Does It Matter Who Wrote the Gospels?

It is conceded by all but the most ardent fundamentalists that we actually have no idea who wrote the gospels.  The three synoptic gospels are anonymous and the authorship of the fourth gospel is somewhat implied (the beloved disciple) but never directly stated.  The imputed authors were added later by “tradition.”  It has been argued that it doesn’t really matter who wrote the gospels.    And that may be true, it may not matter who wrote them, depending on what they really are.

If the gospels are works of literature, then it does not matter who wrote them.  If we found irrefutable proof that Hamlet was written by Bacon or Marlowe or even Joe the Plumber, would that lessen its literary value?  And if Homer (the Greek epic poet, not the yellow cartoon guy) isn’t real or is a collection of people or whatever, is the Illiad any less compelling?  Of course not.  As literature the gospels can stand on their own, regardless of authorship.  But most people don’t claim them as just a well told story.

The only other reason authorship would not matter is if the gospels were “dictated” by god.  Obviously, if it is god speaking, it doesn’t matter who holds the pen.  And if you believe that, nothing anyone is going to say will probably change your mind.

For all other intents and purposes, I would say that it does in fact matter who wrote the gospels.  If there was only one book written about global warming would it matter whether it was written by Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh?  Of course it would.

Of course, the actual names of the authors don’t really matter at this point, but their actual characteristics do matter.  Except for some conjectures, we have no idea where the gospels were written, the exact time they were written and for whom they were written.

It could be  argued, and William Lane Craig does, that since there are four independent gospels, it doesn’t matter who wrote them, they are independent and somewhat consistent, therefore the actual names of the witnesses don’t really matter.  But virtually no scholars consider the gospels independent.  There is some question as to whether Mark is a shortened version of Matthew or Matthew (and Luke) are embellished versions of Mark, but it is clear there is a whole lot of copying going on.   There is quite a bit of debate as to whether John is independent, but even there scholars see possible use of Mark by “John.”  So, we don’t really have independent witnesses.

Another argument is that authorship doesn’t matter as the gospels are a summation of the oral traditions that have been passed down about Jesus.  But once again it does matter.  It makes a huge difference whether the gospels were written before or after 70 CE.  It is hard to imagine that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem wouldn’t have some impact on the oral traditions.  Pretty hard to collect oral traditions when everyone is scattered to the four winds.  But even if the tradition is still somewhat intact, we need to know if the gospel writers are more like Parson Weems or more like Tacitus.  Also it really does matter if that “oral tradition” is in the hands of people who were actually there (as the evangelists allegedly were) or if it is people hearing the stories twelfth hand, in another land in another language.

The circumstances of the gospels make the reliability of the authors even more important.

It is often argued that we can trust the gospels because if they were inaccurate people would have been around who knew better who could call “foul.”  Unfortunately this argument does not hold water.  First, even if Mark is writing just before the Romans cleared out Jerusalem, the gospels aren’t mentioned in any other writings until about the middle of the second century.  So, how many people could have read them and checked things out before then?  Can’t exactly say, “Hey Peter, is this right?” at that point.  Secondly, the gospels don’t seem to have been written in Palestine, “Mark” seems to have been writing in Rome or Syria (and not all that familiar with Palestine itself.)  Probably not too many folks around to contradict him.

William Lane Craig makes some other arguments for the historicity of the gospels, regardless of who wrote them.

Craig, in a disingenuous way says that “Laymen who do not understand historical method sometimes demand sources for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament–as if a document’s being later collected into an anthology somehow impugns its historical credibility!”  By which he means that the gospels should be considered independent accounts that just happen to be bundled together in one book.  He knows as well as anybody that gospels are not independent.  And he also knows that the epistles (some of which are forged!) do not corroborate the gospels in pretty much any way.  Paul never mentions any historical details of the life of Jesus.

There is one book that says that it bridges the gap between the gospels and the epistles is the Acts of the Apostles, which is actually the second half of the gospel of Luke.  Here is what Craig has to say about Luke:

Now who was this author whom we call Luke? From what he says, he was clearly not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. But we discover an important fact about him from the book of Acts. Beginning in the 16th chapter of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas in modern-day Turkey, the author suddenly starts using the first-person plural: “we set sail from Troas to Samothrace,” “we remained in Philippi some days,” “as we were going to the place of prayer,” etc. The most obvious explanation is that the author had joined Paul’s entourage on his evangelistic tour of the Mediterranean cities. In chapter 21 he accompanies Paul back to Palestine and finally to Jerusalem. What this means is that the author of Luke-Acts was, in fact, in first-hand contact with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry in Jerusalem.

The Luke that the book is attributed to was supposedly a traveling companion of Paul, so what Craig is really saying is that, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, Luke is really written by Luke!  Or someone just exactly like him.  So, suddenly it does matter who wrote the gospel!  Craig pictures Luke as a “careful historian,” and so on.  But there are real problems with this.  First “Luke” is writing anywhere from 30 to 75 years after Paul and secondly there are many things in Acts which contradict things Paul wrote himself.  Considering that the Paul is the ONLY known, genuine New Testament author, I think we have to take his word over that of someone unknown writing in another time and another place.  The fact that “Luke” can write in the style of a historian does not make him one —  or his story any more true.  And is Dr. Craig so credulous that it doesn’t bother him that “Luke” “suddenly starts using the first-person plural.”  Dropped in a couple lines from an old draft?  Added later by a scribe?  We don’t have the original, so who knows where this comes from.

My conclusion is that Dr. Craig is right, it doesn’t matter who wrote the gospels because they are a work of literature, not in any way a history.


Trying to Bridge the Unbridgeable Gap

Who needs sleep when you can watch the Armoured Skeptic in action?  I highly recommend the “Nut at the Museum” video for a couple of reasons.  First, it gives a brief introduction to the “Evolving Planet” exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.   The exhibit, even with the bad camera work and creationist commentary looks amazing.   I also have to recommend it for the fascinating look it provides into the psychology of belief.

Let me say, before you go off and watch the video, that while I enjoyed the presentation very much, I do disagree with Sir Skepticon somewhat in his approach, and I am going to ask for more empathy for Megan Fox, the creator of the original video.  So, this would be a good time to watch the video if you have not already.

Welcome back.

I find this video fascinating for the look at the psychology of someone with deeply held beliefs when confronted with material that challenges those beliefs.  I do not think that Ms Fox is lacking in intelligence as Sir Skepticon sometimes intimates, she is simply doing what human beings do, she is filtering the world through her theory (schema, worldview, there are lots of alternative words for this).  Her worldview is quite strong and her brain is really working overtime to sort everything out.  This leads to what seems to people with a scientific viewpoint as contradictions, but are probably not perceived as such by Ms Fox.

One seeming contradiction that occurs again and again is her insistence that on finding a “missing link” or transitional plant or animal.  As Sir Skepticon points out, the exhibit is full of them, in fact she spends a fair amount of time in front of a tetrapod, a sort of four legged fish, a transitional animal if there ever was one, but all she can talk about is the wonders of the human foot.  She also breezes by, without comment, a replica of the Lucy bones, again a pretty clear transitional form.  At the same time, she talks about things that have “always been” this or that, even though she is completely surrounded by extinct life forms.

And then there are a number of times that she flips back and forth between “show me the evidence” and her out of hand dismissal of the evidence right in front of her.  She says a number of times about events hundreds of millions of years ago, “Was anyone there?  Show me the videotape!”  But surely she requires no videotape evidence for what she does believe happened.

The biggest indication that what we have is a clash of worldviews is her insistence that “this is all a fairy tale,” and her often expressed anger at those who would make up and spread such a story.   In her mind (and she pretty much expresses it this way) Darwin woke up one morning and said to himself, “What story can I make up that will contradict the bible and lead people astray from the truth.   And why would someone do such a thing?  She didn’t actually say, but I would presume she would say the devil made him do it.

So, to put words in her mouth, her worldview is something like, the devil “dictated” a false creation account to Darwin.  “Scientists” then do all kinds of contortions to fit the data to Darwin’s misguided book.  And then the museum spends millions of dollars to mislead her children away from the “truth.”  No wonder she is visibly angry.  It is perfectly easy to see where her worldview comes from.  God “dictated” the bible, which is the truth, and her “science” books show how the world fits that truth.  She is not stupid, or even deluded (in a sense).  She is just fitting the pattern of data to fit her existing theory.  We all do it.

In essence, no amount of data will change her mind.  No matter what data you show her, she will filter it though her worldview and the results stay the same.  On an individual level scientists have certainly been known to do this, shaving or ignoring data to fit their existing pet theory.

So how can we possibly bridge this gap?  The first thing we have to do is modify our assumptions of the person.  Ms Fox is not dishonest, stupid or deluded, until we have other evidence we should assume that she came to her worldview in an honest and sincere way.  In the same way, I would ask her to assume that people on the science  also have come to their worldview in an honest, sincere way.  If we can start there, maybe we can get to the next step.

The next step is to see what the differences between the worldviews really is.  For Ms Fox the differences seem to be about good and evil, god versus the devil.  For the skeptic, it is about materialism as opposed to supernaturalism.  Naturally Ms Fox sees the skeptic as evil and the skeptic sees her as stupid.  Both are wrong, of course.  It is more a case of inductive vs deductive reasoning, at least to begin with.

If we could get to that point (which may be impossible for some people) we might be able to get  to the next step.  The real difference (as I see it) is the relative value of data and theory.  A scientist should throw out a theory when it doesn’t fit the data.  Data is more important than theory.  Ms Fox gives absolute priority to her theory, and data comes in second.  If we could get to this point we might actually be able to have a discussion, which does happen all the time.

Now in the end we may still be at loggerheads, as she does not want to give up her biblical theory and I do not want to give up the conclusions I feel the data has lead me to.  But at least we can disagree respectfully at this point, leaving the door open to finding agreement later on this or other issues.

Church and State and Marriage and Divorce

To hear some people say it, we have to follow god’s law, especially in regards to marriage, otherwise Western Civilization will come crashing down.  Unfortunately, especially when it comes to divorce, what god intended is not altogether clear.  Or to put it another way, which religious tradition should we give priority to as they all have different teachings.

Since Christianity is the dominant religion here in the US, let’s take a look at what Jesus said about divorce:

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female,’
5 and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”
8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Now, I am no biblical scholar, but as I read this passage, it seems to me that Jesus says that god intended that there be no divorce, but that he had to allow for it because of people’s “hard hearts.”  So, men can divorce their wives (no mention of wives divorcing husbands!) but unless she cheated on him, if he remarries he commits adultery.   So, Mr. or Ms Lawmaker, there is your biblical basis, write your state law.

Well, if you want to get technical, it would go something like this, “A man can divorce his wife for any reason and can send her away.  But if the reason is anything but unchastity (whatever that is!) if you remarry, we will have to stone you to death for adultery.”  A few minor issues with this, obviously it is a bit one sided and there is no provision for what to do with any children in the marriage.  Surely Jesus is not being so immoral as to propose that men can send their wives (and children?) away for any darn reason to fend for themselves and as long as they don’t remarry things are good.   And he also does not define “unchastity” which apparently does not mean “adultery.”  Since he elsewhere defined “adultery” as simply looking lustfully at someone else, who knows what “unchastity” might be or how the soon to be ex-husband can show his soon to be ex-wife did that so he can remarry without getting stoned.

Since I am not a biblical scholar, maybe the churches can help write our state law.

The Catholic Church™, Inc. sees the divorce part as an addition by Moses and therefore does not allow divorce for any reason.  No divorce, no remarriage.  However, the church does allow for annulments which means that a “valid” marriage never took place.  Which if you think about it is a strange thing for a church or state to allow.  “We went to all the trouble to get you two married, but it seems that was all a dream, just kidding.”  In practicality annulments work like a divorce, but at the state level causes more problems than it solves.  If they were never married are the children illegitimate? If they were never married, who gets what stuff?  And so on.  I don’t think the Catholic model will work for a state law.

Unfortunately, looking at other Christian churches doesn’t really help.  This list pretty well sums up the problem:

Common Protestant views:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed.

  2. Divorce is OK, but not remarriage.

  3. Divorce is OK; remarriage is OK in cases of adultery or desertion.

  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK.

In other words, pretty much every possible position is taught in Protestant churches in this country.  Just for comparison’s sake, here are positions that tend toward the extremes, but both argue from a biblical position. Here is the liberal view and here is the conservative one.

And that does not even include the Jewish or Islamic points of view.

And none of this, although it may be covered in other places in the religious traditions or even the bible, says what to do with any children from the marriage or the property of the couple.

Now, if I were a legislator (and thank goodness I am not!) it seems to me that the best course of action is to allow a fairly liberal set of criteria that protects the interests of all the parties.  So, we don’t want people to able to simply walk away from their marriage and family, but rather put in place a process that provides protection especially to vulnerable parties, children and stay at home parents.  A process that assigns financial responsibilities, allocates accumulated assets and allows people to start over again with remarriage if they so desire.  Oh, and also provides for the process to be gender neutral so that wives can divorce husbands as well as vice versa.

The religious traditions can and will certainly shape the legislation, but there is obviously much that the religious traditions don’t cover, so the laws will be in much more detail than the religious teachings, but that is to be expected.

Those who feel that the law is too liberal are certainly free to hold themselves to whatever “higher” standard they would like.  Those who feel that divorce is always wrong can simply not get divorced.  Nothing in a liberal divorce law impinges on the religious freedom of those who want stricter standards, they can find those in church.

However, moving in the other direction can impinge on religious freedom and therefore must have a very good reason.  For example, making divorce all but impossible would be against the religious traditions of many Jews, Muslims and Christians.

This is not to say that the religious practices can never be over ruled by the state, sometimes they can.  For example we don’t allow child abuse just because the bible said, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  In the past, I feel the Supreme Court has done a good job of balancing religious freedom within the needs of modern society.  Some of their more recent rulings, like Hobby Lobby, I feel have missed the mark.

Conservatives sometimes feel as if their position is the “traditional” one and many times that just is not so.  It is more generally true that there have always been a range of positions, and this is certainly true in the case of marriage and divorce.  Trying to institute “traditional biblical values” in secular law generally runs roughshod over the religious freedom of believers and non-believers alike.

Ironically this is what makes a secular society a bastion of religious freedom.  A liberal secular society allows for a wide range of religious belief and practice.  A theocracy (or any strict ideological system) shuts down religious freedom by only allowing the “right” kind to be practiced.  So while you may certainly feel that secular society doesn’t reflect your religious beliefs, you can thank the founders that you can express your discontent and believe what you want.

Religion as Cover for Bigotry

There is plenty of talk going around about “religious freedom” which is somewhat ironic in one of the most religiously free countries in the world.  Believers in the country can already believe whatever they want and worship as they will in their tax free churches.  The new horizon in “religious freedom” is now believers want to act however they want and even more, get you to toe the line to their religious beliefs.  The biggest problem with this can even be seen in the phrase that is being used to champion this new kind of “freedom” the “sincerely held belief.”

“Sincerely held belief” is as vaporous as religion itself, in that it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be.  At its worst it can be and has been a cover for bigotry pure and simple.

The latest example comes from Oklahoma.  A “religious freedom” bill has been introduced by state senator James Silk.  Why?  “The L.G.B.T. movement is the main thing, the primary thing that’s going to be challenging religious liberties and the freedom to live out religious convictions,” Silk said.  So, gay people are blocking the doorways of churches?   Attacking people who are wearing crosses?  No, of course not.

No, they are simply asking for the same civil rights others enjoy, the legal protections for partnerships that marriage provides.  Silk’s bill provides a way for opponents of gay marriage to refuse to provide services, such as photography and catering to gay weddings under the guise of “religious freedom.”  And this is where the wicket gets sticky, on many levels.

So, they may say they want to not provide services because they are “Christian.”  But not all Christian churches oppose gay marriage.  If the churches can’t agree with what’s right and what’s wrong, what constitutes a “religious” belief.  Anything any preacher says?  Anything someone thinks some holy book says?  Anything god whispers in someone’s ear, even though no one else heard it?

For example, these people who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings have almost certainly made cakes for second weddings.  According to Jesus, that would be adultery and according to the old testament punishable by death.  So their “religion” excludes homosexuality, but not adultery?  How about mixed religion marriages?  Also prohibited by the bible.  Bet they have done cakes for them as well.

And the county clerks who “sincerely” don’t want to issue marriage licenses for gay marriages have almost certainly already issued marriage licenses for people who have given false witness, made graven images, molested children, raped their fiance, sold drugs, killed people, eaten shrimp and a host of other things that most religions look down upon.  But now marriage is sacred?

How can we possibly tell when the belief is “religious” and when it is just bigotry?  Keep in mind that similar to gay marriage, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional in 1967.   Many people (perhaps some of the same people?) argued in favor of laws against interracial marriage on religious grounds.   The Supremes got it right that time and they should use similar reasoning this time as well.

That is because there is a real question as to where “religious” beliefs leave off and simple prejudice kicks in.  People can say they belief anything for any reason.  So, how do we determine what a “sincerely held religious belief” is anyway?  All four of those words are extraordinarily debatable.

I have written before about the problem of “sincerely held,” before.  People can say they believe anything.  So, for each person who wants to claim this, are the courts going to spend hundreds of hours generating data to examine how “sincerely held” their beliefs are.  Will they have to delineate their philosophy, back up their beliefs with passages from books and such?  Will we have to look through their actions and see if they match up with the beliefs?  Cross examine their spouse and pastor to see if they express doubt?  Psychological tests to see if they are easily subject to suggestibility?

And then we would have to move on to the “religious” part.  At what level does it become a “religious” belief?  Does it have to be a proclamation of a whole church, like the Vatican for Catholics?  Does it count if you pastor says it, even if it is in contradiction to the larger church?  If it is based on the believers own reading of the bible or other “holy book?”  Which books are deemed to be holy, anyway?  If the person just believes that god told them so?

Let’s imagine that a Catholic county clerk wanted to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples because the church says this is wrong.  Does she get to do this if she is also using birth control?  Is it really a religious belief if you side with the church sometimes and sometimes not?  If  you are going to pick and choose, could it not be argued that then your beliefs are “personal” beliefs, not religious?

In the Hobby Lobby case, the owners didn’t want their money going to support what they considered immorality.  Which I will, in principle, grant them.  But I felt the Supremes really screwed this one up by not actually investigating what those beliefs were and whether they were “religious” or not.  The Hobby Lobby people didn’t want to provide birth control because they “believe” birth control actually causes “abortions.”  Well, science says most forms of contraception don’t work as abortifacients, so why is their belief “religious.”  Does it say in the bible somewhere that the pill causes abortions?

And if they don’t want their money going to support immorality, why do they hire people who live together without the “benefit” of marriage?    Once again, this is adultery according to the bible, a capital offense, just like killing.  So their money is going to support “immorality.”  Why tolerate one and not the other?  Surely they hire remarried people as well.  Why do they get to claim one part of the bible as their “religious” belief, but ignore other parts.  Shouldn’t they have to spend weeks and weeks on the witness stand defending why their beliefs are “religious” and not “ideological?’

Or just plain old bigotry?

As soon as we allow people to do things because of what is unseen between their ears, attributed to an invisible sky god, their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” we end up where we were 60 years ago.  Some people can’t rent an apartment, stay in a hotel, eat at a restaurant and maybe even shop in a grocery store because some yayhoos think god doesn’t like those people.

So, people like Silk seem to think that LGBT people offend his faith and therefore he should not have to deal with them.  People knocking on my door trying to convert me are violating my religious beliefs (and the bible) so they should not be able to do that.  Soon we have a country where everyone lives in their own religious enclaves.  Hello holy wars?  This is not religious freedom, this is simply intolerance.

People commit all kind of “sins” and practices that some religious folks don’t like.  About one third of heterosexuals admit to practicing anal sex in their relationships.  But, I am pretty sure they can get any kind of cake they want at their parties.  If you are “straight” nobody asks you what you do in your bedroom before they take your order.  LGBT people are just asking for the same thing.  Do we really want a country where you have to pass some kind of made up religious test to rent an apartment, get a prescription filled or buy a cake?

That is where these so called “religious freedom” laws are sending us.

The Catholic Church and Capital Punishment

It seems to me that the Catholic church here in the US has always had an uneasy relationship with capital punishment.  On the one hand are the “pro-life” teachings of the church, but within that capital punishment has never been prohibited by the church either.  And while at one time there was a pacifist strain within the Catholic church and the bishops have taught against capital punishment, feelings in the pews have been about the same as the American public in general, with a bare majority personally supporting the practice.

But last week, all four Catholic newspapers in the US ran a joint editorial saying that capital punishment should be abolished.  The Pope has already called for an abolition of the practice but the most recent catechism teaches that it is “permissible in certain cases if the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined”

My own personal take is that church has been backward on capital punishment and abortion, and if not backward, at least inconsistent.

I do not believe that the rights of a fetus should be greater than a woman and that abortion is a decision of individual conscience.  Or to put it more bluntly, if you are opposed to abortion, don’t have one.  In the case of capital punishment (and the decision to go to war as well) in some sense my finger is on the needle as the lethal injection is being delivered.  Abortion can be legal, but I have part in making the decision for any individual (unless it involves my daughter or something).

Catholics have always been careful to oppose the taking of “innocent” life, while often ignoring the innocent lives that are taken by capital punishment or by so called “just” wars.  My point here is not actually to argue the morality of capital punishment, but rather to point out the fascinating process of the church changing course and most likely later, claiming they had always taught this.  I find it interesting that a church whose founder was unjustly executed by the state has not always been opposed to capital punishment, but I guess times change, even if the teachings of the church supposedly don’t.

I found a wonderful essay by Cardinal Dulles on the history of the church and capital punishment, which I am going to quote from at length, he really does a good job of framing this whole process.  Cardinal Dulles says he is coming at the issue as a theologian and goes all the way back to the bible.

Of course the bible gives full throated assent to capital punishment.  Cardinal Dulles writes, “In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the sabbath, murder, adultery, bestiality, pederasty, and incest.”  He finds that there is not much difference in the new testament, although he acknowledges that Jesus himself tended toward a more pacific attitude.  Some sources say that the early church was also pacifist, but Dulles disagrees, “The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1-11).”

Move on to the church fathers, Dulles again, “Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members of the clergy not to pronounce capital sentences or serve as executioners.”  Augustine and Aquinas are both supporters as well.

Bringing us almost up to date, Dulles cites the support of 20th century theologians, “Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day.”  It is hard to imagine a more deeply rooted teaching, from the bible to 20th century theologians.  Referring to an abolitionist statement Dulles says, “To warrant this radical revision one might almost say reversal of the Catholic tradition, Father Concetti and others explain that the Church from biblical times until our own day has failed to perceive the true significance of the image of God in man.”

And who opposed this practice that the church has wisely supported?  Secularists, of course.  Dulles again, “The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. ”  Yes, the church wisely counseled killing people and nasty secularists opposed the church in her wisdom.

Now, I must say that Dulles clearly personally supports the death penalty and I realize there have been many in the Catholic and other Christian churches who would strongly disagree with Dulles, but I do think he is correct in terms of the teaching of the church as it has been over the years.  But now it seems that the ship of the church is about to change course.

Christian Gohl holds a sign during a Jan. 28, 2014, vigil outside St. Louis University College Church ahead the execution of Missouri death-row inmate Herbert Smulls of St. Louis. Smulls was executed after midnight Jan. 29. (CNS/St. Louis Review/Lisa Johnston) Image from the National Catholic Review

In a rare burst of honesty, Father Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College, said in a discussion on Irrelevant Radio that if the church did change its position it would be similar to the changes in slavery and torture.  He pointed out that the church originally (and biblically) condoned both practices, although he did argue that they tried to regulate and soften them before realizing that they were inherently immoral.

And as with capital punishment, the impetus for that change came mostly from outside the church.  It is my contention that, similar to the current case, it was secular society that drove the church to reconsider its moral position.  For example, my great state outlawed capital punishment over 160 years ago.  They tried it once, found it to be barbaric and did away with it.  Glad to have the Catholic Church™, Inc. finally come over to our side.

Yes, we taught the church (and therefore god?) morality, not the other way around.  The idea that we need god to hand down absolute moral rules has always been ridiculous.  His ideas, slavery, torture, killing people, are clearly immoral and finally after thousands of years the church is realizing this as well.  And in the future, I am sure, they will be preaching that god and they were on the right side of this issue all along.


This afternoon Garry Wills was on Wisconsin Public Radio talking about changes in the Catholic Church.  Like me, Wills sees the church as constantly evolving, but simply claiming otherwise.  He also sees that the church has been on the wrong side of history many times, he even compared it to Buster Keaton dodging huge boulders as they rolled downhill.  He feels that the church is able to avoid disaster because it is “guided by the holy spirit.”  I disagree, of course.  He did have a useful image, that I can agree with, that the body of the church (the people) are not exactly in synch with they hierarchy, and sometimes the hierarchy, gets back with the people to save the church.

This is an image I can work with better.  From time to time the hierarchy drives the lead car of the parade into a ditch.  The parade doesn’t always notice and keeps marching (in my view, in the direction of the rest of secular society) eventually the hierarchy commandeers another car, drives like mad to the front of the parade, and then claims to have been there the whole time.

Getting Outside Our Own Perspective — Way Outside

I was reading a blog post yesterday over at the Sensuous Curmudgeon which was about this article here, which combines biblical fundamentalism with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have at times run the SETI@Home screensaver that crunches data for them.  I think it is an interesting project, but probably not as important as finding a cure for cancer.  The blog post from SC got me thinking about a common problem that SETI and most of humanity share.  And that is:  if you look for a being with advanced intelligence that you can’t actually see, will you know if you have found it?

This is not a trivial problem either for SETI or for anyone who believes in some kind of personal god or other supernatural being.

In the case of SETI, using our current understanding of science they are searching the electromagnetic spectrum (for sake of simplicity, radio waves) for patterns that would indicate some kind of intentionality against the background noise.  The earth has been giving off such signals for about 100 years now.  So, we know what that pattern would look like if we ran across it.  We can make some theoretical guesses as to what other kinds of patterns might exist and search for those as well.

But what we cannot do is search for signals in areas that exceed our current understanding of physics and information theory.  We cannot even imagine on what basis there might be other forms of communication.  Perhaps we are awash in signals from the “subether” (as Hitchhiker’s Guide put it) but we have no idea what the subether IS!  Imagine that a thumbdrive ($6 from OfficeMax) fell through a time warp into Benjamin Franklin’s hands.  Now, Ben was a pretty smart guy, but how in the world would he possibly conclude that such a thing was full of information?  Arthur C. Clarke quipped that,  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Of course, it would help if the aliens wanted to communicate with us.  Presumably with their advanced technology they could figure out our communication system and try to communicate with us in a way that we could understand.  But even then, we have no idea, it might be like us trying to communicate with ants.  Even if we could influence their behavior in some way, can we understand what an ant is thinking and can they possibly understand what we are thinking?  We could well have the same issue with alien beings.  The movie depiction of humanoid creatures with somewhat similar psyches to ours is is possible, but we can’t even imagine the possibilities of what alien life might be like.

In the same way, we toss around conceptions of what god might be like and we use really big words, but we are limited in what we can imagine about such a being.  We toss around terms like “eternal” but I think we have no concept of what they would mean if literally true.  Our universe has been in existence for some 14 billion years.  But this isn’t even a long Saturday afternoon to an eternal being.  Does such a being experience time passing?  Does it pass at the same rate as it does for us?  Does such a being get bored?  This being could well be on his 15th such universe — and it STILL is just a long Saturday afternoon.  He could be on his millionth — OK, you get the idea.

Now, presumably, a personal god would WANT to communicate with us and if he is in fact all powerful and all knowing, I suppose that he could.  It is clear that he would understand us (if he is in fact all those omni things) but it is not at all clear that we would understand him.  In this case, we are the ants.  And this is a case where we run into a slight problem with the “all-powerful” thing.  It is sort of like the old, “can god make a rock so big that he can’t lift it.”  How can he possibly make us understand his “omni-ness” with our semi-evolved brains.  The only way to truly understand the mind of god is to have a mind similar to god’s.  Clearly we don’t have any kind of “omni” powers, especially in intellect.  How many light years are we away from understanding the mind of an omni-god?

Now, one mistake that we (atheists and humans) make is to think that we can somehow figure out what would and would not make sense for an omni-god.  It is certainly possible that such a being could dictate the bible.  Engrave stone tablets.  Raise people from the dead.  And all of that.  And he could have perfectly logical (in his logic, not ours) reasons for doing those things.

For example, we look around at creation and say, “Isn’t this marvelous?”  And I suppose it is, but  we can’t even imagine what the alternatives might be.  Why couldn’t the omni-god create us to not have to eat?  Just get our energy straight from the sun in some way.  Why talk and read and write, why not communicate by brain waves?  If we could move around by levitation I might be more inclined to believe that we had been created.  If a Yugo were to fall through a time warp and land 100 years ago, they would think it a miracle of automotive design.

Again, I know I am violating my own idea of not trying to out think an omni-god,  but his alleged action really are hard to fathom.  He creates an entire universe to come down to show himself to one iron age tribe in the desert.  He ignores China, India and Macedonia.  Maybe he likes an underdog?  Even though he from time to time physically appeared to them, they have a habit of seeking out other gods.  So he punishes them by having other tribes invade them.  Seems rather small minded for the all powerful creator of the universe.

And then he dictates a book which is to be for all time.  Apparently he doesn’t get involved with the final editing of the book, as it is filled with many errors and contradictions.  At the very least it seems that people slipped in a few stories that reflected local political squabbles rather than universal moral and ethical issues.  And it also seems that he left out tons of useful information that might have been nice to know.  Like maybe the germ theory of disease, for example.  The bible certainly is an interesting book for an all powerful being to have created, to say the least.

What should be in the book, we can’t even begin imagine.  No matter how far we stretch our imaginations we probably can’t within one percent of the mind of an omni-god.  And yet there are those among us who seem think this omni-god has explained to us everything he knows and that we have understood that instruction perfectly.

That seems like the ultimate in hubris to me.

Is Belief Itself Believable?

Scott Walker, presidential candidate and erstwhile governor of Wisconsin, has been a whirling dervish of activity lately, having gone from saying that a right to work law here would be a distraction to claiming it was his idea all along as it moves to passage.  Even before that could be passed he is now calling for a law restricting abortions in Wisconsin.  “Could this have anything to do with his presidential pretensions?” the cynic asks.

Of course, the actions and the timing of those actions do, there is no doubt about that.  But the larger question is: “Does Scooter really believe in this stuff, or is he a hypocrite?”   And the answer to that is, based on modern cognitive science, unknown, maybe even to Walker himself!

Free will is an idea that has come out of religion and philosophy and it turns out to be a very problematic idea.  In Catholic theology we are “injected” with a soul, and with this soul we become more than the meat robots that animals are and are able to truly make our own decisions without influence from things like instinct.  The world is full of choices and we freely make those choices, we are truly captains of our own ship, writers of our own play.  Walker believes what he believes because he freely chose too and so does everyone else.

And this certainly is the way our consciousness feels most of the time.  I tell my brain what to think, it doesn’t go off on its own and think for me.  Unfortunately there are more than a few chinks in this point of view.

Somewhere from my distance past the phrase “only god can create a random event,” bubbles up again and again.  When I google it, nothing comes up.  But I know exactly what it means.  In the pre-quantum world, everything had causes (even if we could not explicate all of them) and therefore the most seemingly “random” events were determined.  If we could somehow know all the forces acting on a roulette wheel and calculate them quickly enough, we could predict the outcome every time.  What looks random is actually determined.  In an odd way, cognitive science is moving in this direction for consciousness.

Let’s start at a pretty basic level.  Sometimes we distinguish what we “believe” from what we “know.”  I believe in leprechauns but I know about dogs.  And how do we know stuff?  Well, of course the best way is through personal experience.  Or is it?

Elizabeth Loftus (and now many others) have done a fascinating series of experiments where they induce false memories in people, for example that the subject took a hot air balloon ride or was lost at the mall as a child.   Many subjects of these studies are absolutely convinced their “memory” is a true one, but it is clearly not.  Many people have a spontaneous experience like this: retelling  a childhood memory, perhaps in front of parents, only to find out the event actually happened to a sibling, not you,  or was from a book or a movie.  How do we know what we know if even our basic memories might be false?

Moving “up” a level, Freud introduced the idea of the unconscious mind.  Although his idea of what goes in there is no longer used, the idea has certainly remained.  We know that the brain has many functions that operate below the level of consciousness, for example regulating heart rate and breathing.  We have also found many processes in the brain which are “unconscious” in the sense that the connection of many parts of the brain to the language centers are tortuous and tenuous at best.   For example the emotional circuits.  It has also been shown in split brain studies that stimuli are perceived by the nonverbal hemisphere and the awareness of that can be expressed nonverbally (for example by pointing) but the subject has no conscious awareness of why they are pointing at that object.   This unconscious processing is a huge unknown area so far.

Moving up yet another level, we finally get to our “conscious” mind but even there, things are not very clear.  The Buddha said 2500 years ago that the “job” of the brain is to think in the same sense that it is the “job” of the heart to pump blood.  It pumps out thoughts.  Most people have had the experience that we don’t actually seem to “control” those thoughts.  By definition “stream of consciousness” is a seemingly  random string of associations, which bizarrely enough don’t seem to be under conscious control!

Well, surely there are times we do control our thoughts.  Maybe.  However, even when we are more focussed on our thoughts, they don’t seem to be under our full conscious control.  For example, people’s opinions are pretty prone to being resistant to argument.  We all know that.  But they seem to be more pliable when thought is combined with action.

William James put it more elegantly, but the phrase, “fake until you make it,” could have come from his pen.  He theorized that if you act a certain way, that your thoughts and opinions will come around to match your actions.  Put a song in your heart and smile on your face and soon enough you’ll be happy.  Modern research has borne this out, having people commit to a small action greatly increases their strength of conviction.  Somewhat the reverse of this, but somehow similar, is the placebo effect where your expectation of getting well in fact seems to make you well.  But ironically, the placebo effect only works if it is unconscious.  You can’t hand someone a sugar pill and tell them, “It’s a placebo, cures everything, you’ll be fine.”  You need more of a song and dance than that!  Oddly enough, at some level, they have to “believe.”  But that “belief” is by no means conscious or rational.

So, what does this have to do with Scott Walker?  Everything and nothing, of course.

He could be throwing down anti-union and anti-abortion actions in a cold calculated effort to curry political favor.  Further, he could be a total hypocrite who doesn’t believe or care about either of those things, as long as he gets elected.

It could be that he leaned to the right a bit as a young man and over the years he has done the “Republican” thing and over time, unconsciously, his beliefs have come into line with his actions.  Could be he internalized those beliefs from his parents in the distant past, again with no real rational consideration.  Either way he would say he truly does “believe.”  Either way, it could be argued that it is not a “rational” belief.  Cognitive science would say that he “feels like he believes” and then his brain pumps out the thoughts he needs to rationalize those beliefs.  Or maybe those “rationalizations” are in fact a carefully constructed philosophical position.  Sorry, I got carried away, we are talking about a politician after all.

And ultimately, we have no way of determining what Walker really believes, even if we catch him in a contradiction.  He could tell a economic conservative that he doesn’t really care about abortion, but he could be lying for political advantage, it is almost impossible to know for sure.

When a husband comes home with flowers and tickets for a romantic cruise for him and his wife, many possibilities present themselves.  Maybe he is trying to convince her that he loves her (perhaps after a serious faux pas).  Maybe he is trying to convince himself he still loves her.  Maybe he feels the need to have actions express how he feels rather than just words.  And so on.

In the same way,  it could be that the most ardent believer is in fact trying desperately trying to convince themselves of what they are “supposed” to believe.  The same could certainly be said of me, if my reasoning is enough to convince you, then it is OK for me to believe my own reasoning.  It has often struck me that as such a dominant cultural force, Christianity doesn’t really need apologists any more.  And yet there seems to be more apologists than ever.  Who are they trying to convince, me or themselves?

Dan Dennett quotes Lee Siegel, who wrote a book about magic like this:

“‘I’m writing a book on magic,’ I explain, and I’m asked, ‘Real magic?’ By ‘real magic,’ people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. ‘No,’ I answer. ‘Conjuring tricks, not real magic.’ ‘Real magic,’ in other words, refers to the magic that is not real; while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.”

Which he uses to make a point about consciousness, but could apply as well to “belief.”  To me, making “faith” or “belief” a criteria, or especially THE criteria for membership or excellence in a group seems both odd and counterproductive.   I find myself, ironically, not only not believing, but not even knowing what it means to “believe.”