Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Belief-Action Connection: An Open Letter To Greg Epstein

The belief-action connection is like the mind-body connection in that not only is it obvious, it's so obvious that it requires quite a bit of make-believe to pretend it's not.

In your protest at not being invited to take part in an interfaith memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, you claim:

"Including the nonreligious in interfaith ceremonies doesn't have any negative impact on religious communities"

But of course it does affect communities who believe they have a sacred duty to convert the entire world. (For the good of the eternal souls of the entire world, of course.)

"any more than allowing gay marriage has a negative impact on straight marriage"

Clearly, some people think it is their business what ALL consenting adults do in private, and who wants whom as a mate and partner.

These and many other beliefs encompassing what all of humanity should and shouldn't do have been an integral part of Christianity throughout its history, and we all know it, although well-meaning people such as yourself often stick your heads in the sand and do your utmost to ignore the obvious.

"We would never ask you to change your beliefs. We would never want you to change who you are."

You need to make up your mind. You ARE asking people to change their beliefs. (Or to act as if they believed differently, which really amounts to the same thing, since all we can see are people's actions.) And there's nothing wrong with such a request when the beliefs are tyrannical. Obviously, not all religious believers wanted you excluded from that memorial service, because things have changed a lot already. Things including beliefs.

It's just a very unpleasant and awkward (and completely obvious) fact that there are all sorts of direct and important relationships between beliefs and actions. Many religious beliefs which you are constantly at such strenuous pains to respect do not call for respect for you or me or many other non-believers. They don't even call for respect for different kinds of believers. Yes, many Christians are very respectful of you and me. They have strayed very far from the original Christian path. (For once the fundies and literalists are right about something.) And they need to stray farther, if we non-believers are going to be accorded full rights and full respect. And that's not going to happen without them confronting the full reality of Christian history. And it's simply not possible that that confrontation will not be unpleasant and traumatic for many people.

I'm sure you hear the following all the time from atheists, and I'm sure you disagree with it, but I don't want to leave you with any doubt at all about where I stand: I don't feel that you represent me at all. You are much too nice to believers for that. In fact, you're so exaggeratedly nice to them and so critical of us atheists who supposedly are "militant" that half the time it's difficult to tell that you are not a believer. I didn't enjoy saying that. I don't relish saying unpleasant things to you or to believers (or to other so-called "militant" atheists -- I think "outspoken" is a more accurate term -- when I believe they're talking nonsense, and believe me, that happens often enough). I say them because I think it's important to do so.

Wishing you and yours all the best,

yr pal,

The Wrong Monkey

Thursday, April 25, 2013

This Business About Thanking The Monks

A somewhat confused and silly person accused me of not knowing what an analogy is, because I objected to the analogy: "The printing press was the Internet of the 16th century." He concluded a report on the dissemination via printing press of the Bible in the 16th century with the non-sequitor, "If you can read, thank a monk."

I have nothing at all against the individual monks who copied, for instance, Ovid's "Metamorphoses," an ancient Latin poem I like quite a lot. On the contrary, I suspect that some of those monks may have stuck their necks out a bit, or possibly even risked punishment, by disobeying orders in order to make manuscripts of the "Metamorphoses" instead of something more strictly Christian. Or the copyists may have been reluctant in certain cases, and it may have been their superiors, abbots or bishops, who were the enthusiastic Classicists and ordered the copies of Ovid's great poem to be made. Either way, as an enthusiastic (amateur) Classicist myself, I naturally appreciate the efforts of Western Medieval Classicists. All of whom were clergypeople.

But to thank a monk for the survival of classical literature -- let alone for my ability to read at all -- that is, to thank any monk for it -- every monk -- is beyond the beyond, as Pete Townshend would say. That would be, in effect, to thank Christianity for having preserved civilization. I already told Sir Kenneth Clark in a previous Wrong Monkey blog post what he could do with that notion. Apart from my objection to the extremely narrow and xenophobic definition of culture put forward by Clark, and also by some Catholic apologists who really seem to believe that the Middle Ages were a glorious time, when I am thankful to those individual Medieval Classicists who made copies of the works of Ovid and Sallust and Horace and the other pre-Christian writers I love, I do not feel that I am thanking them for doing something inherently Christian. On the contrary, I think I'm thanking them for having gone against the grain of Christianity, and having prevented Christianity from completely destroying all traces of Classical Greek and Rome, instead of only destroying most traces as it did.

I'm going to make an analogy here, to demonstrate that I do too know what an analogy is, and also to refute this absurd notion that if you can read, you should thank a monk. On the one hand, part of me thinks that the notion is much, much too absurd to need refuting; on the other hand, such notions have been advanced by people like Sir Kenneth Clark, who besides his cushy day job advising the British royal family on matters of art was allowed to make a public-television series whose format was comparable to the series of Carl Sagan and Dr Bleedin' Bronowski, as if his ideas were on a par with theirs, and by other people who often can not only, so it seems, dress themselves and walk about more or less upright on their hind limbs, but are also full professors and successful authors, in short: it seems to need refuting.

Imagine if between 1741 and 1993, in all of the lands of the British Commonwealth and in the US, only WASP's had been allowed to operate printing presses or websites or own bookstores or otherwise sell or distribute printed works. In this imaginary analogous past, other ethnicities were allowed to write, but if they were going to write for a public, all of the stages of publishing and dissemination of their works were going to be controlled by WASP's. Imagine if someone today in that alternate universe told you that if you can read you should thank a WASP, because of those 252 years when WASP's had a tight monopoly upon the printed word in certain countries. Thanking a monk for being able to read is no less ridiculous, no less insulting to the world outside of the party which for a certain time and in a certain area was allowed to tightly, rigidly control literacy. Literacy began long before there were Christian monks, it thrived all over the world in regions which until recently had never heard of Jesus. It's hard to know for sure about such things, but it seems clear that literacy rates within the Roman Empire declined sharply after the Christian takeover. Apologists blame the illiterate hordes from Northern Europe and Asia; I blame the Christians, who demonized all non-Christian writing and discouraged the masses from reading even the Bible. I think it's quite obvious where the blame belongs, if people will inform themselves about what happened, and if they are able to consider events without absolutely qrotesque levels of prejudice.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Imaginary Gangsters

SPOILER ALERT: Don't read this before you've watched The Usual Suspects.

After the alleged end of the Cold War seemingly everyone in the United States, and some other bastions of capitalism, became terrified of imaginary Russian gangsters in their midst, who supposedly were unimaginably ruthless and cruel, even compared to other gangsters. Sometime between now and then the bogeymen became Ukrainians -- and Chechens. If the unwashed-looking, stubble-faced, black-leather-jacket-wearing objects of horror in countless Hollywood movies and TV dramas aren't Ukranians then they're usually Chechens -- instead of Russians. How did this happen? Did Russians buy off the people who somehow are making us believe all this horseshit? (And why, at long last, are we supposed to believe that unimaginably ruthless gangsters, who can afford snazzy leather jackets, can't afford homes with showers in them, or shampoo, or razors?)

I'm not saying that there have never been any Russian or Ukrainian or Chechen gangsters in the US. I am stating flatly and with certainty that there have been many more imaginary ones than real ones, and I'm saying the same about Irish, Italian, Jewish, Japanese and Chinese mobs and also about mobs which don't discriminate ethnically, and I'm sincerely sorry about any imaginary gangs I left out, the list is not meant to be comprehensive.

I also wonder to what degree the types of gangs referred to in The Usual Suspects are meant at all to be understood as actual kinds of things: are there actually a lot of Guatemalan gangsters in Argentina -- or any at all? Or Hungarian gangsters in Turkey? I have no idea. Maybe a lot of Guatemalans have fled their country and ended up in Argentina and had trouble finding legal employment there, leading to suspicions about their being gangsters -- or maybe Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Special Agent Baer muttering about Guats from Argentina pulling stumps for Turkey is one of the many straight-faced details in the movie which Singer and McQuarrie want us to laugh about by the time we've seen it 20 or 30 times, no more fact-based than the story which Keyser Söze -- if that actually is his real name -- is putting together for Dave Kujan from Customs with the help of keywords on Sergeant Jeff Rabin's bulletin board. For all I know there could be more Argentinian gangsters in Guatemala than Guatemalan gangsters in Argentina, more Turkish gangsters in Hungary than Hungarian gangsters in Turkey and more American gangsters in the Ukraine than Ukrainian gangsters in the US. In most countries, unfortunately, foreigners are sometimes subject to inaccurate suspicion. And in all countries, the line between gangster and legitimate businessman is grey, fuzzy and subjective. And all over the world, our mommas love us all -- almost always much more than Tony Soprano's momma loved him.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

PC Language Rules Are Wrong

American Congregationalist church communities tend today to be very liberal. Which is very good. It may surprise some people -- perhaps even some Congregationalists -- to learn that the 17th century English Puritans were Congregationalists. Including the Pilgrims. Including the authorities who presided over the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 1693. As far as I know, no Congregationalists today will try to kill you for being a witch. But many of them are strong advocates of PC speech, which to my thinking demonstrates an unfortunate persistence of self-righteousness and the desire to control the actions and speech and, yes, thought of their neighbors. Yes, there has been definite improvement in the progress from killing witches to advocating PC speech, but, yes, there is significant room for improvement still.

What got me thinking about this today is that I have been attempting to debate against a pronounced advocate of PC speech in the Readers' Comments at Huffington Post. I say "attempting," because, ironically, it seems to me, HP, whose moderation is very PC, has no intention of publishing anywhere near all of my comments about PC speech, even though I carefully avoided all non-PC terminology in those comments.

But, of course, if PC is not actually about avoiding bad words, but is an attempt to restrict the free exchange of ideas, then there's nothing ironic about it at all. It's not about being kind or caring, because, as we all know, PC speech can be thoroughly unkind and prejudiced, while spectacularly un-PC speech can be thoroughly kind and bravely loving. If we don't actually all know this yet, that's what this movie is for, which I very frequently recommend: Bob Fosse's Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffmann as Lenny Bruce. Watch it while you still can.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The End Is Near, Certainly, But It's Not Here Yet

The end I'm talking about is not the judgement of a wrathful God visited upon a sinful humanity, but the end of the human species brought about by climate change and other effects of human pollution. It's interesting to me how much some green-minded people proclaiming this coming apocalypse sound like the more traditional Christians warning of the more traditional imminent doom. In both cases there's often a misanthropic satisfaction at the thought of a misbehaving humanity finally getting what it deserves.

Well, I'm an animal lover, and I think of us humans as animals, and I'm not rubbing my hands gleefully at the prospect of our doom. I'd rather try to avert that doom. Besides the occasional misanthropy, green apocalypticism also often shares with the older Christian variety a sense of the inevitable. ("It's much too late to save ourselves now, the trends toward catastrophe are irreversible.") This seems to me to irrationally ignore two huge factors in future climate conditions, both unknowns: how much human behavior will change, and how much green technology will improve. Green predictions that The End Is Near tend to assume a certain amount of continuation of current behaviors. I, on the other hand, see possibilities for huge rapid changes in human behavior as 1) people become more educated about climate science; 2) people notice that the Right's talking points about green energy have been lies: this stuff does work. They've been doing their best to get you to focus on this one wind-energy company, over here, which failed as a start-up, but eventually you're going to notice all the other green start-ups that are working. You may even notice the right-wingers who have noticed this and invested in green energy, presumably for the money and not for nobler reasons. A possible 3) could be a great dying-off of the Right. It's true that many of them have many children, but don't forget that children by no means always follow in their parents' political footsteps. Tipping points occur not only in the climate, but in human behavior as well, and in the history of human civilization such changes have not usually been forseen. They have tended to be surprising.

The sudden proliferation of wind farms and solar energy plants in the TV commercials of oil companies should make you stop and think. It certainly shouldn't make you suddenly have a warm and trusting feeling toward the oil companies, which is no doubt what they're going for, nor should it fool you into thinking that they're suddenly going green. It should demonstrate to you that even oil companies are starting to give up on trying to make green energy look ridiculous and impractical, and that should give you some idea of how drastically and suddenly the hardcore anti-green-energy demographic has shrunk.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Is It Me?

Do I struggle so to explain simple things to simple folk because of some flaw in my pedagogical technique? If so, and if that flaw is obvious, please tell me! Once again, for your amusement, The Wrong Monkey offers an unaltered transcript of my struggle to communicate with someone. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's been me all along:

HIM: (reacting to an article about how the age of the Gospel of Judas manuscript had been confirmed) Who cares?

ME: It's a manuscript which appears to be over 1700 years old. That's kinda cool.

HIM: What's cool is that it's a fake which naturally means con artists have been around forever.

ME: In this case, "authentic" means over 1700 years old -- regardless of the manuscript's content, the character of its author, whether Judas, or Jesus, ever existed, or what you want "authentic" to mean.

HIM: In other words if it were 1699 years old in wouldn't be authentic, but at 1701 it would? Good grief. I was curious if that was true or whether you were loony, maybe even both. My thesaurus has similar words for "authentic" from accurate to valid and lots more in between. But there is never a mention of any particular age the subject must be. And if you'd care to validate that just find an authentic thesaurus and you'll see.

ME: No, if it were 10 years old, or 150 years old, then it would be a fake, a fake which had been made to look like it was 1700 years old (GIVE OR TAKE!) And yes, I am loony. My Mom had me tested. By a specialist.

HIM: Are you suggesting if I were to build a fake Ferrari from one of those kits that are seen in all car magazines, when that fake Ferrari becomes a particular age, in this case 1700 years old give or take, it ceases to be a fake Ferrari and then somehow becomes an authentic one?

ME: No. It would never be a real Ferrari. But 1700 years from now it would be an authentic 21st-century artifact. Something built 1690 years from now and artificially aged to make it look like it was made in the 21st century will never be a 21st-century artifact.

At this point, to my astonishment -- I had been settling in for a long, long haul -- he said he understood, and who knows, maybe he really does. Could it be that my pedagogical technique, although still abysmal, is improving? It still seems that I may be enraging people when I'm trying to explain something. Sheldon, on The Big Bang Theory,seems to constantly enrage other people in the process of explaining things to them. But then Sheldon doesn't seem to care about his effect on others, or perhaps it's more that he rarely notices it. Maybe I need to be much, much more discreet about such explanations, and only offer them when requested. Maybe so, but the effort which would be involved in such a great change in my behavior, and the distress I would feel in seeing uncomprehension and doing nothing about it, makes me cringe already. Again, your feedback is welcomed.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I Am A Remora Fish --

-- metaphorically speaking, of course. I'm referring to my blog, and the relatively small ripples it makes in the currents of Internet traffic, compared to the big sharks, the popular media outlets. I swim along in the sharks' wakes, too small for them to take much notice, and feed off of the crud that gets stuck in their gills; that is to say, while they rarely have occasion to pay much attention to someone like me, if they post a reader's comment of mine which includes a link to my blog, just that one link can be a big thing from my point of view. Unlike an actual remora fish, I could grow into a shark someday. Don't laugh, it's possible.

The Huffington Post posts some of my comments which contain such links, but not all. They decline to publish some of my comments which don't contain links. Their Religion section seems to be more closely moderated than most, and comments from atheists on articles by HP's most frequent atheist contributor, Chris Stedman, seem to have a particularly hard time seeing the light of day. There are many, many atheist readers who comment regularly in the HP Religion section, and you'd expect to see a lot of their comments under articles by their main atheist writers, but no, they're scarce.

I think that's because a lot of the comments atheists make on Stedman's articles are somewhat similar to one I posted this morning on his latest contribution, a comment which HP has yet to post, and I'm not holding my breath that it ever will be. A total of 7 comments have been posted after the article has been up for over 24 hours, a very small number of comments for any HP article, and none are currently showing as pending moderation. A Christian college has recently given permission for a secular student group to operate on campus, and Stedman is jubilant about it, that's the big news in his latest article. My comment, which I'm not optimistic will ever appear, says that I was instantly reminded of a line from Blazing Saddles.Cleavon Little, the new black sheriff of the Western town of Rock Ridge, has just been secretly thanked in the middle of the night for services rendered by one of the citizens who reacted in a severely negative and racist way when he first showed up. After thanking him and giving him a homemade pie, she asks him not to mention that they spoke. Little is pleased at the progress his reputation in town seems to be making, but Gene Wilder, the sheriff's sidekick, puts things in a cynical perspective with the line Stedman's article reminded me of: "Another twenty-five years and you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight."

That's exactly the sort of snark HP's moderation apparently does not want to see under articles by Stedman, who, although claiming to represent atheists, is always criticizing them as aggressive, in-your-face, confrontational, angry, critical -- in short they seem to be just too darn atheist to Stedman, who on the other hand always has lots of nice things to say about his religious friends. I have religious friends too. But when I talk about religion versus atheism, you can almost always tell which side I'm on. When Stedman writes or talks about religion and atheism, he seems constantly at pains to avoid suggesting that there is any conflict between the two, and to distance himself from anyone who ever would suggest such an awful things. I've said it before and I'll say it again: with "representatives" of atheism like Stedman, who needs saboteurs? He represents us just about exactly as well as Uncle Tom represented discontented slaves. (Ironically, the HP moderation often declines to post critical comments of mine, which has often prompted me to come here instead and really let it rip, as I have done today, and then they have posted a link to the Wrong Monkey blog post which goes much further than the initial comment which went too far. We'll see whether that happens again today.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

I Wouldn't Call Myself A Human --

-- because there's so much unpleasantness associated with the human species and I'd like to distance myself from that.

What's that you say? I'm being ridiculous? Maybe so. But more ridiculous than the spiritual but not ridi -- I almost wrote "spiritual but not ridiculous," ha. Am I being more ridiculous than the spiritual but not religious? No. Less so, I'd say, because I knew I was being ridiculous and I did it for a laugh and to make fun of spiritual but not religious people such as Marcus Mumford, a Christian musician, but be careful if you call him one. He says, I don't really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don't really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. ... I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.

Uh-huh. Not from his fixation on Jeebus Christ Himself though, of course, which is where the Gosh-darn word "Christian" comes from...

Now, of course, religion has never been about being logical or consistent. And perhaps Christianity has never been about a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Christianity, because anybody with that rudimentary knowledge must surely see the striking similarities between the Protestants separating themselves from the Christian herd, and the SBNR doing it again all around us today: the dissatisfaction with institutions, the effort to have a more direct connection with Gosh and Jeebus, the emphasis on "what Jeebus really did and said" (which today is flying in the face of scholarship which is coming more and more to the conclusion that we don't know what Jeebus really did and said, although the mainstream still recoils from considering the obvious question: did he really actually exist at all? Not that the answer to that one matters so much, it's just an interesting, obvious question), the holier-than-thou attitude wrapped in that very diaphanous Christian cloak of stupid arrogance which is the repeated insistence that one is not holier-than-thou, but very very humble... I don't think it'll come to full-scale warfare like it did between Catholics and Protestants for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, but other than that I think we've pretty much got the entire nine yards. If these people knew that history perhaps they'd begin to see what a hamster-wheel they're on, and stop focusing so intently on one imaginary friend and one thick boring volume of ancient lore as if all the answers were in there and as if every attempt at good sense had to be measured against it -- as if any one volume were justified in such an absurd claim -- and become good sensible atheists and begin to open up more to the entire, real world. But how long, O Gosh, how long yet before we get there?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I'm Sorry, Lisa Simpson, But Latin Is Not The Language Of Plutarch

It's the language of the Lapis Niger, the Twelve Tables, Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Plautus, Ennius, Terence, Lucilius, Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Vergil, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Phaedrus the fable-teller, Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, Curtius Rufus, The Plinys, Elder and Younger, Persius, Lucan, Silius, Quintilian, Martial, Statius, Tacitus, Caecilius Secundus, Suetonius, Apuleius, Gellius, Hyginus, Symmachus, Macrobius, Claudian, Ausonius, the Augustian Histories, Ammianus, Corippus, Isidore of Seville, Boethius, Gregory of Tours, Gregory the Great, Columbanus, Bede, Alcuin, Einhard, Nithard, Johannes Scotus, Ekkehard, the Ruodlieb, the anonymous Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimitorum, Raymond of Aguilers, Henry of Huntington, John of Salsbury, William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, Walter Map, William of Tyre, the anonymous Expugnatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum, Saxo Grammaticus, the Magna Carta, Albert the Great, the anonymous Vita Merlini, the Carmina Burana, Siger of Brabant, Matthew Paris, Roger Bacon, William of Occam, Nicholas of Cusa, Walter Bower, Alberti, Valla, Pius II, Poliziano, a very popular translation of Columbus' letter to Isabelle describing his first voyage, More, Bembo and Spinoza and one of the primary languages of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Elizabeth I of England, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Milton, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer (who compared a person with no knowledge of Latin to someone stumbling around in a fog) and Nietzsche, to name only a few. I intentionally left a few very prominent names off of that list, so prominent that their omission will surely outrage a few fellow Latinists, because I have my own ideas about who is grotesquely overrated and who is not. And surely a few more names simply slipped my mind.

But, Lisa, Plutarch wrote in Greek. I wouldn't even bother to mention it so many years later except that I have always greatly admired how learned you are and how seriously you take scholarship.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Foreign Archaeologists Return To A Site Near Ur

It's the first major excavation in the area in over a half-century.

Now, because Ur is mentioned in Genesis as the original home of Abraham, there have been all sorts of headlines about the dig hinting that the archaeologists are looking for or have even found artifacts directly related to Abraham. And these misleading headlines have in turn led to a brouhaha, with fundamentalists arguing with New Atheists and others chiming in about the Bible, religion, science and such. There's been relatively little discussion about the actual excavation and what's been found and what it means. I wonder how many editors have known that such headlines were misleading, but put them out anyway because they're bound to generate more interest, more clicks and ad impressions, than something like Foreign Archaeologists Return To A Site Near Ur -- because fundamentalists and New Atheists a feudin' on yr website with other chiming in equals ka-CHINNG! and ka-CHINNG! is more important to them than their outlets' reputations for solid journalism and editing. I wonder how many journalists wrote solid articles about the excavation and then were somewhere between annoyed and outraged to see them published under sensationalistic yellow-journalism headlines about Abraham.

I wonder what the actual archaeologists involved think of the brouhaha. I'm sure that for most of them it's at least not a surprise, that such brouhahas have accompanied their entire careers.

I myself have gotten used to such manufactured sensations and welcome the opportunity to chat with people about history, archaeology and such. I must confess that my outrage over the sensationalism is wearing thin. Perhaps I'm growing cynical. Or perhaps I'm just getting accustomed to how certain topics are treated by the media.

In the course of this brouhaha I happened to chat with someone who remarked that the very mention of "Biblical archaeology" makes him cross. I jumped to the profession's defense and mentioned a prominent Biblical archaeologist whose findings are impeccably stringent even when they have upset traditional notions of the history of the Old Testament era. My discussion partner, a staunch secularist, replied that he wanted nothing to do with this archaeologist's work, because the archaeologist celebrates a certain holiday of religious origin. We went back and forth for a while, I was unable to persuade the other person that this archaeologist's work, or Biblical archaeology in general, was worthwhile.

Which is quite ironic. Because, for one thing, this particular archaeologist is much more secular than many of his colleagues. It seems clear to me that he celebrates the holiday in question in a secular way. But even if he didn't, even if he were a religious believer: if we were to discount the work of, not even all scientists with religious faith, but only those who were unusually religious for their time, we would have to disregard the work of Charles Darwin,who came close to being a degree-wielding theologian and Protestant minister, and Isaac Newton,whose secret writings on the Apocalypse were weird even by the standards of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, to name only two. But of course we judge scientists' work on its own merits and not according to what they do in their spare time, nor according to careers their considered when they were young.

But of course, the main cause of the increase of general knowledge whereby a few centuries ago educated people, whether they believed in God or not, whether they believed that people lived longer several thousand years ago or not, whatever they thought of the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the Flood and so forth, all assumed that some sort of Abraham had actually existed, and that a perfectly real Moses had led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, although not necessarily by means of prophesied plagues and so forth, and that King David's realm extended from the edges of Egypt to the edges of Syria, whereas educated people today consider David to have been no more a king than Arthur, and assume that Moses is a mythological character and that no such Exodus anything like that described in the Bible ever took place, and that there is no evidence whatsoever to corroborate the Bible concerning Abraham's existence -- the main cause of this increase of knowledge has been Biblical archaeology. People looking for Abraham and the Exodus, and finding quite other people and things, and forthrightly saying so. So that it is downright strange to reject the entire field of study due to the knowledge one owes to that field of study.

But of course, that's obvious. So obvious that my discussion partner must be a very rare bird. Or so one hopes.

By the way, in case you haven't noticed, the headline of this blog post is completely misleading, because the post contains no information about the excavation other than that contained in the title and the first sentence of the post. That's because that's all I know about the dig. Because for several days, the brouhaha caused by the misleading headlines mentioning Abraham has kept me busy.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Just Noticed: The Entire Year 2012 Came And Went And We're Still Here

This is disturbing. Not only because it seems to indicate that all of those symbologists and experts on ancient aliens and so forth may have been off in their calculations, but because it will give ammunition to all those "scientists" and "archaeologists" and forth -- you know. The ones who are professors and such and all think they're so G-D smart and are so G-D proud of their "peer-reviewed journals" and all -- in their worldwide conspiracy to hinder heroes like Däniken and Downing and Tsoukalos from telling the world the truth. The public might be more inclined to listen to "scientists" when they perpetrate awful smears such as saying that not only are Tsoukalos' interpretation of ancient Mayan and Egyptian heiroglyphics dubious, but that there's no actual evidence that Tsoukalos can actually read any heiroglyphics.

OMG -- this could damage the credibility of the History Channel!! People might start to doubt the messages we've gotten from the Bible code! They could start to doubt perfectly obvious truths such as that the angels and demons in old paintings are actually aliens, no matter how many times Tsoukalos smirks in the direction of a camera and exclaims that it's perfectly obvious!

People might stop believing in astrology! People might start to wonder whether people built the pyramids in Egypt and Latin America all by themselves, with absolutely no help from extraterrestrials! Where would that leave us?!

I'm afraid! Afraid for myself, and for Dan Brown.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Christianity, Version 25.34

Brandon Ambrosino writes, "A friend emailed me that I was reading the Gospels wrong, and that the resurrection was best interpreted metaphorically. To relegate the resurrection to a purely physical phenomenon was to read the Easter narrative in the most primitive way, at its lowest common denominator."

Yes, and to say that the two-thousand-year-old stories in the New Testament are primitive, even compared to other stories that old and much older, is potentially insulting to Christians, even if it's obviously true. Ambrosino's Christian friend is vulnerable to that insult, and so denies that Christians have meant what they said for 1600 years or more. He, and many other contemporary Christians like him, insists that the stories about Jesus were written metaphorically. Which means that for most of the existence of Christianity, virtually all Christians were engaged in a whopper of a ding-dang dilly of a misconception. Now, that also could be embarrassing. But only if you acknowledge the plain facts of the history of Christianity. It seems that, in the absence of a remarkably childlike simplicity, massive denial is called for in order to be a Christian: either you deny all sorts of common-sense assumptions and believe literally in the traditional stories about Jesus, including the Virgin birth, walking on water, miraculous healings and so forth, up through the Resurrection and beyond -- or you deny that Christians have traditionally believed the things which the historical record clearly says they believed, and instead believe this immense whopper currently being told by "modern" theologians (There is absolutely nothing modern about any theology.) and their fans: that believing Bible stories literally is a recent error introduced into Christianity by evangelical fundamentalists in the 19th century. Which requires ignoring an amount of evidence comparable to the amount of evidence one has to ignore in order to believe that God made the Earth 6000 or 7000 thousand years ago.

Now I know that I study the history of Western Civ much more energetically than yr average Schmoe, who has all sorts of other things on his mind -- but the theologians asserting that literal readings of the bible are less than 200 years old? Don't they have to study theology for years in order to get their degrees in theology? What on Earth is going on in those seminaries? How can they possibly believe what they're saying?

Perhaps I just massively underestimate the ability of many people -- of most people, perhaps? -- to ignore what they know whenever it conflicts with what they choose to believe. I suppose that widespread, deep-seated cognitive dissonance was required in order for Christianity to get off the ground to begin with, let alone to have lasted this long and still have billions of adherents. We really can't attribute it all to stupidity, cowardice, dishonesty and bad luck, can we?

But I keep talking about what people believe, and of course many religious -- or spiritual, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to -- people remain religious by keeping their beliefs vague. And this may be the case with Ambrosino: "Now did Jesus bodily rise from the dead? That's not my question here. I'm simply asking, 'Did the early Christians believe that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead?' And when we read the Easter stories within their first century political and religious contexts, I think the answer is emphatically, 'Yes!" So, okay then, Ambrosino and I agree about that. Ambrosino self-identifies as a Christian. So does that mean that he also believes in the bodily Resurrection? That's "not his question here." Also, unsurprisingly, he doesn't provide a link to some other place where it is his question. It's not at all uncommon for religious people, when pressed about their beliefs, to give several different answers at different times which are quite at odds with each other, and ultimately to seem greatly annoyed at the attempt to nail the blob of mercury which is their religious belief, not just because they ultimately don't know what they believe but because they don't want to know. They're floating in a cloud of vagueness, and your Hey-buddy-what's going-on-in-there line of questioning threatens to rouse them from blissful slumber, so of course they don't like it. Ambrosino self-identifies as a gay, Orthodox Christian, and gay Christians often prove to be judo black belts of vagueness about their beliefs. How could they not?

So, you deny that earlier Christians believe what they clearly believed, or you ignore the foolishness of those beliefs, or you ignore what's going on inside your own head. Or you simply wake up and stop believing, because you can't stop seeing anymore how far it all comes from adding up.

I don't relish robbing people of bliss. I wouldn't try to do it if I didn't think there were enormous compensating benefits to be had. And I believe that enhanced clearness of mind is a wonderful thing. Potentially of tremendous practical use in very many ways..

And we can still keep every bit of those thousands of years' worth of beautiful Christians art and music and literature. I love all of that stuff even more than most Christians do, I daresay, having studied it intently for a long time.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

George Bernard Shaw Is A Philosopher, Dammit!

Pardon my French, but this is important. And by important I mean fun.

Many people have thought of Shaw as a playwright. There are some signs that he may have thought of himself that way. For one thing, he often referred to himself as a playwright. For another thing, he wrote sixty plays. Sixty is a lot, I admit. And don't get me wrong, some of the plays are pretty good. The thing is, Shaw also wrote prefaces to all of those plays, and some of them are about as long as the plays they preface, and most of them are just effin brilliant. I'm not the only one thinks so. Volumes have been published containing only these prefaces, and not the plays. I say, after you read one of the longer, effin brilliant prefaces, go ahead and read or watch the play itself, because one, as I said, they're pretty good plays, but two, and more importantly, they tend to illustrate points made in the prefaces. Ya feel me, Dawg? The prefaces, the longer ones, are not about the plays; the plays are about the ideas in the prefaces. The prefaces overflow with uncommon good sense about how we can best evolve, they point out some of humanity's worst habits and most foolish assumptions and offer ways out of the traps we have habitually set for ourselves.

Doesn't sound like philosophy to you, you say? Maybe not, if you've read Plato or Hegel, as many high school and collage students have been forced to, and been told that these two turnips are the quintessence of philosophy, as many people unfortunately believe. I would characterize Hegel rather as the second-greatest impediment ever to have blocked the progress of the greatest of Western philosophy, while the greatest has been -- Plato. Ha, you thought I was gonna say Christianity, didn't you? But dig it, it's what's happening: Christianity is merely a subset of Platonic philosophy, adapted for mass conception by taking some of Plato's abstract concepts and dressing them in the stories of a miracle-working, suffering and dying but then resurrected Savior Of Th Whole Dang World. Platonism in its original form is more subtle than Christianity, but it's not more real or helpful. And Hegel -- ugh. Nuff said. Ignore those two, and Augustine and Aquinas. Git yr Aristotelianism from Aristotle, who is not constantly trying to harmonize himself with some silly religion the way Aquinas constantly tried to harmonize Aristotelianism and Christianity. (Guess who always lost in the case of a tie.) Check out Heraclitus and Epicurus and Lucretius and Nietzsche and Sartre. Look into Nietzsche's favorite authors, he's very generous with both praise and blame. Observe how little all those folks resemble Plato or Hegel. (Observe how Sartre wrote plays and the French didn't stop calling him a philosopher because they're not neurotically hung up on categories of writers like the Germans and English and Americans and also don't automatically associate "philosopher" with "professor.") Notice the complete lack of that dreariness characterizing those two fools, those two impediments.

And by all means include Shaw in that group of the good stuff. Notice, as I hinted above, how good philosophy is fun. Exhilarating even. Read the justly famous preface to Major Barbara,where Shaw mentions people not content with handsome house because they want whole handsome cities, people for whom it's not enough to eat and dress well when they're surrounded by poor people who do neither, people who have the temerity to want to improve the very air we all breathe -- and then goes about telling us step-by-step how to approach the fulfillment of such rather unusually-ambitious goals.

Shaw wants to change the world, that's all, and has some good ideas about how to do it. That's a philosopher, a really good one. Not someone who blathers on about how reality is something we can't see, and not someone in constant danger of breaking his own arm going on and on about how brilliant he is for having "uncovered the mechanisms of history and the true nature of greatness," who wouldn't recognize greatness if it gave up teaching after one try of scheduling lectures in the same university and at the same time as his and nobody came and spent half of the rest of its career pointing out what a jackass and fraud he was.

And besides the prefaces with plays explaining them Shaw also wrote a number of books going into still more detail -- practical realistic detail -- of how we can do all of this better. He's a genius who's interested in everyone's welfare because that's so much more fun and absorbing than merely enjoying wealth and luxury. Yeah, he was rich, and he enjoyed it, definitely, but that was just the beginning. And he didn't haven't to resort to squeezing people who were already poor to get rich, like a present-day Republican.

Monday, April 1, 2013

As David Mamet Said, There Are A Lot Of Things In The World

The amount of data available to our senses is huge, and our awareness involves a great deal of selection. This first occurred to me when I was a child, waiting in an urban setting for my mother to come pick me up. I saw surprisingly many cars of the same model and color as my mother's car. Not because there was an extraordinary number of such cars but because I was looking for hers. Jung isn't inundated with fish in his essay on synchronicity; he's surrounded by the normal amount of fish, and suddenly he's aware of it. A fishmonger or supplier of a seafood restaurant living near Jung was used to noticing the same data and took it in stride, and might have been astonished if he'd had an inkling of how many books there were in their city, whereas someone like Jung would find nothing strange about it, having been focused upon books his whole life and having written and published books of his own since early childhood.

I like cities. I've spent a considerable amount of time both in big cities and in rural areas, and I much prefer the former, and that's in part because I'm a bookworm and I know where to get my hands on books inexpensively. I also know that if and when I become a rich and famous bestselling author, I will have many books sent to me for free by their publishers, all hoping to get some positive comment from me, each one of which they could convent into sales. Some of the volumes sent to me would resemble new hardcover editions in all but date -- I'd get them a little before the general public, so that if I made one of those positive comments they could change the dust covers to include it -- and some would be what are called review copies -- same pages as the hardcovers, with paperback covers containing remarks addressed to reviewers and bookstores. These same review copies and early hardcovers are sent to newspapers and magazines and websites, and are what their book reviewers read, and to bookstores.

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review publishes a monthly list of all the new titles they've received. And then people interested in reviewing these books, mostly Classics professors, contact Bryn Mawr. Whether the reviewers then keep the books, perhaps in lieu of payment, or send them back to Bryn Mawr, I don't know.

But chances are that I'm boring you to tears already, going into such detail about such things, because you are focused on whatever it is which trips your trigger and which you have made into your specialty. Perhaps, in the natural course of living your life the way you do, you just happen to have a very exact idea of how much paper currency is in that same metro area where I could tell you a thing or two about where the books are -- or perhaps you are more specialized, and know a lot about a particular foreign currency in a particular part of the US, or how many greenbacks of each denomination are currently in a particular region outside the US, or you might be an expert on newly-made mechanical watches, or antique pens, or steel wool, or plastic bottles of varous sizes, or socks, or pool hustlers (maybe as a fellow pool hustler, perhaps as a law enforcement officer, perhaps neither), or towels.

So, there's ten different categories of stuff -- cars, books, currency, watches, pens, steel wool, bottles, socks, pool hustlers, towels -- each of which could fill an entire rich and varied career, and some of those categories could be subdivided quite a few times and each one of those subcategories could still fill a life, and my mind reels when I even start to think about how many other such completely distinct categories there must be in any fair-sized city, all of them there in rich abundance all the time.

And I've just limited myself to cities so far. Cities are where the action would be for specialists in nine of those ten categories. A fish expert could be urban or rural. And for many categories, cities appear empty and boring, while the countryside teams with wildlife, if that's your thing (but of course there are also specialists in urban wildlife, it's more specialized but it is an existing career path), or large-scale agriculture (although urban agriculture is rapidly expanding at the moment).

You and I might be standing on a ridge overlooking an expanse of desert, and you might be a geologist, and perhaps you'd be excited because you knew that there a huge variety of crystalline quartz happened to be in and under the land we were looking at, and you might start to tell me about that, and start to get excited about the subject and go into great detail and begin to bore me greatly withing noticing or intending to. And then perhaps I might forget myself and interrupt you by remarking how few books there were for 100 miles in all directions, which in turn would bore and annoy you, and an expert on watches standing next to us might think we were both particularly tedious, and a nutritionist standing next to the horologist must find all three of us very boring, or completely fascinating, or might not be paying any attention at all to what any of us are saying, but instead closely examining our physical appearances and intently speculating upon our eating habits.

For a physicist, his subject matter is everywhere: city, countryside, in other galaxies, inside his head. For a theologian it's nowhere, but that hasn't stopped them yet. And whatever you're specialized in, for a living or for a hobby, you can take the point of view of a psychologist and examine the other humans and what they're examining. You never know when some other single organism will open up to you, and how rich and complex that opening might be.