Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving to All!
Whatever our personal beliefs, no one is an island‒we all depend on the kindness, generosity, hard work, and sacrifices of our fellow human beings. If a neighbor foolishly fails to thoroughly read the directions on their new turkey fryer and sets fire to their house, but the fire is extinguished before it burns down their house (and possibly spreads to yours), and you feel a need to thank (insert preferred higher power), go ahead‒after all, reciting the right words in the right order demands very little us in the way of thought, reflection, or labor.
However, (you just knew this was coming) a far more sincere, tangible, and morally praiseworthy way of expressing one's heartfelt gratitude would be to do something for the firefighters and other first responders that gave up their holiday to protect the lives, safety, and property of their fellow human beings. Bring a meal to the station house, or ask if there are any that are without families nearby that would be alone and invite them to your house for the following holiday. If you have a loved one in a hospital or nursing home during the holidays, don't just say some words to them, actually do something for them. Pick up the phone and make some calls, get some names of those caring for your loved one during the holidays instead of spending time with their loved ones. Bake them some cookies, send them a fruit basket, or whatever, but do something.
Many ranchers here in South Dakota are still reeling from the effects of a devastating blizzard in early October and appeals for help in aiding ranchers that have, in some cases, lost well over half of their herds, has been phenomenal. Most (non-vegan) folks will be sitting down to turkey dinners rather than beef today, so remember those that are, this Thanksgiving Day, working to bring to fruition next year's harvest, often laboring for long hours in crappy weather, even on national and religious holidays.
So on this day of Thanksgiving, remembering that actions speak louder then words, do not neglect to say “Thank You” for those that labor, if even indirectly, on our behalf...because we can all agree that they do exist.
Just for the record, I hate the word “Turkey Day” because, while I will be having some later this afternoon, I much prefer a holiday ham.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Just What Does the Far Right Not Understand?

Well, here we are again, pawns in yet another game of “chicken” that puts the economic well-being of the United States of America at risk. The current situation is the result of many things, but I want to point out the complicity of my fellow citizens, because without their ignorance and intellectual laziness, we might not be in the mess we are in.

What galls me the most, is how many people do not know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA‒a.k.a. "ObamaCare"–a label that sounds like it was made up by a 7 y/o playground bully–which seems about right given the apparent cognitive capacities of the right-wing rank-and-file) is already a law! It was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law on 23 March, 2010 by President Obama. It then withstood a challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (ScotUS)! Check it out yourself–there may be a quiz later. The coup de grâce of the whole thing is after all the wrangling, all the far-right rhetoric, all the "tea party" protests, and the legal challenges...the President that spearheaded the push for the law was re-elected in a campaign against an opponent who swore they would immediately repeal the law if elected!

Why is it that so many on the Right do not get that? Did they miss some episodes of Schoolhouse Rock!? The rights of citizens to share their opinions with others until they are blue in the face, which as a matter of principle, I would give my life to defend, in no way, shape, or form, means that the content of their opinion(s) is entitled to anyone’s respect, independent of the merits of said opinion(s). Students of all ages, from elementary school to grad students, are expected to turn in their assigned homework, but the teacher grades the work on its merits alone, and the same principle applies in the marketplace of ideas.  

Citizenship in a democratic republic is serious business and if such a nation is to endure, it demands that its citizens do their homework before opening their mouths, pulling the lever, punching a chad, or blackening in a box!. The Framers knew that the only way our young republic would thrive was to have an educated, informed electorate. For the Framers, the bloody English Civil Wars of the 17th century were recent history and they acknowledged that human nature had a darker side, where passions frequently trumped reason, which is why they designed our system of government with the system of checks and balances they did.

Early efforts to ensure the ideal of an “informed” electorate led to things like requirements that one be a white, land-owning male‒which, however well-intended such requirements were to begin with, they were soon used to systematically dis-enfranchise, by law, whole classes of citizens‒women and African-Americans in the Jim Crow South‒to name just two such groups. As a nation, our collective moral compass (at least for most of us) learned to reject such things as antithetical to the ideal of a participatory democracy. There are, however, steps we can, and must, take in our everyday interactions with others to minimize the damage caused by baloney, propaganda, and outright deception. We do not impose legal sanctions on people picking their nose in public, but we don't need them because the embarrassment people feel upon learning that others think them an uncouth, gross, disgusting boor for doing so is sufficient to quickly cure most people of the habit while still adolescents. Similarly, “civil discourse” does not mean giving someone spouting patently false nonsense a pass out of concern for their feelings, nor does it mean that we throw them in irons send them to a dungeon for being idiots. The “civil” in civil discourse hearkens back to the (albeit idealized by us today) age of the ancient Greek agora and the Roman forum, where citizens engaged in economic activities and discussed and debated matters affecting the polis, and its Latin equivalent, civitas‒what we would call today the citizen body.1 (p.204)

As individuals and citizens, we must realize, and remind others when necessary, that in any discussion, debate, or outright argument, we must not only respect the rights of others to speak their mind, we must also defend our right not to have our time wasted. If our fellow citizens, elected officials, and media talking-heads demand that their right to be heard is respected, we, as the “audience,” have an equal right to demand of those laying claim to our time and attention that they do their homework and not insult and disrespect their audience by wasting their time.

Thomas Jefferson wanted his gravestone to note the three achievements of which he was most proud, The Declaration of Independence, the founding of the University of Virginia‒the first University in the former colonies intended, from the ground up, to have no religious affiliation, and his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. For this essay, the money quote is in the last paragraph of the Virginia Statute:

“...all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.2 (p.289–90) (emphasis mine)

The point is, the right to publicly air ideas, beliefs, and opinions carries with it a duty to defend those ideas, beliefs, and opinions. If one's constitution (or intellect) isn't up to the task of defending their deeply-held beliefs using argument and reason, there are places where one can talk about them with little fear of churches and NRA conventions. The trick is to not let one's beliefs write checks that their intellect can't cash and having the courage to keep ourselves, and others, honest.


1. Price, S. R. F. & Thonemann, P. The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine. (Viking: New York, N.Y, 2011).

2. Jefferson, T. The life and selected writings of Thomas Jefferson: Including the Autobiography, the Declaration of Independence & His Public and Private Letters. Ed by. Adrian Koch & William Peden. (Modern Library Paperback: New York, 2004).

Monday, September 30, 2013

Intellectual Honesty, Atheism, and Faith

I was recently asked two questions by a long-time family friendwho also happens to be an ordained Assembly of God minister. One was how an “intellectually honest” atheist could deny the “historical fact” of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? The other was one atheists have heard (and answered) too many times before: “How is atheism not a faith too?”

Intellectual Honesty

There is nothing “intellectually honest,” at all, in asserting that any miraculous, supernatural phenomena is a “historical fact.” This is so obviously wrongand on so many levelsthat it was difficult to know where to begin. Here is a partial (and abbreviated) list of what is, and is not, intellectual honesty:
Intellectual honesty...

  • does not allow one to ignore evidence that goes against whatever it is that they want to be true (e.g. “So, Mr. President, what was it that made you think Saddam had all those WMDs in the first place?”)

  • is implacably opposed to compartmentalized thinking (the division of the Christian Bible into chapters and verses is a perfect way to encourage compartmentalized thinking and its handmaiden, hypocrisy)

  • requires that every link in a chain of reasoning must hold, without exception, no excuses, and no special pleading allowed

  • mandates that any attempt to sidestep, evade, or ignore these rules, by any party to a discussion, constitute sufficient grounds for forfeiture of any claim to be taken seriously 

 Doing My Homewor

As part of my homework, a word that appeared many times in my reply, I pointed out the contradictions in the narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (JoN). I also put together a table of the discrepancies found in the Synoptic Gospels' accounts of the Resurrection.i Having been raised an evangelical/ fundamentalist Christian, I know my stuff when it comes to the Bible. As a teenager, I was intelligent and knowledgeable beyond my years and was in adult Sunday school/Bible-study classes throughout high school (some folks even thought I should go to seminary myself‒ironic, is it not?) and can run circles around every Bible-thumper I have ever met (I may have a lousy working memory thanks to my adult ADD/ADHD, but I have a very large, fast, and well-indexed hard drive).

Crucifixion by Contradictions

As I was fact-checking myself on the discrepant accounts of JoN's arrest and “trial” before the Jewish authorities and Pilate, I came across something I had never noticed myself, nor did I recall hearing or reading about it elsewhere before, that blew my irony meter to smithereens.

To be honest, my irony mater was already a bit strained by the whole concept of an “intellectually honest” acceptance of miracles as a “historical fact.” As I was reading the account of events leading up to the Crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark (14:55-59), my irony meter exploded when I came across it, and after reading it yourself, you may see why.

“55The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. 57Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” 59Yet even then their testimony did not agree.” (emphasis mine)

Unless the author of Mark was from another planetii, even he thinks that contradictions and conflicts between the testimony of eyewitnesses–to the same events–ruins the credibility of those witnesses! The author is not named in the text itself, but has traditionally been identified with one Mark, a companion/interpreter of the apostle Peteriii, so for convenience, I will call him “Mark.” So anyway, Mark goes out of his way to make clear that, in essence, Jesus' accusers were idiots because they couldn't even keep their lies straight. This passage also indicates that Mark's audience had a positive expectation that testimony from honest eyewitnesses would agree.

The New Testament (NT) canon familiar to western Christians has not changed much since the Latin Vulgate was assembled by the beginning of the 5th century C.E, and the whole time, there sat this little bombshell. The consensus among biblical scholars is that Mark represents the earliest surviving Gospel–with the authors of Matthew and Luke, the other Synoptic Gospels, borrowing heavily from Mark. In an additional twist of irony, apparently, Matthew and Luke, though they borrowed much from Mark, they appear to have missed Mark 14:55-59–if they had, they might have taken steps to ensure their stories agreed. Not only that, but what about all those copyists down through the centuries, did none of them ever notice the discrepancies and attempt to fix them? By the author of the Gospel of Mark's own logic, these much overlooked four verses impugn the credibility of the four Gospels themselves. This is known as someone being hoisted by their own petard (gratuitous Shakespeare reference–check). This is also a great example of special pleading–the blatant intellectual dishonesty of pointing to the discrepant testimony of the witnesses against Jesus of Nazareth as evidence that agents of Satan were out to foil God the Father's divine plan, then turn around and pretend not to notice that the same charge can legitimately be leveled against the veracity of the Gospels themselves.

Atheism a “Faith”?

Believers in the monotheistic religions make the positive claim that God exists and that their religion (whatever it may be) is the one “true” faith. Specifically, my friend believes (this is an assumption, but his phrasing of his question makes my assumption a reasonable one) that the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is as much a “historical fact” as the Sack of Rome in the year 410 of the Common Era by the Visigoths, the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066 of the Common Era, which clinched the Norman Conquest of England, or the Moon landings. This claim rests upon a potentially limitless number of unstated‒and undemonstrated ‒major and minor premises, which include, but are not limited to, the existence of the God of Christian Scripture, which in turn, presupposes the existence of supernatural realms (and entities to inhabit them) not otherwise subject to natural laws. The evidentiary burden required to establish such fantastical claims is incredibly high.

All the evidence‒not just the cherry-picked bits Christians use to persuade the incurious and gullible masses, but also the evidence that reveals just how incredibly weak and thin the veneer of historical plausibility Christians have pasted onto their supernatural myths, little different from those of other cults of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first-century C.E. actually are‒have been thoroughly, skeptically, and intellectually honestly evaluated....and have been found wanting. The burden of proof is nowhere near being met, which justifies the rejection of whatever claims Christians might make as to the “historical fact” of the Resurrection, its unstated major and minor premises, and any claims it is, in turn, the basis of.

Faith” is what gives parents license to refuse evidence-based medical care to their sick childand feel that their refusal is “holy”and have that feeling endorsed and supported by their fellow believers. My atheism, my non-belief, is not a “faith,” it is a verdict, a verdict arrived at after refusing to ignore what Christians blithely ignore, and by allowing my reason to follow my natural curiosity, and the evidence, beyond the mind-numbing echo chamber of religious “faith,” and by demanding the same standards of intellectual honesty we demand of our system of justice and in any other sphere of human intellectual endeavor.

I have yet to receive a reply from my friend...

iThe inspiration for my table, though I did all the reading, formatting, and general grunt-work myself, was inspired (no pun intended) by:

Ehrman, B. D. ‘Chapter 1: A Historical Assault on Faith’. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). p.8; (HarperOne: New York, 2009).

iiAt least on this planet, despite our cultural and linguistic differences, the emotions we feel and how we express them are, for the most part, universal. For instance, even if you do not speak French, the French metaphor “faux pas” will make sense when translated into one's native language. This is because our species, for the most part, shares a common inventory of emotions.

iiiSchröter, J. ‘The Gospel of Mark’. The Blackwell companion to the New Testament. Ed by. David Edward Aune. p.272–95; (Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2010).