Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Delusional Atheism: A Reply to a Reader

A reader named Guy Monty posted the following on "The True Meanings of Christmas, Part II". I want to respond to it in detail, because I think it is a good example of delusional atheism. Guy's comments are in italics.

Although I am not affiliated with any group, movement, or cadre, I am an atheist. From what I have witnessed and learned in 44 years here on planet Earth, I have to agree that religion is stupid, offensive and that it does actively erode man's quality of life. Why? Because it requires one to accept things for which there is no evidence, as if there is. As soon as one sets foot on that path, the mind is left open to all kinds of nonsense. This can manifest itself in a fairly benign form of delusion (crystal and faerie worshipers for instance), but it is delusion nonetheless. Any creature which chooses to allow fantasy to take the decision making reigns, is a creature which will eventually get itself into trouble. With social animals such as humans, this inevitably leads to getting ones fellows into trouble as well. The moment when your argument against atheism fails, is when you assume that atheism is some form of dogma, theology, or even an ideology. It's not. It simply means that one does not believe in a deity.

Ready Guy? Here goes.

You conclude by summarizing your version of atheism in this way: “it simply means that one does not believe in a deity" (call this [ND]). This is what most atheists usually say, but it is a flattering delusion, as you yourself show.

Consider what else you have written in this paragraph:

1.) "Religion is stupid”

2.) “Religion is offensive”

3.) “Religion actively erodes man's quality of life";

4.) “Religion actively erodes man’s quality of life because it requires one to accept things for which there is no evidence, as if there is".

5.) “Accepting (any) things for which there is no evidence eventually gets us, and others, into trouble”.

These five beliefs go far beyond (ND), don’t they? So, your belief (ND) is false, isn't it? And, you are unable to see this fact, aren't you? Indeed, it is remarkable how you can type out all five of those specific beliefs – about the nature of religion, the nature of the best sort of belief, etc. – and then type out (ND) without noticing that it cannot possibly be true given what you'd typed mere seconds earlier.

Moreover, those five beliefs very much appear to serve as the anchors of a genuine ideology. Yet you write that your version of atheism doesn’t constitute an “ideology”. That seems to me like another instance of a sort of delusive blindness.

But let me get more specific. Take belief (3). It is a universal claim. As such, it is a denial that there is, or could ever be, a single case in which religion would not erode the quality of a person’s life. On that basis alone, I would say this extreme belief looks very much like dogma. More to the point is that your belief has absolutely no evidence for it. By your criteria, it is therefore a delusion.

Worse, though, is that (3) is contradicted by the positive results of innumerable psychological studies which show that by a number of criteria, religious belief and activity enhance the quality of life of certain people. (3) also betrays a gargantuan presumptuousness, in that, on no evidentiary basis whatsoever, it denies the validity of the first-person-reported experiences of many tens of millions of religious converts who claim that the quality of their lives has improved as a result of their religious adherence. In other words, (3) constitutes an assertion that you, Guy, know far more about the quality of people’s lives that you have never met, and never will meet, than the people in question do.

Yet the lack of evidence for (3), and the abundance of evidence showing it to be incorrect, has not induced you to revise (3). The point is - if this all does not constitute some serious dogmatism, some serious delusions about the knowledge you posess, I don’t know what does. That alone should be enough to show that there is something totally wrong with this sort of atheism. But let me mention something more.

Notice (5). It expresses the belief that there can be no such thing as an adaptive unjustified belief. There is also absolutely no evidence for this belief – it is therefore an unjustified belief (a “delusion”, according to you).
But even worse is that this belief of yours is in conflict with the Darwinian principles of evolution that all good atheists subscribe to. After all, what Darwinian evolution says is that the human brain has evolved so as to form beliefs which confer survival advantage - a claim which obviously allows that such beliefs may very well have no supporting evidence, and very well may not even be true. Darwin makes this pretty explicit in his famous passage from "The Descent of Man":

"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection".

In this passage, Darwin contemplates that the following sorts of beliefs would confer survival advantage on to groups:

"My tribe is the very best tribe in the whole world" (patriotism);

"I ought to suffer inconvenience, or more, to relieve the suffering of a fellow tribesman" (sympathy);

"I ought to run toward enemy lines to distract them while my tribe escapes, even though I will die doing so" (sacrifice for the common good);


And what is key here is that none of these beliefs can muster any sort of evidentiary support. So, these are "unjustified beliefs" which Darwin says are adaptive. That is, Charles Darwin believes that there can be such things as adaptive unjustified beliefs, but you don't. Hm.

Now, let's introduce the elves which you mentioned in your note, since these would push these beliefs away from being merely unjustified, toward being false.

So let's say our tribesman believes the following:

"There is a small green elf named Burkle who lives inside my head. Burkle has told me that I should exercise and be strong, instead of remaining lazy and growing very weak and fat".

That is a false belief. We could crack open our tribesman's head, and we would find no green elf there at all. Yet one result of this false belief will enhance the tribesman's ability to survive. It doesn't matter that the green elf portion of the belief need not be there; the fact is, it could very well be there, and if it is, then this is just one of innumerable beliefs which are both false and adaptive. We could easily replace the green elf in the head with Jesus living in the sky; the belief would stay the same: an adaptive unjustified or false belief, that is, a religious belief which does not "erode" the quality of a man's life, but enhances it. And the fact is that most religions have quite a few beliefs as beneficial as this one. Duh. "A bearded man who lives in the sky wants you to be chaste" may be a false/unjustified belief; but chastity confers real health benefits in an era of sometimes lethal STDs, like HIV. Doesn't it? How could this be any more obvious?

Your denial of the possibility of adapative unjustified/false beliefs, and by implication adaptive religious beliefs, is, I think, very blatantly wrong; and certainly it is at odds with evolution as Darwin conceived of it. And funnily enough, whether a belief contradicts Darwinian evolution seems to be an important standard for atheists when evaluating theist beliefs. Yet here you have shown you have an atheist belief which also contradicts Darwinian evolution. Why should it not be regarded as just as delusional, by your own standards?

Although it would be offensively wrong to argue that no atheist ever committed a crime (I've yet to hear that from anyone who professes to be a theist), I cannot agree that the presence of an atheist within a morally bankrupt political ideology amounts to "crimes committed in the name of atheism". In the case of the atrocities committed by Bolsheviks, the heinous crimes against humanity were committed in large part to consolidate the power of madmen, not in the name of "atheism".

Here's one problem with this, Guy. You cannot make this argument without disallowing atheists from making their favourite argument for "crimes committed in the name of theism"; for following your example, and with as little justification, we could just glibly assert that "the heinous crimes against humanity were committed in large part to consolidate the power of madmen, not in the name of theism".

But the bigger problem is that this statement about theism would be no truer than your own about atheism; for atheism is as crucial, as fundamental, to Marxism, as theism is to Catholicism. There is no way around this. That atheism is a disbelief in God, rather than a belief in God, makes no difference. The point is that fanatical devotion to each has helped inspire people to commit heinous crimes.

By the way, your statement that "I cannot agree that the presence of an atheist within a morally bankrupt political ideology amounts to 'crimes committed in the name of atheism' is shocking in how grossly it distorts the fundamentality of atheism to Marxism. This isn't about "the presence of an atheist" in a "morally bankrupt political ideology"; it is about a political ideology which itself is fundamentally, crucially, officially, irrevocably atheist. As I said in my earlier post, for this reason crimes committed by Marxists to advance the Marxist cause are - unavoidably - crimes committed in the name of atheism, just as unavoidably as are crimes committed to advance Catholicism crimes committed in the name of Christianity. The belief that they are not, is just another example of the delusions to which atheists of your stripe are prone.

When a political entity attacks a specific religion because they are trying to gain sole political power, I can hardly see where this constitutes an atheist Jihad. So would the world be better if without religion? I think it would. I don't feel the need to toss anyone into a lake of fire for all eternity if they don't agree though.

---Again, your belief that the world would be a better place without religion is a belief without any evidentiary warrant, especially given the atrocities committed in the name of an ideology for which atheism was a crucial pillar just in the past century. Moreover, your belief seems to rest on the assumption that "a human race without religion" is even possible – which I would say is itself a total delusion, given that innumerable findings from anthropology, psychology, history, sociology, etc., are that religion is endemic to human brains.

And that you can "hardly see" how crimes committed in the name of a fundamentally atheist ideology are no less crimes committed in the name of atheism, as are crimes committed in the name of a fundamentally theist ideology crimes committed in the name of theism, is precisely the point. You can't see it even though it is as plain as day; and you just repeat the same sorts of defensive slogans that theists repeat when guys like you start talking about how religion is the primary cause of evil on the planet.

This whole business, this sort of contemporary orthodox "Dawkins-style" atheism, goes far beyond mere disbelief in the existence of God. That is its problem. It prides itself on being an expression of "critical thinking" and science-based skepticism, when in reality it has nothing to do with critical thinking or science-based skepticism at all. It is nowhere near critical or skeptical enough. It is, rather, mostly a pile of bigoted, dogmatically-held, false knowledge claims - delusions - about the supposedly evil nature of religion, about how to save humanity from itself, about what is possible in human affairs, etc. - slopped on top of a blinding, self-congratulatory disbelief in God, and which is no different in principle from a pile of delusions which just happen to be theist. It is just the other side of the same coin.

This type of atheism, in short, is no less delusional, no less unjustified, no less false, no less dogmatic, no less ideological, than the religions it claims to be superior to.

I welcome your reply, Guy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The True Meanings of Christmas, Part III

So, Christmas.

In almost every sermon in almost every Christian church each December, speakers encourage their listeners to remember "the true meaning of Christmas".

But there is no "true meaning of Christmas" in any objective sense. The closest thing we have to that are the facts of history:

Despite the holiness attrributed by Christians to this celebration, the fact is that there is no virtually no feature of Christmas which has a Christian, as oppposed to a pagan, provenance, other than the idea of it as a celebration of the birth of the supposed founder of Christianity. "Christmas" is a thoroughly pagan celebration with some Christian mythology imported in - the equivalent of giving some new Christian name to the old Roman drinking festivals called the bacchanalia, and then claiming that "Christianalia" is henceforth "really" a celebration of Jesus's first miracle (turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana). Nothing's changed; it's just that some mythology was retroactively inserted, and a new label stuck on top of the thing.

The tree, the gift-giving, the merrymaking, the foods, the holly, the lights, the charitable activity, the yule log...all these beloved features and more of Christmas existed in European winter celebrations (Roman Saturnalia and New Year, German and Scandinavian solstice celebrations, etc.) long before it ever occurred to Christians to start celebrating the birth of their religion's supposed founder sometime in the latter part of the 4th century A.D. In fact, it was the almost thoroughly pagan character of Christmas which, historically, motivated devout British and American Christians (the Puritans) to oppose Christmas for many years. In the 17th century in Boston, the Puritans even succeeded in legally banning Christmas for a few years altogether. A contemporary Christian might take theological issue with the Puritan view that Christmas, as but a thinly veiled pagan winter festival, is blasphemous; but they could never take issue with the historical basis of that judgment. It is just a matter of fact.

This all makes the ongoing fuss from Christians about "the world trying to take Christ out of Christmas" seem even sillier. They've got some nerve, don't they? Cynical politicians and party-loving Christians in a former age hijack a winter celebration spanning back innumerable centuries, which never had anything to do with a Jewish religious reformer which certain superstitious fanatics took to worshipping, and now their descendants complain that pagans are trying to hijack the "Christian" holiday of Christmas? AND, they complain about it when they themselves are still enjoying all the pagan features of that celebration?

Like I said, some nerve. The Puritans had a point: if Christians are serious about making Christmas as Christian as possible, they should stop mixing it into a pagan Winter Solstice celebration in December, and start celebrating it sometime in spring, which is when almost all scholars now believe Josh Josephson was born. AND, they should reject Christmas trees, holly boughs, mistletoe, gift-giving, Santa Claus visits, etc. They should reject every last feature of current Christmas celebrations which has a pagan provenance (basically all of them), and redo Christmas from the ground up. But...they'll never do that, so I can't take any of their complaints about the de-Christianizing of Christmas seriously. Just by celebrating it as they do, they themselves support a "deChristianized Christmas" nearly as much as any pagan.

Even more ignorant is the Christian fuss over the usage of the abbreviation "Xmas" for Christmas. It was, after all, educated devout Christians who started abbreviating "Christmas" in this way, hundreds of years ago. And no wonder - the "X" comes from the Greek letter X (which we transliterate as kh- or ch-), which is the first letter in the common Greek word Χριστός (christos), which we anglicize as "Christ".

"X" is Christ's initial, for Pete's sake. Evangelical Christians drive around with bumper stickers that say, "WWJD?", for "What Would Jesus Do?". "J" here is the initial for "Jesus" - in English. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, "X" is the initial for "christos". So Christians - why get upset over a Greek initial, but not an English initial? Another bizarre thing - Christians drive around with fish stickers on their car. But the fish represents an acronym, with each letter of the Greek word for fish (ΙΧΘΥΣ, or "ichthys") standing for the phrase "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ": "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior".

So, Christians drive around with a Christian fish symbol on their back window, which only exists because the letter "X" is in the word "i(ch)thys" and also is the first letter in the word "Christos". But when they see a sign that says, "Merry Xmas" - the exact same initial - they see it as "an assault on Christianity"...Not sure how that makes any sense.

On the other hand, I'm also not sure, given all this, what sense it makes for anti-Christians to think they're scoring some big point by using "X" instead of "Christ" (though perhaps the fact that the usage antagonizes most Christians is really what matters to the anti-Christians). Besides, linguistically, there isn't anything unique about the word "christos" at all. It's just a word meaning "anointed". And if Joshua Josephson was a talented itinerant preacher but no more (which is what anti-Christians believe), there is nothing even historically or theologically unique about the word when applied to him, either - many people could have been anointed for all sorts of reasons. So there's no reason for anti-Christians not to use "Christmas". Moreover, their replacement of it is easily viewed by Christians as an inadvertent indication by anti-Christians that "deep down, they know there is something sacred about Jesus"; that is, as betraying some intuition similar to the belief which motivates orthodox Jews to refuse to spell out the word "God" (they write "G-d"), which they do to indicate reverence.

And lastly, as I mentioned last year on this blog, if anti-Christians use "X" instead of Christ because they don't want to dignify the concept of a supernatural deity, then they should start saying "Xbye", since "Goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with ye".

Hmm...where was I before I started upsetting everyone? :P Oh yes - the true meaning of Christmas.

Where I'm going with this, if it is not already screamingly obvious, is that as far as I can tell...there IS no "one, true meaning of Christmas". There are only true meanings of Christmas, of winter celebrations...as many meanings as there are individuals to discover and create meanings. In a sense, all the history I mentioned above doesn't really matter (except maybe insofar as it calms the fanatics down...).

I think what matters vis-a-vis Christmas is what matters every other day of the year...and I think what that is, is...

Who we really are, and what our lives are about...who we share them with, and more importantly, how we share...and how we find and create love and trust, joy and light, friendship and solace, meaning and purpose, in a world which does not seem to readily provide those things.

A famous musician friend of mine - a lifelong bachelor - pulled me aside one day a few years ago when I was feeling low about a personal situation, and said, "Tal - you know it's all about you, don't you? You do what you need to do to be happy, and that's what it is".

I said, "What about when you have kids?"

He repeated, "It is all about you".

Is it? I was not able to believe that then, and I can't believe it now, notwithstanding the selfish things I have sometimes done. And I guess, in a way, I don't want to believe it. I want to believe "it" is about far more than me. I want to believe life is about doing great things with others, and for others, and belonging and "being a part of"...

Christmas, for me, has become a time to stop to evaluate all those things, and especially, where I am going with my children...who they are, and how I can help them grow and be everything they can be. It's become a time to hang out with them, reading stories and going out for adventures, hiking or skating or swimming, planning for the year to come, and keeping everyone close. What else is there?

For me, that has become "the true meaning of Christmas"....And I know that, facts of history aside (which ultimately probably don't matter anyway), that everyone else has their own "one true meanings", which are sacred to them, which help them live their lives as best they can...

And now that I think about it, maybe that is "the one true meaning of Christmas" :)

Merry Christmas, Solstice, Yule, etc.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

The True Meanings of Christmas, Part II

So, if we are Christians, but then come to see that there is just no more reason to believe the claims at the heart of Christianity than the claims at the heart of Hinduism or Sufism, what about Christmas? What about Christianity in general?

There seems to be three main options. I'll call them Strategic Commitment (SC), Anti-Christian Animus (ACA), and Skeptical Stoicism (SkS).

In the Strategic Commitment option, you recognize at least that there is something fundamentally awry at the heart of Christianity, something outlandish which cannot and should not be taken as literally true...but you decide not to let it bother you, because all sorts of other valuable things are built on, or emanate out of, continuing commitment to it. So, as one of my evangelical Christian friends said when I pressed him on a few of these things, "In the end, it doesn't really matter to me if it's true or not. My family is happy, I feel happy when I go to church with them, my kids have lots of nice friends in our church, so it just doesn't matter". My friend - who attends church every Sunday - told me he never reads the Bible for just that reason.

I am a huge fan of Dostoyevsky, though I can't say I'm any sort of expert; but my own reading of him makes me think he falls into this category. In books like "The Brothers Karamazov", "Crime and Punishment", and "The Devils", he argues obsessively (though not always explicitly) that Western civilization is doomed to anarchic fracture - to a horror-ridden, nihilist dystopia in which anything and everything will be permitted - unless it remains thoroughly within the Christian tradition. A similar argument ran through my friend Mark Steyn's recent book, "America Alone". But it is still entirely unclear to me whether Dostoyevsky (or Steyn, for that matter) themselves really believe the story at the heart of Christianity - the one with divinely-required murder and symbolic cannibalism, with Galilean Josh Josephson as the disguised creator of the entire universe or the product of non-sexual "miraculous" conception, etc. If I had to guess, I would say no, they don't actually believe it. They just see a huge value in everyone at least committing to it.

Anyway, I guess the bottom line is that Strategic Committers would pretty much celebrate Christmas with as much fervour and joy as any sincerely believing Christian. They would just, at their core, be indifferent to whether Christianity was the product of human invention.

The Anti-Christian Animus option goes like this. You begin by seeing Christianity as the product of human invention, but you don't stop there: you end up subscribing to the notion that Christianity, or maybe "organized religion" - is the cause of almost all wars, all oppression, all poverty, all racism, etc. Make Christianity go away, or "organized religion", and most of the world's problems would go away. Thus, in your own little way, you declare war on Christmas, and on Christianity altogether. It is your service to humanity.

This is, by far, the dumbest option. Consider that what it's all about is the transformation of an initial skepticism into a gullibility about as extreme as that required to believe in talking snakes, stationary suns, and staffs which turn into serpents. I am saying you have to be totally gullible to believe that human evil requires an organized (theist) religion, or Christianity, for its existence. You also have to be extremely ignorant, or extremely bigoted, to believe it; there are, in fact, innumerable instances of people committing all manner of evil not on any sectarian ground at all, and they are all around us. Each one of us, ourselves, knows that we have done plenty of things we shouldn't have done, but that they were not motivated by any particularly religious belief at all. Our motives in many instances, were - need I say it? - purely selfish.

Neither Sam Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, or Dennett have ever satisfactorily answered the tens of millions of objections - in the form of human corpses - which our past century gives us against their claim that the world would be a much better place without any religion (as if that's even possible). Atheist responses to these objections range from utterly incoherent to pathetically inadequate; and they can offer no explanation as to how a crime committed in the name of communism is not, by inevitable extension, as much a crime committed in the name of atheism, as is a crime committed in the name of Catholicism a crime committed in the name of Christianity, or "organized religion". Nor, in saying things as ludicrously bigoted as "religion poisons everything" (as does Hitchens), can they account for the many good things which religious belief can and does bring to the lives of its adherents.

Atheists like those mentioned above, and for all I know, some of those reading this, always pride themselves on their critical thinking skills. But any type of thinking which metasticizes into an historically and evidentially unsupported Utopianism is not, by definition, critical thinking. It is delusional. It is no different than the type of "thinking" which accepts that God will torture us forever unless we torture him.

In any case, there is not even any reason to believe that religion can be eradicated without eradicating all of humanity, since all indications are that it is endemic to the human mind. And certainly there is no reason to believe that the world would be a better place - war-free, poverty-free, etc. - if everyone were an atheist.

Skeptical stoicism, as far as I can figure, makes the most sense, though I cannot say it would most satisfy emotional needs. I think, for example, that there must be something extremely satisfying emotionally in adopting the Anti-Christian Animus option. Its popularity suggests as much. That position, after all, allows its adherents to think they know something very important about the world (that religion is the main source of evil); it allows them to think that their anti-religion activism is a form of humanitarian service - that they are "making the world a better place for our children";, etc. It allows them to share camaraderie with other religious bigots (just like hating Jews does for Klansmen, who evidently love their group picnics). In a way, I sort of envy them, just like I do the religious believers they think they're so much different than: the sheer power of belief within a community of believers can facilitate the satisfaction of a lot of human needs.

Skeptical stoicism feels quite lonely, speaking from personal experience. It regards the atheism of Harris, Dawkins, and to a lesser extent Hitchens, as unspeakably crude and about as delusional as the religions those guys think are so - well, delusional. It also regards religious beliefs like, say, that the communion wafer actually "transubstantiates" into the flesh of Jesus or that Mohammed flew to Mecca as delusional. And...there just isn't really a community for that, that I know of. I pick up "Skeptic" and "Skeptical Inquirer" magazines every once in a while, but they too seem quite in thrall to the Utopian atheism of Dawkins. Every issue there's some new barrage of attacks on religion as evil, and how it must be eradicated for the good of the world. But this just nonsense...So what I'm saying is that "Skeptic" and "Skeptical Inquirer" are not skeptical enough.

So....what I'm saying is, there is absolutely NO reason to believe that religion is anything other than a permanent facet of the human experience, and second, that there is NO reason to believe that "the world would be better without (theist) religion". In fact, this past century suggests the contrary. AND, if we take Darwinism seriously, it becomes quite impossible to fathom how theism could have been selected for over atheism, if it is inherently as rotten, dangerous, and crazy-making as the Dawkins's fanatics say it is. Dawkins himself can't even answer this objection, judging from "The God Delusion".

Putting it another way, true skepticism sees the demonization of theism by atheists as no less delusional than the demonization of atheism by theists. The purpose of these delusions seems to be to blind us to the disturbing conclusion that good and evil are an ineradicable part of human existence; that is, to the conclusion that neither atheism nor theism in the end can offer a means of saving us from ourselves.

The stoicism comes in when contemplating what to do about this. It allows for attempts to improve things, but it cautions against expecting too much from the efforts; and it tries to find peace with the world nevertheless.

I can't say I am a great skeptical stoic; it is hard at times for me to feel wholly at peace with the world. And that there don't seem to be a lot of others out there makes me kind of long to be some other way sometimes.

But then...I don't seem to have any choice. I can't make myself believe what I see as atheist or theist delusions, and there's nowhere else, for me anyway, to go.

Oh yes, I forgot: Christmas!

Next time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The True Meanings of Christmas, Part I

Christmas used to mean something different to me than it does now.

You see, I once believed devoutly that for human beings to avoid eternal torment (just by virtue of having been born), we had to torture and murder God/God's son, and then in commemoration, had to symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood. Christmas was the day we celebrated the birth of our victim.

Of course, I didn't use this language. Like other believers, I employed a wide variety of self-deception techniques (like euphemisms) to shield my conscious mind from the grotesque, and I might say, truly profane, nature of the story I had based my life on. But at its core, the story is just as I have written it above.

Anyway, I now believe something different. It goes like this.

"Jesus Christ" is the anglicized version of the words "Iesous christos", Greek for "Joshua the Anointed" (the New Testament was written in Greek). "Joshua the Anointed"'s real name (in Aramaic, his first language) was Yeshua Bar-Yosef - Joshua Josephson, in plain English.

Josh Josephson grew up in the Galilee area, and was one of many Israelite reformers of his time. Like them, he performed miracles, attracted disciples, developed a set of teachings, and was viewed with suspicion by Roman authorities and Jewish elders.

Unlike his depiction by most modern (Protestant) Christian artists, who like to paint him as tall, blazingly handsome, with Nordic features, longish, golden hair, and disposed to gleaming, sparkling white robes, Josephson looked pretty much like his disciples - dark-skinned, short-ish, short-haired, and dressed in the same rough clothing (the painting included on this entry is an educated guess about what he would have looked like). At least, this is what the Bible (as opposed to our imaginations) indicates. After all, why else would Judas Iscariot have to identify his leader to the Roman authorities with a kiss, if he didn't look like everyone else? If he had long hair - which would have been extremely unusual anyway for that time and place - why would Paul [who claimed to have seen Josephson in person, and who knew many people who had known him in person] say in I Cor. 11 that long hair on a man was a disgrace? The modern Christian image not only has no warrant, but is actually contradicted by the text of the Bible, and by everything we know about the customs of the time.

Josephson's miracles? Devout Christians seem to forget that, historically speaking, miracles - or maybe better, "miracles" - are a dime a dozen. There are thousands of accounts from all over the world, from all different religious traditions, of people flying, or turning into wolves, or sprouting wings, or coming back from the dead, or seeing the future, or fighting devils, or talking to angels and fairies and ghosts, of healing and being healed, of visiting the underworld, of turning into different people for awhile...just last night I re-read the account of Athena turning into Menthes so as to infiltrate the dinner party at Odysseus's house in The Odyssey (Book One). Such accounts are not unusual; they are the way that our ancestors, living in a pre-scientific age, interpreted the world.

After all, they had no other explanation available to them, did they? When a man suddenly drops to the ground, wets himself, starts shaking violently and foaming at the mouth in an era when no even knows that the brain controls such things, let alone has ever conceived of such a thing as epilepsy, then "possession by evil spirits" makes a sort of sense, doesn't it? Especially when you already believe in spirits. At least it's something. And when the seizure stops, you want an explanation for that, too. And on it goes.

Besides this, the propensity to "improve" stories in the re-telling, especially when they involve a person we are precommitted to believing has extraordinary powers, is too widely acknowledged, even now, to warrant me defending. Everyone knows it. I myself have been the fortunate object of just such "improvement". When I was in Argentina years ago, I learned a number of phrases in the aboriginal language of Toba. Everytime I visited a settlement of Toba natives, I'd trot them out: "how are you?", "It's a nice day, isn't it?", etc.

A year after I returned home, I called back down to my old apartment to talk to the missionaries about how my old friends were doing. Upon hearing my name, the missionaries fairly freaked: "you - you're - you're THE Elder Bachman?! I - I - wow. We've - heard TONS OF STORIES ABOUT YOU, MAN! I mean, like, wow! Yeah, the aborigines down here have told us ALL ABOUT HOW YOU TOTALLY LEARNED THEIR LANGUAGE, and you were, like, RAPPIN' WITH THEM ALL THE TIME, just like you were a native Toba! Total gift of tongues, dude! It's an honour to speak with you!", etc.

So...that was exactly one year after I left the area. Miracle-making, or at least one form of it, is sort of like planting a seed: do a little something out of the ordinary amongst certain people who like you and who are prone to superstition (cut up some bread and fish, perhaps), and with time, your little something grows, and grows, and grows in the fertile soil of human imagination, until it becomes some fantastic, even supernatural, feat that only someone with "something extra special" could ever have done. So, in my case, a few phrases in Toba multiplied by a year and the power of human imagination equalled a genuine miracle. Think of how the story would have (or has) grown over five years? Ten years? Fifteen? Twenty?

WELL - the stories recorded in the four gospels were passed on orally for at least four decades before being written down - and it is likely it was more like five and six decades. How drastically might they have been "improved"? AND, except in the case of John - who wrote, it must be said, almost a century after Josephson's birth (supposing that the book's author really is who he says he is) - there is no reason to believe that the writers of the other three gospels (whoever they actually were) could even pretend to have been eyewitnesses to the events. No wonder there are so many troubling discrepancies and contradictions.

Moreover, even just taking the gospels seriously as the founding documents of Christianity (since they purport to be biographies of its supposed founder) gives us another problem: there is simply no indication in the four gospels of Joshua Josephson wanting to start a brand new religion. He says over and over that he is devoted to the law of Moses. He never mentions changing the Sabbath. He never mentions the mass invitation of Gentiles into the tribal religion he wished to reform. He never mentions abolishing Jewish dietary laws. He wants to reform - not start a brand new religion apart from Yahwehism. It is just not there. It is Peter and Paul, according to the Bible itself, who essentially invent a brand new religion or cult based on the worship of their deceased leader. But where Paul and Peter are recorded as contradicting the plain teachings of their leader...who should Christians follow? If they follow Josephson, they would be simply be a certain sort of practicing Jew. If they follow his disciples, then they are following what the Bible itself suggests is a religion at odds with the whole mission of Josephson as recorded in the gospels.

Much more could be said, but just one more thing. Even if we can make ourselves believe that some loving God would create us at the same time he doomed us to eternal torment unless we tortured, murdered, and symbolically ate him (or his Son), or that the Israelite religion was somehow God's "one, chosen religion", how in the world can we imagine that this sacred murder could have rightly been performed not by the properly designated Israelite priests according to the prescribed mode of ritual slaughter, but by Roman pagans nailing the sacrifice on to wooden planks? True Yahwehism would not have viewed the Roman crucifixion of a wee little lamb as an efficacious Israelite atonement sacrifice. Why, then, the crucifixion of Joshua Josephson, who, after all, is supposed to be, as the human "lamb", the ultimate atonement sacrifice? It makes no sense.

At least, it makes no sense, unless we assume that the cosmology built over the past two millenia, and helped along in many instances by government lackeys masquerading as "priests", is the product of primal human needs and desires, human creativity, and political convenience, rather than - well, rather than something true.

More soon.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Soccer Sucks

Yes, there are soccer players of incredible skill. Some of the highlights are fantastic. But overall, soccer as a sport sucks.

It sucks, okay? You have to go back to the days of Georgie Best (who I watch on the classic games channel on the satellite dish) to find anything like tolerable games.

Okay, I need to be more specific. Here's why it sucks.

1.) The referreeing is wildly inconsistent/poor, probably because there's one guy - ONE guy! - on a giant pitch trying to keep an eye on 22 guys all by himself. Impossible. No wonder there's so much diving - when you're thirty feet away, a dive looks exactly like a trip. How many games have we seen, especially in World Cups, decided on some dubious penalty shot call? I mean, the England-Argentina semi-final game at the '86 World Cup is probably the best game of the last thirty years - and the first goal in that game was the result of a totally blown call by the ref. Maradona punches the ball into the net with his chubby little hand, and it stands?! What the...?

And by the way - does pro soccer have video replay yet? I don't think they do. And if they don't...SHOCKING! They won't put an extra ref on; they won't introduce video replay even though your average soccer game contains more dives than the dolphin show at Sea World...than a Greg Louganis birthday party...oh wait - more dives than downtown Detroit. What is up with the FIFA referree people?

When the universal soccer strategy seems to be, "get into the penalty area and then fall down and roll around clutching your ankle", why not do something? That leads me to the second reason why it sucks.

2.) Soccer players are, with almost no exceptions, total babies. That reminds me of a little joke: What's the difference between soccer and rugby? Soccer players spend 90 minutes pretending they're hurt, and rugby players spend 80 minutes pretending they're not.

The rolling around, the clutching, the diving, the theatrics, the pouting and arguing when the ref doesn't fall for their bogus dives...you'd think these guys just had a shiv jammed into their left gerbil with all the waterworks...it is embarrassing! And the best is, after rolling around for two minutes clutching their leg like it's being sawn off in a World War I medic's tent, they magically get back up and - "all better!" - take their free or penalty kick. Magic! Or else...no, it couldn't be...it couldn't be acting, could it?

3.) Not enough scoring, and not enough good, genuine scoring chances. For that, they'd need to throw two or three more balls out on the pitch, which of course, would turn it into a different game altogether.

Anyway, there has to be some explanation for the popularity of soccer around the world (alcohol?) which does not posit that it is exciting to watch, because where it is not infuriating for its manifest unfairness, it's as boring as watching grass grow.

I mentioned rugby above.

I think it can safely be said that if any rugby player were ever caught taking the sorts of pathetic dives that soccer players attempt literally in every game, that his own teammates would probably kick the crap out of him. That's one reason why rugby's a better sport than soccer - it's a sport, not a theatrical performance. Soccer players increasingly look like they've graduated from the Bob Fosse school of choreography, just completed the Stanislavsky method acting course or something...

Don't believe me? Think I'm exaggerating? I just looked on YouTube for a video illustration of what I'm talking about. Check this out. Or this. And note, these clips are not extraordinary at all. One can find similar dramatic excursions in any game, and the higher up the league, the worse it gets. This is why it's more entertaining watching your 13 year old play than watching Premier League schmucks - your thirteen year old, at least not the ones around here, aren't faking when they go down.

Anyway, I have no reason to doubt that soccer was once a great game, back in the days, I imagine, of Matt Busby, Pele, Jackie Charlton, Georgie. Now, it is not so much a sport as an alternately boring and infuriating theatrical performance by prima donna metrosexuals who wouldn't last four seconds on a rugby pitch, yet who strut around like they've just descended from Valhalla.

Soccer - so 90's (as my brother Brigo always says).

Rugby - so the future. I hope anyway.



Patrick Fitzgerald, Attention Hound


No, strike that

Some people get to a point in life where they come to believe that the percentage of angels and demons, geniuses and blockheads, and the normal bell-shaped distribution in between, is about the same in every field, in every club, in every everything.

Take me, for instance. I used to think prosecutors were the good guys. Now I don't think they're any better on the whole, in terms of competence (the OJ trial convinced me of that) or more importantly, virtue, than defense attorneys. Certainly, once one becomes familiar with enough cases in which prosecutors fight against the judicial consideration of rock-solid evidence which exonerates a wrongly convicted man, it just becomes impossible to feel sympathy with "sides" in general.

I guess what I'm saying is, there was a time when I probably would have regarded, without much thought, Chicago-based federal super-prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as a hero. His behaviour in the Scooter Libby and Conrad Black cases, however, pretty much blew it for me. (And by the way, former Hollinger honcho and book-fixer David Radler, who cut a plea with Fitzgerald, tonight is sitting at home in Vancouver drinking warm cocoa and getting ready for Hannukah, while Conrad Black - whose guilt, such as it may be, to my mind is still unproven - is sitting in a penitentiary, as he will be for the next five years). Anyway, Fitzgerald's behaviour now with the Governor Blagojevich case is the last straw - it shows him to be a man far more interested in fame, scoring points at a personal level against his targets, and in everyone knowing what an "ass-kicking macho man" he is, than getting the job done right.

Getting the job done right, in the Blagojevich case, would have entailed, I think (could be wrong), actually waiting until the guy takes a bribe. You know? Wait till the guy takes the bribe, document that, and then you charge both him and the new Senator for paying the bribe. Bingo, you just two giant fish.

Instead, Fitzgerald gets a bunch of phone conversations on tape where Blagojevich talks about getting something back for a Senate appointment, then BOOM! - he calls another one of his big one-man-show Emmy caliber "Iiiiiiiiit's.....the Patrick Fitzgerald Show!" press conferences, worked up the indignation, called Blagojevich all sorts of names, talked about how outraged Abraham Lincoln, for Pete's sake, would have been...Like, I'm sick of this guy's drama queen theatrics. Enough already. Shut the hell up and do your ***xxxx job, you frigging publicity hound. (Can you believe he actually signed up to be on a radio game show last summer?) He's probably jeopardized the integrity of the case now by prejudicing pretty much every potential juror in the city. Even if he manages to get a conviction, there will now always be that taint.

Anyway, quite beyond the shamefulness of Fitzgerald using the court system as a platform for his rock star pretensions, he has now broken the code of ethics for prosecutors a number of times, and should be officially reprimanded. Victoria Toensing wrote an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal on just that, and I think she's spot-on.

For the sake of the integrity of the American justice system, I think it's time for Fitzgerald to make his choice: be an ethical prosecutor, or quit law altogether and get your own "shouting head" talkshow on MSNBC.

Somehow, I think I know which one he'd choose...

Not Sure I Can Buy the Prorogation...

Just re-elected Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper asked for the Governor-General Michaelle Jean of Canada to temporarily shut down (prorogue) parliament once it became clear the opposition parties were about to form a majority coalition and force him and the Conservatives (who had only a plurality of seats) out of power. And she granted it on December 4th.

I'm not sure I really get this. I am friendly with a Conservative Party official, and his defence of this move has been off-putting. He keeps saying, "the Conservatives just won a mandate to govern; they won the election; they deserve to rule; this coalition is trying to usurp democracy".

Are they? Between them, they can claim nearly 60% of the Canadian popular vote. How can a coalition of parties with 60%? of the vote be "usurping democracy" by replacing a party with only 40%?

To put it another way: the Conservative Party won the largest number of seats, yes; but they did not "win the election" any more than the potential coalition "won the election". That is the way it works in a parliamentary system: parties have a perfect right to form a coalition government. It happens all the time. It is the way parliaments work. Everyone knows that. There is just no precedent in parliamentary theory for the idea that a mere plurality confers some sort of right to govern over a majority coalition. Yet Stephen Harper keeps repeating that the coalition is trying to "overturn the results of the election"! No - the "results of the election" are going to stay exactly the same, with everyone retaining the same number of seats. It is just that a majority coalition of MPs would govern instead of a minority (plurality).

From what I can tell, all this "usurping democracy" business is all nonsense, and worse, partisan nonsense. And I'm saying that as someone who would never vote for the Liberals, NDP, or Bloc.

I mean, can you imagine what Canadian Conservatives would be saying if they were the ones who had signed a coalition agreement and were about to force out a minority Liberal Party government, and then Iggy or Paul Martin met with Michaelle Jean and got a prorogation based purely on the leader's desire to avoid losing power? I cannot doubt that the Tories would be going absolutely nuts right now, talking about how the Liberals were trampling on centuries worth of parliamentary process and custom, etc. And they'd be right, wouldn't they? AND - what if Iggy, in addition to getting a prorogation of parliament just so as to avoid getting turfed in a non-confidence vote, ALSO announced that during the prorogation, he was going to appoint EIGHTEEN new senators, especially if he had long campaigned against the prime ministerial power to appoint senators? The Tories would be screaming bloody murder!

I can't stand leftism, but still, I just don't get the Tory argument on this. Maybe there's some great one, and I just haven't seen it anywhere. But from here, it just looks like action based not on any regard for principle or custom, but on desperate desire to retain power. I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Guess What I'M Allergic To?

The more we eliminate things really worth being afraid of, the more trivial are the things which rise up to fill the void.

Take peanuts. Nowadays, any mommy who happens to pack along a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Junior may very well get an indignant letter back from the elementary school control-freak principal about how "we have many children in the school who are deathly allergic to peanuts. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SENDING THIS TOXIC LETHAL POISON TO OUR SCHOOL" - even though there has never been a recorded case of someone having a lethal allergic reaction to peanuts without...actually ingesting peanuts. (The way these hens cackle, you'd think kids were force-feeding handfuls of anthrax to their classmates...).

Here's the thing: lots of people are allergic to lots of things. If you happen to be allergic to something, you don't eat it. It's really simple. If Suzie's allergic to strawberries, she shouldn't eat Timmy's strawberries. If Timmy's allergic to seafood, he shouldn't eat Suzie's sushi. You don't insist that everyone in the entire school district never again bring sushi or strawberries or bananas or orange juice or a peanut or whatever. Besides, it is far from certain that most of the kids reputed to be allergic to whatever substance actually are - there are no bounds to the things some mommies can manage to feel worried about.

Yes, I'm saying I think it is very possible to imagine that one is - or one's children are - allergic to something. Consider lactophobia, due any day to be replaced by...heck, probably hydrophobia ("I used to think it was milk - now I know I'M ALLERGIC TO WATER!"). There are millions of people out there who have become convinced that they, or their children, are allergic to dairy products, when there is no good evidence that they are. The most "evidence" the lactophobes ever seem to have is that they once went to an allergy witch doctor (they're all over, but if you can't find one, just ask any homeopath, iridiologist, etc.; they're all lactophobes and will all tell you the same thing) who gave them his little bogus skin test, and who then who solemnly informed them that they're allergic to milk, and "that's what explains all the things wrong with you". Okay, great, lactophobes - I couldn't care less if you never drink milk again - or orange juice or soy or rice, for that matter. Let's just not pretend that your local allergy quack is a reliable source of information about lactose intolerance. And let's not pretend that the odds of you actually being lactose intolerant, especially if you're a caucasian, are not extremely low.

Lactose tolerance, by the way, is a fantastic benefit - the ability to consume large quantities of dairy products conferred such a survival benefit on to the people of northern Europe, that the ability to do so spread like wildfire through the population. There is a fascinating little section in Nicolas Wade's "Before the Dawn" on this subject, but maybe that's a subject meriting its own entry.

Where was I? OH. Yes. Here's the greatest one of all: COLOGNE.

Who would have ever thought that cologne - a splash of aftershave, for Pete's sake - would one day be identified as a vicious bio-hazard? More and more I see signs in public saying, "PLEASE DO NOT ENTER IF YOU ARE WEARING ANY PERFUME OR COLOGNE AS THESE MAY TRIGGER ALLERGIC REACTIONS". Well - all "perfume" or "cologne" is, is a type of fragrance. So let's talk about fragrance.

Almost every soap out there now has fragrance added. So why don't the signs say, "Please do not enter if you have washed any part of your body in the past week with soap"? Actually, forget bodies. What about washing the dishes? The liquid detergent and anti-static dryer sheets have fragrance added, too. And so does your laundry detergent. And toothpaste has mint flavour added to it, as do breathmints (and there must be people out there allergic to mint). So does hair gel and hair spray. And shampoo and conditioner. And deodorant and anti-perspirant. And by the way, certain types of make-up, like rouge and lipstick, give off an odour, too. But why only focus on deliberately added fragrance? What about all the foods which impart a lingering smell? Garlic, onions, curry, chile peppers, etc...and what if someone's allergic to the odour of pepperoni pizza!!! OH MY GOD!

So, I want to say to all the the hypochondriac control freaks out there posting signs about perfume and cologne, be consistent, and put a big sign that says, "Do not enter if you bathe, brush your teeth, shampoo or condition your hair, wear laundered clothing, wear make-up, use deodorant or anti-perspirant, apply any sort of hair product, or eat or drink anything". Basically, the sign should say, "ONLY HOMELESS PEOPLE ALLOWED INSIDE". Or they could have a little picture of Charles Manson by the front door, with a sign that says, "Unless you look like THIS, KEEP OUT!".

Anyway, I have come to conclude that what I am most allergic to is the capricious, hypochondriac, narcissistic paranoia of the allergophobes.

Okay, next time I'll try to post more of a pleasant one :P.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Maple Leafs Can Have Him: Hype vs. Reality in the Case of Brian Burke

Brian Burke was the General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks for six years. In all that time, the Canucks won one - one - playoff series.

One playoff series in six years? How did that happen?

Well, I'm sure Brian Burke would say it happened because he didn't have the necessary autonomy from ownership to develop the Canucks into Stanley Cup contenders. But you can bet your booties that no one from Orca Bay Entertainment (which owned the Canucks at the time) told Burke to stick with hapless goalie Dan Cloutier year after year after year. Yet he did. Why? A man-crush? No one that I know can imagine why. There's an old saying in rock n' roll: a good band with a mediocre drummer is a mediocre band; a good band with a great drummer is a great band. With a few notable exceptions, it is the same with hockey teams and their goalies, and why neither Burke nor Crawford (the coach) could ever get that about Cloutier is unfathomable. A hundred injuries, a hundred chokings under pressure, a hundred bad goals...and bad goals at the worst times, too: in the 2002 playoff quarterfinals, when the Canucks were up two games to none against Detroit, Cloutier in the third game let in a fifty foot shot from Niklas Lidstrom, and that was the turning point. The Red Wings got pumped and won the next four games, and blew the Canucks out.

And this whole business about thirty win seasons with Cloutier - it was all nonsense. What matters in evaluating goalies is save percentages, not wins per se. After all, if you have a fantastically prolific scoring line like the Canucks did during those years (Naslund-Bertuzzi-Morrison), you can let in four goals and still win. Mere wins just don't tell you all that much about your goalie...And in terms of save percentage, Cloutier's was always near the worst of any starting goalie in the NHL. His playoff save percentage was even worse - I remember checking once during the 2003 season, and it was in the mid-eights!

And while this was all going on, year after year of choking in the playoffs, Burke strutted around town undaunted, popping off as though he were the greatest hockey genius since Toe Blake. But it's just a lot of talk, a lot of attitude, a lot of soundbites and bluster.

Ah, you say, but what about the Cup? Well, Burke deserves credit for bringing in Niedermayer and sending prima donna Fedorov to Columbus...but the bottom line is that the Anaheim Ducks were pretty much in place when Burke arrived. Kevin Lowe (who, by the way, knows about winning Stanley Cups - he's won six of them) only said what everyone already knows (no wonder Burke got so mad - the truth hurts). It's like Marc Crawford's much-vaunted Cup with the Avalanche in 1996: his team featured Adam Foote, Sandis Ozholinsh, and Uwe Krupp on defence, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Owen Nolan, Adam Deadmarsh, and (loathsome cheap-shot-artist) Claude Lemieux as forwards, Chris Simon for toughness, and Patrick Roy in net. I'm sorry, but that team could have won the Cup with my eight year old daughter coaching it. A good measure for a coach is if he can replace a team's coach and elevate its performance without major personnel changes over a period of time. Crawford had that chance with the LA Kings after being fired from Vancouver, and did jack squat. And since LA fired him, he's been doing TV commentary. That's the guy Brian Burke left in place for six disappointing seasons as the coach of the Canucks. Again - why?

The GM career of Brian Burke reminds me of the career of Richard Dawkins as a public intellectual or Daniel Dennett as a philosopher; all they do is shout the loudest. In terms of actual contributions, they are no better than many others, and in many ways, far worse (Dawkin's "The God Delusion" is probably the most ridiculous book I have read in the last ten years; Dennett's entire career has spent trying to convince people they're not actually conscious).

Anyway, I'm getting off track here. All I'm saying is, I will be the first to congratulate Burke on success in Toronto. Hell, that team has been so bad for so long, that if he can turn them into a Cup-contending franchise for any length of time, then he should be considered a very good hockey man. And actually, it is hard to see any real downside to the Toronto job for Burke: if he can't make steady progress, he can always blame it on the decisions of his predecessors (traded away draft picks, poor prospects and scouting, etc.). But even getting the Maple Leafs to the point where they consistently make the playoffs would make Burke look like a genius, so starved is the franchise for consistent success.

Anyway, the point is, everywhere Burke's been, even when he worked in the NHL head office, his performance has been very average at best (the only extraordinary aspect of his performance has been his unusually invincible ego). I just do not see anything in his last ten years as a GM that should make Maple Leafs honcho Richard Peddie view Burke as "the one guy in the world who can save us!!!". He got lucky with Anaheim. Other than that, what? Mediocrity (yawn), year after year. I just don't get it.

My advice to the Maple Leafs: prepare to enjoy Burke's Cowardly Lion schtick ("I'm as tough as nails! Our teams needs to be BIGGER and STRONGER! We need hitting! We need smashing! We need to beat these people up! I make no apologies! We'll rip 'em to pieces - send 'em to Kingdom Come!"), because if the past is any guide, that's about all you'll be getting: it will take more than Brian Burke (or Burke plus his Man Friday Dave Nonis, now evidently trying to move from Anaheim to where Master now works) to make the Maple Leafs into a consistent Stanley Cup contender.

Of course, I could be wrong. For the sake of a once great franchise, I hope so.