The World According to John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck made a pretty nifty observation: he said socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I suppose this is why so many of them oppose progressive tax reforms that would be in their interest to support.

American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, i.e. Marx was surely right when he called capitalism a “machine for demolishing limits”. It does a pretty bang-up job of demolishing planets, as well.

And now for the obligatory cat picture.


The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.



Ideas: Part 5: Let’s Be Skeptical

Ideas come from somewhere, they have a context; yet the older the idea the harder it is to pin down its exact point of origin or to make the conscious decision to abandon or retain it. The average Christian isn’t aware that:

The ancient Hebrews were not always monotheists but began as polytheists and then became polylatrists and finally monotheists: in the 8th century BCE Israel was broken into two kingdoms, i.e. the Northern Kingdom of Israel had as its patron god El and the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s patron was Yahweh. Assyria captured Israel in the 8th century; it was commonly understood in the ancient world that when one’s kingdom was defeated so too was your patron god. This is when Yahweh became ascendant in Jewish thinking and El was regarded as defeated. The ancient Jews believed not only their gods existed but so too did the gods of other civilizations (this made them polytheists), e.g. The ancient Israelites fell into worshiping gods other than their own on multiple occasions; they themselves had a pantheon of gods, e.g. “…let us [plural pronoun] make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26); there was a council of gods of which El was supreme or the “high councilor, e.g. “You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82: 1-8). Present day Christians wonder why there’s such a dramatic difference between the God of the New (all the love) and Old Testaments (all the smiting and killing). In the Jewish pantheon, Yahweh was a warrior god destined to kill a sea serpent (“the Leviathan” Job 41:1-34 and Isaiah 27:1 in some future battle). There are other references to the warrior-like nature of Yahweh when he puts his weapon down (a rain bow) promising never to destroy humankind again as per Noah’s Flood (Genesis 9:13). The Israelites eventually became polylatrists when they finally abandoned the worship of gods other than Yahweh (over the course of centuries following the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE). Polylatrists believe other gods exist, only that their patron god is the one truly worthy of worship. Polylatrisn was a stepping stone towards monotheism. There are hints of this patchwork of theisms in the Torah:

Some other things for your consideration:

  • The Old Testament was not written all at once and is instead an anthology of books written for various purposes, in varying contexts, over centuries assembled into its final form by the 2nd Century AD.
  • That Genesis, far from being history, also contains explanations for the origins of giants and the sexual union of angels and humans (almost all ancient writings, even the rationalistic works of the materialistic Greeks, attempted t to explain what happens in the world and why by making reference to supernatural beings).
  • That the average Christian in the 21st Century generally does not understand the significance of Jesus not being a Greek thinker but a Jewish one; and that he almost certainly did not look like a northern European.
  • That Jesus had brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Judas and at least one sister (his mother Mary incidentally was, at the very least, not a virgin for her entire life);[1]
  • It is dubious that the gospels were actually written by the apostles whose name they bear; it was common practice in the ancient world for a writer to append the name of someone of authority to a piece of writing to endow it with authority.
  • That the early Christian community was a Jewish one who worshiped not in churches or on the basis of doctrines like trinity or original sin; instead, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 65 CE Jews were not a people of the book or doctrines but a community constructed around Temple observance and rituals/ceremonies reflecting the people’s dependence on agriculture in a 13 month calendar. See Michael Goulder’s Five Slings and a Stone for more.
  • That the various New Testament authors purposely used allegory (not history) to draw parallels between the significance of Jesus and stories predicting the coming of the messiah in the Old Testament to demonstrate scripture had been fulfilled the crucifixion

The Jewish idea specifically of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

  • That no Jews at any time—in the 1st century CE to the 21st—accepted the doctrine of Original Sin (invented by Augustine in the 4th Century).
  • That it is unlikely a devout Jew, lawyer and pharisee like the Apostle Paul believed the various letters he wrote, to the early Christian communities scattered around the Roman world, would or should be regarded as co-equal in authority with the Torah; nonetheless, there are Christian teachers today who regard Paul as either the equivalent or, even, exceeding the authority of Jesus himself.
  • That Paul used the Greek word pistus for faith which does not mean “belief” but “trust” (which has implications for biblical literalism and atheism).
  • That the doctrines of Trinity and the Divine Maternity were not adopted by the Church until the 4th and 5th Centuries respectively (four centuries after the fact of either Jesus or Mary’s existence); and that the Comma Johanneum, or the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, was literally added word for word, e.g. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, etc. to the Book of John sometime after 335 AD;[2] In all three cases, doctrines were developed through so-called “revealed truth” which is just a fancy way of saying Church fathers decided everything through debate.
  • That the New Testament did not descend from Heaven intact “as is” but is an anthology of works written over two and half centuries assembled into its current form in around 390 AD.
  • That God didn’t sort out which books were eventually incorporated into the Canon but men did through a process of debate and deliberation
  • That early Christians prayed while standing with hands outstretched and the Catholic Church adopted the practice of kneeling during prayer to imitate the fealty ceremony as practiced by liege lords during the time of feudalism in the Middle Ages (a tradition practiced to this very day); that the doctrine of papal infallibility emerged in the 19th century less as a reflection of God’s will and more out of the Church’s practical political considerations to deal with the challenges posed by modern science, e.g. evolution.
  • And that saying 12 attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas clearly states James and not Peter was to be the head of the Church,[3] etc.

Time heals all wounds as they say; likewise time’s passage blinds us—robbing religion, history, even language, of its original meaning or context encouraging us to forget how things were, or too assume the way things are, is how things have always been or worse still were destined to be.

The purpose behind all these assertions is less to disprove God’s existence or place into question the wisdom of practicing religion. I present them more with the intent of challenging some long-held assumptions so that these might be re-evaluated by the individual adherent. Some theists remain completely unaffected by any such challenges—they wonder why I should have the temerity to question comforting things people choose to believe. Being something of an optimist, I assume reasonable people if given the opportunity and knowledge, would like to know more about those things they have come to believe; and in the process come to appreciate things aren’t always what they seem; belief does not a thing make; that ideas come from somewhere;[4] and that in the end it is better to live with a healthy understanding for how the world really works instead of persisting in delusion—no matter how comforting doing so might be. When we re-evaluate our beliefs we risk changing our minds. We risk leaving behind certainty (which is really just an illusion); yet, as I see it doubt is real while belief the bringer of false promises.

The ancients invented gods to explain their fears and otherwise inexplicable cosmic processes.  Eventually, gods morphed into a single god (as was the case with the Jews). I wonder: if humankind developed the scientific method prior to their penchant for religious abstraction, would gods have even been invented? We have science now yet people persist in believing god necessary. Why is this so?  Is it habit?  Conditioning?  Need?  A lack of scientific literacy in the present day? I suspect it’s all the above to some degree.

The ancient Greeks called the Cosmos the “Milky Way” believing the white background aura to be the breast milk of Zeus’ wife Hera. The name continues in use despite the fact no one believes in Hera any longer. Is the idea of god like our galaxy’s namesake?  Have we forgotten its original reason for being?  Are we unaware, blissfully passing god on from one generation to the next? Similarly, the archaic phrase “one True God” reflects a world-view now lost to us, i.e. a time when people believed in the existence of many gods (and by people I mean the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Hebrews). The peoples of these civilizations understood one another’s respective gods to be equally real. In the context of the ancients, the phrase “false god” did not mean this or that god “did not exist”; it meant foreign gods could not be trusted; you did not place your trust in them; you practiced fidelity to your tribe’s specific god. The ancient Hebrews would have understood this perfectly (the modern Christian not so much because they have only ever known monotheism). The constant backsliding of the Israelites into the worship of “false” gods is proof not only of their opportunism or infidelity but also their polylatrism.[5]  You don’t learn this stuff in Sunday School that’s for sure. Instead, well-meaning teachers dutifully feed the young the self-same stories they themselves were fed; and so, from one generation to the next, the same beliefs are propagated out of context—where we mistake our current understanding for the same held by the ancients.[6]

Theology relies purely on the exercise of reason.[7]

Certainly a reliable historical basis exists for certain aspects of theology like Jesus and his mother Mary existed. However, the stories surrounding these figures—in particular Jesus—are far from certain. As a kid I was taught Jesus raised people from the dead and something called the Holy Spirit descended on to the apostles in the form of a dove. How did I know this to be true? I didn’t. I just believed it mainly because I didn’t know any better (a sort of habit of believing things people in authority told me because I myself lacked the proper faculties of discernment or expertise); also, I belonged to a family whose members took its religion somewhat serious. (We didn’t handle snakes or believe in the Rapture; nonetheless, we went to Church regularly, observed holidays and made a point of praying before meals (when my paternal grandparents visited). I remember missing Mass one Sunday due to sickness. At the time I was staying with my paternal grandparents—uber Catholics—and when I told my grandma I couldn’t go to Mass because I felt ill she thought I was faking. The fact I was pallid, feverish, my vision clouded with black spots, and my back felt like it was on fire every time I sneezed, meant little. She was convinced I was just trying to dodge my obligations. True: sitting in a Church pew for a half an hour listening to people belt out the Rosary followed by an hour of alternative standing and kneeling wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my Sunday morning. Nevertheless, there are probably some bigger reasons why religious observance in the present day needs to be re-evaluated.

How can a person sincerely accept or reject religion if they aren’t first given the freedom to assess the trustworthiness of its propositions? I was pressed to believe; I believed because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents; I believed because I was young, credulous and I didn’t want to go to Hell—a fate I was led to believe awaited non-believers and which I now regard as one of the more perfidious of religious notions. In terms of biblical stories I was required to accept them prima facie. I suspect I am more the rule than the exception when it comes to being raised a theist. Theists are made, not born. No reasonable person can read “Jesus walked on water” and assume they are reading history. Yet, that’s precisely what I was expected to believe; it’s definitely what the theist asks the non-theist or agnostic to accept. These are stories not history—and quite unlike what is assumed by religionists opinions can exist on things that do not.[8] The main problem affecting theology is that there are no objective tests one can conduct to prove this doctrine is true as opposed to that.  Well, that’s not entirely the true. You can conduct comparisons: you can test whether or not new thinking contradicts or agrees with old thinking. If a new idea conforms to old patterns it is likely to be received well and incorporated into official doctrine; when a new idea contradicts orthodoxy it is discouraged. Yet, despite the fact ideas are being systematically tested through comparison, we are still assuming inherited ideas, e.g. Adam eating a piece of fruit leading to humankind’s apparent fall from grace making Jesus necessary, etc. are trustworthy in the first place—not because elder ideas are empirically verified facts so much as the basis of existing custom and observance. What were the very first theological opinions tested against?  I would hazard a guess they were, as they are now, simply assumed true.[9]



[1] I recall my Grade Nine Christian ethics teacher dutifully transmitting the Catholic Church’s official teaching on “James, Jesus’ brother” (Galatians 1:19). She insisted Paul did not mean to imply James was a blood relative of Jesus. They were just really close friends. Like most kids I didn’t know Scripture well enough to challenge her; but if I could go back now (I’d tell my former self to attend public school and) I’d ask the teacher: if James was not a blood relative of Jesus then why was James specifically referred to as his brother not once but twice?  The connection between James and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (13:55) is even more obvious, e.g. “Is this not the carpenter’s son [Jesus]? Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judah?”  James wasn’t just a friend. The author of Matthew was clearly connecting Jesus with this family.  This passage absolutely contradicts the official teaching of the Catholic Church; moreover, it seems reasonable James was Jesus’ brother because James succeeded Jesus as head of the Church in the first decade following Jesus’ crucifixion. Saint Paul for his part has zero problems implying Jesus and James are blood brothers.

[2] There have been 21 councils throughout the history of the Church. In particular, the Council of Nicea in 335 AD was the first and, arguably, last such council where dissenting or competing opinions had a real chance at adoption. The Council of Nicea addressed a long standing conflict between two competing beliefs—Dualism (Father-Son) and Trinity (Father-Son-Holy Spirit). There was a genuine debate between Bishop Arius (defender of dualism) and Athanasius (advocate for the trinity). The Church, which cannot really be said at this time to be centrally organized in the strictest sense of the word, neither had an official teaching on the topic nor the authority to decide the question by appealing to fiat; thus, the council was called to decide the matter. Arguments could be made in support of either view, I.e. Both sides of the debate used scripture to support their respective position as well as Greek philosophy. Athanasius’ argument carried the day, however, and formed the basis of the Church’s official doctrine extant to this day. His work On the Incarnation is indeed a solid argument for accepting the god-three-in-one position. I remember reading it in my early 20s and found it utterly convincing at the time.  Unfortunately, no method was available to Athanasius to falsify dualism other than deduction and logic. Ultimately, the debate may very well have been decided in Athanasius’ favour simply because he was the stronger of the two debaters or had more powerful friends than Arius or the zeitgeist favoured the adoption of Trinity.  Given, then, debate decided the issue isn’t it possible the Dualist position might still be correct despite Arius’ failure to convince a majority to support it? Or, by implication, might there exist a third option, e.g. God doesn’t exist, etc.

[3] The Church of course would assert the Gnosticism present in Thomas (~150 AD) is what disqualified it from being accepted as part of the official Canon. Of course the fact saying 12 places James and not Peter (who the Church traditionally traces its authority from based on Matthew 16:18) as head of the Church had nothing to do with this controversial gospel being dumped into the Apocrypha.

[4] In North America (2011 AD), an 85 year old and a 20 year old both enjoy democratic freedoms but for different reasons. The senior of the two literally fought for freedom at Omaha Beach while the young person inherited that freedom. The older person lived through the turbulent 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, War in Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, etc. while the young person has grown up in a world where women are equals and a person of colour is the president of the United States. The 20 year old inherited freedoms and rights he did not earn. He takes it for granted these freedoms have always existed as they are. He has no direct knowledge (perhaps even no awareness) of the existence of the guns of Normandy, the killing of anti-war protestors in Chicago by the government or that fire hoses and dogs were used by police to intimidate demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Beliefs, ideas, rights, etc. evolve and change over time—to understand them we don’t look at them as they are but rather as they were; and though freedom is just as real to the young as it is to the old it can be said with great certainty the old appreciate it differently. So it is with religious doctrines, i.e. they are inherited, passed on from generation to generation, their original reasons for being lost to us with the obscuring effects of time making them appear timeless.

[5] The ancient Hebrews themselves believed in multiple gods, e.g. Yahweh was the god of Judah (a warrior god) and his competitor was the god El (the great creator), the god of the Kingdom of Israel.  Two distinctive cults existed in two Hebrew kingdoms—Elohists and Yahwists—at the same time. They were not the same god. How did we end up with only Yahweh?  Yahweh triumphed when the people of Israel were taken into captivity (and the god El presumed defeated). The following three sources touch on the topic of Hebrew polytheism and polylatrism: Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (pg.115-133); Karen Armstrong, The Bible a Biography (pg. 17-18); and of course the Old Testament.

[6] Why is it men have more authority than women in every monotheistic culture? In the West, men dominated their societies and it is hardly a coincidence they fashioned father-gods in their own image; it stands to reason therefore that the world-view of a people shapes the nature of their god.  Men are in control; therefore, their god is a male who is also in control. Gods, far from being transcendent, specifically reflect their creators’ needs, wants and world-view. In his memoir Five Stones and a Sling, philologist and scholar Michael Goulder observed biblical scholars do not practice objectivity but go into their studies with certain fundamental assumptions already in mind.  On page 28 of Five Stones Goulder remarked: “My disappointment was due in large part to my inexperience.  I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome.  This however is only partly true.  Before new ideas come, scholars have [already] reached a consensus, and their position as authorities depends upon their agreeing with that consensus.  Their teachers, whom they normally honoured, had taught them the consensus; they had written their books assuming it, and therefore, to think that they and their fellow experts had been wrong and that a new scholar, of whom they had not heard, was in a position to put them right.  But there is another problem: most scholars of the New Testament have religious loyalties [going into any study]: they want the text to be orthodox, or historical, or preachable, or relevant.  So any new interpretation which does not fulfil these conditions is not likely to be approved.”

[7] The 18th Century Scottish rationalist David Hume observed, “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”  Hume was cautioning us not to assume we know something so well, so certainly or so truly no further work or understanding was required.  Hume’s biographer, Roderick Graham, asserted that though Hume championed the cause of reason he nonetheless felt relying on it alone led to intellectual complacency and blindness. Something was needed to prevent people from using reason simply to invent reality; something was needed to dissuade people from falling back on old certainties, e.g. expressly the use of induction (also known as the scientific method).

[8] Anselm of Canterbury echoed the Apostle Paul’s assertion “faith is evidence for things unseen” when he asserted belief in a thing was evidence for that thing’s evidence.  William of Ockham disagreed saying one could believe in unicorns but the belief in and of itself was completely impotent when it came to creating things.  Another example of this can be demonstrated in the subtleties of language, e.g. Angels have wings like birds whereas birds have wings. Invisible things are always like something with which we are familiar because we have no other frame of reference. By the way, Anselm was made a saint and Ockham was charged with heresy.

[9] The theologian Origen (184-253 AD) read scripture through a filter of love. Scripture to him treated un-allegorically meant nothing. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) likewise understood Scripture was not intended to be taken literally (he paid particular attention to Genesis). Andrew of St. Victor (1110-1175) tried a fully literal interpretation of Scripture.  None of these theologians, though differing in their emphasis, ever factored in the non-existence of God in to any of their conjectures.  Instead, they thought along the lines of the following contradictory dichotomy, e.g. God was a mystery but he was also a fact.

Ideas: Part 4: Historicity vs. Metaphor

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”—Mark Twain

When I was six I was gifted a pop-up picture book depicting a series of biblical stories. I recall thumbing through its pages reading about Noah’s Flood where humankind was destroyed by God in a deluge lasting 40 days. I read about the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years following their release from bondage in Egypt. I bible_popupwas a kid. I wasn’t formally educated; and I certainly wasn’t acquainted with either the Hebrew language or its associated idiom. So when I read this children’s book, and later the Bible itself in my early teens, I understood and interpreted numbers I encountered like 40 to mean a literal quantity, e.g. forty days or years. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Israelites frequently used numbers figuratively. Contemporary English speakers do this when they hear and use 13 (which, for whatever reason, they associate with bad luck).

While reading either Exodus or Genesis I assumed I was reading literal history, i.e. when an author said X happened I believed X happened just as described. In reality, since I didn’t grasp the full extent of my ignorance of Hebrew idiom, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In my late teens and early 20s, I concluded it was unwise interpreting scripture in so straight-forward a manner. So, I reasoned, if I genuinely wanted to understand what I was reading, I needed to learn more about the role figurative language played in the meaning and composition of scripture, e.g. why did biblical writers make such frequent use of numbers like 3, 6, 7, 12 and 40?

Contemporary readers attempting to understand ancient texts like the Torah or New Testament re confronted with a series of challenges: firstly, there are always issues when it comes to translating a book from one language into another. There’s no such thing as a perfect translation as even subtle differences in a translator’s usage of a single word can have significant implications for meaning.

In 1994 I took a university course on the thought of St. Paul while completing a minor in religious studies. Professor Donaldson, an expert on the thought of Paul, brought the following issue to the class’ attention: in Romans 3:24-25 the Apostle Paul writes that we are “justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation…” Some translations of this text use the word expiation in place of propitiation. The implication of using one word over the other is not insignificant: although both words share essentially the same root (the Greek word hilasterion meaning “mercy-seat”) there are essential differences, i.e. if Paul meant propitiate then Jesus appeased God by dying on the cross in our place thereby satisfying His anger and justice at us individually; however, if Paul meant to say Jesus was more of an expiation then Christ sacrificed himself as a sort of burnt offering (atoning for the wrong-dong of the nation as a whole). Making a long story short, one word (propitiation) suggests more or less Christ achieved salvation of the individual while the other word (expiation) suggests more of a collective or national salvation. Arguably, either word is usable; however, expiation is the better choice if we want our meaning to reflect Jewish thinking as it existed in the 1st century.

Secondly, as modern readers we tend not to precisely interpret texts in ways the original authors intend. Words aren’t static things; they evolve meaning one thing at one time and something else entirely at another. In the 15th century, the English word “nice” was used to mean “silly, foolish, and simple”. Today the term is used as a sort of compliment. (Interestingly, hints of nice’s original usage remain with us, if only subtly, e.g. when a person makes an especially foolish mistake sometimes a bystander will respond by uttering a facetious “nice” while shaking their head in disapproval.) Greek Christians in the 1st century used the word “awesome” to mean “inspiring reverential wonder or fear of God”. There really was no better way to communicate the smallness of humanity before the Almighty. Today we use this word to denote something either bad or unpleasant. We even use awesome as an adjective or descriptor indicating something is especially tasty or high quality. Comedian Eddie Izzard explains the absurdity of the word’s current usage in the following way:

The universe is awesome—using the original version, the meaning of the word ‘awesome’. Not the new one… I saw an advert for ‘awesome hot dogs’ only $2.99. If they were awesome you would be going, I cannot breathe, *gasp* for the way the sausage is held by the bun, *gasp* and it’s speaking to me…we are lips and thighs of a donkey, *breathless* but do not think of us as lips and thighs—or you’ll throw up. America needs the old version of ‘awesome,’ because you’re the only ones going into space; and you need ‘awesome’ because you’re going to be going to the next sun to us and your president is going to be ‘Can you tell me, astronaut, can you tell me what it’s like?’ ‘It’s awesome, sir.’ ‘What, like a hot dog?’ ‘Like a hundred billion hot dogs, sir.’[1]

Thirdly, readers are confronted by problems associated with understanding culturally specific idioms. Idioms are symbols and sayings obvious only to native speakers of a particular language. A few years ago while having a conversation with a grade 11 Chinese speaking student, he asked me a question about the significance of a particular battle during World War II. I answered eventually making use of the following phrase, e.g. “And Germany killed two birds with one stone”. He stood there puzzled wondering why I was talking about birds. Yet, if I spoke that same phrase to a native English speaker, they’d understand my meaning immediately, i.e. that the Germans accomplished two things through one action. Knowledge and awareness of idiom is crucial to making sense of the writing and thinking produced by disparate cultures from time periods other than our own.

gateFor example, in Mark 5:10 Jesus observes “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” A North-American residing in the 21st century would believe themselves justified interpreting Jesus as saying it is impossible for rich people to go to heaven because they cannot physically pass through that tiny little hole (called the eye) used to thread a needle. First off no camels are small enough to pass through the eye of a needle. Does this mean Jesus was saying nobody goes to heaven? To a Jewish person living at the time of Christ, they would recognize Jesus was making an allusion to a small gate in Jerusalem literally called the Eye of the Needle. If we want to understand what Jesus was actually saying, we need to be acquainted with Jewish history and think in terms figurative, not literal.

Lastly, all cultures interpret numbers figuratively.[2] This fact was pressed home for me many years ago while listening to an episode of CBC’s Ideas.[3] The show’s host was interviewing several philologists to discuss the historicity of the Book of Exodus. As luck would have it, they discussed the usage and meaning of the number 40. As I hinted at earlier in the introduction, I’d always suspected 40 connoted something other than chronological days or years. The philologists confirmed my thinking by asserting “40” was not intended to be interpreted literally as a quantity. Rather, Exodus’ authors used 40 figuratively signifying at one time a “time of trial,” at another “a time of rebirth,” yet another “a time of transition,” or a “really long time”.

Israel, as is the case with all ancient civilizations, was an oral culture that transmitted knowledge through, and was in turn shaped by, metaphor.[4] They resisted writing down their stories fearing doing so would direct the Jewish people towards legalism and narrow interpretations of otherwise dynamic teachings, i.e. while the written word preserves the letter of law it does so often at the expense of the spirit of what is intended. For example, the Sixth Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Kill. Interpreting this literally, or according to the letter of the law, one assumes that if they don’t kill someone then they are keeping the commandment; however, interpreting this according to the spirit of the law and the commandment becomes demonstrably harder to keep, e.g. killing by definition is harm; therefore, if I harm or hurt others in any way—gossiping about or conspiring against others for instance—I’m actually breaking the spirit (or intent) behind the commandment.[5]

This second interpretation of the commandment discussed above reflects a process in Judaism called MidrashMidrash was developed by religious scholars to preserve the flexibility of the oral tradition while working within a written or literal framework. Rabbis working within this framework were aware of the associated risks associated with literalism-legalism. So, when an individual comes to a teacher for assistance or to work out some sort of personal problem, rabbis were (and are) careful to explore both the literal and figurative truths communicated through scripture. The dynamic nature of this interpretive process suggests there’s no single correct way of reading the Torah.[6] The conclusions reached through Midrash are not prescriptive. Therefore, the interpretive act, and the knowledge acquired, is shaped by the peculiar factors uniquely affecting the individual in the present moment. Thus, to rabbis the use of Midrash implies scripture is alive—it can mean one thing at one time and something quite different at another. In other words, the Jews valued both free-thinking and flexibility as it related to religious observance and living an ethical life.

We don’t have to go far to find difficulties with biblical literalism or legalism. Many religious people believe Genesis must be accepted at face value, word for word, as a piece of history. If we do not do this, so the reasoning goes, then we are somehow lacking faith. I do understand why people feel this way, i.e. all reasonable people want their thinking and beliefs to line up with reality. If you read Genesis literally today, you’d be justified believing the earth is quite young (in the same sense someone reading the Gospel of Mark today would erroneously conclude Jesus was talking about needles/thread instead of gates). The problem with interpreting Genesis literally is we actually know how old the earth and universe are through science.

If the scientific consensus is to be trusted, and upon a thoughtful weighing of the available evidence I am confident this is case, the big-bangCosmos is approximately 13.82 billion years old while the earth itself (and the life on it) evolved over a period of approximately 4.5 billion years. Genesis presents an entirely different view, i.e. God created everything as it currently exists in exactly 6 days.[7] For the Israelites the number 6 connoted perfection; thus, it stands to reason someone living in either 1000 BCE or the present day who hears “God made everything in 6 days” (given our current scientific understanding) would be more justified thinking creation was perfect as opposed to created “as is” in six chronological days. If we continue favoring literalism over figurative interpretation, and if we want our thinking to line up with what we want to be true (as opposed to what actually is true), the literalist must deny science or resort to special pleading. There is no other way around the inevitable contradiction of believing the world so young given our understanding of the Big Bang, the physics of light, existence of the dinosaurs, and biology.

The literalist is confronted with a dilemma: either reject Genesis or reject science. This is a false dichotomy because there are other options available to us preserving our intellectual integrity and belief in God. We just need to acknowledge three fundamental things: firstly, if a literal interpretation of Genesis leads us to make mistakes this speaks volumes about our limitations, our ignorance, and our assumptions about what is possible or what is not; it says absolutely nothing about God. Secondly, if we want our thinking to line up with reality we must accept the scientific consensus (and there’s nothing about that consensus that says God does not exist). If we do not accept or at least acknowledge the honest challenge posed to literalism posed by science, we’re forced to continually make use of special pleading, e.g. God put dinosaur fossils in the ground to test our faith; and with this kind of faulty reasoning in mind, it seems at least to me hard to accept that the same God responsible for endowing us with sense, reason and intellect would require us to forgo their use in order to have faith in Him;[8] and thirdly, by making greater use of the flexibility afforded to us through Midrash and metaphor, etc. we can see faith doesn’t contradict reality (it complements it). If we do these three things, we can avoid painting ourselves into intellectual corners of our own making.

The virtue of flexibility of interpretation is lost upon most modern readers: living in the West in the 21st century, we are conditioned not to think metaphorically so much as scientifically. Therefore, when we read something, unless we’re aware of the need or are told to do otherwise, we more often than not accept things at face value assuming writers aren’t embellishing or being figurative; we believe they’re saying exactly what they mean. The fact is the ancients—Egyptian, Persian, Jew, Greek, and Roman alike—were poetic-figurative societies[9] unconcerned with historicity or accuracy like we are in our own time; on the contrary, they tended to be more concerned with making meaningful connections between the distant past and an unfolding present. They possessed priorities and values vastly different from our own.[10]

The ancient Israelites possessed different priorities than the Greeks—the Greeks were rationalists while the Jews were ostensibly religionists. Nonetheless, both peoples possessed figurative language, exercised reason, utilized logic, and were spiritual; however, the manner in which these two great cultures employed these things took them in different directions. For this reason it seems likely we moderns too possess different priorities than the ancients, e.g. we tend to look at the world rationally as opposed to poetically; and although we’re certainly capable of understanding metaphors today, we don’t necessarily recognize them when we see them in the writings of the Greeks or the Israelites. With this in mind, let’s take one last look at the Jewish understanding of 40; in so doing, it’s my hope readers will gain a greater appreciation for the role figurative language plays in the justification, and maintenance, of faith in the present day.

Forty was used as a symbolic reference meaning essentially “transition” or “rebirth”; and in that context the symbol was also thought to be an allusion to the 40 weeks it takes—from conception to birth—for a human baby to be born. The best evidence supporting a figurative understanding of 40 is the sheer frequency of its usage (see the list below). In all of these examples, Jews and Christians[11] as well, had a figurative understanding of 40 in mind.

[Exodus 24:18] 40 days Moses was on the Mountain to receive the Law of the Sinai Covenant [Transition]

[Jonah 3:4] 40 days Jonah in the Assyrian city of Nineveh [Transition]

[Ezekiel 29:11] 40 days Ezekiel lay on his side to symbolize the 40 years of Judah’s transgression [Rebirth]

[Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2] 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before his trial of temptation by Satan [Trial]

[Acts 1:3] 40 days Jesus taught His disciples after the Resurrection. On the fortieth day He ascended to the Father [Transition]

[Genesis 25:20] 40 years The age of Isaac when he married Rebekah [Rebirth]

[Joshua 5:6] 40 years The first Pentecost at Sinai to the taking of the Promised land [Transition]

40 years From Christ’s resurrection to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD [Rebirth]

40 years Moses in Egypt [Trial]

40 years Moses in Midian before his return to Egypt [Transition]

[Exodus 16:35; Deuteronomy 29:5] 40 years Israel ate manna [Long Time]

This list is by no means exhaustive.

Most people trust their teachers. I certainly trusted my grade two teacher teaching the class we were all made in the image of God. I was seven at the time and I took her literally, e.g. God had arms, legs, eyes, and basically looked like me. I’m not sure if my teacher meant to imply God was anatomically human or humans were anatomically godlike. Figuratively speaking, if we are indeed made in God’s image, I should think it more likely we resemble God more in our capacity to reason as opposed to sharing skeletal structures in common. Perhaps I’m not giving my well-meaning elementary school teacher enough credit. Nevertheless, if my subsequent years of teaching have taught me anything it is this: the majority of educators tend to content themselves transmitting the parent culture’s assumptions to young people; teachers just don’t know any better; and despite assertions to the contrary, most teachers (not all, but most) tend not to be in the professed business of teaching critical thinking. If anything they are in the practice of creating conformists, not thinkers.

When readers lack context, when they don’t know they should think more deeply about what they think about, they invariably resort to projecting their personal assumptions on to scripture: twenty years ago, I met a Christian fundamentalist named Bob. We met while both studying to be teachers at university. During one spirited conversation, Bob explained to me humans and dinosaurs lived at the exact same time and he could prove it. He directed my attention to the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job.[12] He implied this biblical-based creature was an example of a dinosaur (presumably a plesiosaur) and the people who saw it naturally wrote down a description. I was not convinced.[13] I find it remarkable that no parallel accounts of dinosaurs—from the Greeks, Phoenicians or Romans—exist.[14] If dinosaurs and human beings did co-exist, their interactions would have been global in scale; we should find expect to find evidence of these massive creatures in every culture; yet, there’s a paucity or lack of supporting literary or archaeological evidence.[15] This is because the co-existence never took place.

I took a class on Judaism in the 1990s while completing a minor in religious studies. I asked the professor (Rabbi Pavey) whether Leviathan was a reference to dinosaurs. He looked at me and then looked away furling his brow somewhat. He looked at me again shaking his head in the negative. He understood Leviathan to be a figurative reference (a symbol) to the “objective power of evil and sin over Israel”. If you have the benefit of Hebrew idioms in mind while reading scripture, biblical stories read quite differently. Metaphors are culturally specific. If you don’t belong to the culture producing the book you are reading, you won’t “get” or understand the meaning of specific symbols. You won’t. Bob thinking Leviathan a dinosaur is proof of this. Modern readers, by and large, simply aren’t equipped to understand scripture—without significant guidance—in the same manner as the Israelites.


[2] The most sacred number to the ancient Greeks was 10 (ten symbolizing the completion of a cycle). In different parts of Asia the number 3 is considered sacred: in Japan the Toshogu Shrine presents the Three Wise Monkeys, e.g. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. In Islam the number 5 is regarded as fundamental to Muslim life, e.g. the Five Pillars of Islam.


[4] Metaphors are powerful teaching and learning tools possessing an innate capacity to mean many things without necessarily signifying anything specific.

[5] Jesus added the following nuance to the keeping of such laws: Jesus observed married people who lusted after others were just as guilty of committing adultery as someone who actually acted upon the impulse. There was no difference. Thus, people are guilty of committing sin at the level of intention. This is drawn from Matthew 5:27-28.

[6] The idea of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

[7] According to Genesis God created light (on the first day) and then the stars (and presumably our sun) on the fourth. Shouldn’t the stars be created before light? For whatever reason, many of us simply ignore the contradictions we find in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

[8] This is an allusion to Galileo Galilei’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615): “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by other means give us knowledge which we can attain by them

[9] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, p.201-203; 305-310.

[10] The Greek writer Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was the first writer who actually tried to compose an accurate historical narrative. Writers before, and well after Herodotus, didn’t worry about composing historical narratives as you and I know them today. Instead, the role of the Western “historian” was that of a storyteller (not scientist), i.e. virtually all histories related to important kings and events produced during the medieval period, and well after, began with what a modern reader would consider an inexplicable reference to Adam and Eve. These writers made a point of connecting historical figures and events to God’s overall plan for humanity. For this reason the mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650 AD) distrusted the history of his time because these narratives had more in common with Aesop than with Copernicus. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History, “Myth, Legend, and Oral Tradition” (The Great Courses).

[11] The first Christians were Jews. They borrowed from Judaism and explained the significance of Jesus within a fundamentally Jewish framework (idiom and all).

[12] The word Leviathan literally means “whale” in Modern Hebrew.

[13] The idea of Leviathan is not exclusive to Israel. The Canaanites referred to the Leviathan using the name Lotan. According to the Canaanite cosmology, Lotan was a servant of the sea god Yammu. Israel assimilated the story through cultural exchanges with the Canaanites. The Canaanites and Israelites intermarried and lived with one another. This is a well-established fact (both scripturally and archaeologically); moreover, the overall evidence for cultural flow between Middle Eastern cultures is considerable given the fact virtually every culture possessed flood narratives, virgin birth narratives, and savior narratives. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, p.99-102.

[14] Some people point to the many and varied references to dragons as evidence of parallel accounts. There are two fundamental problems (at least) with this assertion: firstly, it’s an obvious example of special pleading; and secondly, the ancients did not write history in the same fashion as we do in the 21st century, i.e. in a desire to communicate events objectively. Instead, the ancients—including the Jews—embellished accounts, used figurative language, etc. in order to convey the great meaning and importance of noteworthy personalities and events.

[15] Every major city of the ancient world should have been surrounded by walls and fortifications designed to keep the more ravenous dinosaurs out. Yet, logically speaking, no human civilization of any significance could have developed while these massive reptiles wandered the planet. Mammals, humans in particular, needed the extinction of the dinosaurs in order to become an ascendant species.

Podcast Episode 18: Remembrance Day With Captain Troy Grant

In episode 18, Rick talks with Major Troy Grant about his experiences in the Canadian armed forces. Over the course of a 25 year career with the army, he served with the 8th Canadian Hussars, 3rd Bn Royal Canadian Regiment, 2nd Bn Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and the 1st Service Bn. Additionally, he served with the 416 Tactical Fighter Squadron. Major Grant completed tours in both Haiti and Afghanistan (among other places). He received a special distinction following his work in Afghanistan for coordinating the efforts of government and non-government players during Canada’s time in Kandahar. In this interview, Major Grant gives the audience the benefit of his experiences serving Canada and actively working to preserve our institutions.

Episode 18: Remembrance Day With Major Troy Grant

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast. Also, if you like what you hear please follow us on Word Press to receive notifications on when the blog or podcast is updated.


Episode 17: Freedom Fooders: Building Stronger Communities

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode 17, Jess and Rick interview Kirby Criddle. Criddle is one of three founding members of the Freedom Fooders—a grass roots initiative attempting to address the problem of food insecurity in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Freedom Fooders build food boxes placing them in various neighborhoods where need is perceived to be the greatest. The initiative has inspired similar actions in cities throughout Western Canada.

Episode 17: Freedom Fooders: Building Stronger Communities

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast. Also, if you like what you hear please follow us on Word Press to receive notifications on when the blog or podcast is updated.

Notes & Clarifications
1). During the podcast, the topic of safe injection sites were discussed. These sites are controversial because they offer a counter-intuitive solution to the problem of illicit drug use. The previous Conservative government opposed safe injection sites partly for economic reasons and partly ethical reasons. Specifically, Rona Ambrose, the former federal Minister of Health, argued essential resources were being diverted from treatment and prevention while drug use was being legitimated by Insite (the name of the safe injection program in Vancouver).

Conventional treatment and prevention services are essential; however, by adding safe injection sites people already addicted are provided safe needles (preventing HIV and hepatitis infections) and access to emergency services otherwise unavailable to people who struggle with addictions. According to a Maclean’s article published on July 20, 2015, Vancouver was in the midst of a health crisis that Dr. Thomas Kerr of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS called “the most explosive epidemic of HIV infection that had been observed outside of sub-Saharan Africa.” Since Insite (the name of the safe injection program) was established in 2003, British Columbia has gone from having the highest infection rate in Canada to among the lowest. Dr. Kerr observed, “In the immediate area around Insite, the 40-block area around the facility, there’s been a 35% decline in overdose deaths. And people who use Insite on a regular basis are 30% more likely to enter addiction treatment.”


2). Additionally, during the podcast the topic of how Medicine Hat is dealing with homelessness was discussed. Instead of just ignoring the homeless, the municipality of Medicine Hat is dealing with the issue head on. Mayor Ted Clugson led an initiative to provide homes (not just shelter) for people. He argued that it made “financial sense…You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.” During the initiative, Medicine Hat has provided living spaces for at least 885 people (nearly 1,000 people out of a city population of 61,000).

According to a paper published by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness called The State of Homelessness in Canada (2014), finding housing for homeless people in the short-term will cost municipal, provincial and federal level governments a lot of money; however, in the long-term instead of spending 7 billion a year on emergency shelters, social services, health care, and law enforcement and judicial costs, ending homelessness through a “comprehensive housing strategy would cost much less: 3.75 billion in 2015-16 and 44 billion over a decade [rather than 70 billion].”


Ideas: Part 3: The Problem With Ideology

People are literally the soil where ideas (or memes) are planted; ideas are planted by teachers, peers, parents, churches, advertisers, and governments; and for this reason thinking can be, paradoxically, a rather thoughtless process; it’s enough to make a person wonder whether or not anyone is capable of conceiving an original thought or if we’re doomed to always occupy intellectual spaces constructed by others.

Russia in the 19h century illustrates this notion of people being soil for the planted idea. Imperial Russia was a repressive regime with every attempt at revolution failing; that is, while violence is easy (all it takes is anger and hot heads) true reform is difficult; this is because change requires first articulating why reform is necessary and a public ready to listen. Thus, the Petrashevtsky, a reform-minded group of intellectuals (including a young Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)) avoided open conflict with the Tsar. Instead of open revolt, this group pursued a decades’ long strategy of exposing the Russian peasantry to the appropriate propaganda in order to “[win] hearts and minds, so that when, in the distant future, the revolution finally came, it could be sure of mass support” (Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, Page 103). The important role propaganda plays in shaping our understanding of the world cannot be discounted: we are literally what we think about; and the content of our thoughts is informed by the information we are exposed to; so it makes intuitive sense that all of us, to varying degrees, are influenced by ideology.

There are many different types of ideology, e.g. there’s fascism (a tendency to look inward for meaning and enemies), liberalism (a belief in a limited government and freedom of the individual), communism (a faith in the role of class conflict leading humankind inexorably towards the dictatorship of the proletariat), etc. and so on and so forth. For all their explanatory power, ideologies pigeon-hole our thinking; ideologies limit the options available to us by boiling complex issues down into simpler components like a party-line or a favored line of reasoning.

Turning our attention to economics, the support ideas like “trickle down economics” continues to receive from many despite the fact it objectively doesn’t work speaks volumes about how easily people are manipulated by propaganda mills. Trickle down economics, it was argued in the 1980s, would encourage broad economic growth across class lines; however, the opposite has occurred, in that, with the advent of globalization only the top 1% of Americans have actually benefited from this economic practice. Money didn’t trickle down; rather wealth tends to gravitate towards the powerful; and as money becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands the general population maintains its high standards of living, not by spending money it has earned at well paying jobs, but through the artificial purchasing power granted to them through access to cheap credit and financial deregulation. Trickle down economics simply doesn’t work. Yet, free market fundamentalists, ideologues in every sense of the word, keep selling the idea it works and the population keeps buying into the myth.

The blind faith some people have in free market fundamentalism, or its bastard-child trickle down economics, demonstrates the single greatest weakness of any ideology: ideologies only make sense if its foundational assumptions are accepted unquestioningly and at face value. To gain an appreciation for the absurdity of unqualified acceptance of any ideology, let’s discuss two situations drawn from the history of science:

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. He was notoriously distrustful of intellectuals. Stalin’s power was so complete he used his influence to have the history of the Russian Revolution actually re-written so the dictator appeared to have played a more important role than he actually did. He was uncompromising in the pursuit of seeing his particular vision of communism realized: only those pieces of art, music, history and literature reflecting the Leninist-Marxist ideology were acceptable. No other alternatives were entertained.

Leninism-Marxism not only made for some questionable Russian history, it also had deleterious effects on Russian science. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a preeminent geneticist working in agriculture during the time of Josef Stalin. Vavilov didn’t believe science had to be made to fit Leninist-Marxism; rather, he believed science was a process of discovery where the world revealed its secrets to us through testing. As a geneticist working in the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov accepted the idea that the building blocks of life (DNA) were comprised of tiny things called chromosomes and alleles; however, despite the evidence in support of this view, Vavilov was hounded out of Soviet science for accepting the existence of chromosomes, etc. by a pseudo-scientist, and Communist party hack, named Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).

According to Lysenko positing the building blocks of life were divisible into chromosomes and alleles was ideological heresy. True “socialist science” stressed the “unity” of the “whole organism.” Socialist scientists could not in good conscience tolerate any notion that tiny, individual pieces were responsible for shaping an organism; this was the scientific equivalent of saying society should be divided into different classes; however, Marxists asserted history was on the side of the industrial worker and the end of class systems and capitalism. Therefore, Lysenko forced Soviet science to conform to political expectations by directing professors, researchers, etc. to only study those ideas and models conforming to socialist expectations. If scientific ideas didn’t agree with communist ideology as interpreted by Stalin (or one of his lieutenants) it had to be abandoned.

The absurd thing is that even though the full structure of the DNA molecule wasn’t fully understood until the work of Watson, Crick and Franklin by the mid-1950s, we could still see this molecule with its chromosomes, alleles and such. Facts or reality don’t matter much to the ideologue though. Ideological purity is more important than possessing and adhering to the correct information. Thus, science in the Soviet Union—at least when it came to genetics—made the Central Committee and Stalin’s personal authority, and not physical-objective reality, the measure of what is true and what is not. In a scene resembling something out of the Spanish Inquisition, one Soviet scientist was apparently commanded to recant his “faith” in chromosomes by an important Soviet diplomat named Vyacheslav Molotov. The scientist had the stones to reply, “But does Comrade Molotov know more about genetics than I do?” The scientist, and anyone else who did not toe the party line, was dismissed. In the case of Vavilov, he was actually imprisoned for “believing in” Mendelian genetics (chromosomes, alleles, and all). Lysenko’s interference set Russian science back decades (Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, Pages 104-105).

A similar situation played itself out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A Nazi scientist attended a lecture given by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in the United States on the theory of relativity. This scientist returned to Germany excited by the paradigm changing implications of Einstein’s ideas. Excitement turned to disappointment, I am sure, when he was told to forget relativity because Einstein was teaching “Jewish physics.” According to Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), an anti-Semitic and Nazi proponent of the so-called Deutsche Physik (or “German physics”) movement, Einstein couldn’t properly apprehend the physical world because of his “Jewishness.”

Lenard argued that “the Jew conspicuously lacks understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.” Lenard’s view was, and remains, demonstrably false: between the years 1905 to 1931 no fewer than ten German Jews were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science (William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Page 251); moreover, as of 2014 the final of some 20 odd predictions made by Einstein based on the theory of relativity was confirmed, e.g. as the earth spins the surrounding space-time warps into a swirl like whip cream spun on top of a latte. For the record there’s no such thing as either German or socialist or Jewish physics or biology (there’s just physics and biology). However, the communist and Nazi examples illustrate facts don’t matter; it’s more important, it would seem, to force the world to conform to expectation.

Few of us actually appreciate the significance for how completely arbitrary or fabricated and accidental our worldviews are: if we were born to different parents, at a different time, on a different continent it’s a virtual certainty we would look at the world in directions that the accident of our birth pushes us. Although some ways of looking at the world are demonstrably better than others—thinking scientifically (objectively) as opposed to superstitiously or ideologically—there really is no single, right way, no ideology, which best describes the world we inhabit. So far as I can tell there are only preferences, prejudices, propaganda or a combination thereof.

The ideas we entertain as true are so near and dear to us we rarely see them for what they are—a snapshot of us fixed in time. Ideas aren’t outside of us (they wouldn’t even exist if humankind didn’t). Ideas are a reflection of the values, assumptions, and emotions of the individual as opposed to a reflection of the reality they purport to describe. For instance, I am a 21st Century Canadian. Although growing up in a democracy, my understanding of what constitutes a genuine democratic society is completely different from the view held by an ancient Greek from the city-state of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

An Athenian would have no problem accepting that the gods divided people into masters and slaves whereas my modern sensibility makes slavery completely incompatible with anything resembling democracy. I was also raised Catholic and taught by well-meaning parents and teachers the value of honesty, telling the truth and humility. For all intents and purposes I believed what I was taught was right and not living this way was somehow intrinsically wrong. Yet, by contrast, young boys in ancient Sparta were taught the value of being cunning, shrewd, calculating, and to steal; it was only ever wrong to steal if you were caught. The way I was raised was fundamentally different than how Spartan youth were.

Despite the fact different groups or governments value different ideas or possess differing worldviews over time, this doesn’t stop most of us from thinking we ourselves somehow are fortunate enough to possess the right understanding or right ideas. Yet, again, our particular understanding is just a snapshot in time of a person who just so happens to live where you do, had the parents you did, lived under the political/economic system you do, and so on.

So, whether you believe baseball is better than cricket, that women should remain subordinate to men or not, that the economy cannot be tampered with for the sake of the environment or not, or if you prescribe to a religion or not, etc. at some level you likely feel your particular way of looking at the world is closer to the truth than not (and you might even feel a combination of anger and compassion at the ignorance of others who don’t prescribe to your view). If our worldviews are just accidental collections of ideas which we just so happen to prescribe to at a given time in a given location, then what constitutes truth? What is knowledge? Is there such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world?

I fancy there isn’t…