My Facebook Memories for November 18th

Here’s something a little less serious and maybe a little more humorous. My Facebook memories for November 18th from 2012 through to 2017.

Edified by My Cat
Edified by my cat. She was banging at the deck door where the neighbor’s cat stood mocking her silently. My kitty was banging the door in an attempt to tear it off its hinges. The other cat just sat there all Charlie Chaplin-like. So I ran to the deck with a toy light saber in hand, opened the door, and chased the interloper away. My cat followed me out peering defiantly in to the darkness in a posture akin to one held by someone saying to themselves, “That’s what I thought.” She followed me back in. I sat down with my laptop to continue working. Then she jumped up on my computer, looked at the deck door, looked at me, back at the deck door and then hissed. She snuggled me a minute as if to say “You done good” (my cat has terrible grammar).


Strange Dreams

I had the weirdest dream last night. Picture this, Mr. Freud. A subtle, in so far as I can tell, unwritten Radiohead song (strong acoustic and drum presence) playing in the background. I am a female, East-Indian physics student at a university during the Apocalypse, e.g. riots, chaos, etc. During one of the stranger conversations I had with my female colleagues I quoted some fictitious physicist saying, “Purity in the theories of physics is not limited by physics but by our DNA.”

Is that what it’s like for females all of the time?

Losing My Religion
Teaching my kids catechism tonight. My son Alec observes the following during the group conversation:

Alec: dad.
Me: yes Alec?
Alec: [alluding to a previous discussion we had concerning the uncertainty of “Heaven’s direction” (90 degrees up from wherever you happen to be standing on Earth) making the direction of Heaven to an Australian the complete opposite to that of a Canadian] you know how all our “ups” are different but everyone’s “down” leads to the same place?
Me: yes?
Alec: we at least know where one place is…

Advertisements

If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.

The Problem with Deduction

Scholastics were medieval theologians and philosophers who focused their efforts on protecting the teachings of the Catholic Church from being challenged and replaced. They never tested anything empirically.[1] Instead, scholastics emphasized the importance of “revealed truth” in figuring out what was right from what was wrong. This means they relied on God Himself to talk to them and reveal truth to them. The problem with relying on revelation was determining whether God was actually talking to you or you were simply talking to yourself. There was no way to scientifically test where the voice (and ideas) were coming from; it was, after all, quite possible scholastics were just convincing themselves God was inspiring them. Ultimately, scholastics had one purpose—to defend Church teachings from challenges by freedom seeking kings, questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction. [2] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to create a big idea from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

_____________________
[1] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[2] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.

Do You Need to be Religious to be Moral?

Do you have to believe in God to be a moral person?

No.

It suffices one believes their own individual actions are meaningful. You don’t need to appeal to anything other than that. In the context of Christianity (and every other major religion except Buddhism), there exists this assumption one has to be religious to first be moral; and there are plenty of historical examples of secular-minded leaders and thinkers who have accepted this premise: in his Farewell Address, George Washington argued it wasn’t possible for a people to possess a direction if it didn’t first possess a religious anchor. Abraham Lincoln appealed to Providence (a synonym really for God) to demonstrate slavery’s evil. I would argue, though, that there’s no real need to appeal to Providence to demonstrate slavery is wrong: all I need to do is ask the slave a simple question like “Do you want to be a slave?” And if they respond by saying “no” the rightness or wrongness is concrete–in the here and now–well established. No need to appeal to Providence (when in fact Providence was used in the 19th century to justify the continuation of slavery, e.g. See the biblically based and dubious justification called “Curse of Ham“).

In reality, God for the theist acts fundamentally as an anchor or a concrete starting point (providing an internal sense of contrast of what constitutes right behavior from wrong). Human beings crave certainty and if it can be demonstrated concretely that God wants us to do either this or that action then a certain clarity is brought to existence. Yet, if all we need is an anchor, agnostics and atheists and everyone in-between all possess them; they may not all appeal to divine beings, or external measures, as that anchor but the anchors nonetheless exist in mind and motivation. Interestingly, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) argued in his Letters and Papers from Prison that boiling down God, or morality, as immovable anchors or standards was simply no longer an option: in the infancy of humankind we could appeal to the wisdom of following rules; however, in the 20th century, when Bonhoeffer was writing, with all of our advances in both scientific and theological scholarship, we had to grow up and start taking more personal responsibility for living in the world (pages 478-480).

All theists, agnostics, and atheists, believe that what they do and believe is meaningful; the only true difference that exists between these three categories of moralists is the agnostic stresses intellectual integrity and consistency while accepting certain questions are by their very nature unanswerable; atheists abandon any external justifications (other than collective experience and logic) for their actions instead choosing to take personal responsibility for them. For atheists and agnostics, in particular, meaningful action (and by extension morality) comes from a simple act of faith (so to speak) that what they do matters in the here and now (and not “necessarily” in a life that is to come).

Speculating on Religion with a Friend

I think you are correct to place greater emphasis on the study of scripture over theology.  If you do otherwise, you place the proverbial cart before the horse so to speak.  However, I would argue it isn’t possible to read scripture and avoid practicing theology.  This is because all scripture at one time was theology (simply one step removed from formal promotion, canonization or doctrinal fiat).

I know your personal preference: taking scripture as a whole—not fretting over the peculiar historical circumstances making each book unique and thereby preserving a particular unity in perspective. However, this broad approach (while it has its place) notwithstanding, the Book of Isaiah did not “come out” fully-made and co-equal with Exodus. In the case of Isaiah, its significance was recognized only eventually and only eventually adopted as authoritative; but until enough time passed Isaiah was used by Jews in the same way early Christians regarded the Apostle Paul’s letters (a guide or as supplemental to scripture). Thus until its adoption as authoritative Isaiah (which took two centuries to compose) remained “theology”.

So there’s a bit of an irony when people occupying the present consider themselves possessing a comprehensive view of things, scriptural experts if you will, or some such thing; that is, only the weight of historical circumstances makes this even possible; that being, it just so happens you and I were born after all of these books were written and finally incorporated into the New Testament around (391 AD) or the Tanakh (depending upon which source you consult finally assembled sometime between the years 200 BC and 200 AD).

In the case of the New Testament, if you happen to be born in the year 200 AD the Trinity is theology (speculative) not scriptural (literally authoritative) but if you’re born in 350 this idea is held as possessing scriptural authority because it is finally written down in scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in either the so-called Old Testament or the earliest versions of 1 John.  The Comma Johanneum (or the biblical justification for the existence of the Trinity) was eventually added to John’s letter during the Council of Nicea in the 4th century CE. The doctrine was arrived at following the “Arian controversy” where two church fathers (and their respective factions) wrestled with the nature of God’s relationship to Jesus. The Arians had the audacity of not regarding Jesus quite as godlike as was believed warranted and eventually the supporters of Athanasius’ views on Trinity carried the day. That is not to say that the Trinity was invented at Nicea. Far from it. The first time the word appears in writing is in the work of Tertullian (~150 AD) apparently—he is credited by most sources as the one who coined the Latin term “trinitas” to describe the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it must pre-date Tertullian in some respect.

I don’t get the impression the notion of Trinity was well-understood before Nicea. Arguably, more Christians of the early Church accepted the idea of “dualism” as the more plausible (there weren’t three persons in one God but a father, adopted son, and a spirit (intent really) shared between the two). Instead, it was Origen (~200 AD) and later Athanasius (~335 AD) who, in no small part was influenced by the writings of the non-Christian thinker Philo of Alexandria (~50 AD), who used a combination of Jewish allegory and Greek philosophy to describe the relationship of “three distinct persons sharing the same substance”.  Philo also introduced the idea of Jesus being the divine Logos (“Word of God”) present at creation as presented in Genesis. So, you need Philo to first establish, through an ad-mixture of Greek rationalism and Jewish thinking, the existence of a Logos (“Word of God”) distinct but not separate from God to get to Tertullian then to Origen and finally to Athanasius. In short, Trinity is “theology” and not “scriptural” for approximately two centuries within the Christian tradition (and it is not genuinely part of the Jewish tradition whatsoever). So if you think Trinity is “scriptural” and contemplating it is consistent with a purely scriptural/non-speculatory approach this is something of a comforting illusion.

I think the early church was actually reluctant to “theologize”.  I’ve got certain gaps in my learning to be sure yet from what I can tell it appears the Church had no choice but to defend itself against obviously false doctrines. These “false doctrines” are not obviously false, in that, you cannot literally ask God questions for clarification or scientifically falsify a doctrine by comparing it to some sort of phenomenon in the objective world. These false doctrines were either “logically” absurd and/or “scripturally” dubious like “matter/flesh is evil” and therefore “Jesus could not have been a physical being”; or Jesus was not truly human and that he only “seemed” to possess a body, suffer and die (according to one heresy I’ve come across Jesus switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene and laughs at all the stupid people as Simon, not Christ, is crucified).  The frightening thing is that there are people who still think like this; that being, they mistake the particular thoughts they have in their heads or their particular world-view as God’s. I would suggest, politely, they are deluded in their sense of certainty.

How is matter “evil” by the way?

Assumption: because we are sinners and God is perfect. Wow. Slam dunk there. Pure-speculation. The church fathers simply provided counter-arguments to discourage heresy and encourage orthodoxy (or unity for unity’s sake). I’d even argue that the church fathers were attempting, ironically, to diminish the role of the intellect in one’s faith life. They were trying to encourage ortho-praxis (or “right conduct”). Loving your neighbor, after all, is what living your faith is all about and not having the right ideas in your head. The only problem is people act on the basis of the thoughts they have (“you are what you think about”).  So you need to reign in the imagination from time to time, check your intellect at the door, and just be good to one another.

In all honesty, I do not think the various church fathers believed they were writing something scientific or infallible; that is, describing phenomenon that could be tested (affirmed); nor were they articulating concepts that could be falsified or made plain to everyone through some form of experimental validation. On the contrary, I think they knew they were intuiting and inferring and creating and did not mean to imply (as we moderns think) they were deciding issues for all time. In reality, they were just being pragmatic and addressing specific problems as they encountered them in their day. I do not think this means we are necessarily completely ignorant of what God actually is…it just means we are fundamentally ignorant: I rather doubt the following took place, e.g. Thomas raises his hand and asks Jesus, “Are you the second or the third person of the Trinity?”  Jesus responds, “I am the Second.  Next?”  Peter: “Are you literally present in the bread and wine when we do the whole Last Supper thing?”  Jesus responds, “Yes.  The bread and wine literally, not symbolically, become me.”  This Q & A session never happened.

Not sure if you’ve read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  I read it when I was completing my religious studies minor in around 1991 or so.  I was quite taken with it at the time.  Here’s a link to it in full: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm
 

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.

 

Notes
[1]
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/syrian-refugees-poll-trump-1.3988716

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.