The consistency of morals

I’ve recently written a couple of short blurbs (here and here) about how our sense of right and wrong develops from nature. This is extraordinarily unsatisfying and offensive to many people. They want to know how we avoid moral pandemonium without a set of rules about right and wrong that come from on high. This is a different question than what I am asking but is closely related. So how do we know what to do? How do we set up a legal system?  I am invariably asked how to hold rapists or Hitler responsible for their actions if there are no morals that are eternally enforceable?

These are good questions that wrap ideas about free will and morality and god into one so it can be hard to winnow out simple observations. But the idea that morals are unchanging is historically and theologically indefensible. We can use any religion but I’m most familiar with Christianity: what eternal truth can be championed as an unchanging expression of god’s character? Maybe that children are treasures? I think they are as do most parents but the Hebrew God doesn’t. There is the story of God telling his favorite, Abraham, to take his child’s life as a test of faith. And I’ve read the Bible story about Lot who, in order to save a group of visitors from harm, offered his daughters to a group of gang rapists. I read in the prophets where God instructs Israelite warriors to not even spare the enemy’s children, but to smash their heads upon stones. And while they’re at it – just for good measure – to ‘rip open their pregnant women’.

In each case there are theological explanations. And that is fine. But the idea of the sanctity of children as a universal moral stance isn’t supported. A similar conversation can be had about marriage. We see plural marriage, old men marrying young women, and men taking women as possessions throughout the scriptures. And when there are no men around, as in Noah’s time,  we read that his daughters drunked him up and had sex with him. Noah isn’t thrilled about the event but there is nothing to indicate that what the women did was morally wrong. 

That fact is that morals are a moveable feast. We sense them as overarching and inviolate because they are those things in our culture. And culture moves slowly. It took a hundred years of US history – where all men are created equal – to remove chains from Africans. It took another hundred to finally call them equal. It took 150 years to recognize that women are smart enough to vote. We still struggle with allowing a human being to love anyone they want to. 

Knowing that morals developed culturally due to genetic proclivities doesn’t lessen their importance. In a sense, it heightens their value as they give insights into how we are programmed to live successfully within groups. It does, however, remove the onus to follow beliefs handed down by fiat, only because we are told to do so. It elevates the importance of the human being and reduces the importance of religion. Which, of course, is what all the hubbub is about. 



Book Review, The Case for Christ, Strobel – Fails in its premise

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
The Case For Christ

There is a discussion on YouTube at Cal Poly between Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine and guru-extraordinaire Deepak Chopra. The topic is religion and quantum physics. After the discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions. One scruffy fella stood up, introduced himself as a teacher of quantum physics at the school, and made the observation that, though he knew the meaning of all the words that Chopra used, he hadn’t the slightest idea of what he was talking about. And he was pretty sure that Deepak didn’t either and invited him to attend a couple of classes. Chopra chuckles an uneasy gurgle but clearly the joke was on him. But not knowing what you’re talking or writing about hasn’t stopped anyone from selling a few million books to people who very assuredly do not know what the words really mean.

Strobel has done something similar with The Case for Christ. Per his Internet page, he was once an atheist and award-winning journalist. He is now Professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. He sets out with a great premise: a hard-hitting journalist will interview the smartest and most accomplished academics to find out who the real Jesus was. I wish this were Part One of three. In The Case for Christ Strobel limits his interviews to supporters of conservative evangelical orthodoxy who, without so much as a wince, wave off anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their systematic theology. No matter how small, no chink in the armor is allowed. No crack of the door. This would be a fair and expected result if there were a Part Two where he interviews academics with the same credentials who argue for a different conclusion – and there are just as many – and a Part Three where he compares the two. But, for obvious reasons, my guess that we’ll only see this heavily padded and purposefully biased volume.

The story and the arguments are entirely one-sided. An example is the question of the time-line of the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark tells us in his gospel that Jesus was crucified at the sixth hour – about nine in the morning. John, though, writing several years later, tells us that Jesus stood before Pilate at noon. Christians have spilled a lot of ink trying to explain this inconsistency but the most obvious explanation is most likely: John bends the narrative to make a better story. John’s readers would understand that his narrative puts Jesus before Pilate at just the same time that the Passover Lamb was being sacrificed – a symbolic nod to confirmation of Jesus as the Lamb of God. There is good evidence that as Christian writers over the next few centuries wrote their stories the narrative was expanded. Maybe there is a good reason for this? Maybe not? But it should be addressed with something other than the wave of the hand in a book purporting to delve deeply into these issues.

I wish, too, that Strobel would have developed an investigative metric prior to interviewing. This is a best practice in scientific research and would have served the book well, though possibly not Strobel’s conclusions. In other words, ask and answer the question of what constitutes real evidence before the interviews begin. This would be essential in maintaining a logical and unbiased review of the evidence.

The format is the same throughout the book. At the top of each chapter he relates a story he reported on and how the evidence found was used to argue the case to a conclusion. But he uses this to prop up a non-sequitur category error tacitly arguing that we should measure a claim to divinity in the same way we figure out who stuck their hand in the cookie jar. Apparently, to Strobel, the truism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is no truism. I  tired of the format. There’s interesting information here but Strobel was forced into some silly contrivances to maintain the interview format. And his writing is, well, more like reading the newspaper than flowing prose.

Lee Strobel
Lee Strobel

Strobel has written other ‘The Case for…” titles, and though I haven’t read them, I expect that they follow a similar format and reach similar conclusions. The Case for Christ  has been a consistent seller among Christians looking for answers to shore up their faith. If you start with faith, you’ll likely enjoy the book and find much of it useful. I started without faith and finished in the same way. Unconvinced and unmoved.

Strobel on Wiki here
nterview with Strobel regarding The Case For Christianity here

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Tolstoy, Mother Earth News, and Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton


Sometimes I think I should apologize to my friends and readers. Conventional blogging wisdom tells authors to select a topic, write about it widely and deeply, and provide usable and shareable content for readers. Besides the brute fact that I hate the very concept of content there are just too many things that fascinate me to limit my writing to one topic.  I tried running multiple sites one time and it was just too time consuming. And to tell the truth the topic that I’m most interested is a big ho-hum to most readers. That being said I saw this article in the NYT about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major writing at least once, took up Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked am happy to offer my opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s a little embarrassing but I even started dressing like the Great Man in his peasant smock once. Now that will get you some stares. So how did I miss the communes?

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he basically invented his own religion based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He corresponded frequently with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. He identified with the poor, setting up schools and eschewing a life of wealth and ease. He tried to forgo sex and was enormously exercised periods of ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In other words, he actually lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and certainly one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult. In this respect I’ve always though his last novel, Resurrection , was biographical and that Rasputin was in every way like a modern TV evangelist more interested in girls and graft than god.

The Great Man Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy and supporters working on famine relief.

Wiki says that there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government which they consider artificially propped up by threat of violent and hence corrupt. In similar philosophical straits as were British and American Shakers, Tostoyan Communities had a short history. Most attempted to be self-sustaining and we’re able to support themselves. Fellow citizens were often suspicious of non-violent neighbors who failed to understand that the best way to get along with enemies is to just kill them. Governments made life difficult on them. Finally, it’s hard to keep growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was highly regarded.

Tolstoyan tracts and booklets about the good life.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed after his name. He was happy to see people joining together to champion non-violence and simplicity be argued strongly he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself.

So maybe I can have a religion? As long as I don’t have to believe in divinity or miracles and can sit around writing great books – well – that sounds pretty nice to me.

See the NYT article here.

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Book Review – Divinity of Doubt – God and Atheism on Trial – Bugliosi

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton
Divinity of Doubt

The PEW Research Center reports that 4.0 percent of Americans self-identify as agnostic as of 2014 . This compares to 3.1 percent who call themselves atheist and 15.8 percent who shrug their shoulders and wonder what they big deal is. The rest (77.1 %) label themselves as adhering to or at least believing in some kind of religion with 70.6 percent of those as Christian. Maybe this explains why it’s so bloody hard to find a decent book on agnosticism. I don’t have a ruler long enough to measure the shelf space at my local Barnes and Noble given over to religious titles and I’m impressed that books for the few atheists among us have done so well. But what about us folks who sensibly straddle the issue? Shouldn’t we have a few bones tossed our way? I’d take the challenge up myself but I just can’t care enough. Maybe therein lies the answer?

Are you a brain in a vat? Can you prove that you are not?
Are you a brain in a vat? Can you prove that you are not?

I just don’t think we can know. I list hard toward the atheists – when I look out my front room window it doesn’t dawn on me that there necessarily must be someone or something behind the curtain pulling strings. The world seems to work just fine. No, I can’t explain why the universe exists or how life rose but my lack of understanding certainly doesn’t make your position true. I’m really not that smart or important. But neither can I, with certainty and confidence, say that there is no way any god or gods can exist. I believe the burden of proof to be on the shoulders of believers and believe strongly that they have an impossible task. Why? It’s a silly little argument but in my mind cannot be proven wrong: I say you are a brain in a vat on the planet Zoltar. The Zoltarians have figured out how to control every cell in your brain and create a life for you filled with pleasure and pain, memories and experiences, love and hate, life and death. It is all fake. None of what you experience is real.

Can you show me that this is not true? Can you explain to me why this doesn’t trump any answer you give? Whether you are theist or atheist?

So, in search of good agnostic philosophy I tripped against the bookshelves and Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt  fell into my basket. I wish I had noticed it before I hit the check-out counter. It’s, well, pretty lousy and I could have saved fifteen bucks.

Bugliosi - Large and In Charge!
Bugliosi – Large and In Charge!

Vincent Bugliosi is a famous, high-profile LA attorney whose success cannot be tied to his ability to make a well-reasoned and cogent argument. And maybe that’s not the purpose of this book. He pokes hard at atheists and theists and hardest by far at Christians. But he never really develops arguments. He brings up facts as he sees them and pronounces judgement. “This just doesn’t sit well with me” or “from my view this doesn’t make sense” are the closest he comes. He hits on the big questions but pontificates without real analysis. If he has sought understanding from the experts he doesn’t tells us. He has views and is more than happy to share them but fails to fully develop the points of either side. Neither high nor low-brow Christian theology impresses me much but he paints such a simple caricature of theology that it’s an easy piñata to whack and spill. Not with a stick or with strong arguments but mostly with strong feelings. These things just don’t sit well with the great lawyer.

The chapter on evolution is the worst I’ve ever read by someone who does not claim to be a creationist. He complains throughout that the authors of the books he read are poor writers and worse at explaining their points. In the South we call that ‘The pot calling the kettle black’. I won’t argue that Darwin can be a slog (cf here), but crapomoly, what about Why Evolution is True ? It’s an excellent, accessible,  and well written book. Or Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene? Or even Smith’s The Theory of Evolution? Bugliosi misunderstands almost every key point of the science and finally wonders – embarrassingly – why we still have monkeys if humans descended from them? Ugh. He concludes the chapter with a common creationist manta – he thinks he can get behind small changes in the same kind of animal (Thanks! Good to know!) but can’t see how something as gloriously special and unique as man came to be through evolution. Oh well.

I don’t argue with most of his pontifications. I’m sure we would get along just fine over a nice dinner. But in the end he comes off as a man who is very used to having his say and watching people listen, nod their heads, and agree. I don’t always work that way.

A last nit-picking point – there are numerous spacing errors and typos throughout the book. I get used to them when reading or writing blogs on the fly but they bother me when I shell out money for a book.

2 Stars – maybe useful for someone new to these questions

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Religion and Science. Ways of thinking that don’t play well together.

Copyright 2015 Dennis Mitton
Where are the dinos? And I though Eve would be more hairy?
Where are the dinos? And I though Eve would be more hairy?

I short while ago I published Part One (here) of my Evolution in Only Sixty Posts series (which is growing to around seventy-five posts so far…) In that post I outlined the worldview that science uses to do its work. It views existence as necessarily bound by immutable laws of nature. It doesn’t, by definition, preclude the interjection and interruption by something outside of the material universe, but would measure that force using the same categories and tools is uses to investigate any other question.

I thought of this post while reading something that a Facebook friend posted from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). (And isn’t Creation Research an oxymoron? Creationist accept creation without argument – what research?) It’s titled How Could Eve Know and argues that the Bible, as interpreted by the ICR, is the only standard for decision making and rightly viewing the world. As I read through the piece I thought that this is exactly the opposite of scientific thinking. With no apology, with no excuse, with a bold fist slamming on the podium, the writer claims that,

…Today, we face a similar dilemma[to Eve’s temptation in Eden]. On the one hand, we have God’s Word, which teaches things like the six days of creation, a global flood, and the resurrection of Christ. On the other hand, we have the words of people who claim that such things are simply not possible. How are we supposed to decide who is right?

Like Eve, we are inclined to judge God’s Word based on our senses and our understanding of what is possible. For some people God’s Word passes the test, and for others it does not. But either way, the test itself is defective because it attempts to judge the infallible Word by standards that are fallible because they are human standards. We must admit that our senses can be mistaken at times (e.g., an optical illusion), and our understanding of what is possible is often wrong, as the history of science has shown. Therefore, it makes no sense to judge a perfect standard (the Word of God) by a fallible standard (human sensation and reasoning). This would be like a young child who knows nothing about mathematics going through a college-level calculus textbook and attempting to correct what he perceives to be errors.

There are a several nuggets of anti-science to glean here. To begin, science does not argue that ‘such things are simply not possible’. Science argues that there is no evidence for a young earth, a global flood, or that a Jewish carpenter rose up to life after three days in the grave. Believe me, if the evidence argued for it there would be a mad rush to publish in Nature that would make Pamploma look like a Quaker service.

A second interesting point is the question about ‘how are we to decide who is right? The decisionquestion tacitly implies a weighing of evidence, a method of investigation, a kind of Holmesian metric. But there is none. This weighing and use of decision making tools exists in the realm of science and history and real life. This is exactly what the ICR et. al. do not do. They argue from an unproven premise and measure everything from that vantage. It’s certainly their prerogative but it is just as certainly not science and not critical thinking.

Most importantly, though, is the admonition that judging the world around us based on our senses is wrong and leads to inaccurate conclusions. This is the heart of the science/religion divide and it cannot be crossed without compromise. God’s Word, at least this particular word (don’t forget that the writer is an atheist regarding every other religion and interpretation) is held as the only standard. It is used a priori to examine the world and our place in it. Any deviation – say, that the earth is older than about six thousand years old – ‘proves’ that the science is wrong. ‘Science’ and research can only be true when it confirms the unconfirmed Word of God.

But the writer tells the truth. This is a dilemma for the church. Whereas the Catholic church sent Galileo the tower and countless others to the dungeon for wayward views the Pope now argues for the obvious evidence of evolution. As lives become more technically inclined it becomes harder for religions to castigate science and scientists as evil men bent on figuring ways to reject god (this is a common argument in most early creationist literature). We see a rise in secularism that works just fine. We see religious people and groups who are hate filled anachronisms.

To be fair let me say that I argue strongly that everyone gets to have their say. Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of, and freedom from religion are hallmarks of a modern philosophy. I am happy to put any argument of the table and judge it by its merit. So far religion, when compared to science, comes up short at every turn.

Weekly Recap – The Joy of Socks – Nutrition Science – NOT Dying in California – Religious beans and animal sacrifice

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton

Weekend thoughts…

cunkI don’ t get it. My wife watches the silliest television (so-called award winning shows)  but when it comes to the greatest moments of TV history – British comedy – she would rather disinfect the wash machine with acid. What gives?

Maybe it’s an aquired taste for Yanks but I love this stuff. C’mon. Have you seen The Good Neighbours? It’s nothing less than the greatest bit of film of all time. And Are You Being served? Ab Fab? Even Benny Hill is better than any SNL skit. So I’ve been thrilled to discover Philomena Cunk and her Moments of Wonder. There’s a bit of Stephen Colbert here, though she is much more British and much better looking.  Moments of Wonder is a series of shorts where Ms. Cunk, deeply interested in all things, asks experts the hard questions we all want to know. Is time circular because clocks are round? How do computers know what money is? Why does past life regression always reveal that we were Ladies in Waiting or  gladiators and not moneys?

Start here with her bit on evolultion. A simple search will turn up lots of hilarity. Unless you prefer silly crap like American  TV.

Great site – tons of British Comedy at TV Tropes.
The Guardian on Philomena Cunk.


Konmari and the Magic of Tidying Up. From a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Marie Kondo and her worldwide domination in the art of keeping the house clean and tidy. Much more interesting than it sounds and more cute than Martha Stewart.

Recommendation of Dr. David Katz and nutritional wisdom in general. With all the flotsam, misinformation, and lies it’s good to have a couple aces in your pocket were you can get solid, science backed information about health and nutrition. Dr. Katz is one of the best.

Most any old hack can tell you if you’re sick or not. But can your doctor rate your health on exercisea scale? We’re getting closer. The brainiacs at Johns Hopkins have developed a treadmill test that attempts to rate your relative health with hope that if you see where you are you will want to improve. Will you live another ten years? Find out.

I put on my Schopenhauer hat and get a little grumpy. Did you know that there is a whole empire built around Christian nutritional advice? If you’re wondering what that is, well, so am I. And the authors of The Daniel Plan don’t know either. But they sure make money. At least I found a good Santeria book on animal sacrifice to offset the goofiness.

Fathers and Sons Part Eight. Two Forks. Dying and an open door. The story of Dad not driving to California to die and the best two years of my life.

What I’m reading…

Still reading Black Girl/White Girl, Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve yet to read all of the world’s books but so far no one creates an urge in me to turn the page like JCO.  (I picked this up from B&N for $1.99 on BookBub. They send a daily email for one or two books with special pricing for a day or so. Worth a look.)

Huh? The movie Selma and the New Testament? A history lesson.

selamI recently reviewed Bart Ehrman’s excellent book Misquoting Jesus (here) where he uses historical fact to argue that the New Testament as we hold it is not the same book that first century Christians would have held.

His argument is two fold. The first and most clear fork is based on textual criticism or the science of textual forensics. This is where extant copies of ancient manuscripts are compared in an attempt to determine and locate changes from earlier copies. That such a science exists is problematic for Christians. It exists only because we do not have any – nary a one – original document pertaining to Jesus and the  development of the first century church. In Misquoting Jesus Ehrman methodically steps through errors, omissions, and additions in our manuscripts. He explains – amazingly – that not one manuscript, from thousands, however big or small, matches any other. In fairness, he explains that most errors are obviously editorial but, just as obviously, many are additions or deletions in order to make the story better.

Historically the church has dealt with this in two ways. Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches have mostly skirted it via ex cathedra where church leaders are able to definitively and divinely understand the mind of God. In fact, they argue that because we do not have original manuscripts, and because extant manuscripts contain errors, we need a mechanism to lay down judgment on what the Bible means. In a real sense, for Catholics and Orthodox believers, sacred writings are subservient to official decree. This is an often irreconcilable wedge between groups. Where believers in an inerrant and literal Bible see their truths as eternal and unchanging, other groups are able to evolve, such as when the Mormon Church, based on new revelation, voted to allow Blacks to join the priesthood in 1978.

teleThe second prong of Ehrman’s argument is much more organic and interesting to me: left to themselves people can’t be trusted. Not in a bad way but simply by nature. We’ve all played the telephone game where we sit in a circle and someone starts by whispering something into the ear to their right. “Circles are red.” Each person passes it along in a whisper. After ten or twenty iterations the last person repeats aloud what they were told: “Clouds haven rotten.” Everyone laughs but it gives real insight to how oral messages area transmitted – poorly.

Imagine that you are in Rome. It’s the year 60 and someone named Jesus has been dead now for thirty years. Every now and then you run into people who claim to have known him or who follow him. Some say he was god himself. Other say he was a man favored by god. Others say he didn’t even have a real body! It seems that some followers are Jewish but follow Jesus too. This is the telephone game writ large. But it is worse than that. There have been some people who have purposefully tried to sway and shift the argument. Certainly Paul did. Listen to him here, from First Corinthians:

For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?…

Clearly here we see how groups or sects can naturally develop. It’s easy to imagine different churches rising up out of this. The First Church of Paul. Madison Avenue Church of Appolos. And why not? People were mostly uneducated and illiterate. Stories moved through towns and region orally, each taking on a local flavor. Would these stories have been embellished? Of course. What’s interesting about pulling a loaf of bread out of your knapsack? Nothing. But when you keep breaking off enough bits to feed 5,000 people? Now thar’s a tale!

As we move through early church history we see this happening again and again. Faith in Jesus was a stew of competing beliefs. This is the reason for church councils, meetings, priests, and popes: to create and maintain one orthodoxy.

How in the world does this tie in the the movie Selma?

A couple weeks ago I tweeted a well known talking head about Selma. She had just seen the movie and squealed that the movie was so wonderful she wanted to stay and see it again. (For clarity let me say that I am paraphrasing all tweets.) I sent a quick question, asking her what she thought of the historical questions about the film. She never answered but a few of her followers did and I should have just asked something sensible like whether she preferred pistols or rifles for murder.

The hounds were in full cry. “How dare you ask such a stupid question!” “What? Just leaving the KKK meeting?” “Are you Black? If not you have no right to even ask the question!” I was stunned but should have known better than to expect real responses.
I finally got a few reasoned answers. Most people shrugged and said it’s a movie, not a documentary. Others took pains to explain MLK’s importance to me. It was clear to them by my question that I didn’t know who he was. Meanwhile streams of derision flowed in like lava.

Human nature was at work here with some insight into the development of any historical memory.

Forty years after the death of MLK and it’s easy to see certain camps evolving. One is historical: stick to the facts. We’ve got recordings, newscast, and interviews. That’s the entire story. Others see him as a great man  – a leader with an important message. And I met a few folks on Twitter who don’t give one flying damn about history. They’ve got a story and that’s the final word. If you don’t agree with them then that just proves that you would have shot the man yourself.

I make no claim here that any religion is growing around MLK though not much about religion surprises me. Instead, I think it’s fascinating to see how movements within movements develop.  How a group can rise within a group and begin to define orthodoxy. Recently I re-blogged a post regarding free speech. I have a libertarian view of free speech: you are free to say what you will as long as no one is put in immediate physical peril. But within some groups who have traditionally supported free speech it is being redefined to exclude speech that makes people feel badly, especially in regard to gender and sexual orientation. This is wrong to me. All ideas must be put on the table and judged on their merit, even uncomfortable ideas. It’s the only way for culture at large to win out over popes, despots, and ‘protectors’ of right thinking.