'll see whether he has any answers which inspire more than eyeroll or an irritated sigh. I'll be very surprised if he does, but we'll see:

I have a few questions: do you ever seriously consider that there may be no God, and that religion may be an outmoded system of problem-solving, long since overtaken by things like science, and philosophy which is no longer combined with nor allied with theology? (Please don't avoid answering that question by simply turning the tables and asking whether I, as an atheist, ever seriously wonder whether there might be a God. That would be disappointing and par for the theological course, and by the way, yes, I do.) Do you ever wonder whether religion (/spirituality, po-TAY-to/po-TAH-to) hinders people more than helping them?

Whether there is a God or not: do you ever wonder whether Jesus might never have existed?

Whether Jesus existed or not: do you wonder whether the teachings ascribed to Him might be completely unrealistic? For example, Jesus is said to have said: when someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. Is this good advice? We don't tend to think that it's wrong or sinful for someone to react to being physically assaulted by calling the police and having the assaulter prosecuted, do we? And if they don't do that, or fight back, shouldn't they at least cover up, protect themselves, or run away? Hopefully these questions suggest many other equally pertinent ones regarding the lessons of Jesus which supposedly are followed by billions, but of course rarely if ever actually followed by anyone, and that's a very good thing, I say.

To sum up, do you ever really question the essence of your profession, and whether it makes any sense to do what you do?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

So Very, Very Tired

As Amy-Jill Levine and Douglas Knight point out in a recent article on Huffington Post, and I quote: Such debates over the existence of God are not only tedious, they are also pointless.

Amen. That has been my position for some time. Actually, ever since Nietzsche very helpfully pointed it out to me in Morgenröte, erstes Buch, 95. Among other reasons, because the "familiar claims," of which Levine and Knight list a few in their first paragraph --

"humanity could not control nature, did not understand conception or birth, and feared death, and so we invented a God that brought order to chaos, purpose to life and comfort in death. Next, we developed religion to placate the God we invented to assuage our fears of what we could not understand or control. Then, we wrote the Bible to sanction the religion that placated the God that we invented. Next came clergy, to interpret the Bible"

-- are indeed so familiar, and so eminently sensible and convincing and proven in such ever-greater detail, their truth so obvious, that anyone not already convinced by them has already proven him- or herself to be resistant to argument. One would just get all dirty and the pig would have all the fun, if one failed to respect oneself sufficiently in such a case. I do indeed so fail from time to time, but for the most part I'm really talking to the other atheists and, among other things, trying to persuade them not to get all muddy in a futile effort. Not that there's nothing to discuss with believers. Often they know their medieval and ancient history and prehistory a tad better than those who are going from calling the OT bronze-age to calling it neolithic or older, or denying that it has any originality at all, or pointing out triumphantly that a Harry Potter novel mentioning London doesn't make it nonfictional, or another of their many very tired memes.

Levine and Knight:

"Rather than repeat either the tired positivistic arguments for atheism or the equally tired apologetic pronouncements that study is dangerous to faith"

-- instead let's repeat this no less tired assertion that there is some sort of equivalency between atheism and the most simplistic apologetics. In short, between everyone who disagrees with us moderate types.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Andy Rooney's Gone, So I'm Stepping Into the Breach

Faux hawks are like the leisure suits of our times: things which, decades from now, will make it easier to identify the idiotic men in photos from now. Not that every single faux hawk has looked bad. David Beckham pulled it off a number of years ago. It probably should have stopped right then, though. Not every man who ever wore a leisure suit was an idiot, although every leisure suit not worn sarcastically looked bad. Some people who might know better just follow fashion while their minds are on other things. I've seen a picture of Stan Getz in a leisure suit. Don't identify Getz, or samba, with just "Girl From Ipanema." That song has been covered badly so many times and been heard so often as muzak that it's very difficult now even for a Getz fan to really hear Astrud Gilberto's record with Getz. (How many Grammy winners for Record of the Year are not a joke?) Listen to Joao Gilberto and Heloisa Buarque deHollanda singing "Waters of March" with Getz backing them up, or listen to Getz playing "The Dolphin." And that's still just samba. Getz did much, much more than just samba, he played just about every kind of jazz there was between the time he joined Jack Teagarden's band at age 16 and when the opiates finally caught up with him and shut down his liver when he was 64. He even did some fusion, although maybe he shouldn't have. I'm not talking about his solo on that Huey Lewis song. I like that solo. I mean some fusion records from the mid-70's. Maybe that was when he was wearing that leisure suit.

Anyway, my point is, if you're sporting a faux hawk, I'm just about dead certain that you look like a jackass. (I'm allowing for the possibility that there is a second David Beckham on the planet.) A mohawk would be just fine with me, no problem whatsoever, but not a faux hawk. And what's the deal with this greasy, unwashed, unshaven, uncombed and unlaundered look? I channel-surfed onto a movie recently, stayed a while because the female lead was quite stunning, very healthy and scrubbed and dressed in primary colors that popped. The young man sitting across the table from her was so gaunt and grey and stubbly and dirty that he almost disappeared from the screen next to her. It took some time to realize that he was not some unfortunate she had just dragged out of a dumpster before the garbage truck could compact him to death and was helping out of the goodness of her sweet heart, but that we viewers were actually expected to take him seriously as the male lead in this film. And to act as if his appearance were not repulsive, but that of a leading man playing a well-off college student, not someone just rescued shortly before starving to death in the desert and rife with lice. Apparently we were expected not to gag when he kissed that pretty girl onscreen, just as he was, just like that, without even showering and changing clothes and having a mint or five. Faux hawks aren't the worst.

Friday, November 11, 2011


So, how many people do you suppose are running around yelling, "It's eleven eleven eleven! It's eleven eleven eleven!" ?

PS: Perhaps it's many more than I had imagined: I heard about some nerds going "Oh it's so BINARY!!! The most BINARY date ever!!!" and about Egypt closing their biggest pyramid for fear of "Jewish or Masonic" rituals being performed there because of the date. (Nevermind that this is actually the Hebrew year 5772.)

And I didn't even look for stories about the date.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Syme and Late James: I Just Can't Hack It

I had considered writing a blog post entitled "Was There Something Wrong With Sir Ronald Syme'sMedulla Oblongata?" Then I asked myself how many people would get the joke. Then I asked myself how many people understand me at all. Then I told myself to stop feeling sorry for myself.

Also, to do real justice to that title, I would have had to re-read some of Syme's work. And Syme's work has irritated me about as much as anyone's in English with which I am familiar. Right up there with Henry James' The American Scene.With late James, and especially with the mentioned work, my difficulty is verbs and adjectives at such a distance from their subjects named more specifically than with pronouns that I despair of ever being able to attatch them properly; Syme irritates me with the over-use of periods. Which unnecessarily breaks up medium- to long-sized sentences. Into smaller ones. Which in turn leads to the above-mentioned conjecture. About the poor man's lower brain stem. A medical speculation not necessarily to be taken seriously. And not the only stylistic affection of Syme's which annoys me. But to find the others, I'd have to read more Syme. Which I really don't want to do. So suffice it for now to say that the turnip would use twelve periods after the last semicolon above. By the time I would use one. If I were not mocking him.

I like the earlier James just fine. And I understand that his later works -- things like The American Scene and, to me, almost as impenetrable, The Golden Bowl-- were often dictated. Which makes me wonder whether, if I had heard James speak them, I would've understood them much better. Or whether I would've I would've run about clutching my head in helpless, just as thoroughly uncomprehending anger and misery and screaming alarmingly. If not actually comprehending less.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Open Letter to Eliot Daley

Mr Daley, you've told us a thing or two about us, now I'm going to return the favor:

You say you want to understand us better, you say you're motivated by curiosity, and you may well believe what you say, but I don't believe it. I think if you wanted to understand atheism, you would understand it much better than you do. The same goes for several other HP authors who have written articles which they say are friendly attempts to reach out to atheists, but which the atheists tend to find more condescending and insulting than friendly. I think that what you really want, deep down, like any true Christian, is not to understand us but to convert us. The core mission of all Christians has been to go forth and teach the whole world. Teach them to be Christians. The smug intolerance has always been part and parcel of Christianity. I think those in our society who really want to understand religion and atheism become atheists, and have for a few centuries now.

Perhaps you find that incorrect, unfair and insulting. If so, we're about even.

Monday, October 17, 2011


The atheist community has grown much more visible and audible in the past few years. I don't know whether it would be accurate to say that it has actually grown considerably. Over and over one hears from people who had been atheist for a long time, but never spoke up about it, and felt alone. Then came Richard Dawkins.I know that it's customary to mention a couple of other famous authors along with Dawkins, but I don't feel like it. I think those other guys are a bit silly, especially the younger one with his warmed-over Utilitarianismand his spirituality, and I also think that the other guys are basically riding in Dawkins' wake, that Dawkins is still the only "new" atheist who is both an intellectual heavyweight, and popular. [PS, 29. November 2015: Unfortunately, I had not read any of Dawkins' atheistic writing before I wrote this, and I simply assumed, based on having read some of his work on biology, that his writing on religion would be just as good. In the meantime I've read some of his writing on religion, and there's nothing remotely heavyweight about any of it. Sorry.]

As with any group with mass visibility, there are some dopes among the suddenly-visible large mass of atheists. These include a few popular authors and many simple-minded people repeating memes such as that the Old Testament was written by illiterate Bronze Age shepherds [PS, 13. December 2016: When I first posted this, in 2010, I didn't realize that it was Dawkins himself who had started the "Bronze Age Goat herders" meme. (I don't know whether Dawkins has ever actually asserted that the Bible was written by illiterates.)], (This meme is morphing from Broze Age to Neolithic and even Paeleolithic.) and, for example, the certainty that Jesus never existed. That last meme even has a couple of very popular websites all to itself.

People on all sides -- not all of them, just the dumb ones, but Lord there are a lot of dumb ones on all sides -- seem to come to conclusions about ancient history based on metaphysical preconceptions. They believe in God, they were raised Christian, and so they believe that Jesus existed. Or they don't believe in God, they were raised atheist, or, very often, they had unhappy Christian childhoods, and so they believe Jesus never existed. Each side repeats its talking points ad nauseum and does not investigate the matter, and also does not examine the soundness of its talking points. I often quarrel with the other atheists just because I feel a sort of duty to try to clean up our side of the street. What's the point of rejecting all that traditional religious dogma only to embrace a whole cartload of equally-unsound, equally-unexamined atheist myth? "If Jesus existed, why didn't any ancient authors write about him?" Well, Sparky, some ancient authors did write about him. The writings of some of them are referred to as the New Testament, those of some others are called New Testament apochrypha. "Okay, but they were all believers. Why don't we have any eyewitness accounts of him from non-Christian authors?" Do you think there were several daily newspapers in Jerusalem back then, and that every day's news is preserved on microfilm? so that we can go through all the records of the crucifixions and palm-frond-covered donkey parades? There was next to no non-Christian historical record of Pontius Pilate, the governor of the whole province, until an inscription was unearthed a few decades ago which makes it seem like that, yeah, Pilate did exist. That's the governor of the whole province. If you think that it's somehow suspicious that there's no surviving official record of the arrest, trial or execution of a convicted traitor who had all of twelve, count 'em twelve followers, you don't know much about the state of our knowledge of things in Judea 2,000 years ago.

"Well, the existence or non-existence of Jesus can never be proven anyway, so why bother to even look into such ancient matters?" Let me take the second part first. Why? Because milk has no bones. That's why. And as to the first part, to assert that it could never be proven that a Jesus of Nazareth was a wandering preacher who was executed for treason on Pilate's orders reveals ignorance of how much our knowledge of the ancient world around the Mediterranean, and east of there, is increasing. I mentioned that inscription they found a few decades ago mentioning Pilate. One example of a huge amount of finds since the late 19th century which continue to expand our knowledge. There are the Dead Sea Scrolls.There is the Nag Hammadi library.There are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,about 100 volumes of them published so far and still going. [CORRECTION, 18. July 2015: 80 volumes and counting, as of 2014, containing 5253 papyri] Not to mention Menander,the ancient Greek author of comic plays, of whose work before the 20th century we possessed only fragments, brief quotations in the work of other authors, and now, BOOM! chaka-laka-laka we've got several nearly-complete plays. Just a few of the highlights from the list of manymany ancient things archaeologists keep digging up and deciphering between Morocco and Afghanistan. It's not impossible that proof of Jesus' existence could be found. Yes, many phony non-proofs have been foisted, the most recent being the notorious "James ossuary" publicized by that awful man who's not really an archaeologist but makes a jackass of himself on TV. But the fakes are no indication that real proof could never be found.

What would be real proof? Well, for example, a letter by Pilate to a friend could do the trick. "I had a strange day today. The Sanhedrin brought me a man, Jesus, from Nazareth, a village to the north of here in Herod's territory, who seemed as harmless as a newborn puppy, but they insisted that he was very dangerous. I spoke to him personally because I gathered that, although from a family of commoners, he was fluent in several languages, an unusual combination in these parts. I greeted him in my rusty Aramaic, he responded in very polished Greek and Latin and offered to converse with me in whatever language I wished. And so we conversed in Greek. As gentle as a lamb, and he spoke no overt treason, just religious tales of symbolic dreams and a world other than the Earth. I was charmed by him and gave him several opportunities to contest the charges against him, of blasphemy against his own people and treason against ours, and yet he refused to say the few words which would have released him from suspicion. I truly think he wanted to be executed, the poor strange fool. To be some sort of sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind. I gave him one more chance: one of the local people's holy days is approaching. Four criminals, including this Jesus, were awaiting execution. I called for the city's people to gather before the prison, had the four condemned men led before them and said that in honor of the upcoming holy day, one of these men, whomever they chose, would be pardoned and freed. The rabble chose a murderer and screamed for the blood of this Jesus. Strange. And so Jesus was nailed to a cross. I gather he's dead already, after just a few hours. Usually men last a day or longer on the cross. A strange and melancholy day."

I have no doubt that some such letters have already been faked. That doesn't mean that a real one will never be found. And of course it wouldn't have to include all the details of my imaginary letter. One fraction of all of that would suffice to turn ancient history all topsy-turvy, if found in a letter proven to be genuine.

And to me such a thing would be great, not because I tie metaphysical preconceptions to ideas of history, but because I don't. And also because the Jesus-never-existed crowd really annoys me. Such a find would please me greatly out of sheer spite for them. My esprit de corps with other atheists does not outweigh my dislike of stupidity. On the contrary, my atheism is but a subset of my disdain for stupidity. My atheism isn't so fragile that such a thing as a genuine letter from Pilate confirming Jesus' existence would ruffle it in the least.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

No History Here, Just Wild Speculation. Plus My Own Thoughts

Over and over again in the writings of modern and contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars, one reads the assertions that neither Jesus nor his disciples could read or write any Greek, that maybe some of them could read some Hebrew, but that most likely the only language they were really fluent in was Aramaic.

You get this even from the most supposedly enlightened people in these specialties. The ones who freely admit that the chronology of the Gospels is very suspect and that there was no census bringing Joseph and his pregnant bride Mary to Bethlehem, and no Slaughter of the Innocents, that the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents is clearly borrowed from the equally-fictitious story from the infancy of Moses, who himself may never existed. These scholars do not believe in any miracles, neither walking on water nor Resurrection nor healing by laying on of hands, and they will tell you that Jesus probably never said most of the things the New Testament says he said, and even that some of the 12 Apostles may be fictitious. But it's certain, they say, that Jesus existed, and also certain that he couldn't read or speak Greek.

Finally, finally, these days you can be a Christian theologian or a New Testament scholar and say publicly that you're actually not certain that Jesus existed and still keep your job. And so some people in those fields are saying it, more than the few who said it before and were fired, and then, as if that weren't bad enough, ridiculed in unison by their former colleagues. The ridicule is still par for the course. But listen closely to the average theologian or Biblical scholar scornfully dismissing a black sheep who says it's not certain that Jesus existed, and see if the reaction extends beyond dismissal to any actual explanation of why doubt is ridiculous on this point. All I ever see is the peremptory dismissal.

Even from the ones who cast doubt on almost everything the Gospels say, one encounters this certainty that Jesus' existence is well-established historical fact. Uh, excuse me, established how exactly? What sources do we have besides those accounts you just finished trashing when it comes to their historical reliability? That's right -- none. But they -- the current academic mainstream -- don't stop at being certain he existed, they're currently also certain that he was preaching political revolution and socialism, and that he like his father was more of a day laborer than an actual skilled carpenter, and that the whole family was veryvery poor, and that Jesus neither wrote nor spoke Greek, and maybe not even Hebrew either.

Where did they get all this? Mostly from our increasing knowledge of what a typical 1st-century Jewish peasant living in a small town near Jerusalem was like. They've decided to agree that Jesus was a typical peasant. There's no logical reason to make these positive assumptions. There are only contemporary theological reasons. In short: they pulled all of that right out of their butts.

I say: we don't know. We don't know whether Jesus existed, and if he did, we don't know how much of the information in the Gospels is true, much less things not mentioned in the Gospels such as whether or not he could read and speak Greek.

If Jesus existed, then, it seems to me, contemporary theology is wrong. If he existed, then most likely the last thing he was was typical.

There is the story of Jesus' family coming to Jerusalem when he was 12, and Jesus going to the Temple and amazing the elders with his learning. There is no mention in the Gospels of what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30. There are mentions of a wealthy friend of his, Joseph of Arimathea. Maybe Jesus could read Hebrew quite well by age 12, and could talk about the Bible like a scholar. That's the sort of thing which would have amazed elders at the Temple. Maybe a rich man, such as Joseph of Aremathea, took an interest in this bright young lad and offered to educate him. That's the sort of thing which has happened to a few lucky bright poor children since long before Jesus' time. Maybe Jesus spent 18 years at Joseph's house, happily burrowing through mountains of codices and scrolls, learning Greeka and Latin as well as Hebrew.

I've often wondered about that conversation between Jesus and Pilate. Did they communicate through an interpreter? Or did Pilate know some Hebrew or Aramaic? Or did Jesus know some Greek or Hebrew?

Only lately I've begun to wonder whether people such as Pilate or Herod would have condescended to speak to a typical peasant or day-laborer at all. It's embarrassing that it took me so long to wonder about that. But if Jesus was not just a typical peon, but a highly-educated young man who for the last few years had returned to the milieu of his early childhood, an articulate fellow who spoke good Greek, and possibly even good Latin, in addition to his native Aramaic -- well, that sort of person would be much more likely to pique the interest of the governor of the entire province, and cause him to take a few minutes out of his busy day of plotting against other politicians and playing in his harem, wouldn't he?

What's that? You say that I'm speculating very freely here, extrapolating from very, very little concrete evidence? Why thank you, that would put me on a par with the leading Jesus scholars of our day. Except that I freely acknowledge that the picture I've just spun is only one of many possible versions of the beginning of Christianity, including the distinct possibility that Jesus never existed at all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Me & Rupert, Living High on the Hog in Manhattan

Occupy Wall Street Protests Outside Rupert Murdoch House

That's one thing Rupert and I have in common: homes in roughly the same neighborhood. I spent the night in a house in the 50's in Manhattan once -- that is, a whole stand-alone building which housed a single family, somewhere around the middle of the east 50's. I was homeless and it was the blizzard of '95-96 and this guy said I could spend the night. The house was pretty much gutted. He said it had belonged to his family and was now being sold to the Republic of Kazakhstan. I think he said it was going to be the Kazakhstani consulate. If it was then their consulate has moved at least a couple of times since then. The neighborhood had a distinctly opulent feel, I think many if not actually most of the buildings were still single-family townhouses as they had been when they were built. He showed me to a room that still had a bed in it, went off and found some blankets and a space heater for me, then went off again to sleep elsewhere in the house. In the morning he fixed us some breakfast; then, knowing I was a bookish fellow, he indicated a box of books on the floor destined to be given to charity and told me I could help myself to anything in there I found interesting. I took a slender paperback volume with a yellow cover, slightly taller and wider than a mass-market paperback, with its pages sewn in instead of glued: The United States in 1800 by Henry Adams, published by Great Seal Books. Sixth printing, 1961, $1.25. It's the first few chapters of Adams' History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It's an interesting book, I still have it. If the entire History is as good as these first chapters then it's very impressive indeed. And I say that as one of no doubt very many who found the style of The Education of Henry Adams quite tedious and set it aside after a few pages, so if you're one of the many you might not want to give up on Adams solely on the basis of the Education.

He was a nice guy, that townhouse owner, that night and morning were more pleasant and less difficult than many for me that winter. I'm sorry that I don't remember his name.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Praise of Bad Manners

Now stay with me here, this is a bit nuanced: impoliteness can be wielded to good effect in good causes by people who also know how to be very polite. Not entirely unlike the way that dissonance and noise can add extra flavor to music by musicians who can tune their instruments well and know all the chords and changes and modes. A great part of Mark Twain's

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Last Night's Dream

This dream was in two parts: first I was in Western Canada. I didn't know my location more specifically than that. A kind young local Western Canadian man had offered to lead me to Eastern Canada, which was closer to my home here in the Eastern US. We were traveling on foot, but it didn't seem to occur to me that it would take a long time to walk from Western Canada to Eastern Canada.

At first we were walking along a scenic sandy trail along a mountain ridge lined with tall pines. Then we walked through a huge railway depot with many tracks. I looked up at a huge concrete rail overpass and it began to dawn on me, very faintly, that there were more effecient ways to get to Eatern Canada than walking. Rail travel, for example.

Then we were on a narrow twisting street lined with small houses. Then we were inside one of those houses, but this house was very large, with many, many small to medium-sized rooms, arranged in a pattern so labyrinthene that I couldn't find my way out of the house, which was all I wanted to do anymore. I no longer completely trusted my young guide. I wasn't even sure whether he had broken into this house, which would mean we were trespassing and that he was just getting me into trouble and only pretending to help me. Then the owner of the house appeared, an older, somewhat heavy gentleman, and although he too was acting friendly, I didn't know whether he was being sincere either. I also had no idea whether he and my young guide knew each other and were involved in one and the same charade.

Then the dream morphed into the second part, which was all about white powder in clear zip-lock plastic bags, a couple of cups of powder in each bag, making them about a third full. One of these bags each had been given to several different people, and they had been told only to handle the situation. The only difference I could see between the bags was that the zip-lock seal was a different color on each one. The people who had been given responsibility for the bags each seemed to assume that the powder might be dangerous. They all put on latex gloves. Each bag was in a different room. It didn't seem to be the older gentleman's house anymore: these rooms were furnished sparsely and looked like they were in a commercial building. Everybody was scared about the powder in the bags. Nobody really seemed to know exactly how to find out what the the powder was. Then we were told that the powder was harmless, and I woke up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Seriously, What's the Deal With Spinoza?

There appears to be no edition of his works in print except for a very small (in number of copies) and expensive one published in Holland which you can't get except directly from the publisher. I'm not talking about translations. By "edition" I mean a publication of the original untranslated works. So in Spinoza's case that means a few odds and ends written in Dutch and the rest in Latin. Even in this age when accelerating publishing technology is allowing reprints of pre-copyright books to crop up everywhere like dandelions, you can't even find a reprint of untranslated Spinoza on Amazon except for a volume of posthumous odds and ends of little interest to many folks other than hardcore Spinoza specialists, which the big dumb machines of the reprinting publishers obviously found only by chance. Apparently no editions of his works ever were widely distributed. Yes, translations of Spinoza's works are everywhere. But what on Earth are the translators working from? Are they organized into large groups, each one passing around a single copy of the Ethica or the Tractatus? (Yes, that image is a paraphrased theft from Gaddis. Always steal from the best.)

I myself finally found a copy of each of those works, the Ethica and the Tractatus, on Google Books, which the local university library was able to make into conventional books for me using their Espresso Book Machine. But even those editions on Google Books were poorly printed, so my copies are full of electronically-reproduced smudges and illegibilities.

I went to the philosophy section of that University library, and found, as one would expect, several, nay dozens of square yards of shelf space each of critical editions of Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Nietzsche. That's the shelf space occupied by the editions, before we get to the voluminous, and I'm sure mostly tedious, I wouldn't know and I won't, life's too short and there's too much actual philosophy, commentary. Schopenhauer is somewhat fucked over in comparison, as he and the rest of us probably would expect -- but would we really expect this to be the extent of the library's holdings of editions, of untranslated works of Spinoza, a philosopher who holds a central place in the work of Leibnitz, Kant and Nietzsche and is even grudgingly granted a central place by the nastily antisemetic Schopenhauer?

Yes, we would, if we had spent as much time as I have looking for such editions in all corners of the Earth. Otherwise we would be shocked. Perhaps even slightly outraged. Seriously. That's it. Eight small-to-medium-sized volumes, the four green ones to the left in the photo, the gray and black one in the middle and the three black ones to the right. All eight volumes old, the newest ones almost a century old, all printed on cheap acidic paper which has long since started to crumble. Because I'd been looking so long everywhere, that was about exactly what I'd expected to find. That's par for the course.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Credit Where Credit is Due?

Reading Nietzsche is... Well. Is there a proper English translation of umwerfend? I have some differences with him: as I've said several times on theis blog and repeatedly elsewhere, I think that everything he says in his philosophical works about women is wrong. Plain wrong. (And most of what he says about war. Keep in mind when reading a passage about war by Nietzsche that he was never in one. Closest he ever came was working in a military hospital during the Franco-Prussian War.) He almost always refers to them as one group. He addresses individual male human beings from various places and times, individual ancient Greeks, individual Frenchman and Jews and Englishmen of his own times and a century or two earlier, individual Germans, and his comments about various countries and cultures are clearly based upon his assessment of these individuals.

With the wimmins, it's the other way around: he speaks of the entire gender at once, and on the rare, very rare occasions when he takes an individual woman to task, usually one of the famous Georges contemporary with him, Eliot or Sand, his condemnation is clearly based on his strange notions about the entire gender, such as, they've got no real business being creative artists and are treacherous and primitive and sooooo mean and will just mess everything up.

I'm referring only to Nietzsche's philosophical works. In his letters he's often completely, startlingly different, because there he's often talking about and even to individual human beings who happen to be wimmins, and talks about and to them in a reasonable way for which the philosophical works have left the reader entirely unprepared.

And so the Foreword to Nietzsche's Jenseits Von Gut Und Boesestarts off with remarks about women -- about truth actually, but saying "Imagine that truth were a woman" -- which just make me groan and wince. Put it this way, between Nietzsche and me, at least one of us is disastrously wrong about women. At least. But the Foreword winds up talking about what the book, in my opinion, is actually more about: the Western philosophical tradition, in its entirety, from the ancient Greeks down to 1885 when Nietzsche was finishing this book:

"Aber der Kampf gegen Plato, oder, um es verständlicher und für's 'Volk' zu sagen, der Kampf gegen den christlich-kirchlichen Druck von Jahrtausenden —- denn Christenthum ist Platonismus für's 'Volk' -— hat in Europa eine prachtvolle Spannung des Geistes geschaffen, wie sie auf Erden noch nicht da war: mit einem so gespannten Bogen kann man nunmehr nach den fernsten Zielen schiessen."

("But the fight against Plato, or, to say it more plainly and for the 'people,' the fight against thousands of years of pressure from Christianity and the Church -- because Christianity is Platonic philosophy for the 'people' -- has produced in Europe a magnificent tautness of the mind, the likes of which never before existed on Earth. With a bow drawn so tightly, one can now shoot at the farthest targets.")

There are things Nietzsche wrote which I just completely reject, which I don't bother even considering any more, such as the accusation that the womenfolk only screw up art when they participate in it, and then there are passages like the one I just cited, which astound me and make me stop and clutch my munkee head and ask myself, Now what if that's true? First, what if it's really true that, from a philosophical perspective, Christianity is basically a dumbed-down, Readers' Digest version of Plato? And further, what if it's true that certain achievements made in traditionally-Christian parts of the Earth -- such as space exploration, talk about "shooting at the farthest targets" -- were not accomplished in spite of the stifling effects of Christianity, but actually because of them? Because people had to fight so hard for so long against Christianity just to maintain any sort of tolerable life, and the fight made some people's minds so strong, as if their spirits had had to fight a giant from the WWF all day every day from AD 380 until now, that this and that industrial and scientific revolution was just an incidental by-product of all that intensive, non-stop training, as if Christianity had inadvertently, unintentionally created among its opponents Navy Seals or Army Rangers of the mind?

They say that centuries' worth of strict censorship in Russia helped to create the concentrated prose of Turgenevand Dostoyevsky.An Internet forum which allows no more than 250 words per post does train one in pithiness of style. Could Nietzsche be right here? Is gratitude due here, in one of the strangest, least-expected places?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

2 Mutch Stoopid Maik Munkee Brane Hert

I'm sure that the university authorities who prevented David Hume's appointment to the chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, and the churchmen and scholars who declined to look through Galileo's telescope because Scripture and Church doctrine already told them all they needed to know about the heavenly bodies and their motion relative to the Earth, had long and impressive lists of titles and academic awards.

I was about to say that to someone in answer to his listing some of the academic titles and awards of a professor and author of a book opposing "conflict theory," the crazy notion that at times some opposition between science and religion, specifically Christianty, has hindered the advance of the former. But I decided not to feed that troll, so I'm here instead.

I had never before heard of conflict theory. I suspect that the term may be used mostly by its opponents. Those of us who believe that water is wet don't generally have a name for that belief. I have not heard of a "wetness theory." It necessarily follows that I have not heard of any school of thought defending the "wetness theory," and that if two or three people opposed the notion that water is wet and attributed it to recent cultural bias, they could make a case for themselves that in their field their conclusions were unopposed, simply because they would be in sole possession of the field.

Anyway, the award-laden professor admired by this troll not only opposes "conflict theory," but -- according to the troll, anyway. I haven't read the professor's book -- asserts that no historian subscribes to it. No historian believes that there is an endemic conflict between Christianity and science. To give the professor and author the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in his book he examines the work of a definite group of historians, presumably most or all of them decent conservative Catholics like himself, and determined that all the historians within that group oppose the "Conflict theory." I don't want to make the mistake of assuming that an author is as ill-informed as an enthusiastic and perhaps unwary reader asserts him to be.

"Videns autem diabolus templa daemonum deseri et in nomen liberantis Mediatoris currere genus humanum, haereticos mouit, qui sub uocabulo Christiano doctrinae resisterent Christianae, quasi possent indifferenter sine ulla correptione haberi in ciuitate Dei, sicut ciuitas confusionis indifferenter habuit philosophos inter se diuersa et aduersa sentientes."

("And now the devil, seeing the demonic temples deserted and humanity rushing to the name of the liberating Savior, has caused the heretics who call themselves Christians to resist the Christian doctrine, as if they were to be tolerated indifferently and without correction in the city of God, as the the philosophers who were of diverse and adverse opinions had been tolerated in the city of confusion.")

That's Augustine of Hippo, De civitate dei, XVIII, 51, describing the change in society as the Christians took over. The city of confusion, the Roman Empire before the Christian clampdown, had tolerated diversity among the philosophers. That had been fine for Babylon, but it was over with now. The deserted "demonic temples" weren't some abstraction, they were the old pagan temples, and they were deserted because they were being torn down. And the Christian authorities were going to see to it that the old diversity of religion didn't live on in a diversity of opinion. Christianity's totalitarian attack upon learning and freedom of thought has hardly ever been more clearly and chillingly expressed than here by this supposed "doctor of the Church," this supposed "learned man."

But of course it's perfectly obvious how stifling it is to insist that every thought conform to Christianity, that every theory be forced through that narrow funnel. We're as familiar with it as we are with the wetness of water. We're as familiar with it as we are with the fools and raving lunatics loaded down with academic awards and piety who thwart science and common sense at every turn. We don't have to strain to imagine what Augustine was like, his type is very depressingly familiar -- among others, there are the many academic fools and lunatics who praise him and share his hatred of unruly, unchristian freedom of the mind. What's still largely strange and unimaginable to us is the degree of freedom of intellect and opinion, the degree of tolerance, which Augustine and his cronies crushed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Religion May Be Declining. But Stupidity May Not Be

An atheist said yesterday, about the Bible: "Nothing on those pages of that book are [sic!] based on fact or reality. Not one thing." He said it in a well-visited public place on the Inter-Tubes, but only one person challenged what he was saying: me. And I don't think it's that no-one else had anything to say about it, but rather that such things are said so often that they have become a familiar part of the background noise, like the ravings of fundamentalist Christians. There's too much of it to deal with it all, and so we shut it out. If none of us had heard a remark like "Nothing on those pages of that book are based on fact or reality. Not one thing." for months, then, perhaps, several of us might've made a concerted attempted to acquaint this person with Ancient History 101. But we hear it day-in and day-out. This time only I responded, while presumably several other people also read the comment, but just groaned and continued looking for someone sensible to discuss things with. Which I find perfectly understandable. That's my usual response when I come across a fundie spouting old-time religion: make a wide berth. Do nothing to catch their attention. Move on.

This atheist had said "Nothing on those pages of that book are based on fact or reality. Not one thing." in response to a fundie who'd said that EVERYTHING in the Bible was true. Then I chimed in saying that both statements were about equally absurd. The atheist then said:

"Really? Do tell me all of the facts that come out of the bible. I know, people really do live to be 900, and all women are descended from adam's rib, and.... well, I'll let you have your turn."

I responded by naming four people named in the Bible who actually existed: David, Solomon, Nebuchadnezzarand Paul.

The turnip responded: "Really now? Cuz you were there and you know. Laughable." And he told me to keep my nonsense in my own home and my church and out of his life and his home. No discussion, no consideration of whether there ever really was a Nebuchadnezzar, just dismissal.

This makes my head spin. Apparently this guy can see no middle ground between believing everything in the Bible and believing none of it. Apparently there is no room in his mind for the concept of an atheist who does not assume, as he does, that there is no factual content in the Bible, zero.

And also, obviously, he knows squat about ancient history.

Both he and I reject religion. Presumably for similar reasons: because we see that belief in God requires a great suspension of logic, and because elementary levels of logic contradict it. But he doesn't seem to get that by flatly asserting that there is nothing factual in the Bible he is repeating the same kind of logical lapse and refusal to acquire even elementary knowledge which make religion so objectionable. The fundamentalist Christian: God said it, I believe it, that settles it. The atheist moron: It's all crap, I'm done. No doubt in either mind, no curiosity for greater detail about the subject. Moron A: It's all true. Moron B: It's all false.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

So you figured out that there's no God. Whoop-dee-freakin-doo, Sparky. You really don't need to be so proud of that achievement. It doesn't mean you're a genius. It's pretty easy to figure that out, and it gets easier every day, because progress is actually being made when it comes to human knowledge. Now that you've figured it out, you still need to keep learning. There is still an awful lot you don't know. There's no shame in that: there's an awful lot the greatest geniuses in the world don't know. But In your case, I would recommend Ancient History 101 at your local Learning Annex, or in your elementary or junior high or high school or university if you're still a student. I would urgently recommend it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Well, It's Interesting to Me, Anyway

It's interesting that on the main HP Religion page, where an article by Karl Giberson, PhD is currently the headliner, there's a picture of a Dutch Bible opened to the title-page.

I've got a Dutch Bible. And a French one, and a Spanish one, and a Russian one, and a German one. (No, it's not the Luther translation, thanks for asking. It's translation by a dude named Menge.[No, not Mengele. Menge.]) Why do I have all those? Because I saw them in thrift stores or bargain bins. I don't think I spent more than a dollar for any one of those. Two bucks tops. Then there are some Bibles in English I got for free from hotel rooms in the US and Canada, mostly Gideon Bibles, plus one Catholic Bible. (Is it wrong to take the Bibles from hotel rooms? Is it considered stealing? Why won't anyone tell me! Just give me your opinion if you're not sure!)

Then there are some Bibles I spent a little bit more for: vol 3 of the Expositor's Greek Testament, edited by W Robertson Nicoll, containing the Greek texts of 2. Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, plus long introductions and copious notes in English. Apparently Nicoll is the general editor of this whole multi-volume New Testament, with various others contributing intros and notes to individual books. I got this vol 3 second hand, but not in a bargain bin.

I also have a Hebrew OT,

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ancient Literary -- No, I Won't Call Them Forgeries. Plenty of Others Will -- Misattributions

Dr Bart Ehrman

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Atheist Fundamentalism -- For Real This Time

In a previous post on the blog, I proudly and sarcastically claimed the title of a fundamentalist atheist. Sarcastically, because I didn't really think there was such a thing, that it was just another in the list of straw men and flat falsehoods theologians routinely employ when attacking such atheists.

I still think that that list is long, but I might have to take fundamentalist atheism off of it. There does seem to be a well-defined group of dumb atheists, dumb as fundamentalist Christians, with their own well-defined set of myths which they do not question any more than the Christian fundies question their dogma. Both groups gather together for the purpose of telling one another they are right, and to proudly cite people who seem to agree with their myths, and to refer to such people as authorities because of that perceived agreement, and for no other good reason. The biggest superchurch of the atheist fundies is the website, where they gather to tell each other that Jesus never existed, that Christianity was invented by the powerful as a means to manipulate the masses, that not one aspect of the Jesus myth is original, everything having been borrowed from earlier myths, that in the early first century AD Bethlehem was uninhabited and Nazareth did not yet exist, and so forth. What a huge circle-jerk.

If you opine in his presence that you are not certain whether Jesus existed or not, such an atheist fundie may compare you to people who believe that Bigfoot and Spiderman are real and that pyramids and crop circles were made by aliens, and insist that there is no evidence for Jesus' existence.

Let's start with this last one first. I'm so tired of hearing it repeated over and over that there is no evidence for Jesus' existence. The New Testamentis evidence. If it doesn't convince you of anything, fine, then call it unconvincing evidence. Stop saying nobody wrote about Jesus: the New Testament authors did. Call them deluded or charlatans if you wish, or deluded charlatans, but they were somebody, not nobody. Don't tell me that if Jesus had existed, surely there would be much more written evidence -- you're just telling me that you don't know what you're talking about. Lower-class people like the sons of carpenters weren't written about back then. The Romans did not keep written records of every person they crucified, not even if one of them had all of twelve followers. Twelve followers. Pontius Pilate, who ruled the entire province of Judea at the time, is known mostly from the New Testament. He can't be said to have been better-attested than Jesus until the mid-20th century, when a block of limestone was found in Israel into which Pilate's name had been engraved in the 1st century by all appearances.

And we know, all of us sensible people, that Stan Lee created Spiderman, that pranksters made those crop circles and that picture of Bigfoot, and that Egyptians and Mayans and Incas and other Earthlings made those pyramids. We don't know for sure who might've made up Jesus. It was the powerful! say these turnips. They invented Christianity to keep the masses down!

Well, it seems awfully strange that the powers that were would invent a story of a poor boy, born in a barn and killed 33 years later by crucifixion, a punishment reserved for poor people and slaves, for nobodies, as King of the Universe. That part of the Jesus story was a definite subversion of the prevailing power structure.

It was also original, so much for the meme about everything in the Jesus story having been borrowed from earlier myths. Buddha was a prince, Mithras was either a monarch or a deity, Dionysus was a god, whoops, the Christians didn't steal every part of the story, did they?

A poor person, a nobody from the despised classes which faced crucifixion if they were killed, unlike the stabbings and poisonings reserved for the big muckety-mucks, becoming King of Kings -- that part of the story was revolutionary. And Christianity at first spread mostly among the lower classes and slaves. Emperors tried repeatedly to wipe it out. Diocletian made the most strenuous of these efforts to destroy Christianity, and his successor Constantine then allied himself with it, by all appearances, out of necessity rather than choice. Christianity was invented by the powerful so that after two and a half centuries of pretending to oppose it, then could then cleverly make an alliance to keep the little people down?

That's tinfoil-hat territory, folks.

So is the stuff about Nazareth not existing until centuries into the Christian era and no-one at all living in Bethlehem in the 1st century. Augustus never made that census which would've required Joseph and the pregant Mary to travel to Bethlehem, but if he had, Bethlehem would've been there waiting for them, with people in it and at least one manger and everything. Trust me. Or don't, become expert in the ancient history of the area and make up your own mind who's talkin' smack, me or jesusneverexisted.

No, I don't believe in God, I don't think Jesus walked on water, healed the lame and insane, fed a huge crowd with a small basketful of bread and fish, raised Lazarus from the dead or rose from the dead himself. There are many other parts of the stories in the New Testament besides these that I think are clearly fiction. But I'm not going to dismiss the possibility of any factual core to the story because of obvious mythical elements, any more than I'm about to assume that George Washington never existed just because Parson Weemslied to us all about that cherry tree and the dollar young George was supposed to have thrown across the Potomac.

I don't know whether there was a real person, maybe named Jesus, maybe not, who inspired the New Testament stories, or whether someone else -- my prime suspect would be Saul/Paul of Tarsus -- made the whole thing up.

I don't know. Please don't lump me together with people who are sure on that question, one way or the other. I think that both Christians and others who insist, Of course Jesus existed, and atheists (and a few others) who insist, Of course he didn't! are trying to end investigation into the question. And pardon me, but that's just no fun. I see nothing remotely like convincing, debate-ending evidence either way here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Climate and Psychology

It's very green where I live: there's a lot of rain in the summer, and the leaves on the trees and shrubs grow in very thick and deep green. And there are an awful lot of trees and shrubs. and many people let their lawns grow kind of long before they mow them. Some people around here don't mow their grass at all, not because they're distracted or disturbed, but in order intentionally to add to the already-abundant plant life, pumping out all that oxygen for us.

Politically it's very green around here too: many of the cars are Priuses or other hybrids. Many people don't drive at all or walk or run or bicycle a significant part of the time. The city buses run on bio-diesel. The city collects recyclables along with the trash every week. Until recently they provided different-colored bins for different kinds of recyclables: paper and cardboard, plastic, glass, etc. Then they replaced all of those with one recyclable bin. I was confused, I called the city and asked but what about the sorting? Should we put different categories of stuff in separate bags inside the bins or what? They said: no, just throw it all in there, throw it all in together in your new recyclables bin. Our new recyclables collection trucks sort it all automatically.

Boy hoydy.

When I moved here and saw all the Priuses -- they're the top-selling hybrid vehicle here as elsewhere, and the only ones I can readily identify as hybrid -- my only thought was that it was great. That if more place were like this we humans would have a better chance of not killing ourselves.

I recently saw the movie The Other Guys,and although I liked it, it clued me in to what some other people think of Priuses, and it was harsh. Will Ferrell plays an NYPD detective who happens to drive a Prius. Mark Wahlberg's character, Ferrell's character's partner, in the passanger seat of the Prius, remarks, "Wow, I actually feel like I'm riding in a vagina." Other detectives ask whether the car came with a dental dam, and so forth.

Wow. Excuse us for riling up your subconscious sexual insecurities by trying to save your lives, guys. Excuse us for trying to save you and the other hairless apes from yourselves.

All that lush plant life around here, pumping out all that oxygen -- which came first, the abundant plant life or the green focus in local politics? Does the extra oxygen help our brains function better? Like the nasty little Republican kid in Everyone Says I Love Youwho, it turned out, was only Republican because a blood vessel in his brain was obstructed, and once normal blood flow to his brain was surgically restored, he became a healthy liberal Democrat like the rest of his family?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Call it my "Grail," it's Much Cooler than That

When it comes to recovering lost texts of Classical Greek and Latin, there are those who are looking everywhere, scouring specialized journals and general news outlets for finds and for clues to possible finds, who are very optimistic and excited about the chances for great recoveries, convinced that the era of great discoveries begun during the "Renaissance" in no way has to be regarded as closed. -- and then there are those who snicker and point at the first group. I'm way over on the optimistic fringe of the first group. I don't mind the snickering. I still get along just fine with the second group, and everyone in the second group agrees that the first group has included experts of the first degree. Still, just know that when I go on about such things, I do not have a broad consensus of experts behind me.

But I personally think it would be absurd to assume that there will be no more major discoveries of Livy.He was THE historian of ancient Rome, the one whom Tacitus,