Monday, May 14, 2007

Rational Response Squad vs. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron

I'll do my bit to spread around Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's embarrassment. Here is the "debate" between the Rational Response Squad and Comfort/Cameron. It is occasionally painful to watch, hehe. Were I given to feeling bad for idiots who intentionally put themselves in harm's way, I'd feel sorry for them. But I don't. So, here's the video, at any rate:

And because, y'know, if you don't know who Ray Comfort is, you can look here - because we all know a banana is an atheist's worst nightmare!

Funny stuff! This guy, this Ray Comfort guy, with failed child actor Kirk Cameron, decided to offer to "prove" without reference to the Bible the scientific reality of god! Like I said, it was almost painful to watch, but was funny, instead.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Confessions of an Atheist #1: Atheists and Morality

This vlog is about how, y'know, us atheists get morality without having a divine force dictate it to us.

And, of course, comments are welcome!

Also, moved the crock pot. ;)

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Justification by Faith Alone

If you want to read something funny, and I'm trying to keep a little bit of humor in my blog under the hypothesis that my readers like a good laugh now and then, then read this critique of a Jack Chick tract from Enter the Jabberwock. It's good stuff.

The satirical critique is about a fairly common interpretation of Matthew 7:22-23:

22: Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23: And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

The interpretation is that “good works” don't get a person into heaven, only justification by faith alone. That repentance and “accepting Jesus into your heart” are the only ways to get to heaven.

Enter the Jabberwock gives some of the fairly obvious conclusions to this – that it justifies immorality being at the top of the list. No, really, it scans. If you only need to do something nebulous like “accept Jesus into your heart” (or, more properly called, justification by faith alone) and actively repudiate good works as a means of attaining heaven, you're basically saying the only thing that counts is accepting Jesus. Nothing else you do in this world matters. Just that.

I think it is important to emphasize this selfishness is one of the key tenets of American Christianity and, I think, is probably the key reason why so many of the most utterly backwards organizations in America are so rabidly pro-war, anti-poverty and generally more evil than Satan himself. It's because they believe, truly believe, that all you need to do to get into Heaven (which is the reason why most Christians are Christian, of course – they've been told if they don't believe they'll burn in hellfire forever, which would be a compelling argument if it had even a whiff of truth about it) then there's no reason to do anything else. Faith, alone, justifies oneself. Actions, other than “acceptance” of Jesus – which as I've said elsewhere is little more than the glorification of one's interpretation of the Bible to the point of unimpeachable “fact” – simply do not count.

(Of course, the general Christian response to this, when pointed out, is a big “uh-uh”. But it never stands analysis, because they'll then go on to agree that it is faith in Jesus, alone, that gets people into Heaven, and rejection of Jesus, alone, that condemns them to hell. If you but “accept” Jesus into your heart, he forgives you of all your sins; if you do not accept Jesus, he does not forgive any of your sins, and since you're born in sin, you go to the burning place.)

Since, then, deeds do not count, and a Christian's actions are never seriously held against them, anything is permissible. Oh, they say that isn't the case, but it is – Jesus forgives all sins, and if you join their religion any sinner is welcomed to the company of saints.

Interestingly, of course, is this is what Christians frequently accuse atheists of believing. I think it's a classic case of projection. Atheists – a few of the more nihlistic aside – generally believe that we work with other people to create a generally acceptable code of conduct based on human reason and human needs. American Christians, with their widespread belief on justification by faith alone, accept nothing of the sort. The accept that there is simply one thing a person must do to be righteous, just one, and it comes from a selfish interpretation of an old book.

No wonder Christians have made a mess of morality! From the medieval purchase of indulgences to the more clever justification by faith alone, Christianity has constantly subverted any attempt at all to make a coherent morality. It isn't just that Christianity has struggled with morality, but that it has by and large renounced morality. It is with Christians that anything is indulged, anything possible, because their god will always forgive me, and ever judge them by any act, save a simple statement of faith.

So, remember that the next time a Christian accuses an atheist of immorality. Atheists struggle with the concept of what is really moral, while Christians can just ignore it with, really, the full support of their religion.

None of this is original, but you can't expect me to have an original thought every day, do you?

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Becomin' a Webcam Ho

So, since it's May Day, I'm not really doing any work. It appears I'm becoming something of a webcam ho, however, because I've been doing webcam stuff. I've made two videos today. Both of them are responses to other people's stuff. Heaven knows I love mouthing off. Perhaps after a few more of these I'll actually get good at it.

Here's the first:

This is a response to a Christian who asked questions about the falsifibility of natural selection and DNA as the criteria of life.

Here's the second:

It's a video response to a text comment to my video about if atheists hate god where he proposes stuff like if gay people are allowed to marry it infringes on his rights as a Christian. Which is a silly argument, but common, I find.

Tomorrow I'm going to actually post a short story written in the fashion of Simon Peter, called "Immaculate Conception". It deals with the, ahem, birth of Jesus Christ, told in the way I am telling the story of Simon Peter. Unlike the other things I've posted here, it actually is pretty short, being about 4200 words. And after that, I promise I'll have a few more days of text content.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Confessions of an Atheist #1: Why Do Atheists Hate God?

More video blogging! I am apparently pushing through with my plot to talk about atheist issues on GodTube, who still appear to be my best customers. I feel a trifle bit like a whore. I am not saying anything I don't think is true, but I can feel myself pulling my punches.

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Contradiction, Science and the Completely Material Universe

This is mostly an add-on to previous post.

I was talking with a friend about the idea of pride in submission. She thought it was a goofy concept, and it is, but I pointed out that it's really common. How many Christians are proud of their “submission” to Jesus, for instance? I'd say most of them. At least, that's my experience.

Then I said, to paraphrase, that most ideas prior to the very modern world were so primitive that not a single one of them really explained human experience without obvious contradictions not only of each other, but of the observable world. Say, Christianity demands that people accept the miracles but very few Christians claim to see even one such miracle. At the same time, during the Middle Ages, they were taught that the poor were blessed, meekness was good, violence was bad, all that, but they were also part of feudal contracts that lionized aristocrats that murdered for profit. They could be both “good Christians” and “good aristocrats”, even tho' the first wholly contradicted the second.

So, people have had a lot of experience holding in their minds two or more ideas that simply did not make sense, not with each other, not with the world around them. People lived in a state of perpetual contradiction.

It has taken a very long time for any ideas at all to come into existence that do not require a person to flatly contradict themselves entirely. I think most people don't grasp how recently strong ideas to support a purely physical universe is. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Big Bang became publicly known (with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, which basically killed the steady state model). If you were educated before the 60s, then, you were not taught that the universe could possibly have a purely material origin, because science, itself, hadn't developed the idea with sufficient proof to popularize it. So, it's only been around 42 years that there was enough scientific hypotheses to take us from the initial conditions of the material universe to the development of life on earth and our present civilization.

And we have thousands, tens of thousands, of years of cultural history, however, in holding multiple, contradictory thoughts in our head. It's gonna take a while to purge out all that crap, I figure – people are being told right now that contradictory ideas are better than a self-supporting group of theories that make sense in whole as well as their individual parts. These contradictory ideas are, furthermore, in many ways the very foundation of our culture, in their religious forms. So, to reject those cultural ideas is to reject, in some way, our very identities. I, myself, am not so enamored of my current identity to fear replacing it with a better one – but, clearly, many people are.

However, we're very close to having a system of knowledge – not just science, but also modern politics, epistemology and such – that is not contradictory, that a person can honestly support, and that epistemological system is of great power and utility, but for many people it will have to become their culture before they accept it, because of the damage done to the human psyche because our identity is based on these contradictory ideas that we've learned to live with.

Then my friend said, “It is good that our knowledge is catching up to our capacity for reason.” That's exactly it. That's exactly it.

Addendum to the Add-On

Yeah. Science. It works.

Here is a brief survey of science news from this weekend.

First, scientists are making concrete progress on reversing memory damage from diseases like Alzheimer's. Second, scientists have probably discovered the way to switch on the fat burning process of the human body. We are very closer to having a purely medical solution to the problem of weight in America. Third, a significant part of a mouse's brain has been computer modeled. We are very, very close, too, to unlocking so many mysteries of the brain with this sort of computer modeling – not just being able to do far more complex neurological research than ever before, but this also has significant importance for artificial intelligence.

So, uh, what's the religious news for this weekend? On the BBC RSS feed, the closest I found was a huge rally for secularism in Turkey. Religious fundies are on the verge of taking over Turkey, it appears. There is no other news that is strictly religious on the BBC right now (which, other than local news sources, is the only thing news I bother to read because . . . so much of it is so bad).

We, of course, see this sort of thing all the time. Hardly a day can go by without scientists making another advance in some field or another. Where is the religious equivalent to this? Where are the religious folks saying, “Today, our god healed some of the memory loss attributable to degenerative neurological diseases”? Or, “Today, our god decided that he'll stop people from getting fat because it's a health risk, and fat doesn't have so much a place in the modern world as it once did”?

What does religion do?

For me, this is the absolute key difference between science and religion. When all those religious folks try to say that science “is just another religion” they seem to absolutely forget that even if science was “just another religion” it's like comparing the right way of doing something to the wrong way of doing it. If religion and science were both vehicles, religion would be the rusty junker in the yard and science would be the Wrightspeed X-1. One works, the other doesn't. It baffles me that difference doesn't seem to matter to religious people. Utterly baffles me.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Science: Still the New Kid on the Block, But Scrappy

I know it's easy for people to get really . . . freaked out about how religion still struggles against science, and the fairly obvious inequality of the struggle. Science is so right, after all, in just about any way a person puts it. Science is demonstrable, makes accurate predictions, can be replicated by anyone, can be falsified, etc., etc. Even if science was “another religion” (it isn't, but even if it was) it would be an altogether better religion – because putting your faith in science generally works. Like I've said before, let a Christian try to miracle their way to LA and I'll take a plane and we'll see who gets there first. When a person gets cancer, let one group try prayer and the other try modern oncology and see which group survives longer. Or, in other words, “Science. It works, bitches.” Which is something that religious folks just can't say about religion.

Given this truth, I know that lots of atheists and the saner theists out there get are confused when science and religion collide that religious folks keep fighting the losing fight. Even while, at the same time, trying to curry the legitimacy of science with stuff like creation science, intelligent design and arguments about “the appearance of design”. Even as religious people criticize science, they seek it's legitimacy, because the legitimacy of science far exceeds that of religion for most people (when you get shot, you call the ambulance and then pray). The fight, like I said, is one-sided and it's confusing to a lot of people why religious folks keep trying to fight it at all, rather than admit that religion is mystical (a field outside of science's purview) and have their cake and eat it, too.

I will now veer to talk about the Enlightenment. For a lot of people, the Enlightenment was a time when people used “reason” and it is seen as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. People were obsessed with reason. And a lot of our hassles come from this period, I think.

To me, the Enlightenment used reason much in the same way that Star Trek's Spock used logic – that what people in the Enlightenment meant by “reason” wasn't really that reasonable at all.

For instance, most of the Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton's ground-breaking tome about physics and mathematics was mostly about astrology. Newton was seeking more accurate measurements of the planets and stars in order to make more accurate astrological charts. Not precisely the poster child of scientific reason. Indeed, it's rather like “flood geologists” using modern geology to try to justify the Biblical flood – any advance in geology they make must be separated from their non-scientific hypotheses before it can be useful (tho', to my knowledge, no flood geologist has advanced the field of geology – science is not what it was in Newton's day, which is sort of my point).

Likewise, it was the general consensus of Enlightenment scientists (who were all white upper-class Christian men, I should point out – though right now I don't intend to talk about the racism, classism and sexism of Enlightenment thinking) was that study of Nature – invariably spelled with a capital N – would lead to a scientific proof for god's existence. The whole enterprise of science was built on finding their god.

Unfortunately for them, the evidence actually took them in a wholly different direction. And it wasn't until the Romantic Era that scientists faced that. It isn't really the Enlightenment (also known as the “Era of Religious Wars”, which is often forgotten by cheerleaders of the Enlightenment that the worst Christian-on-Christian violence was during the Enlightenment – the Thirty Year's War destroyed Germany, for instance, which in terms of relative death made WWII look like a border skirmish; the horror rivaled the Black Death) that the scientific method was developed. It was during the foofy Romantic Era that scientists really broke away from religion. Those Enlightenment scientists looked for god. The Romantic scientists? Nope. They're the people who stopped looking for evidence of the divine because, after centuries of looking for such evidence, it became obvious that the conclusions pointed in the other direction.

So, for my own part, I actually see the creation scientists, intelligent designers and their ilk as being the heirs to the Enlightenment, still engaged in the fool's errand of trying to prove the existence of their god with “science”. Unsurprisingly, then, that these same people would gleefully plunge our world into a new Age of Religious Wars – armed with the material certainty that their god is the right one, it would follow with the mindless mechanical precision of Newtonian physics that they would use violence to spread their faith. Give me the Romantic view of science any day, which is sprawling and brawling, and, yes, passionate – but entirely material, without the faintest whiff of the divine, and thus absent of religious certainty and the raw material of genocidal religious conflicts.

And . . . to try to get to my point, modern science, as a Romantic invention, is about 200 years old. Christianity is 2000 years old. Science is a mere tenth the age of Christianity and every day, almost every hour, the strength of science grows. Science is a new growth compared to the mighty oak of Christianity (and other religions, but I tend to focus on Christianity because I'm American and Christianity is very relevant). It is largely cultural inertia that prevents religion from being discarded – for thousands of years, for a hundred generations, people have been told the religious lies. So, charting the progress of science vs. religion, the destruction of religion is nigh. The last thing we scientific materialists need to overcome is the Enlightenment baggage that Christians keep trying to project into religion – which is inevitable, because the evidence still points away from a higher power.

So, despair not.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Intelligent Design DEATHMATCH vs. Archeology

This is about four minutes of me talking about intelligent design and archeology, with some UFO stuff thrown in. Interestingly, I posted this both on YouTube and GodTube last night. On YouTube, four people have bothered to watch it. On GodTube, over 100 have watched it, already.

Oh, dear, the Christians like me. I suspect this is because the people on GodTube are more, ah, purpose oriented. And I have long said that Simon Peter is directed at a Christian audience.

I am reasonably pleased with this. In the future, I want to have a title sequence, and I need to plug my website, and I definitely need to talk a little slower, but all in all I'm pleased.

I suspect I'll be doing a vlog on issues that a Christian might be interested in hearing an atheist sound off on, like "do I hate God?" and my feelings on the basis of morality without religion. Something like "Confessions of an Atheist". I figure the GodTube crowd will eat it up. ;)

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Interview with me!

This is the first in a series of interviews that I'm making about the writing of Simon Peter. My interviewer is Tim "Santiago" Converse, who is a scholar and a friend that is helping me out with . . . well, a lot of things.

This is the introductory interview. We'll be doing more of them in the fullness of time, with the juicy, meaty questions like "why did you rape Jesus?" - but for now, we decided on a more measured and stately interview technique.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy it!

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Separate and Unequal – A Christian Odyssey Into Nothingness

This post was going to go unsent for a couple of days, but in a number of blogs (such as this Friendly Atheist post and this PZ Myer's post) they've been pointing out the MySpace clone, Everything after this paragraph was written before I found out about but I think everyone will agree that it applies and supports my argument.

It wasn't until the Left Behind series had been going for many years that I ever heard of it. I read science-fiction and fantasy and I hadn't heard of it, because for a fairly long time the only place that sold the Left Behind books were Christian bookstores. It didn't stop them from doing very, very well.

Recently, Christians have opened the doors for Conservapedia. A Wikipedia-esque site for conservatives! Also recently coming online has been GodTube, a Christian alternative to YouTube. Also, the homeschooling movement, which is being primarily driven by fundamentalist Christians who don't want their kids to be exposed to sex education and science.

It is looking to me like Christians are starting to . . . opt out. During the 60s, hippies had a saying, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Well, it's looking a lot like 21st century Christians have discovered this. There seems to be some attempt to withdraw from society – to create a second . . . world. A world where a Christian can do everything that they do without having to contact anyone that ruffles their beliefs at all. They can go to Christian book and movie stores, go to Christian schools, have a Christian Internet. They can create a Christian bubble around themselves, completely ignorant of society at large! And, unlike those hippies, there are two hundred million of them in America.

There are two points, though, I want to make.

The first is even as they try to withdraw from society, they are nevertheless mimicking the very things that they despise. GodTube and Conservapedia are not innovations – but copies. Even now, they are dependent on the outside world to pull away from it. They hope by mimicking something they can exceed it? Rather than demonstrate what a pitiful copy it is? Well, good luck with that.

The second point is that it displays how frightened Christians are of the world. They're terrified of us, so much so that they're retreated into an increasingly closed society. I can't think of any humanist or atheist comparison. Oh, sure, we have our own organizations and all, but we're not trying to create a separate world for ourselves. We understand, generally, that we have to get by in this world and we engage in this world.

I suspect this will create a strange loop. The more they retreat the more, well, other people will step up. Not just atheists, either, but all the fringe groups, gays, feminists, Muslims, Wiccans, New Agers, you name it. And the more they/we step up, the more the conservative Christians will retreat.

Then, like a black hole eaten of it's own mass, they'll disappear.

At least, I hope.

There is precedent for this. The pagan religions that Christianity replaced, some of them were well over 2000 years old. Christians like to think that something that has existed for so long must continue to do so indefinitely (or, at least, to the end of the world – which they're still waiting for, after 2000 years), but there's no reason to assume that, none at all.

So, I say, let them retreat into their shells!

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Language, Atheism and Christianity

When researching Simon Peter, I did reading about the three major groups of Jews at the time: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes. (Josephus mentions a fourth sect, the Zealots which get the most press, but he was writing decades after Jesus' death and it's historically ambiguous whether the Zealots had a real presence during the 20s and 30s – plus, the Zealots don't play a role in my book whatsoever.)

The Saducees were the aristocratic Jews, remnants of the Hasmonean priesthood, the Hasmoneans being the dynastic of the Maccabees after they threw out the Seleucid Persians. They taught a very stern and literal interpretation of the Torah.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, from which modern Rabbinical Judaism comes, were very interested in the Law. They were the guys who constructed the elaborate oral tradition – the Oral Torah – and had interpretations for everything. They were concerned with making sure that everyone followed the law in every way. (This was probably a result of the Hellenization of upper class Jews and an attempt to cling to specifically Jewish traditions to maintain the ethnic character of their people. It worked. Judaism still exists in the form largely set down by the Pharisees.)

The Essenes, on the other hand, were . . . well, right now, it's hard to say, precisely. The Nag Hammadi library, which contains a lot of Essene literature, shows them to be mystics without a unifying belief other than a general mysticism. Some scholars reject that the Nag Hammadi documents are Essene. Philo and Josephus talk about the Essenes as living in monasteries and practicing celibacy, tho' Josephus also mentions another “rank” of Essene that was allowed to get married. They owned property in common, it seems. Perhaps they were Jewish Pythagoreans. Perhaps they were the “legitimate” high priesthood rather than the Saducees. All these things were said about them. Who knows the truth? Not I.

It is possible that Jesus was either a Pharisee or an Essene. While the Pharisees do question Jesus about things, this was common amongst Pharisees – a lot of being a Pharisee was talking about the Torah, the prophets and related subjects. Perhaps the Pharisees questioning Jesus was an argument between different sects of Pharisees. Others have said he was an Essene because his teachings rejected the tightly argued qualities of Pharisaical doctrine and was more “spiritual”. What the truth is, I dunno. (For the purposes of Simon Peter, I take the point that Jesus of Nazareth was actually Jesus the Nazarene, which was one of the sects of the Essenes, and that this sect was one of the sects that nominally allowed marriage. This does not, however, reflect fact. There are no facts about which sect, if any, Jesus belonged to.)

One of the explicit reasons that Jesus does so well is because he rejects both the dry, very literal interpretation of Saducees as well as the niggling points of law demanded by the Pharisees, neither of which were terribly popular with the people at the time. The Saducees offered no hope of relief from their woes (and, indeed, were tight with the Romans and, as a group, quite Hellenized) and the Pharisees preferred strict adherence to points of law rather than ministering to the emotional needs of the people (or, at least, that's the idea – many modern Jews will reject such a characterization). When a person is wondering why Roman law was such a burden, the last thing people really wanted to hear it was because they hadn't kept their pots apart, that their god was a scribbling accountant who sent the plague of conquest because of trivial sins.

No, no. Jesus spoke the language of the common person. He hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, he dealt with Romans, slaves, the diseased. He had none of the literalism of the Saducees nor the legalistic worship of minutiae of the Pharisees. (Indeed, so stripped of specifically Jewish content was Jesus' message that he quickly gained a Hellenistic following – starting in the Gospels, themselves, with the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to cure his servant. The Book of Acts is primarily about the Hellenistic followers of Jesus against the Jewish followers of Jesus and the ascent of the Hellenist followers of Jesus.) It was accessible, indeed, designed, for the people.

In this post, in the comments, my friend Becky mentions how she likes my writing style because it is accessible. This is something I aim for in my writing, so it pleases me to hear this said. I have poor humor with people who use a Latin- or Greek-based word where a Saxon one will do the job, and do it better. I also, as a rule, dislike jargon.

Words based on classical languages and jargon are usually used for nothing less than classism. The use of pretentious language serves the immediate purpose of making a lot of discussions inaccessible to people without advanced educations. You can't talk about something if you don't understand the other person's words, after all. So if a person uses a word with a lot of subtle nuances, it becomes trivially easy for them to say that an less educated person lacks the depth of knowledge to participate in the conversation - simply because they don't speak with the same formalities as the educated person.

This has riddled the liberal arts since, well, probably forever. But it's trivially easy to find discussions where an educated person will try to dismiss an apparently less educated person by talking about details of words. This happened to me, recently, in the comments to this post where the relative value of Buddhism to the world became about the subtle meanings of the Sanskrit word dukkha, which is generally translated “suffering” into English.

So, in first century Judea and Galilee, most of the Jewish talk was very scholarly (as most Jewish discourse is, today) - either the learned discourse of the Saducees or the learned discourse of the Pharisees (the Essenes, living in monasteries, didn't interact much with the common folk). Jesus, on the other hand, spoke common language to common people. The Gospels are riddled with homey allegories about farming and fishing. Primitive church converts were, overwhelmingly, from the lower classes, too. For the first two hundred years of Christian existence, it was considered a “slave religion”.

(Christians, themselves, will fall back on the tactic of demanding an elaborate education in order to discuss Christianity, interestingly enough. When talking to prospective converts they'll use the sort of language that Jesus used – simple and clear. When talking to detractors, they get post-modern to the point of nihilism and basically assert if you can't give three quotations to support a given point then you're clearly an idiot who doesn't understand Christianity and, thus, are dismissable. For what it's worth, the way to counter this is to talk about the non-religious history surrounding Christianity – bring up Mithras, bring up Magna Mater, bring up Cyrus the Great, they don't know anything about the cultural influences that informed early Christianity. You don't even have to know much about it, yourself! Let their confusion do your job for you. So, “Oh, that's nothing that Magna Mater didn't preach centuries before Jesus. Jesus is just the Jewish Attis.” Freaking out ensues.)

So, when Becky said in her comments to me that Christianity does well, even today, because it speaks the language of the common person, I think it's fair to look at that. Christianity's early successes were because of the connection between Christians and the common folks, starting with Jesus himself, but obviously continuing with Peter and Paul and all the evangelists. (It took Romans to make Christianity palatable to the upper classes, such as Augustine of Hippo.) Christianity's continuing successes are also due to that. Christians speak very common language.

(F'rex, George Bush! Gore, Nader, Kerry, they're all way too smart for people to trust them. Which doesn't mean that they're particularly intelligent – well, Nader's very bright, and Gore is fairly sharp, but Kerry is a profoundly mediocre intelligence – but they speak in a way alien to many Americans. Bush, tho' an idiot, is an idiot who connects with people on the level of language. He talks like regular people. Clinton, too, who is a brilliant speaker. He can speak intellectually when the situation needs it, but his lasting appeal is that he can speak in a very regular way and do so confidently and easily.)

Atheists? Not so much with the simple communication. Take probably the leading spokesperson for atheism, right now, Sam Harris. In an article in the LA Times he talks about Rep. Pete Stark coming out as a non-theist going to a Unitarian church. Excepts follow:

Of course, one can imagine that Cicero’s handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the “dreams of madmen” and to the “insane mythology of Egypt.”

That's in the second paragraph and he's already talking about dead Romans.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Subvert, inflame, cosmology . . . cosmology? I mean, there's a lot of diction that's pompous, here, but . . . cosmology? Who the fuck knows what that is, really? Not precisely the language to connect with most people. (Okay, I know what cosmology is - and I know that different people study it in different ways. Theologians study cosmology as much as astrophysicists. It is a diverse and divisive field.)

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Pious multitudes?!

Everything that Harris writes is like this. It doesn't bother me most of the time, because despite not liking pompous language, I know a lot of big words and, really, after reading Marx and Hegel everything else is cake. But to a lot of people, their eyes will start to glaze over the minute they hit Cicero. They will get the classist clues that This is Not For Them. That to engage in this discussion, you've got to know classical politicians well enough to catch obscure references to them.

A lot of atheist talk is this way. A lot of atheists are educated people, as virtually every atheist will say, and brag about. There is a strong correlation between atheism and education.

However, we do miss a lot of people with our learned discourse. There are a lot of less educated people who have things to say – important things to say, and the ability to say them with greater poetry than Sam Harris, or myself. But they're all locked out of the discussion because talking like Sam Harris is almost de rigeur to be taken seriously by atheists – unless you wear your intellectual credentials on your sleeve, you're likely to be ignored.

I think this is a pretty big problem and I call on all atheists to speak clearly. Very little of what atheists need to talk about, about atheism, can't be said in simple language. For the purposes of spreading atheism to those most at risk for the Christian (and other popular religions) meme requires us to learn plain talking, because they're already experts at it and have been for thousands of years. Speaking plainly will drain the religious swamp.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Why I Wrote Simon Peter

This is a rough draft of an essay that might end up as a epilogue to Simon Peter explaining a bit why I'd choose to write the book as I have. Y'know. Deeply blasphemous.

Why I'm Writing Simon Peter

Does the world need a book where Jesus is viciously raped, the our erstwhile hero is a violent, sexist, racist multiple murderer? Why would anyone feel the urge to devote the huge time and energy it takes to write a novel into writing this novel?

The book is directed, generally, at two groups of people. The first group is Christians and, more generally, anyone who is religious. I think everyone gets that. The second group of people I'm addressing is more subtle. It's atheists.

It is obvious I'm attacking Christians. There is a purpose to the attack, however. What I am trying to emphasize in Simon Peter is that to call oneself a Messiah really puts a person out there on a limb in the sanity department. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, things that would be crazy out of another person are perfectly sane coming from Jesus – because he's the Son of God. But what if he wasn't? Sure, Christians aren't supposed to think that way. There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

So I ran with that. I said to myself that let us assume that Jesus is akin to other self-proclaimed messiahs. In addition to studying material about the Bible, I also studied self-proclaimed messiahs – L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, David Koresh and Jim Jones. I overwhelmingly preferred messiahs who existed entirely in history and those who lived fairly recently. In other contexts I've done study of Mohammad and Simon bar Kokhba, but with pre-modern messianic figures the texts are both sketchy and highly colored. The newer the research, the more likely the researchers were to try to learn about family details and be able to write about them in an open and honest fashion.

What I found was that, even in the case of Hubbard, money and power don't seem to be the real motivations. The messiah might get rich but that's almost secondary to what they actually seek. What they seek are followers, people who listen to them, who believe them and who love them.

Insofar as I can tell – and it is hard to learn even with these figures in many cases – they share certain childhood traits. All or almost all of them were abused as children or suffered difficult childhoods. At least two of them I mentioned (Jim Jones and David Koresh) were known to be sexually abused. All of them would later display behavior that I believe suggests deep childhood trauma concerning sex.

Indeed, more than any one thing, sex unites this group. All of them used their position to get sex. Hubbard not only used his position to seduce the wives of his followers, he eventually created a staff of preteen girls who would sleep with him (without sex, we are told) in order to replenish his energies. Smith and Young used their position to accumulate many wives, sometimes resorting to harsh means to separate a desired woman from another man (such as forcing the a couple to divorce or break off engagements). David Koresh eventually demanded that married couples don't have sex with each other, but that Koresh would have unlimited access to sex all the Branch Davidians. Jim Jones also used his position to coerce sex from his followers and used some of them as prostitutes to seduce government officials in Guyana. Each and every one of them had sexual habits that radically deviated from the norm that they used their religion to justify.

All of them also engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior. Smith and Young routinely flouted the authority of the US government and several times brought the wrath of the state down on their church, almost destroying it repeatedly. Jim Jones eventually lead his church into mass suicide and murder. David Koresh provoked the federal government into actions that lead to the destruction of his church and followers, as well. Hubbard was also expert at provoking governments and fled several countries and was chased out of several ports of call. Here is where Jesus fits the pattern more clearly. (It is easy to see Jesus as being kin to these other messiahs, because the Bible talks about Jesus' provocation of the authorities that leads to his destruction. It's one of the main themes of the Gospels.)

But very few novels or stories explore the idea that Jesus was a figure not too different than David Koresh or L. Ron Hubbard. They are either written with Jesus either divine or divinely inspired, or they are written with Jesus being a social revolutionary. To me, the first is impossible because I don't believe in any god at all and the second isn't well supported by the Gospels. Jesus doesn't do anything revolutionary except claim to be a messiah. In our day and age, someone who claims messiahdom is regarded as a liar, mad or both. Reading about messiahs I came to the conclusion that a historical Jesus either did not claim to be a messiah or he did and was a liar, mad or both. In terms of making the story more interesting, it is easy to see why I chose to make Jesus a madman and charlatan.

Then, making him a madman and charlatan, like so-called messiahs seem to be, when constructing Jesus' life I was guided by the messiahs I'd read about. Therefore, he had to have a difficult childhood full of abuse and neglect to justify his later grandiose delusions. He had to enact his childhood trauma in the present with bizarre sexual activity and self-destructive behavior. The character, ultimately, wrote himself and I just had to fit him into the narrative structure of the Gospels (which which I obviously took considerably liberty).

Even if Jesus was as mentally ill, a liar and self-destructive, he would be completely whitewashed by his followers. Of course, as failed messiahs neither Koresh nor Jones have many (if any) followers left to whitewash their names; thus the unusually good quality of information about them. However, Smith, Young and Hubbard all have official biographies that are promoted by their religions, and these official records read radically different than biographies written by people outside their faith. The only records we really have about Jesus that claim to be first-hand accounts are the Gospels, and they're so biased and it is so common for religions to whitewash their leaders that it is impossible to know the truth of any historical Jesus. It'd be like trusting Scientology to give an unbiased record of L. Ron Hubbard's life. I think that my version of events is far closer to the truth than the Gospels – even if you took the miracles and resurrection out of the Gospels, I suspect my story is closer to the truth.

My wild hope with the Christian audience is that they will start to view Jesus as a person, not as this idealized superbeing. I know that's fairly daft of me. Writing a book that has Jesus as a mad charlatan and Peter as a murderer isn't designed to win many Christians over. I can live with that, particularly because there is a second group to whom this is addressed: atheists.

In my experience, most atheists treat the figure of Jesus with fairly elaborate praise. Take Friedrich Nietzsche. Yeah. That Nietzsche. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche glorifies Jesus as being this joyous person who fully lived his life and gloriously accepted his death. It goes on for eight pages – this despite Nietzsche's legendary hatred of all things Christian. Except, apparently, Jesus.

That sort of behavior is commonplace. When humanists and atheists write or speak publicly about Jesus, it's always with intense deference to Jesus as a person. So, while a given atheist might condemn Christianity they almost never seriously attack Jesus. Mostly, in my experience, they frame Jesus as this valid social revolutionary trying to transform society, struggling valiantly against the corrupt Jewish collaborators that ran Jerusalem and/or the Roman Empire.

This seriously undermines the atheist stance against Christians, particularly to outsiders of both atheism and Christianity. The Christians say, “Love Jesus! Join us!” And the atheists too often say, “Religion sucks! But, y'know, that Jesus guy is okay.”

Except that we don't know he was okay. At best, he's repeating things said better by other people, such as Hillel the Elder, and cribbing notes from Hellenic mystery cults and Mithraism. So, then, why do we go to Jesus as this important source of ideas that he didn't come up with? Especially in light of the behavior of real people who declare themselves to be messiahs? As I said, the odds are my depiction of Jesus is more accurate than religious accounts. It is also probably more accurate than secular accounts which always have Jesus being this intellectual revolutionary, a serious man about serious business, who was merely speaking in the language of his time. But there is no reason at all to think that way. If a person reads the Bible to find the “historical Jesus” what one comes up with is a simple preacher with an uncontroversial message and delusions of grandeur. But rather than taking the historical Jesus on those grounds, Jesus has become a vessel into which many, many atheists have continued to pour their hopes and dreams into even though they have rejected Christianity.

I think this needs to stop. We're atheists, fer crying out loud! At the best we should be saying that Jesus was a uncontroversial preacher with a god complex. More generally, I think we should say that Jesus was probably of a piece with other self-proclaimed messiahs. That he was as nutty as Joe Smith or Jim Jones. And in any event atheists should stop treating the person of Jesus like he is someone we're obligated to respect. We're not! He's not worthy of our respect, in any case.

By writing about Jesus as I have, I hope to undermine the respect that atheists have for Jesus, and allow atheists to re-examine how they feel about Jesus and why we far too often accord him elaborate respect.

I, of course, think that this reasoning can also be applied to any self-proclaimed messiahs of any religion. Rather than trying to think about them “seriously” as serious people struggling against oppression or whatever, try thinking of them as self-proclaimed messiahs are: very strange, abusive and usually terribly abused people who are constructing elaborate, self-serving fantasies to address the trauma of their lives even as they spread that trauma to their followers. I want to spread the knowledge that insanity and charlatanry is the normal method for all so-called messiahs and, thus, I hope, help stop people from regarding them as holy or even serious. As a group, they're damaged goods, playing out their madness on emotionally vulnerable people – and this is true even of the successful ones.

There are other reasons why I am writing this as I am. Certainly part of it is I like books with sex, violence and intrigue in them. I'm a sucker for the sort of drama that making Jesus a psychologically damaged false messiah and Peter a violent thug create. I am also experimenting, to a lesser extent but with fullness of what I am doing, with trying to write a book that has characters who are sexists and racist but that is not, in itself, a sexist and racist book by presenting the sexism and racism as absurd and ugly – though I am unsure that I don't step, occasionally, into glorification of the things I despise I still feel compelled to try. Some of this is, undeniably, a catharsis. I have complex feelings about religion and it occupies a complex place in my life, as it does for many atheists who were raised religious. While I've worked out my own personal feelings towards religion, the multi-faceted way that religion is important to our society presents an atheist with a constant supply of social and political challenges that must also be addressed. Lastly, I write anything I write because I love the art and craft of it.

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