Wednesday, February 29, 2012

De-Meming

I'm an atheist. I'm not sure whether Jesus existed. And I'm not even one of those atheists who believes that there is a lot of merit in Jesus' teachings, whoever actually came up with them, if you leave out the supernatural stuff, as was Thomas Jefferson, as you can see in the Jefferson Bible. I think that when you leave out the supernatural stuff you're left with a lot of thoroughly unrealistic stuff. I can't claim to have achieved this insight by myself. Friedrich Nietzsche pointed it out to me in his book Der Antichrist. (That title sure looks like The Antichrist, doesn't it? And that's how it's usually translated in English translations of the book. But it's actually not quite that simple. This is a very good example of how sometimes exact translation is impossible. The thing is, the German word for Christ is Christus. And Christ is the German word for Christian. And so in addition to the good fun of referring to the scary beast with the mark of 666, apart from any silly belief in the supernatural, the title of Nietzsche's book also definitely means anti-Christian, the opposite of a Christian, in one's outlook on life here on Earth as it is actually lived by people.) He also provided a very neat metaphor for the reason obvious things sometimes need to be pointed out to people: see Die Froehliche Wissenschaft, aphorism 108.

Having said all that: as regular readers of this blog know, I'm often at odds with other atheists in discussions about Christianity. I find those who insist that Jesus never existed as unconvincing as those who insist that He did, and for very similar reasons. No, that doesn't go far enough: it bothers me MORE when atheists make sloppy historical mistakes, because they claim to be the more rational ones, who have freed themselves from grave mental errors. If you're going to claim that sort of thing, then I say, live up to it, and do your homework before you try to tell anyone what's what concerning this or that historical topic.

They say, these ignorant atheists, that it's very strange that there are no official records of Jesus' execution. It's not strange at all, for several reasons. One: however many official records of legal proceedings the Romans kept -- and I don't know how many -- very few have survived to our day. Most of the written records we have are not of an official nature, but are either letters, or books written for a popular audience. Most of the writing of an official nature which has come down to us is not in the form of parchment or papyrus manuscripts, but inscriptions in stone and now and then a word or two stamped onto coins. And then there are a few surviving manuscripts, very few, containing laws, with now and then a reference to a legal proceeding.

That's strike one for the thesis that it's just awful darn strange that we don't have any Roman records of Jesus. Strike two: until the mid-20th century the only known near-contemporary mentions of Pontius Pilate, the governor of the entire province of Judea, said to have been the man who condemned Jesus to death, were in the New Testament, Philo, Josephus, and then just a passing mention in Tacitus, which embarrassingly for the mythicists, only occurs in a passage about Christians in Rome were tortured and killed by Nero. In the 20th century an inscription bearing his name was unearthed, presumed to have been made on his own orders, bringing us to a grand total of exactly one known contemporary Roman record of the governor of the entire province -- and it's somehow strange that we don't have an official record of a wandering preaching with all of twelve count 'em twelve followers, said to have been condemned to crucifixion by that governor?

Strike three is that crucifixion, reserved by the Romans for those people they considered to be of the lowest classes, was intended to obliterate a person, both in his body, which was left on the cross to rot away -- if Jesus' body really was taken off of the cross nearly-intact and entombed, it would have meant that someone had gotten permission for an extraordinary exception to the rule -- and in his memory, which they also meant to obliterate. Let's compare the case of Spartacus, who led an army of thousands. Official records of his existence? That's right -- none. Contemporary accounts? Other than one mention in a letter by Cicero, bupkus. More than a century passes after his death before Roman historians see fit to include an account of his life and death in their works. And he terrorized a third of the Italian peninsula for two years.

So no, the volume and dates of non-Christian ancient Roman mentions of Jesus are not suspiciously small and late. Not at all. What is suspicious is the volume of clearly fictional material in the main sources for Jesus, the Gospels, which are close enough to 100% fiction that it's reasonable to ask whether they are not actually 100% fiction. But it's unreasonable to state flatly that it's certain that there never was a Jesus who said unrealistic things like turn the other cheek and give everything you have to the poor, who became annoying to the Sanhedrin and Pilate. What's unreasonable is to state that at this point the evidence is conclusive, either for or against Jesus' historical existence. It's unreasonable because it tends to shut down further inquiry into the question. As the great German historian Golo Mann pointed out, it is the duty of the historian often to point out: Here, we don't know what happened. coulda been this, coulda been that, coulda been sumpin' else. We don't know. (Thomas Mann's son, Golo Mann was. An extraordinary prose stylist like his dad. Yes, Golo is an unusual name. Actually it's a childhood nickname. Golo Mann's given name was actually Angelus Gottfried Thomas Mann. Yeah. And for the 90 years of his life, for the majority of which he was a PhD and a professor, an extremely serious man who made students and colleagues tremble with the force of his acumen, everyone continued to call him Golo, the nickname his doting family called him by when he was a toddler who couldn't say "Angelus Gottfried Thomas." That's really something. I think it's really something anyway.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What I Believe

(That's right, I stole the title for this manifesto from a manifesto by Steve Martin. You don't have a problem with that, do ya, Steve? No? Okay!)

I don't think any subject should be off-limits for humor. (Okay, so maybe the title of this should be "What I DON'T Believe." Phooey. Life is hard!) The subjects of jokes, the things we laugh about, are often pretty horrible things. Freud wrote an excellent book analyzing just exactly what jokes are all about. A really terrific book. With good jokes in it. Laughing at a joke about something bad doesn't mean we don't think that thing is bad. Richard Pryor made great jokes about extremely painful things -- like when he accidentally set himself on fire and almost burned to death, hello, that was painful.

Good comedy heals. Cheap humor can just be crude and mean, but good comedy opens people up. It makes them MORE sensitive. Often it gets them to talk about things that need to be discussed, that they couldn't bear to talk about before. If my joke only made you hurt worse, then I failed as far as you as an audience are concerned.

I saw an excellent TV show recently with Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK talking about such things. The title of the show was something like Talking Funny They all agreed that no subject is off-limits for comedy, although it may be very difficult to be funny about horrible things. But precisely that is one of the primary challenges of good comedy.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Crazy is Crazy

Religious believers who are moderate to progressive politically and "moderate" religiously, who claim to be advancing a middle way between fundamentalism and what they claim is the equally-extremist pole of "fundamentalist" atheism, are very reluctant to openly criticize crazy stuff like this when it isn't accompanied by an overt right-wing political agenda -- indeed, they often even publish and otherwise support crazy religious rantings. They refuse to acknowledge how very close this sort of thing is to the right-wing stuff and how both come directly from their own Holy Books. They refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for the crazy religious thinking they condemn when it's right-wing, and smile at it, perhaps an embarrassed smile, perhaps not even always that, when, as apparently in this case, they judge it to be not right-wing, and therefore harmless. Crazy is crazy. Religious moderates need to see their role in fostering religious extremism.

Friday, February 10, 2012

5 0 Blitz, I Played White

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 d5
3. Nxe5 dxe4
4. Bc4 Be6
5. Bxe6 fxe6
6. Qh5+ g6
7. Nxg6 Nh6
8. Nxh8+ Nf7
9. Qxf7#

Monday, February 6, 2012

Debating Whether the Exodus Happened

A: The story of Moses and Pharaoh is fictional. You might as well debate the historicity of The Lord of the Rings.

ME: Talking to a religious believer lately, you correctly pointed out that the burden of proof lies upon him who makes a positive statement. And yet here you yourself make a positive statement for which evidence is lacking. We don't know how much of the story of Exodus might be true.
Concerning the numbers of Israelites described in the OT as comprising the Exodus, since so many point to that as evidence that the story is fictional: 600,000 men, plus women, children, non-Israel­ites and livestock. It amazes me that people get so hung up on this number. It would seem that that many people wandering in the desert for 40 years probably would've left some evidence which archaeolog­ists or other scholars, searching for so long, would've come across by now. But often people of other cultures in other eras had nothing resembling our accuracy when counting large numbers of people or other objects. (Cf Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol i,pp 336-341, for a good discussion of how Medieval Europeans tended to use large numbers.) Combine an inexactnes­s in counting to begin with, with the centuries of oral transmissi­on which may have occurred before the story of the Exodus took fixed form, (now THIS would be an example of a game of Elephant) and it's easy to imagine that a migration of 60,000 families, or 6,000, or much fewer still, could've provided the basis for the OT stories.

B: How about six families? Would that be enought to save the story? Maybe God killed every firstborn Egyptian kids and drowned all those soldiesr for the sake of six families.

ME: You can have that argument with someone who believes in God. For me, all theologica­l discussion­s were over a long time ago. They don't interest me. The same way that what I was talking about, how the story of Exodus actually came to be, doesn't seem to interest you. It's an historical interest for me. In the same way, I'm curious about where the story of the Iliad came from. Both stories come from that era of upheaval in the second half of the second millenium BC which started with a sharp decline of old empires around the eastern Mediterran­ean, and ended with the emergence of some newly-lite­rate cultures such as those of the Greeks and the Jews. I would reject the flat statement: "the Iliad is fictional,­" for the same reason I rejected A's statement above.

B: How about the whole damn story is just so much BS made up hundreds of years after the fact by a group of people that had begun to solidify around one religion and needed a myth of where they came from?

ME: Again: I'm not saying the Exodus story is historical­. I'm not saying it's fictional. I'm disagreein­g with anyone who claims to know, one way or another, how the story arose.

B: Just because a story may have some element of truth in it does not mean that, on a whole, it is not fictional.

ME: Again, I'm interested in finding out which elements might have an historical basis.

A: What's lacking is any evidence it is true. However, we do know the Israelites were not slaves in Egypt. Since there were no people to free there was no need for someone to free them. The Moses depicted in Exodus did not exist.

ME: We don't know that none of them were. That is to say: we don't whether there actually were a people that long ago which could properly be called Israelites -- although the Merneptah stele makes it seem likely that there were -- and if there were we don't know whether some of them were enslaved in Egypt. As to Moses, if you mean that either every detail in Exodus about Moses is true, or Moses didn't exist, well, that's absurd.

A: If anything, the Exodus story is possibly a garbled account of the Hyksos being expelled from Egypt by Ahmose at the beginning of the New Kingdom.

ME: Is the Hyksos-Exo­dus hypothosis actually supported by any prominent people other than Simcha Jacobovici -- who, of course, is prominent for things like not actually being an archaeolog­ist but pretending to be one on TV, and preferring the Jerusalem antiquitie­s market to legitimate archaeolog­ical digs, and denouncing archaeolog­ists en masse -- and vice versa, such as when he claimed that a bunch of archaeolog­ists and epigrapher­s supported his views on what he -- and very few scholars -- call the Jesus family tomb, prompting them to take the extraordin­ary step of signing an open letter saying that they all disagreed with him?

C: There is no evidence of a significan­t number of Israelites being held in bondage in Egypt. There is no evidence of any of the event described in Exodus. Therefore, we have no option but to reject any claim that it's a historical account and it can be safely assumed that it's fiction.

ME: That's a perfect example of a premature "therefore." We have other options. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and the entire Sinai peninsula actually hasn't been gone over with a fine-tooth­ed archaeolog­ical comb just yet. There's no reason to conclude that there never was an Exodus. It's simply premature. Let me underscore once again, in case it wasn't already obvious from my previous remarks, that I think that if there was an Exodus it would have been much smaller than 600,000 families, and also that it may have consisted of some of the ancestors of the Israelites at a time before there actually were Israelites­, and that if it did happen it probably constitute­d a minority of the Israelites -- or of their ancestors, as the case may be -- and that the majority probably were from the less powerful classes in Canaan.

D: Archaeolog­ists have been looking for evidence of the Exodus for decades, nigh on a hundred years. Nothing's been found. In fact the evidence for the early Israelites points to a local origin.

ME: I know. Mostly likely, many or most Israelites were originally lower-clas­s Canaanites or slaves of Canaanites who, when the Canaanite elite went into decline, took over the region which would eventually form the core of Israel. However, it seems possible to me that in addition to that indigenous core there was another group, maybe Canaanite, maybe not, which was part of the founding of Israel, who had been slaves in Egypt. That story came from somewhere.

D: Origin myths are tricky things. If you look at the "Historia Britonum" for example, it claims that the Brits were descended from Trojans (via Italy) fleeing the fall of that city. When you look at Irish myth in "The Book of Invasions" Greece, Spain, even Egypt etc get a mention. yet apart from Spain there seems no real link of the Irish to any of these places, and even that seems more a coincidenc­­e than a remembered truth. The point is that it need not necessaril­­y be true that an origin myth is a reflection of a one time literal truth, not only do stories change over time but real places can become metaphors for something and somewhere else and stories merge together to create something completely new with the actual historical truths "edited out" (or not) over time. It gets even more messy when differing oral versions are frozen into a written form by people with their own biases. Not saying it can't be true, just that after all that archaeolog­­y I'd have thought something would have turned up by now if it were. Unless Zawi's sitting on the evidence that is.

ME: A lot of people claim to be descended from the Trojans. Check out whether the stories of Trojan ancestry can be traced back farther in time than the people's first contact with the works of Homer or one of the myriad neo-Homeri­c authors. Of course Exodus need not necessaril­y be true. Who's saying that it definitely has an historical core? All I've been saying here is that I think it's premature to rule out any historical basis. The lack of archaeological attestation of the Exodus would indeed be suspicious if it consisted of 600,000 families wandering for 40 years. If 3,000 families crossed the desert in 3 months, and it FELT like 40 years because it was so uncomforta­ble, and several centuries of oral tradition inflated the numbers before the story took a fixed written form, then it's an entirely different matter, and it's unreasonab­le to assume that some archaeolog­ical trace of the crossing MUST have turned up by now. I'm not claiming that Exodus is as accurate in all its numbers and little details as, say, Robert A Caro.

I'm very skeptical -- to put mildly -- of British claims of descent from the Trojans, as you seem to be, and like me, you probably wouldn't put much stock in the legends which have some of the 12 Apostles journeying all the way the British Isles, which if true would make the British church about as old as that of Rome or Jerusalem. But let's look at some other myths, the Nibelungen­lied and the chanson de Roland. In the case of the former it's quite likely that several of the characters originated as actual leaders of Germanic tribespeop­le and Huns, and in the case of the latter there's no doubt at all that there was a Charlemagn­e. The historical interest of the chanson de Roland is greatly mitigated by the amount of historical accounts of Charlemagn­e written in and soon after his reign. Much less historical writing from late-Class­ical and Dark Age Europe has survived, and the historical interest of the Nibelungen­lied is correspond­ingly greater. Now imagine that, other than those two poems, there were NO known written accounts of Attila and Charlemagn­e, just as currently the Pentateuch is the only known account of Moses. How much sense would it make to just say "they're fictional" and dismiss them as having no historical worth?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

If I'm Actually Good For Something --

-- if I serve a purpose, it may be in helping people to un-learn some cliches. There's an old cliche that says that cliches are cliches because they're true. Like many cliches, that sounds good without necessarily making any sense.

The market for cliches is quite crowded; alongside many old and famous glorious-sounding ones, some of which may possibly make some sense some of the time, new pithy phrases constantly crowd in, striving to establish themselves and become cliches. The better ones sound so good that often they persuade us to completely stop thinking about the topics they cover. Lately I've heard quite a few magnificent-sounding phrases of the formula: What defines a person is not A but B. If you come across the right terms for A and B you can come up with phrases which will bring massive amounts of perfectly-useful thinking to a screeching halt all at once. This is where I came in.

Does it make any sense to try to define a human being? Assuming it made sense, could it be done? I'm inclined to say no. Now obviously, the way human society runs at the moment, aspects of people's performance, behavior, rights, responsibilities and so forth are constantly being evaluated by educational, legal and other institutions. In that sense we're constantly defining one another, and no, unfortunately, I don't have any brilliant scheme to suddenly improve upon all of that. Those sorts of definitions, evaluations, judgements are not what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the attempt to sum up a person, or his or her "character." (Whatever the Hell that is.)

It seems we're often encouraged to define ourselves, judging from all of these would-be cliches asserting that what defines you is what you do when no-one else can see, or words to that effect. Don't get me wrong, I agree 100% with these phrasemakers that it's good when people do good for its own sake and not only for reward, and they and I would probably agree almost all of the time about what sorts of things we're trying to encourage: honesty, courage, generosity, trust, kindness, regard for non-human animals species, reducing one's carbon footprint, fighting for freedom of expression and freedom to protest tyranny, etc, etc. Right on. I'm down with all of that.

But not with this business of "defining" a person. And not only oneself: go to a bookstore, browse the biography section and see how many times, on the covers of the books, you see the phrase "the definitive biography" or words to that effect.

So what's my problem? I think people are more complex than that. You're evaluated all the time by institutions in the course of our society functioning the way it does, do you really need to add an overall self-definition to all of that? Why do you need such stress? Couldn't you give yourself a break and try to enjoy and/or accomplish something instead? A "definitive" biography? Really? This famous powerful person whose life touched the lives of so many others for good or ill or sometimes both, you're going to define his or her entire life in one volume, three other biographers of the same person couldn't come up with three or more entire interesting areas you completely neglected? I don't think so!

And that's okay! It's fine! I'm bringing good news here, not bad. It's not that our definitions are weaker or more mistaken than we thought, or that I've spotted anything wrong with the noble craft of biography, but that we are more complex and full of possibilities than we routinely give ourselves and each other credit for. Every moment actually is full of various possibilities and choices, and we ignore and trample that rich complexity when we purport to define, to definitively capture in the few words of catch phrase, or even the few tens of thousands or tens of millions of words in a biography, something as complex as an entire human being.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Is the History Channel Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

I thought that up. Me. If Comedy Central starts a series with that title I want my props. Although of course I in turn must give South Park props for inspiring me.