Rationality or a demon-haunted world view? Post by Seth Godin

Wonderful and provoking write-up of a rational world view and its rewards and what Sagan called the ‘demon haunted world’ of pseudoscience and religion.

See at Seth Godin’s blog here.


Ways of Knowing and Ways of Opinioning

Not all thoughts carry equal weight

Copyright Dennis Mitton

Okay – let’s do another day of religion.

Way of Knowing #1:

I say something crazy.

“Can you  believe it? Did you know that Europe and North America are moving away from each other?”

“Impossible! I stand on the shore of the Atlantic every day and I never see anything move.”

So we say, “Well if this is true, then we should see this”. (The ability to validate predictions is the real power of the scientific method.) We set up an experiment and set stationary points on both sides of the Atlantic and shoot lasers back and forth or we triangulate from quasars in space. And we see, in fact, that the continents are moving. And we see this every single time we look. And if we try a new method of checking, we get the same results.

This kind of hold-in-your-hand, repeatable, predictable evidence is what science is all about. Notice too that, using our set up, we can show that we are wrong. (Hint – this is key.)

Here’s another scenario:

“Clearly the King James Bible is God’s Word to mankind.”

“What? Yer nuts. Without the Pope to tell us what the Bible means, it’s just a bunch of words.”

“But the KJV uses the oldest and best manuscripts!”

“Yes – manuscripts that were saved and deemed best by the early Popes. Without the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t have any manuscripts.”

This conversation will go on and on without resolution. You never win this argument but just wait until you’ve worn down and outlasted your pal. It isn’t hard to verify that the KJV is not the most accurate version of the Bible – but that is based on Way of Knowing #1. It’s not hard to show that the KJV has been immensely influential in Western culture but that doesn’t speak to the truth of it. There is no way to prove its truth. Religionists often mistake accuracy for truth and the two are not the same.

The question of what book, manuscript, song, or bird trill is God’s Word to mankind cannot be determined but only opined. Most importantly, whatever your opinion is, it can’t be shown to be wrong. I can prove to you that I am holding a piece of schist and not granite in my hand. I cannot prove that you are not a brain in a vat. I can give a reasoned opinion. But never proof.

No matter how you slice it, the second  conversation is made up of unsupportable opinion. Any facts interjected are based on Way of Knowing #1. There is no Way of Knowing #2. Everything outside of Way of Knowing #1 is opinion. Some better, maybe. Some more learned. Some more heartfelt. But opinion only.

A Little Blood and Guts Today

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Good old Art. There when I need an excuse to be a bastard.

Shocking, I know, but I find it a little hard to be mean. So every now and then I reach for my trusty pal Art Schopenhauer and turn to the page wherein he writes, paraphrasing,

“ Goddammit! Write In blood. Spill it. Cut your wrist and paint the page. Never waste your time reading anything not written in blood and never ever write anything without it.”

So today – usually the day I reserve for book reviews – I put on my Schopenhauer hat and rant. Just a little.

This Tuesday I recommended Dr. David Katz’s site and books for sound, reasoned, and science based nutritional advice. His isn’t the only good book at the bookstores but it’s one of the best. Want to know what one of the most popular health books are these days? The Daniel Plan – 40 Days To A Healthier Life. By? Pastor Rick Warren. And not happy to just shill diet books between sermons, you can now buy The Daniel Plan Journal, The Daniel Plan Study Guide, The Feast, The Cookbook – I don’t know –  maybe there’s a Praise Music To Dine By CD. I don’t even know what all this stuff is but there’s a lot of money to be made here.

I’ll come clean. These might be great books. I haven’t read them. I don’t intend to read danielthem. There is nothing here that, if useful, is new. Crappy advice comes and goes weekly. What I don’t like is how they are marketed. And how this entire scheme is pyramided to make money. You’ve got a culture of fat people. They all feel badly about how sinful they are and how they gossip and how they secretly tape Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce and how they don’t really care for the poor and then they read “God designed our bodies to be healthy, providing everything we need to thrive and live abundantly” and they groan a little. Time to lose weight. Time to suffer a little. All I need is this book, and those audio tapes, that journal. Gotta have that cookbook. Lucky for them the Bible bookstore has all these laid out in a row for them to pick and choose from.

sivaTo be fair, a quick Amazon search reveals lots of diet books for religious types. Your Muslim Cookbook has the ‘famous bean pie’. There is Eternal Food for Hindus and Buddhists. Not to be outdone by other Christians the Mormons have their Mormon Cookery. For the brave there is Food and Adimu of the Cuban’s Santeria (in English). It purports to have many fine recipes and instructions for sacrificing animals and using or eating their entrails.

I’m instantly suspicious when I see anything natural and normal tagged as religious. There will be quackery or money involved. Someone is going to try to convince me that the laws of physics don’t really apply here or that this is the way god wants you to do it. See? It says so right here. Ugh.

Deep breath. Okay. I put the poison away and encourage health and happiness in any way you can get it. If you need Siva or Daniel or aliens hiding behind comets to help you improve health then go for it. But my advice is to forget the Daniel Plan and it’s ilk – this is just a money making scheme. And I have all the advice you need and you don’t even need to pray for it. It comes from Michael Pollan and sums up everything good about food, nutrition, and health:

Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants.

Thank you. Amen.

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.

Sublime or selfish? Sheldon Vanauken and A Severe Mercy

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton

asmFrequent readers know that I have an embarrassing love affair with PBS shill extraordinaire Wayne Dyer. I vigorously disagree with him on almost every topic but I never listen to him without coming away with something thoughtful and provoking. One thing he asks that always intrigues me is where your former selves live? It’s a little silly but interesting. Who were you then? Are you still that person? Would friends then recognize you now? Where is the first grade boy who jumped up on his desk just as Mrs. Grove walked in?

Who we are today is the summation of all the who we were‘s. Everything you’ve done and thought and ate and all your conversations and mistakes and passions all smashed up to make you. Today. There’s insight here. Where do habits come from? How should I act today or what should I do to be the person I want to be next year?

So I look back at A Sever Mercy (ASM) and cringe a little. I loved this book and now, older, having left the trappings of Christianity and metaphysics, it seems so much less interesting. I see the author as more self-absorbed than witty. There were hints that I missed. Even the title – lifted from a letter to the author from C.S. Lewis – hints at it. A sever mercy. God taking your wife, the one thing you love,  so you can focus on Him. It sounded sublime then. Now horrible and creepy.

There is no question that ASM is one of the most influential books I’ve read. Not for the love story or for the faith but for the culture.  When I first read it I was a Christian who hadn’t given Christianity much thought and found the world Vanauken strode through hugely appealing. Christianity for him – at Oxford – was high minded and thoughtful and Van and wife Davy were equally at home in church, in art, in great literature, and in science. They wondered about peace and social justice. They smoked! This wasn’t any Christianity that I had seen. I made notes in the back of the book of all the music they listened too and to the authors they read. It was my reading list for several years and I still listen to Dvorak.

Over time I’ve written a few things about A Severe Mercy and my meeting Van. Of course lots of people met him, he was a professor after all, and active, and engaged. Here I include my review of A Severe Mercy and and article published a couple years ago about meeting him.

Book Review, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

Professor Vanauken

I’ve probably read ASM a dozen times and with each reading something new stands out. I read it first as a young Christian, newly married and idealistic, and was frankly enchanted by the possibility of a romantic love that need never die. I didn’t notice then, as I do now, what others point out: that Van’s infatuation with his love is an infatuation with himself. That he and Davy were so self‑absorbed that it must have been hard to breathe apart from each other. Or breathe in their presence. This seems so much less appealing to me now as it did when I was young. And it’s always been interesting to me that their Shining Barrier, as they called it, their moat of protection around love, was only breached after they became Christians. A young woman, a friend, from England moves in with them for a time and while Davy’s attention turns to her faith, the young woman’s attention turns to Van. He claimed to love her – all dutifully explained to his wife per the Shining Barrier – but I wonder if he loved more the idea that she loved him? That one more time he was the center point of romance. It’s a good question for the psychologists.

Much of the book is taken up by Van’s conversion to Christianity. I much more enjoyed Davy’s: an aching yearning for wholeness and love. Van struggles with more mundane issues like embarrassment and cosmology. He writes off the ‘German demythologizers’ with a swipe of the pen and now, older and agnostic, I wonder, why? I forgive Davy who grew up in a religious home but why does Van begin a priori thinking that the Gospels tell the truth? He was a historian? Why didn’t his training kick in causing him to delve more deeply into the arguments? He never writes about grappling with textual criticism or the verities of the Gospels. This, to me, is a much more central and important question than ‘the gap behind’. Unable to make the leap forward – to become a Christian – he is aghast to learn that there is now a ‘gap behind’ after accepting that Jesus is more than just a good moral chap. A deeper look at those demythologizers might have set him on another course.

The Great Dvorak

Make no mistake:  I love the high mindedness of the book. Van and Davy are immersed in a rarified world of literature, music, art, and travel. This is no working man’s tale. Floating in the pool at Van’s family home they dream of life aboard a sailboat. Living on the sailboat they dream of life at Yale. After an officer’s life in the Navy – in Hawaii – they dream of life in England at Oxford. The book offers up a catalog of great reading and great music. Through their reference to The Humoresque I am still in love with Dvorak. I still read Du Maurier and Burnt Norton. The book presents Christianity in a way that was new to me and non-stereotypical – Van, Davy, and their friends were intellectuals and equally at home in literature or science or history as they were in their faith. I had never encountered these kinds of Christians and the whole idea appealed to me deeply.

The book is gorgeously written. The prose, a bit spare, is wonderful. Think Hemingway on the analyst’s couch. The story is absorbing and thought provoking. It is a wonderful read that I highly recommend to anyone, caveats and Christianity aside.

On of the more audacious things I’ve done. Called an author and invited myself over to meet him. Without hesitation he invited me and we spent a nice couple of hours talking about books.

 An Afternoon with Vanauken

Copyright 2013, Dennis Mitton
davy v
Jean ‘Davy’ Vanuaken

His dad groaned about ‘all that silly romance stuff’ but I took the book. Mark’s Mom stood with her hand out, thinking I would enjoy it. A Severe Mercy. I had never heard of it. It was smallish and, as she explained, smiling, “wonderful”. I took it home and moved it from table to counter to dresser until finally getting some time to lie down. I took the book and paged through it, started reading, and read it straight through. When I was done and still floating between the peaks and valleys – god o’ mighty what a valley! – I grabbed a pen, audacious and naïve, and dashed off a letter to the author – a history prof across the county whom I’d never met – telling him how I loved his story.

Weeks later and to my complete astonishment I received a post card from Lynchburg, Virginia: “Thanks for your note and kind words regarding ASM. I’ve been exceedingly touched at the response the book has received. If you wouldn’t mind what, exactly, did you like best about the book?” I think I smiled for a week. I was flabbergasted and felt enormously important. Before he forgot who I was I wrote back, expanding on how the book touched me and, in so doing, began a relationship based on several letters over the years and a single meeting. A Severe Mercy was touted as a love story, and it was, but for me it opened doors that I didn’t know existed. My thoughts at the time about Christians and Christianity were mostly limited to stereotypes: doddering prudes and fire breathing Pentecostals. I had no idea that there was a Christian heritage imbued with the artistic and intellectual wrappings that Vanauken and his friends experienced. I took the book apart like a textbook. I made notes in the back listing the authors Van and Davy read and the music they listened to. Dvorak became one of my favorite composers and I developed a love of poetry that stays with me today. I learned that I had wrongly cordoned off that part of the world called religion and put it on the shelf with romance novels and hillbillies. Reading through A Severe Mercy, though, I learned that smart people included it along with reason, science, and philosophy as a matter of right thinking. It came as a shock.

I wrote to tell Vanauken these things. Maybe I sensed that he would be open to me since he had done the same thing with C.S. Lewis? He seemed to enjoy my ramblings and always responded to my letters. Once he said that what I wrote was just what he liked to hear: not analysis but real feelings. “Poetry should make you feel,” he said. “Listen to the words and the cadence.” I wore that badge proudly for days. Once I could tell that I irritated him and he made no effort to hide it. I was waiting for his first novel titled Gateway to Heaven. When it came out I read it and didn’t like it. He, of course, asked me what I thought of it. How did it make me feel? My manners filter must have turned off and I was honest: I thought the dialogue was stilted and the story line contrived. “These things just don’t happen,” I said. A few weeks later I received another post card: “Of course these things happen to people – maybe just not to YOU!” shouted the dialogue. “It’s a better book than you give it credit for.” I didn’t argue back.

My career at the time required that I traveled and stay in different states for weeks or even months at a time. I was leaving New Jersey and decided to visit Williamsburg on my drive home to Washington State. In Williamsburg I watched a play and loafed a bit and then it hit me – just about the most brazen idea I’ve ever had: I telephoned Vanauken in Lynchburg and invite myself over. I’m sure it was any other Saturday night to him but I was shocked when he answered the telephone. “Hello?” “Hello? Mr. Vanauken? “Yes?” “This is Dennis Mitton? From Washington state? We’ve written several letters back and forth over the last year?” (Please know who I am!) “Um, yes, of course, Dennis. What can I do for you?” I was straining to hear some kind of recognition in his voice. “Well, I’m actually in Williamsburg.” I felt a little burning on my face. “I’ll be in Lynchburg tomorrow (if you’ll have me!) and wondered if I could come by and meet you? If you’re not too busy, of course.” Even now, years later I shake my head at how bold I was. He didn’t hesitate. “Sure. Come over after church? Say two o’clock?” He gave me his address and I hung up the phone a little stunned like a child who gets what he wants and isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

I don’t remember much about his home except for the antique MG parked in the garage and the general sense of 221B Baker Street inside. There was nothing special about the outside – just another house along the block that looked like any other block. Inside he had books lying about in stacks, the room smelled of cigarette smoke, and the carved bowsprit of a sailing boat rested against the fireplace. He sat on his bed in the corner of the room and smoked. I was surprised at how large he was and at his age. It hadn’t occurred to me that the handsome naval officer with the pretty young wife would be…well, old and fat. We made small talk about work and the weather and I asked what he thought about the response to ASM. He was flabbergasted, he said. He intended to write what he thought was a special little story and was overwhelmed that so many people were touched by it. He laughed and said that someone had purchased 400 copies to hand out to friends. I wondered aloud about how much money that would cost. “Forget the money,” he said. “I’m more impressed that someone has 400 friends!” We talked about new things he was writing. In response to the enormously receptive response to ASM he said he was working on an expanded version. He had a novel in the works and was writing some for magazines. We talked about music and I asked him if he had considered how his life mirrored Dvorak’s ‘Humoresque.’ He was puzzled but it seem obvious to me: “the piece starts with a happy lilting spring-like theme and then sinks into something dark before emerging light and airy again.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “I’ve never thought of that. I doubt, though, that I’ll ever listen to it again without thinking about it.” I wasn’t sure if he was happy about that or not.

As much as he was open and cordial (he had, after all, invited an almost complete stranger into his house) he also struck me as a no-nonsense kind a character. He felt no compunction in correcting me when needed but never came off as arrogant. I would describe him as professorial. I didn’t want to overstep his largess so stayed just an hour or so. He smoked a couple of cigarettes while I was there, apologized for not inviting me to church, and didn’t object when I said it was time to go. He walked me to the door, we shook hands, and I left, promising to read his new book. I followed his work as closely as I could in those pre-internet days and read everything I could by him. Though I didn’t always agree with him I did always learned something and, more than that, I always enjoyed the way he strung words together and I think this would have made him happiest. Of course I was saddened to hear of his passing but still find people who have kept his story of the Shinning Barrier alive and still read and re-read his stories and poetry. I am grateful that I was able to spend and afternoon with him.

barrierA Severe Mercy on Amazon
Vanauken on Wiki
Vanauken at The Imaginative Conservative
Why Sheldon Vanauken Gets On My Nerves at Spectrum

Exposing sacred cows. Book Review – Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman

Copyright Dennis Mitton, 2015

jesusFew cows are as sacred to Western thought as the New Testament. Dispatching these cows can be dangerous. In an earlier century, Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, would undoubtedly have ended up as something less than an academic celebrity. More likely he would end up in the bottom of a pond with stones tied around his feet.

He begins Misquoting with his own story – his ‘testimony’ in church talk – and writes about his journey from a conservative Christian Evangelical to an agnostic academic. Along the way he tells about his surprise in learning that our New Testament is, to some degree (and the degree is the question), a fiction. He dissects and outlines miscues and midsdirections that are both understandable errors and intentional edits. He spends time walking the reader through the history of textual criticism (the specialty of academic investigation into the textual accuracy of Scripture,) and then develops a metric by which academics measure the words of the Bible.

Any book on this subject will polarize someone or some group but Ehrman’s treatment is respectful and thorough. And without original manuscripts I simply cannot see an argument that his conclusions are wrong. Our best manuscripts were written several centuries after the beginning of Christianity and there is clear evidence that scribes and theologians purposefully altered manuscripts to better fit the story. Ehrman sticks to the facts and admits that, though none of the thousands of manuscripts and manuscript pieces match any other, the great bulk of differences are editorial or grammarian. But, he outlines, there is ample evidence that the central messages of the New Testament has been molded over time into a specific narrative very likely not found in the original manuscripts. Is it possible that even Jesus never knew he was god?

The prose is very readable and accessible with little technical terminology. It slows down in scribethe later chapters as Ehrman walks the reader through specific controversies and could be hard slogging if the subject is of little interest. In all I thought it was a great read.

CS Lewis famously argued that Jesus must be one of three things: a lunatic, a liar, or Lord. Ehrman deftly posits a fourth possibility – a legend.

My post on the Shroud of Turin here.
Misquoting Jesus here on Amazon.
Well done intro to textual criticism here.
Wiki page on textual criticism here.
Bart Ehrman’s page here.