Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.


The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.


Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:


“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”


My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.


Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”


My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.


Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.


And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?


7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?


Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”


My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.


However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:


A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( )


I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.


By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”


My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.


Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.


And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.


This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 


But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 


And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.


Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.


[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson, Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).

The need to enforce law against the conservative religious

Do Christians and Muslims and Jews, all members of the same supposed ‘Abrahamic’ lineage of belief, worship the same God? (The Mormons form a special case, since they insist they belong to this lineage, but are in fact polytheists.) At any rate, as most of us may already know by now, apparently Christians at Wheaton College don’t think so. ( ) (The ‘liberally’ minded professor of the article, suspended for suggesting to students that all the Abrahamic religious believe in one god, was finally fired for not recanting.)
Interestingly, the NPR article makes a spectacular theological mis-statement: “Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” No; that should read “SOME Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” (I would settle for ‘most;’ Unitarians are known as such because they don’t believe this.) Indeed, hundreds of ‘heretics’ have been slaughtered over the centuries for not accepting this ‘triune’ nature of the divine, while still claiming to be Christian. And of course differing interpretations of this triune nature have kept the Catholics and Orthodox at schism for almost as many centuries. (Is god three persons blended into one? or three manifestations of the same? Remember, people have died over this seeming splitting of hairs.)

Conservative believers of any religion generally have a very narrow understanding of the kind of god that they allow; and unfortunately these believers belong to competing sects (even if supposedly within a single religion), leading to interminable debate always threatening to break out into open violence.

Of course we should all know by now that Al-Bhagdadi of Daesh doesn’t even think all Muslims worship the same god (and would execute those not worshiping his. But that’s the fundamentalist way – utter paranoia that someone somewhere believes differently than they. What narrow minds these faithful have! And, how little faith – because of course, one can’t have faith in god, and fear that others might not not believe. If god is so powerful, what challenge could non-believers ever threaten him with? Obviously they are fearful for themselves – and on some level doubt the power of the god they keep threatening others with.

Probable psychological diagnosis: religious conservatism is born of guilt – the fear that one’s self does not truly believe in the manner expected by the mysterious ur-father (who, after all, reads all our deepest thoughts – so any doubt, he will know). Religious conservatives thus must constrain – punish – or destroy any who openly doubt without evident divine retribution (suggesting that doubt is beyond the power of the divine), in order to re-affirm their own faith (and thus deny doubts that subconsciously haunt them). Religious conservatism is thus an extreme form of projectively indirect (and vicariously masochistic) self control.

‘I’ll have to constrain – punish – or destroy you; otherwise I must punish or destroy myself (since leaving you be shows lack of self-constraint.)’

Does this make sense? No, of course not. But pathology never needs to make sense; it must only follow a lock-step of ‘reasoning’ – if B follows A, then C must be done – whether B actually does follow A or not. Basically, the conclusion is reached, then premises are decided to support it. Conservative religionists are paranoiacs who find sanction for their fears – and (often violent) reactions – in texts written in ancient tribes the historicity of which they cannot grasp and will not allow.

Liberal religionists have learned to prioritize their trust in god’s mercy and justice above their private fears and guilt. They are not threatened by differences nor by the thought or practices of non-believers, nor by those of believers in competing sects. But, though they frequently try, they can find no reconciliation with conservatives of the same religion, let alone those of other religions. Because conservative religionists will brook no reconciliation of differences. It is the very existence of difference that threatens them – and against which they act, through stridency of doctrine, segregation – or open violence.

I’m afraid the stridency of the conservatively religious makes rapprochement between them and others only enforceable by legislation. Once the law is established, for the safety and security of society as a whole, we can then tell the strident, ‘keep your god in your own damn house of worship, and leave the rest of us alone!’ (I know that also sounds somewhat strident; but really, one gets tired of getting preached at by every fanatic with a god.)

At any rate, the notion that religions, left to their own devices, can come to some equitable understanding, is frankly a little naive. It has happened, on occasion, in certain cosmopolitan centers in different cultures; but such peace is fragile unless enforced by law. Conservative believers have a difficult time accepting that others might not only believe differently than they, but might also live decent, meaningful, even happy lives believing differently. (That’s what really pisses them off.)

The fundamental injustice of religious reasoning

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56

So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.

The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.

Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**

Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.

(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)

As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.

Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.

As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:

There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.

Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).

The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.

This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.

* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:

“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”

“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”

“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)

“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”

“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”

“‘Jesus’ who?”

“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”

“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”

“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”

Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).

* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.

Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.

Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.

And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.

He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.

Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.

Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.

In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.

But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.

Things one can do with “Jesus-on-a-stick” (TM)

Christmas season approaches – that means it’s time once again to buy Jesus-on-a-stick (TM)!

This is available in the Deluxe model (actual wood), the All Purpose model (pressed board), and of course the Economy model (plastic) – although remember, if you choose the Economy model, do not burn it! Poisonous gas may be released.

Jesus-on-a-stick – Impress your friends and co-workers! A great gift for anyone at Christmas.

Christmas – the time of giving utterly useless baubles meant to indicate how much excess wealth you have to throw away – that’s right, rub the noses of your peers in how much you can waste, making them feel insignificant because they can’t give useless gifts as expensive as your own! (Only don’t try this with your boss, buy him something useful like a pen….)

This being Christmas, we also have – Baby-Jesus-in-a-bale-of-hay! Wow! Now, the Deluxe version will burn brightly all night! and into the flames you can toss a couple Hail Maries – both Mom and the whore who, you know, Jesus never slept with (ha ha!), Magdalene –

Jesus-on-a-stick will prove you are one with 42% of the population that believes the earth is only 6000 years old, and will immediately get you entry into the next Republican convention! A signed copy of a photograph of Ben Carson comes with the first 1000 copies sold (although admittedly these are signed by Jeb Bush…).

Be a real American! Not the Black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Female, or Arab Americans (and gays are straight out!) who form the majority of a population that you, as a white man, still demand dominance over. After all – do any of them own a Jesus-on-a-stick – doubtful!

So, ok, what can you do with your Jesus-on-a-stick?

You unwrap it,; you stare at it in admiration, in awe, in something like disgust. Then you – set it on fire! because what good is having a martyr you can’t consign to the flames? If he burns – he’s a witch! A fair cop, I say! (What are miracles but black magic given the Almighty’s approval?)

But then also, let’s get creative –

Anal itch? – scratch it with the Jesus-on-a-stick! Goes up all the way!

Go ahead and have a taste – its the “Body and Blood,” remember – nutriciousdelicious; it satisfies!

Haven’t beaten your kid lately? Jesus-on-a-stick provides disciplinary satisfaction every time!

Attach it to your penis (you’re a white MAN, right?) and jerk it – masturbatory orgasms shoot ever further with Jesus-on-a-stick!

Attach it to the back of your car – better than any bumper-sticker announcing you are just as intelligent as anyone hoping to be ‘beamed up by the Lord!’

Or just let it sing in the wind and attract the winged insects – swat them as they lick the blood of christ! No better fly paper anywhere!

Threaten your neighbor with Jesus-on-a-stick! See how fast he returns your borrowed lawn-mower, or that cup of sugar he tagged in order to cheat Lent last Easter. (Oh, yeah, those dam’ diabetics will do anything to get their sugar hit -!)

Jesus-on-a-stick keeps all Christians as dishonest as their nonsense religion wants them to be! So go ahead – use Jesus-on-a-stick in every way imaginable! Even stab your faithless wife through the heart with it! The Old Testament demands she should die, remember – and who are you to question the righteousness of the Lord?

Dead people make great christians! Always remember to plant a Jesus-on-a-stick in the dirt above a loved one! It may actually convince someone that your late beloved believed in something once. Just don’t forget to pay the burial costs (with tax), or we will have to report you.


Jesus-on-a-stick – Registered TradeMark and copyright Church o’ Rome productions, Trenton, New Jersey.

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.


*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion,

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955).

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.


Abortion: about justice – not biology, not god

Abortion: I know the topic raises emotional responses – including, obviously, my own. So I want to use the emotional appeal of my rhetoric to cut short appeal to personal emotion, by indicating that appeal to some theory of universal self-interest or universal sympathy concerning the fetus, is doomed to cancellation by confrontation with personal experience and differently directed sympathies.

The weight of justice seems to me to favor the interests of the living women who make this choice, not ‘possible persons’ the present ontological status of which remains in doubt.

It may indeed be the case that the legalization of abortion contributed to a coarsening of our culture, a loss of a certain sensitivity – but there are important legal reasons why this cannot be undone, and my position is that justice weighs in favor of accepting this, and considering the whole issue in a manner that allows us to live with it.

To begin with, I don’t believe human life begins at conception. “Homo Sapien” is a biological category, “human” is an ontological category. I deny the two are identical. There is no (and for theoretical reasons, cannot be) evidence to the contrary.

Thomas Aquinas argued that no human life came into being until an infant demonstrated personality, demonstrating that the soul had been implanted in the body, which he reckoned to be about four months. The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion doesn’t hinge on the existence of ‘human’ life in the fetus, but on the life in pontentia, pre-determined by god. But I don’t believe in god. So let us recognize the strength of the one claim, concerning the development of personality, while recognizing that the second claim, reliance on god, is unpersuasive to unbelievers. The point being that the matter turns on the definition of ‘human being,’ and this point cannot be decided scientifically, because it is an ontological category, that can only be decided ideologically or philosophically. But in this culture, it cannot be decided religiously. Thus, the point is so open and filled with possibility that only small groups and individuals can realize which definition of ‘human being’ they wish to pursue.

This problem can be somewhat mitigated by law, but the Supreme Court has decided that the Constitution has limited jurisdiction over the matter, and that individuals must wrestle with their choices by themselves.  That’s as it should be.  If we were talking about real, existent persons the matter would be otherwise.  But we are talking about an infinite number of ‘possible persons,’ which would individually fall out into a hard reality that is frequently poorly prepared, impoverished, punishing.  Abortion may be the greatest act of mercy in certain circumstances.

Anti-choice proselytizers squall about the ending of life in the womb. Then they should develop a system of incubation, whereby the excised fetus can be brought to maturation outside the womb. They should also find funding for the raising of these children afterward, rather than condemning them to the ‘care’ of women who do not want them, cannot afford them.

And they should explain why they so willingly send these children off to die in war, or send them to the gallows when the pressure of their unfortunate births may lead them to transgress. *


But: ‘What if your mother had chosen abortion?’ I wish she had, putting an end to years of manipulation and abuse.

My mother had a different idea: she believed that if she had enough children, perhaps her drunkard husband would stay married to her. Reproduction was then her only strategy for control over an abusive man she should never have married in the first place – except that, at the time unmarried women approaching 30 were considered disreputable failures. (When that strategy failed, then she seemed to have decided that she could manipulate her children to die before her, thus assuring herself a kind of ersatz immortality. It worked with my two sisters, who both died at age 50 – thoroughly scrambled psychologically by the many mixed messages from their mother, especially concerning sexuality and procreation.)

There are some women who should not have children; and all women should have the right to an informed choice with real options for living their lives well. Denial of this corrupts them, corrupts the men involved with them, corrupts the very fabric of society.

The whole anti-choice argument stands on the assumption that the ‘nuclear family’ is natural and inevitable, shored up with instinctual caring, which the surrounding community re-enforces. That’s untrue. The ‘nuclear family’ is an ideal, and ‘instinctual caring’ is a religious belief. Humans are too variant in their motivations and behaviors to provide the kind of generic surety the anti-choice arguments seem to take for granted.

Nothing of this yet addresses the problem of the right of a woman to her own body. Until a fetus reaches a maturation towards birth – sustainable life outside the womb – it is little more than a parasite. It is homo sapien; it is not yet human. It doesn’t enter that process of becoming until it is born. No excuse for causing it suffering – but no reason to keep it alive.

The woman involved is a living human, she is an already ontologically becoming human being. She should not be denied the opportunity to choose the path of her own becoming.

My mother didn’t know any better. Now women know that some parasite in their body is no reason to devote their entire lives to the result of rape, brutality, oppression and enslavement.

Shall we deny them this? enforce religious belief through state strictures punishable by imprisonment? That won’t stop women seeking the relief they need from impossibly difficult situations. So, should we return to coat-hanger abortions in unsanitary backrooms? Hundreds of thousands of women suffered injury or death in those days – already existent persons suffering because of religious hypocrisy pretending to be law. No thanks.

I wish the whole world vegetarian. But that’s not so. Wishing a world where abortion is not a reasonable choice is unrealistic. I must accept women’s claim to controlling their reproductive destiny. The choice must be theirs. Denying this is profoundly unjust.

I care for the living, not the dead and the unborn. The former no longer suffer, the latter need not ever suffer. The suffering that exits now is what we must help to lessen.


* I here must laud the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment and unjust wars; at least in their opposition to abortion, they can claim consistency, which is much more than can be said of the American Religious Right that terrorizes us with fake videos and inflammatory rhetoric.