Sunday, April 12, 2015

May the Circularity Be Unbroken

Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cezanne
"All Scripture is breathed out 
by God", 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Have you wondered why so many people believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, that the book is an “inerrant” document and all the tales, histories, biographies, and timelines are undeniably true and accurate? With just a little reading and reflection of the book, wouldn't it be obvious that there are too many inconsistencies, contradictions, and second-to-none tales of imagination and fantasy for anyone to believe? To understand why anyone would, it might be helpful to trace the origins of the idea and follow one possible thread of circumstances leading to it.

Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography follows a historical trail from what she believes is the origin to a period in the early Twentieth Century. Armstrong says that the claim of biblical inerrancy is a relatively recent phenomenon—really getting started less that about 150 years ago—and earlier interpretations (of the limited few who had the opportunity to read and evaluate the material) accepted the more realistic viewpoint that the Bible, while serving as the foundational narrative of Western religion, was also rich with allegories, mythical representation, and presented a morality play sui generis of good versus evil.

But in the late 18th Century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza claimed that the Bible could not have been of divine origin given the number of contradictions, and from that conclusion began construction of his “pantheistic” interpretation of the worldly order.

His criticism would become known as the “Higher Criticism” (later called “historical criticism”) and was taken up for study by other contemporaries of the age: "By the end of the eighteenth century, German scholars led the way in biblical studies and were taking Spinoza's historical critical method to new lengths…” (1) leading to the revelation ”By the nineteenth century, it was generally agreed by the scholars of the Higher Criticism that the Pentateuch was a combination of four originally independent sources.”(2)

These sources, writers or transcribers, would come to be designated J (Yahweh), E (Elohim), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly) and are still the standard model for interpreting the different nuances of style and terminology of the Torah. Moses as the author was now officially debunked.

It didn't take long for the thoughtful among the devoted to realize that this was a problem—the sole foundation, the surviving written account and singular record and history of Judaism and Christianity was now shown to be error prone. And if one or many— each and every error contributed to devaluing the veracity of the whole. Making things worse, the results of these critical works was reaching a larger audience— people of modest means were by now beginning to have greater access to the printed word. Specifically, a work called Essays and Reviews published in 1861 by seven Anglican clergymen created an such an uproar that little attention was given to a work published two years earlier that would soon become the most formidable and durable challenge to the seven day creation of a young earth related in the Bible: Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. But “Darwin did not attack religion and at first the religious response was muted.”(3)

The challenge to the divine inspiration of the holy book now firmly defined, apologists for inerrancy scurried from the woodwork. Pastor Dwight Moody published Many Infallible Truths in 1895, nine years after founding the Moody Bible Institute; Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield of the Princeton Theological Seminary worked together on an 1881 article about the inspiration of the Bible, and Warfield would later publish the book The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. “The belief in biblical inerrancy, pioneered by Warfield and Hodge, would..become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial.” (4)

The foundation for perhaps the largest intellectual scam in the history of Western thought was now laid, brought about as a reaction from fear (rather than a result of a premeditated conspiracy)—a fear of a loss of trust in a fable-backed religion which had heretofore been such an easy and accessible method for gaining and maintaining power and control of the innermost psyche of a populace needing and searching for security in a tumultuous world. The gross circularity of the apologetic, buried in volumes of abstruse verbiage made it particularly offensive.

The beginning of the 20th Century opens with a widening web of anti-Enlightenment thought, with fundamentalist Christianity assuming an interdependent and participating role in cultural and political developments. Unencumbered by “empirical correctness”, fascist ideologies flourished, often using the fundamentalist assumption of a self-sovereign, Higher Authority as legislator, judge, and executioner. In the Age of Modernity, a population just recently introduced to the seemingly unlimited possibilities of progress through science and world peace from toleration and pluralism was now confronted with what Karl Popper saw as the paradox inherent within, set like a trap to reverse 300 years of achievement.

(1) Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007)
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.

~ Marty Bankson
April 11, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Distortions and Lies: The Truth Behind the RFRA

The recent controversy created by Indiana’s peculiarly egregious version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has finally brought public attention to the essential deceit embodied in such laws. I hope most voters can recognize the many lies embedded in and told about the various state and local RFRAs. A few examples:

Lie #1: Some religious freedom has been lost.
You don’t use the word “restoration” until after something has been lost, or at least is under a direct and present threat. But when pressed for details, no RFRA supporter can come up with a credible example of any such loss or threat. The plain fact is that religious freedom in America is as strong as it has ever been.

Lie #2: Churches or clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages. The freedom of churches and clergy to make religious choices about whose marriages they will or will not solemnize is well-established at law. RFRA-proponents raise the specter of clergy being sued over refusing to perform a gay wedding just to frighten the uninformed.

Lie #3: Businesses are being forced to “perform” or “participate” in gay weddings.  Pro-RFRA rhetoric often deliberately confuses the way support businesses relate to a wedding with the way clergy and churches relate to a wedding. Florists, bakers and photographers are businesses, not churches. They are not performing nor participating in a wedding. They are selling goods and services. They know that, aside from a joke, they cannot put up a sign saying “whites only” or “no Irish need apply,” and they know they can’t proclaim “no Catholics” or “Trinitarians only.” “Heterosexuals only” would be just as ridiculous and just as offensive.

Lie #4: Refusing service to a same-sex wedding is a religious issue.
There is, of course, no Christian prohibition against baking a cake for a same-sex wedding, nor delivering flowers, nor photographing a wedding, nor serving as pediatrician to a married Lesbian couple with a new baby. If anything, Christians are compelled to treat their neighbors with kindness and dignity regardless of religion. Refusing to perform such services is entirely political, not religious at all, and RFRA-proponents are trying to masquerade political action as religious belief.

Lie #5: RFRAs are about something other than same-sex marriage. The timing of RFRA legislation, coupled with the complete lack of any credible threat to religious freedom, makes it clear that these laws are about same-sex marriage. America is far from unified on this topic, but public opinion has shifted dramatically. Opponents of same-sex marriage have lost this battle in the culture war, and lost badly. RFRAs are a last-ditch attempt to deny to inevitable.

The blowback in Indiana has temporarily halted some RFRA legislation, but the movement will not stop here. There will be many opportunities to inspect RFRAs and related legislation for the lies outlined above, and for others as well. One place to begin is with Louisiana StateRepresentative MikeJohnson’s proposed “update” to the state’s existing RFRA. This bill will specifically eliminate state power to enforce non-discrimination laws, although it will be portrayed as something other than what it is.

How I Became an Atheist

I was a child of the 1960s and a teenager of the 1970s, formed during a very global, progressive, and open-minded phase of U.S. history. I was a Protestant in a very mainstream sort of way, fascinated by all the spiritual currents of my era. I passed my Methodist catechism class while listening to George Harrison chant Hare Krishna. I read books on Edgar Cayce and reincarnation, the Beatles and Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism and Hinduism. As a product of the Age of Aquarius, I fully expected all these religious currents to somehow point toward a single, ultimate truth.

Even though Christianity dominated my upbringing, I was never prone to feeling that any one religion was right while all others were wrong. I had no inkling of the implications then, but my pan-religiosity, already contained the seeds of unbelief. My process from believer to unbeliever took decades, in many small steps. Never once did I experience a sudden stroke of revelation.

Collapsing a long process down into a few paragraphs, the first important step was realizing that all religions must be at least partly wrong. No matter how one tries to analyze doctrine, religions disagree with one another on important details, like the nature of the Self or Soul, what one must do in order to achieve liberation or salvation, and what one is to be liberated or saved from. If religions hold mutually exclusive opinions, they cannot all be right. The possibilities, then, are that there is one right religion, with all others being wrong, or that they are all wrong to at least some degree. 

Trying to choose one religion out of many is equally impossible. There simply are no external criteria by which to evaluate them. All major religions have millions of followers, have withstood the tests of millennia, provide guidance and comfort in various ways, include some kind of moral framework, have their scriptures and doctrines, and make a variety of claims that are untestable. Blindly accepting the programming of one’s upbringing is easy, but requiring a reason to make a choice between religions makes that choice impossible.
Seeking unity in a pile of error-prone religions is treacherous territory for a believer. The main problem is that of divine revelation, or its lack. Basic to much of the religious enterprise is the assertion that some people have been given superhuman knowledge at first hand, that they've communicated personally with some god, or at least an angel. The hope that makes much of religion tick is that it is backed by a divine authority that has revealed itself, a choice made by the divine to impart wisdom to mortals. Imperfect and mutually exclusive religions are simply incompatible with divine revelation. We can blame flawed humans for not quite getting the message right, but that makes the process of revelation itself a great deal less than divine. Divine revelation is falsified by the fact that Hinduism begat Buddhism, and that Buddhism contains such disparate sects as the Tibetan and Pure Land. Divine revelation is falsified by the fact that Judaism begat both Christianity and Islam, one with a divine Jesus and one with a human Jesus. Divine revelation is falsified by the endless fractiousness of Christian denominations. The most that is possible is divine inspiration, but certainly not divine revelation.

The idea of divine inspiration is comforting for a pan-religious believer. It implies that some spiritually adept individuals may sometimes gain a glimpse of the divine or the beyond. They may then labor to communicate this to others, but the truth they’ve perceived is ineffable. Human minds and human language are not fully able to grasp or communicate that truth. All spiritual teachings, then, and all the scripture and doctrines derived from them, must be imperfect approximations at best. This view is hardly different from what I had started out with as a teenager. It is just a little more honest about the sources of religion.

In retrospect, it seems to me that I was an atheist at this point. I did not understand it then, but I would now assert that once one denies the possibility of divine revelation, religion becomes a sham.

The problems is what divine inspiration, without divine revelation, implies. It says that flawed human beings, either individually or in groups, wrote the holy books, developed the rituals and symbols, and outlined the moral or ethical rules. It acknowledges that ancient scriptures came out of different cultures than our own, and that human beings must therefore use human reason in determining how to apply those writings to modern circumstances. It places a burden on each living person, rather than on our ancestors, to make choices about religion. It says that tradition is fine, but is never an excuse to stop thinking.

It took me some years to fully grasp these implications. The one dramatic realization, if there was one, was that these implications look exactly the same whether there is a divine beyond or is none. It is impossible to distinguish between religions that are failed attempts to point toward some ultimate but indescribable truth and religions that are nothing more than the all too earthly expression of human psychological tendencies.

This leaves me in my present condition as an agnostic. I use that term as a technical matter, because I don’t feel I can directly falsify the possibility of God, at least if God is defined in a way that is sufficiently vague and uninvolved in earthly affairs. Most believers would quickly label me an atheist, and I’m comfortable with that label as well. I conduct my life as if all gods and religions are human artifacts, a stance that falls well within the definition of atheism. I am also a Secular Humanist, not out of complex philosophical reasoning, but out of lack of alternative. What else has there ever been? No god has ever sat in parliament, and no angel has ever whispered into the ears of legislators. We may project our ideals in the form of religion, we may claim religion justifies or demands certain actions, but the simple fact is that all such decisions have always been made by human beings and always will be. Let’s just be honest about that.

~Jim Dugan

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation

In Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation, psychology professor Nicholas Humphrey accomplishes a brief but thorough debunking of psychics, mediums, spoon-benders, and a whole host of supposedly paranormal phenomena. This is not a detailed examination of attempts to test and measure such phenomena, but a broad and philosophical view, pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole psychic show. Humphrey writes, “I think the search for the paranormal is all a big mistake. Sad to say, there has never yet been an authentic example of soul-power worth the name. The phenomena never pass muster. Their promoters always emerge with egg on their faces, with their hand in the till, or whatever other cliché suits the case” (p. 114).

The writing style is a bit chatty, and at first I worried this might become verbose. But his style quickly turned out to be disarming, as I found myself having picked up knowledge about theories of the paranormal without even realizing it was happening. This is easy reading that will make you think.


One key point is that people want to believe in psychic phenomena because they want to be able to reject materialism. They want to believe that the mind or spirit is something beyond the body, that the self can survive death, and that there is a realm of the spirit beyond matter and energy. As Humphrey puts it, they want “to get their souls back from science.” Psychic phenomena offer evidence, if not proof, that there is a great beyond. This also works in the opposite direction, as believing that mind or soul are some essence other than matter and energy all but  demands observable psychic phenomena. “Once a person has arrived at this dualist model of what it is to be a human being, it is certain to be a powerful enabler of paranormal belief across the board” (p. 195).

Another key point, and one I must confess I never thought of, is the perfect ridiculousness of the claims that are made about the supernatural. Humphrey asks us not to accept the hypotheses advanced by believers as the hypotheses that need to be tested. Instead, he asks us to step back and ask if the proposed hypotheses make any sense at all. If we think about it, we realize that the claims about supernatural suffer from “unwarranted design,” meaning they are too contrived and impractical to be credible. In other words, they are hopelessly theatrical.

I had to think about it for a while before I realized what a potent indictment of the supernatural this is. What possible usefulness is there in bending spoons, identifying photographs enclosed in an envelope, or guiding the gullible through past-life regressions? Would not people with any significant degree of such abilities enrich and empower themselves beyond ordinary people’s dreams? Imagine yourself a political candidate with the ability to know your opponent’s darkest secrets, or to win more often than lose at predicting stock or commodity futures, or to be able to unlock doors and safes with the power of the mind! The common paranormal claims are obvious rubbish compared to what at least some human beings would do if they had such powers.

In a few places, Humphrey overplays his hand. He attempts to define the paranormal as violating basic logic across the board, and here I think he is trapped by his own certainty in the materialist view of the universe. He is probably right in saying it is plainly irrational to imagine that someone could control the numbers that would result from a throw of dice, simply because of the detailed and precise forces that would have to be applied in the realm of the physical in order to accomplish such a feat. But if the paranormal phenomenon in question involves only communication between two minds, and if it is true that mind is a phenomenon of spirit rather than of matter and energy, then such reasoning could not be applied. Humphrey acknowledges that some experts would fault him on this point.

Overall, Leaps of Faith is well worth reading for anyone interested in beliefs about the supernatural.

Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation, by Nicholas Humphrey. New York: Basic Books (1996). ISBN 0-465-08044-8.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Telling Our Stories

Travis Thompson put together some thoughts on belief and challenged others to share their personal stories

One day I started to think: Why is it that my religion is the right one? Why do I get the privilege of going to heaven while much of the rest of the world has to burn for eternity? These individuals were just being taught what their parents and culture taught them.

What kind of deity would create us and limit us to just believing in one total solution to the endgame of life? And better yet, that solution is only limited to certain parts of the world. This just can not
 be right. Either I'm right and the rest of the world is wrong, they're right and I'm wrong, we're all right or we're all wrong. What are the odds that I am correct in my belief while any other individual who does not believe what I believe is going to be tortured in hell.***

Then I started to think even more. Why would this omnipotent being even want to send individuals to such a place of torment? There was a time before I was born where there was nothing. Wouldn't a more reasonable solution be to just send individuals back to this place if they do not belong in your "Kingdom". Nope, that's not enough, these individuals must BURN for ETERNITY. What kind of all-loving god would do this? Not one that I want to worship, that's for sure. At this point, I rejected all religion and took on a new philosophy on life. This quote sums it up.

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but ... will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

This is my story of how I became an atheist. Feel free to share yours if you'd like.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sloppy Biology Does Not Make Good Philosophy

"Aeginura grimaldii by Ernst Haeckel
On March 16th, I attended a talk hosted by the Tulane Philosophy Club. Our speaker, Ilya Dubovoy, a medical student at Tulane, attempted to explain some potential problems with the current understanding of Evolutionary Theory, especially in terms of the randomness or tailored-ness of genetic mutation in response to environmental stress or change.

I was left completely nonplussed by the talk. Its essence was a set of claims about evolution, which is to say about biological science, so why was it presented in a forum on philosophy? It is not at all clear why anyone would expect a vague and preliminary idea about evolutionary biochemistry to inform the field of philosophy. And beyond the basics of epistemology – which were not discussed – it is not clear what philosophy could bring to an observational and experimental issue in science. The speaker had to take some criticism, but that would have been far harsher from an audience of biologists, and I could not help but suspect that he was seeking friendlier shores for a concept he knew would be met with intense skepticism by its proper audience.


The kernel of an idea that I was able to extract from the talk is that there is, perhaps, evidence that a tendency for genetic change (mutation) is sometimes directed toward narrow parts of the genome (an organism’s set of genes) in specified response to particular environmental changes or stress. Dubovoy used the unfortunately loaded term “teleology” to describe this tendency, but I think those of us who are involved in creationism-evolution debates have to be careful not to overreact to that. He seemed to mean by “teleology” that environmental changes somehow direct a tendency to mutate toward sections of the genome that are relevant to that environmental change, and not to imply the usual creationist miscomprehension of evolution, in which “teleology” means that evolution accumulates changes over centuries or millennia toward some future form or other biological goal.

To make this idea of directed mutation more than just the earliest stages of a preliminary notion, Dubovoy would have to propose a host of additional details. By what mechanisms do changes in the environment generate molecular (chemical) signals identifying those changes to a cell, organism, or population? How and where are those molecular signals interpreted as referring to or implicating a particular, narrow section of the genome? What physical-chemical processes then bring about mutations in the implicated section of the genome? Most importantly, is he proposing that this mechanism generically increases mutation in the implicated portion of the genome, or that it somehow narrows or pre-selects those mutations to fit the signaled environmental changes (a critical detail about which he was frustratingly vague)?

It was difficult to understand how many of Dubovoy’s points were supposed to relate to his kernel of an idea. He seemed to think there was something dramatically new and threatening to evolutionary theory in the fact that individual organisms sometimes form cooperative groups, that chemical signaling may activate or deactivate the expression of existing genes, that lateral transfer of genes sometimes happens between species, or that mutation is random only in the sense of “unpredictable,” and not in the sense of “evenly distributed.” None of these facts are news to evolutionary biologists, and none of them imply a problem with the existing theory of evolution, at least not insofar as Dubovoy was able to clarify.

Dubovoy explicitly denied being a creationist, and made no directly creationist claims. However, it seems to me that his proposed “teleology” comes far closer to creationism than he himself realizes. Like creationists, he is claiming that micro-evolution, the slow accumulation of small, undirected changes over long periods of time, is insufficient to explain the diversity of life we see around the world today and in the fossil record. And like creationists, he is hopelessly vague about the supposed limits of micro-evolution, refusing to quantify what micro-evolution can and cannot do, or how his proposal of more directed mutation supplies the missing quantity.

Perhaps, in some years, he’ll have thought this out more carefully.
~Jim Dugan

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Dangerous Kind of Good: Adventures on the Northshore

Photo by John Stringer
On Thursday night March 12, John Stringer and Clint Crain became “part-time” ambassadors for the NOSHA crowd as they accepted an invitation from a Northshore church to attend a dinner event that was proposed as an opportunity to have some dialogue with non-believers in the community. These are their stories:

John Stringer
I and one other member of NOSHA attended the “Why Does It Matter” Men’s Dinner at St. Timothy on the North Shore Methodists Church. The speaker Stuart McAllister was your basic Glasgow Scotland thug who found Jesus after dating a Christian Girl. This changed his life and now he goes around the world speaking about life with Jesus and his pseudo rational approach to the gospel for a fee.

He emphasized his personal relationship with Jesus and does not value the Bible as you would think. A question and answer session followed his speech and I got a chance at the microphone and said “25,000 children starve to death everyday on average in the world. What good is it when you have a god that doesn't answer to the dying innocents?”

Mr. McAllister did not understand my question or else he side stepped it and basically said he did not know why God would allow the evil of children starving to death. His son who was with him stood to add that such tragedies were a result of man's own evil doing and the consequences of free will and evil being in the world. I didn't ask a follow up question. Other topics that were addressed in the Q and A was “Why is god invisible” and “Is Mahatma Gandhi in heaven or hell." An interesting quote that stood out for me was the speaker said “God is a dangerous kind of good”.


This was an all men's group. The women of the church cooked the food, fixed our plates and brought it to us, but we had to get our own tea. I did detect a small, very small amount of reaching out for honest dialogue. I imagine this is coming from the hierarchy of the church who realize a great shift is taking place in America toward secularism and they must prepare their flock for exposure to the coming storm of reason.

There were very few young people at the meeting, which was encouraging. The 25 and under crowd don't seem to be buying into the Christian myth. McAllister's answer was life can't really have full meaning unless a person finds Jesus and can plan on living in heaven for eternity. Nothing really new there, but it was fun. The food gets 3.5 stars. The preaching gets a 1/2 star and Q and A session gets 1.5 stars. There will be another meeting like this next year.

Clint CrainThis was kind of a shot in the dark for me. Going into the event, I had hopes of a more intimate gathering with a little more back and forth interaction. I know of the church, but really had no idea of the number of people that would be present. I did know that I was going to be in the minority as a religious skeptic. 

After arriving, all hope for direct interaction was lost. The room was laid out in a manner that reminded me of a high school talent show. The crowd was made up of men and a small number of women working as coordinators. It wasn't long after arriving that the dinner was brought out and the main speaker took to the stage. He began by talking about his childhood of being brought up in a “nonreligious” home in Ireland and by the age of twenty he became a faithful Christian.

Moving on chronologically, he began to speak about his journey to find reason in his life. At this point, he spoke about thinking of Islam and Judaism, but did not give a reason for his rejection of those ideologies. Pushing to find meaning and purpose became to central topic as he started a PowerPoint of biblical verses mostly from the Old Testament and philosophical quotation.

I found myself at this point looking for the answer to the title question as I interpreted it. What does it matter? This question was ‘what does faith matter’ in my mind, but he was alluding to what does life matter? Faith gave him purpose, but I keep asking why one needs that “purpose” to begin with. We all struggle with finding a self-identity, but to think that there must be some greater plot to abide by seems beyond me.

The Q and A was a high point. The question, “Why doesn't God help the starving children throughout the world?” was quickly swatted with, “I don’t know why there is suffering.” My two questions were about the quality of the biblical God’s character. “How can a book that condones mass slaughter, slavery, and rape be seen as a book of guidance?” was answered with “God changed in the New Testament area.” Then, “If God is a jealous god (Deuteronomy 4:24) and jealousy is a sin (Galatians 5:20), then isn’t god a sinner?” was answered by “God’s jealousy is different.”

All and all it was a nice event.