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.

https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/anatomy-of-a-frustrating-conversation/

 

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.

( http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html )

 

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.

 

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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 et.al., Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

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

Dogs pee on trees, humans tell lies

There is no inherent wrong lying. Lying, misrepresentation, deception, are simply tools in the language kit-bag we all carry, in order to communicate comfortably with others who may or may not share our perspectives. I have known quite a number of people rigidly committed to ‘absolute honesty’ (including myself, at one point in my life). I have never known anyone who has not told lies, who does not regularly or periodically, even routinely tell lies. Especially to themselves (how could one believe one’s self ‘absolutely honest’ otherwise?). Asking the human animal not to tell lies is as effective as asking canine animals not to spritz their scent on trees. It is a part of their being.

So: Two quotes, as comment:

“I assure you that (politicians do not lie). They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

“(T)he wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.” – Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

The question is not whether we will lie – the only question is whether we lie viciously, or appropriately and kindly.

(Of course, being the King of New York, I find it useful not to lie about anything but my age – I’m really 16 – and the fact that I’ve been to the moon twice disguised as two different astronauts.)

In any event: As comparison (with a Kantian flavor as spiced by Schopenhauer), we would find it difficult to imagine a world in which everyone was trying to murder everyone else, at least some point in their life (although certain role-play computer games come awfully close). But it is not difficult to imagine a world in which everybody lies at some point to someone, because that is the is the world in which we live.

Take a specific example. Often we find the debates concerning what might be called ‘ethical lying,’ circling around the ‘white lie,’ a falsehood which benefits another. I want to consider a social imperative that effectively moots the ethic altogether.

Most of us in the working class are expected to lie at work. At the very least, we are expected to reply to an executive’s inquiry concerning our morale, that we are content with our jobs, and loyal to our employers. Not doing so can result in punitive repercussions, even expulsion from employment. ‘Not happy with your job? Well, don’t worry, you’re not working here anymore.’

This kind of lie-inducing situation has recurred with variation for many centuries; it’s a fundamental feature of any class structured society. In some previous cultures the punitive measures could include torture or death.

But contemporary employees are also expected to lie on behalf of their employers (as part of their presumed loyalty), the most obvious case being retail employees who must sell to clients for maximum profits, regardless of actual value to purchasing consumers.

Now before we condemn the dishonesty generated by such situations tout court, we should be aware that there are important gradations among differing power relations and the persons involved. My favored car mechanic appears to be pretty upfront – ‘these are our services, and this is what we charge,’ with no (apparent) add-ons. But the work is good enough so that if there are add-ons, I’m willing to ignore them.

There are also ranges within which such dishonesty reaches limits and actually becomes open to rebuttal and punishment. It is such moments of open transgression that are socially noticeable and raise issues of honesty and dishonesty in public discussion.

Now, to return then the more general problem: One reason we have no difficulty in condemning certain acts, like murder, as inherently wrong or immoral (whether categorically or prima facie) is because so few people actually perform such acts (when murders are committed en masse, of course, we call this “war” and criticize it using other criteria). But how can we hold as inherently wrong or immoral behavior that everybody engages in at some point or other?

This BTW has been the dilemma facing the moralists of major religions for generations, and has generates reams of religious apologetics, qualifications and hair-splitting, as well as practices of repentance and redemption, temperance and forgiveness. Eg., sexual intercourse without intent to reproduce is technically considered wrong even among major Christian churches, but there is a kind of wink or dispensation when it occurs between married partners – as long as it is not done ‘lustfully.’ ie., enjoying one’s own sex through the body of another. (But how is this even meaningful?)

Do we simply condemn the whole species as ‘evil’ (as some churches do)? Or do we admit that human behaviors are complex and indefinitely variable, and that ethics rather trails after many of them, as a means of understanding, rather than prescription. (And, yes, we can have an ethic that treats different behaviors in different ways – utilitarian sometimes, de-ontologically otherwise, virtue ethics for ourselves, Confucians regarding our parents, Aristotelian regarding our friends, etc., etc.

So what I suggest here is that we conceive of an ethic that treats behaviors universally engaged in, along a spectrum of social acceptability, in a different way from behaviors that are infrequent and/or openly transgressive.

Lying is simply a form of communication, and a behavioral tactic of social survival. The presumed transgressive character of the behavior, which is useful to teach in order to prescribe the limits of acceptability, is something of a pretense – again, useful; but not entirely honest.

But what human behavior could ever be?

“I thought I would be honest –
what a dream!”
– Browning

—–
Developed out of a comment made at: http://theelectricagora.com/2015/11/26/the-scrooge-charade/

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.

Forgiving Santa, in three notes (2)

2. When I was about 5, we went to visit my mother’s parents for Easter. The night before, I discovered that the Easter Bunny was my Grandmother, and, in some good humor, I told her so.

One would think a reasonable adult would see this as a teachable moment. But not all adults are reasonable.

I was beaten black and blue. I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, I stopped believing in Easter, I stopped believing in my Grandmother, and in my mother who supported her. From then on – until I actually practiced (and not just studied) Buddhism – it was me against the world; and more and more similar experiences with my mentally warped family re-enforced this.

This isn’t the typical experience, I know; yet similar experiences occur more frequently than we would like to suppose.

I hate Christmas. The very idea of it, triggering so many painful memories, offends my sense of well-being. I rise above it through practicing detachment from such memories and focusing on the present day. But while I do not interfere with whatever happiness others enjoy at Christmas – which I suggest is much less than we pretend there is – I treat the whole season like a bad horror movie one has to sit through to get to the second feature.

Spoil the fun of Christmas? Frankly, a part of me wishes I could. The unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) promises of the season are unnecessarily vain and artificial – and so inevitably disappointing.

But much of our aspirations are, so feel free to box this comment and mark “Do not open until New Year’s.”

But experiences like mine should serve as reminder of the limits of the ‘cheer’ and ‘joy’ and ‘good will to all’ of some traditions we are expected to observe without complaint (otherwise we’re ‘spoiling the season’ for others).

Experiences like mine raise questions concerning undertones that may not have much to do with reasonableness. Why was my Grandmother so threatened by discovery of the Bunny fraud? why do people with experiences like mine continue, year after painful year, to struggle to achieve a sense of belonging, of enjoyment, that can never be theirs? what are we really expecting from holidays anyway?

I have four close friends. Two never had children. Of these two, one never bothered with holidays unless he and his wife were invited to parties among people they really cared about. The other kept going to family get-togethers for years – unhappily, complaining afterwards – until the migraine headaches these experiences caused finally reached health-risk proportions. He then let his family know, in no uncertain terms, that he and his wife would no longer attend such endurance tests and would only observe – privately – those holidays they felt comfortable with.

Of the two friends who have children, one celebrates Christmas in the accepted traditional way without much trouble. A practicing Catholic, however, he never bothered with the Santa story with his daughter, because he did not see it as necessary to what he believes to be the spiritual truth of the season.

The other friend, also with a daughter, is a complete atheist with no interest in the season, and so never taught his daughter anything about Santa, because, why bother? Both these daughters seem to be turning out ok and untraumatized, despite the lack of shared fiction-making at an early age.

That’s what the Santa story (and, I suggest, much of Christmas) really amounts to – collective fiction-making. The Nativity may truly be a myth, since many adults accept it, but the Santa story is just a story (not even legend), since no one who inquires reasonably into it can accept it – not even children.  Like all shared stories, it serves its social purpose for many (and commercial purposes for quite a few), but frustrates, or simply bores, many others. The real question is why we make such a fuss over it, one way or another. What is the emotional or psychological investment here?

I’ll leave that as a question for further inquiry.

Forgiving Santa, in three notes (1)

1. I think the emotions and psychology that form our perspectives on cultural issues ought to be acknowledged; otherwise we will be misled into thinking those perspectives are coming from somewhere above, as if intellect were divorced from personality. This has certainly been an ideal in Western philosophy, but is easily falsifiable once biographical information is taken into account. We are humans first; and then, if lucky and industrious, thinkers after.

Currently, I’m considering the problem, that Santa Claus * is a construction of collective fiction-making or story-telling (rather than a myth), and considering some of the social uses of this, in order to come to terms with a season that, frankly, annoys and depresses me (when I let it remind me of where I came from).

But first, a comment from a perspective fortunately under-represented in the ‘War on Christmas’ debates so far:

“You ever noticed how easy it is to transform ‘Satan’ from ‘Santa’? Just move the ‘n’ to the end. And presto! ‘Satan’ appears.”
(…)
“Is ‘Claus’ another anagram for ‘Lucas’? It’s no secret Lucas and Lucis are new-age “code words” for Lucifer.”
(…)
“Maybe Santa Claus means ‘Satan’s Claws’? Like a lion’s ‘claws’? ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’: 1 Peter 5:8
(…)
“I am sure many reading this are thinking, ‘Aw, c’mon, Santa Claus is just fantasy. What is the big deal. Nobody takes it serious.’
And that is where you are WRONG – DEAD WRONG! Those little children take their Santa very serious! They literally worship him! They believe and love Santa with all their heart!
Most parents would never teach their beautiful little children such a lie as Santa Claus. Most parents would never openly lie to their children. Especially something that is a blasphemous imposter of the Lord Jesus.
And Satan knows this.
So he disguises the lie in a nice little package of make-believe and fantasy. He creates a harmless ol’ jolly fellow that just loves little children. And most parents think, “Now what could be wrong with that?”
Fantasy. . . Satan’s ‘magic weapon.’ “

– Dr. Terry Watkins, of Dial-the Truth Ministries, “Santa Claus, the Great Imposter,” http://www.av1611.org/othpubls/santa.html

The (lengthy) article is a remarkable document – it is filled with esoteric research, interpretive strategies bordering on the schizophrenic, and a strangely holistic paranoia presenting itself as calm reasoning. It’s a reminder of the need not to let our concerns over fantasy become themselves fantastical. ‘Satan’s magic weapon’ may really prove nature’s greatest gift – properly co-ordinated with the real, of course.

—–

“Did atheists invent Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to brain wash children into doubting and questioning other imaginary beings like the christian God?”  Daldianus, http://community.beliefnet.com/go/thread/view/34789/13191119/Santa_Claus:_atheist_conspiracy

—–

Oh, Santa! Thou marvelous Satan’s tool!
How could I have ever doubted you,
to ‘mis’lead the youth away from childish things
and introduce them to wild imaginings
of charity and hope,
away from the bigots who cry “nope, nope, nope!”

_____

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

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.

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