Articles About The Poor Should Define Their Terms

I don’t have a particular article in mind here, I’m talking about many articles I’ve seen over the years, but there’s almost a genre of article using the poor as a club with which to beat Christians. This originates from the fact that Christians have a very important and undeniable duty to the poor. Christ himself said, in a parable, “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”. There’s a lot to say about about the poor, but it seems to me that much of it is never said.

The most obvious thing to say about the poor being, who is the poor. There are lots of definitions which are used in practice, but at the same time the sort of article I’m thinking of almost goes to trouble to avoid defining the poor. The most popular definition implicitly used seems to be “people whose annual income is below 20% of the GDP”. Of course, the moment an author admitted that he was using this definition he’d have very little to say. For several reasons, not the least of which is that someone earning 19% of the GDP and someone earning 1%  of the GDP have very different incomes. In writing the sort of article I’m thinking of, the author always treats everyone in the group as if they’re in the 1% group. But almost worse than this is that what really matters to quality of life (except as modified by envy) is not relative income, but buying power. If it is reasonably possible to feed yourself, clothe yourself, keep your thirst slaked, etc. on 5% of GDP, then this is not the poor Jesus was talking about when he said “I was naked and you clothed me”. There are legitimate things to say about the poor when defined this way, but they’re not the same things one can say about a naked, hungry man who hasn’t had a drink of clean water in a day and a half.

Then there are the attempts to define poverty in terms of access to almost infinitely expensive things like unlimited medical care or financial security. Under those definitions, probably 99% of the population is the poor, so this sort of thing borders on silly. Not silly, but still problematic, is the attempt to define poverty in terms of things like “access to basic medical care”. And indeed one’s heart does go out to people who can’t afford even inexpensive medicines. But here are two big problems with this. The first and most obvious is that no one in Jesus’ day had access to what we now consider basic medical care, and it’s likely that no one alive today has access to what will be considered basic medical care in 200 years. And it would make many things Jesus said absurd if everyone he was talking to was poor because they didn’t have access to penicillin or hydrocodone. The other problem is that much of what we consider basic medical care is worthless or actively harmful. Using antibiotics for a viral infection, for example, leaves you worse off. Powerful opioids which leave you addicted were harmful. Gastric bypass surgery is most likely a terrible idea. And so forth. It doesn’t make sense to be the poor because you can’t harm yourself in the way rich people often do. This is not in any sense to say that it is not a tragedy when people suffer or die from diseases which are easily preventable with a few dollars’ worth of medicine, or that we as Christians shouldn’t endeavor to get those people that medicine. But that also doesn’t mean that people aren’t often glib about what “life saving medicine” actually is or how much it costs.

Then of course there are also simply outlandish things said about the poor. I’ve come across statements like “our entire economic system is built around exploiting the poor”. This is obvious balderdash under any reasonable interpretation. The poor—if you’re not defining them as anyone below the upper middle class—have fairly low economic output. This is not, of course, to blame them, but it remains that the poor don’t manufacture goods, or drive trucks, or provide professional services, etc. Poor people—in the sense of people who, say, can’t afford to eat every day—might possibly wait tables at cheaper restaurants, but this is  not a significant part of the modern economy. It’s a minor luxury which places from McDonalds to Panera show most people are quite willing to do without. The homeless man begging by the subway station obviously has no economic output at all. It’s quite defensible that Christians should be doing more for these people, but it’s utterly untenable that these people are the basis of the modern economy.

(I should note that it’s possible that people are referring to Chinese and other foreigner workers in countries with lower wages than that of the US when they say this sort of thing. If so, there are several problems here which are being ignored. First, that these people are working class, not poor, in their own lands. Perhaps they would be poor if they lived in America, but they’d also be rich if they lived in some parts of Africa. But they live in neither, they live in their own land. Second, this ignores all the goods which are actually made in America, which is—despite propaganda—actually quite large. American manufacturing is far more mechanized than it was 100 years ago or is today in many other countries, so it may be harder to notice this, but the US economy is not based on China. I looked up recent numbers and US imports from China were less than $500 Billion in a year, while the US economy was around $20 Trillion. That is, trade with China made up one fortieth of the US economy. Are there lots of things with “Made In China” on them? Yes. Would our economy crumble if we had to make 100% of our own stuff? Hardly. Even worse for the case at hand, this trade imbalance is a strategic decision on the part of China’s government which has worked to subsidize the export of goods in order to jump-start their manufacturing economy. This means that some of the costs that make Chinese labor cheap are born by the government as a form of investment. N.B. none of this is commentary on working conditions in China, which as I understand are improving but also related to Chinese cultural norms as Chinese factories are largely run by Chinese people. Working conditions should improve in China, but are not related to the present discussion except in the fantasies of people who have no idea how factories are run who imagine that safety standards are extremely expensive when in fact mostly they just require discipline, training, and awareness of how to manufacture goods safely. But—as should be a shock to no one—heat-stroked, exhausted workers aren’t very productive. About the only thing which does cost money is reducing environmental pollution, but pollution affects rich Chinese as well as poor Chinese, since everyone breathes the same air. Again, though, since all of Chinese trade is a small fraction of the US economy, a small increase in cost to goods through the Chinese improving their environmental regulations would have a very negligible impact on the US economy.)

And then there’s the problem with considering the rich in America because we have a fiat currency. That is, our money is not a physical thing of which there is a determinate amount. Our money is created by fiat by our government. (More properly, by a semi-autonomous organization created by the government for the purpose.) The fabulous wealth of the most wealthy citizens is, therefore, highly suspect. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerberg are both very wealthy men, but even though Zuckerberg should be about to buy something like 42 aircraft carriers with his fortune, he certainly couldn’t. The further fact that much of our economy is debt-based rather than wealth based—while pretty obviously not a good idea—means that figuring out how wealthy or poor someone is is even more complicated. People of very modest incomes have way more buying power than you would expect on paper.

Since this is the internet, I will emphasize that I am not saying that there is no such thing as poverty, or that poverty isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that poverty is a complicated thing, with the word “poor” meaning many very different things. The poor, however one is defining them, should always be an object of love since they are God’s creatures, and not a club with which to beat people. Since everything seems to require a name these days, I suggest the preferential option for clarity.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.

What Are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson?

Or you can watch the video on YouTube:

I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.

All Is Grace, That Is, All Is Gift

If one spends a few moments looking at creation, one of the first things one will notice is that one sees it. Creatures exist in relation to each other. This need not be so; it would be possible for God to create each creature in a way that has only a direct relationship with God and nothing else; it could be enough for a creature to be born into the everlasting beatific vision and nothing else. And yet that didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen to us. Why not?

Before I give an answer, I should not that it is foolishness to try to give an account for the actions of God as if one can know the mind of God, and though I’m a fool I’m not that much of a fool, so the answer I’m going to give should not be understood in that sort of sense. Neither I nor any creature can give a comprehensive answer to why God did anything, except the very general answer, because it is good. Which can also be phrased, out of love. If we want to be more specific, we are limited to noting one or more particular types of goodness which are contained within an action of God, and that is how my answer should be understood. The purposes of God I cannot know, but one sort of good which God does I can know. And it is absurd to suppose that God does anything by accident.

A theme running throughout creation is that of delegation. God could create each person individually, but instead he gives it to parents to be his act of creating their children. God could give each of us all the knowledge we’re capable of understanding, but instead he gives us speech so that we can tell truth to each other, and be his act of giving us knowledge. All of our interactions with other creatures—at least where we do rightly—involve us being some sort of gift to them. This is itself a sort of theosis; we not only know God, which we could do if it was just us-and-God, but we actually become incorporated into God’s goodness.

This also helps explain how evil acts which seem positive are none the less negative (since evil is a privation of good): it was given to all of us so as to order the world for the benefit of all others; to shoot a man with a gun is to fail to order the world for his benefit.

As I said above, I don’t claim anything so ridiculous as this being all that God is doing, but it seems inarguable that it is something which God is doing, and it seems to me to obviate a number of questions of the form, “why is God hidden?”, or “why doesn’t God act?” God isn’t hidden. God did act. You were just distracted by the man waving his arms.

This is All Wrong, Except Maybe “Jewish”

So I saw this recently on Twitter, and I’m in the mood to tear it apart:

Christianity:
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

This is an entirely incorrect description of orthodox Christianity except for—depending what is meant—the “Jewish” part. Let’s go through it step by step, at least as long as I have the patience for it:

The belief

Christianity is a religion, not merely a belief. It is a way of fundamentally orienting one’s life. Christianity has beliefs, for example we Catholics recite many of the core ones every Sunday by saying the Nicene Creed. This isn’t merely nit-picking, because it borders too much on believe-or-burn nonsense. Christianity is about living in accordance with the truth, not merely knowing it.

that some cosmic

This makes it sound like Jesus is some sort of energy being like a marvel comic book character such as Galactus or Eternity or The Living Tribunal. Those are all contingent beings. Nope, wrong.

Jewish

As long as this means that he was a descendent of Abraham, etc. fine. If it is meant to deny that he was also a Christian, no.

zombie

A zombie is a dead body which has be animated by an evil spirit. Or if it’s a scientific zombie it’s a corpse which is walking around because the writers don’t know anything about science and have no idea how viruses/radiation/respiration/muscle activation/etc. work. This has nothing to do with a person who has come back to life.

can make you live forever

Eternal life refers to living to the full in eternity, not to never dying. This is opposed to being in hell—the “in” referring to being in a state, and the “hell” to the state of rejecting God/goodness/truth/beauty—in eternity. Not dying is, depending on what you mean by it (and how you understand the dormition of Mary), reserved for Mary and a few old testament figures. It has no relationship to the Christian faithful.

if you symbolically eat his flesh

The eucharist is not a symbol but in fact the real presence of Christ, and you really eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have the outward form of bread and wine. The Orthodox just say “it’s a mystery” while Catholics explain in somewhat more technical language that the substance of the bread and wine chance while the accidents (such as the atoms which composed the bread and wine) remain. Then we say it’s a mystery. But in both cases, we affirm that this is real and not a symbol, though its reality is not something you can detect with your eyes or tongue.

and telepathically

Prayer is not telepathy. That the one creating all things as they unfold knows everything that is happening has nothing to do with whatever sci-fi you’re thinking of with telepathy.

tell him

Nothing in Christianity depends on what you say to Jesus. This comes back to the first point; Christianity is about action. The content of faith is works; it is not everyone who says “Lord Lord” but the one who does the will of the father, etc. We accept the salvation which God freely gave to us out of his generosity by living in according with that salvation, and reject it by living as if it is not true. This is like any other gift; if someone gives you $20 for your birthday, you accept the gift by spending the money, and reject it by never spending the money.

you accept him as your master

Partially this is wrong because of the above; it’s not any pledge of allegiance that saves, but rather the living out of the acceptance of salvation. Further, this is not accepting a master in an earthly sense where one is property to another’s benefit, but rather living in according with the one who made us and therefore being ourselves to the maximum extent possible given the nature he gave us.

so he can remove

Salvation is positive, not negative. Sin is itself a privation, that is, a deprivation of part of our reality as a human being. Sin does not have a reality to itself; it is like a shadow. The act of salvation is the act of repairing us—of restoring to us that part of ourself which we have destroyed through sin.

an evil force

Sin—original or otherwise—is not an evil force. It is a diminishment of the person. It is a warping, a twisting, of that which is straight just like a broken arm is not something being added to the arm but something being removed from it. Original sin, specifically, is a hereditary problem in that one can’t give what one hasn’t got, and so a lack of perfection is passed on. This is often talked about in a positive way simply because our language works better that way; this is the same way we talk about the “shape” of a shadow despite the fact that it is the light around the shadow which has a shape, not the shadow itself.

from your soul

Again, salvation is the adding to you of that perfection which is missing, not a removal of something which was added.

that is present in humanity because a rib-woman

All women have ribs. I presume this is meant to refer to a literal reading of the book of Genesis as if it were a historical-biological textbook. It isn’t, stop doing that. It refers to God walking in the cool of the evening. God doesn’t have a body. It refers to God asking where Adam and Eve are. God knows everything. This is mythology, not a type of textbook that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years. It was describing important things, not irrelevant details. Our modern fixation on irrelevant details to the exclusion of wisdom produces nothing but misreadings when applied to anything written before several hundred years ago and many things written since. Limit your reading of books as if they are biology textbooks to actual biology textbooks.

was convinced by a talking snake

See above; the serpent is generally understood to represent spiritual powers that wish us harm, such as Satan.

to eat from a magical tree.

Magic has absolutely nothing to do with it. Again, reading the book of Genesis as if you are reading a modern biology textbook is just trying to misunderstand it. The tree in question is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now, what happens when you eat something? It becomes a part of you. To make good and evil a part of you means that you are doing evil. Talking about “eating from a magic tree” is on the level of reading a cartoon book made for kindergarteners. The story of the fall of man in Genesis talks about how human beings chose evil over perfection when tempted by powers which deceived them. It’s a richly complex story the exegesis of which takes many pages, but to talk about “a magical tree” is to utterly and completely misunderstand it, worse than to think that evolution is about “survival of the fittest” as if that means “everything gets bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger all the time”. It’s a complete misunderstanding on the level of a children’s cartoon book. If you can read this blog post, you can do better than that.

The Origin of Rights

In the aftermath of the enlightenment which emphasized the rights of man, the fact that a world which thinks only of rights will fall apart is something of a problem. But the enlightenment gives no framework for reconciling rights and responsibilities, which has left many people very unsure of how to try to reconcile them. It’s actually quite simple as long as you look at the problem in the right way. The key to the whole mess is that rights come from responsibilities.

Obviously rights come from God, since all things come from God, but they don’t come directly from God. The most proximal intermediary in giving human beings rights is the responsibilities that they were given. Whatever a man has a responsibility to do, he has a right to do.

Consider, for example, feeding himself. A man has a responsibility to feed himself. Because of this, he has a right to the things intrinsically necessary to do it, such as the right to own property with which to get for himself food, the right to do the labor necessary to procure food, and so on.

Now, It is important to distinguish what is intrinsically necessary to fulfill a responsibility from what may be accidentally necessary. If I don’t happen to have any bread on hand, that doesn’t automatically give me a right to your bread because it is an accident of circumstances that you have bread on hand while I don’t. A responsibility conveys the rights that anyone would need in order to fulfill a task, not what would be necessary only for one person in some particular moment.

And this is the origin of all rights. Parental rights originate from the parental responsibility to care for one’s child. Speech rights originate from the responsibility to tell the truth. Religious rights originate from the duty to worship God.

Once you look at rights this way, the problem of reconciling them with responsibilities—or of reconciling conflicting rights—becomes a non-issue. Responsibilities exist in a hierarchy, and so whenever a right and a responsibility conflict, or when two rights conflict, one merely has to look at the responsibility from which the right derives and compare it to the other responsibility—or the responsibility from which the other right derives—and always fulfill the more important responsibility over the less important responsibility.

This also very neatly solves the problem of how to strongly defend rights without becoming a libertine. Because you never want to be this guy:

God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:

what-would-jesus-do-having-actually-read-the-bible

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 15, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fifteenth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

There are a lot of trials in being a parent, but I think that the hardest is sleep deprivation. At least for me, I find it very difficult to function when I’m underslept. There is an element, I think, in Christian psychology in the modern west where we expect that carrying our crosses will be glamorous. Well, not glamorous, exactly, but the sort of thing people would write stories about. We’re so soaked in fiction that we think about a great deal of life in terms of how it would be summarized in a story. And after all, Jesus carrying his cross was written about in a story. Surely, so our emotions sometimes go, our cross to carry will be similarly story-worthy.

But our crosses to bear are often things like, “sure, Child, I will walk you to the bathroom at 3am then tuck you back into bed; don’t worry, I’ll get back to sleep eventually” and dealing with the exhaustion and headaches the next day.

Some wag apparently said that there were enough putative fragments of the true cross of Christ to make a ship, whereas in reality there are something like four kilograms worth of fragments claimed to be from the true cross, but in any event one night of little rest is not like a splinter from one’s cross. For many of us, I think we carry our crosses one splinter at a time, and over the years they add up to a cross, so we don’t notice and it’s very easy to complain because we don’t think of them the right way.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I found an interesting referrer linking to my interview with the editor of Cirsova magazine. It’s a blog post by Rampant Coyote about how the covers on old pulps were often quite misleading. It’s an interesting post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found this part especially interesting:

The covers … well… as much as I love them now, they aren’t great representations of the stories themselves. The Weird Tales cover here, for example… if you’ve actually read “Queen of the Black Coast,” the only thing about this image that resembles the story is the monster. Kind of, but it’s supposed to be more ape-like. The dude is not Conan, and the girl isn’t acting (or dressed like) like Bêlit. In the story… well, Conan pretty much meets his match in Bêlit. She is a bloodthirsty, avaricious, fearless pirate. She commands some men and slaughters others, and her name strikes fear in the heart of captain . As I recall, she’s the one who does the rescuing (if posthumously… it’s complicated. They borrowed that idea for the 1982 movie. Read the story, it’s awesome!)

This was in part an effect of the business model of the time, or more properly of the specialization involved in having a publishing house. The people who commissioned the art for the covers were people who had a keen sense of what sells books, which was their job, and not nearly so much of how to accurately represent a story in a picture, which was (in practice) no one’s job. This is one thing that always annoyed me as a reader and something I’ve fixed as a self-published author. Since I commission the cover art, I have the artist depict a scene from the book. Whether that negatively affects sales I don’t know, but I far prefer the honesty of it.

Anyway, I had gotten so used to the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” being used metaphorically, especially about judging a person’s moral character from his looks, that I had all but forgotten that it was also literal advice based on how much book covers might be outright lies.

There is another very interesting section later on in the post, about what the stories were actually like:

This is especially true in some recent efforts I’ve seen to deconstruct / subvert older stories… folks should know what they are trying to build on. If you are writing a “pulp-style” story and you think you are being bold and original because it’s about a female warrior / pirate who totally has to rescue a Conan-analog character… it’s been done. Magazine covers notwithstanding, Howard has already been there. Lots of the pulps have. They may not be what you think they are.

Which brings up an interesting fact about the pulps: there were a lot of them. Writers wrote many stories, and though there undoubtedly were formulaic stories (any industry which needs a lot of writing is going to publish a lot of bad writing, for the simple reason that bad writing is easier to come by than good writing) writers of successful stories needed to come up with new things so as not to become stale. People did not buy the pulps because the previous issue sufficed for the new one, and subverting expectations is a very old trick for surprising the reader and keeping  his interest. It’s done much better by people who want to do it in order to make their stories interesting than by people who want to overthrow morality so that they have license to be bad, since the former will only subvert things which do no harm when subverted while the latter will subvert things which do a lot of harm, but the general concept of subverting expectations is not new at all. In fact, God even used that trick when he took on flesh, being born a helpless baby in an insignificant part of an insignificant country, in a stable for animals. As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, there is something very strange in picturing the hands that made the universe being too small to reach the enormous heads of the cattle.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on January 27, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the twenty seventh day of January, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I didn’t post a God’s Blessings post yesterday, but I did post an interview, so I’m going to call that a wash.

I recently came across a private discussion about the nature of forgiveness, and how my Christian friend was having to point out to a secular co-worker that forgiveness does not mean automatically pretending that nothing has happened, especially when there has been no repentance. Let’s call the people A and B, and stipulate that as co-workers B betrayed A’s trust and in fact stabbed him in the back on some occasion to A’s significant detriment. Let’s further stipulate that B does not admit to any wrongdoing, and has never apologized, repented of his wickedness, nor tried to make any sort of amends.

Now, I know what Christians mean when they say that they are not required to forgive in such a circumstance, but that’s technically incorrect. Christians are to forgive in all circumstances, because forgiveness just means that one does not cease loving a person. And as Bishop Barron puts it, love is to desire the good of the other as other. Which means that pouring out the infinite goodness of God which we ourselves are given, we give to others according to our ability to give and their ability to receive. That last part is key, and is the key to this whole problem.

Forgiveness means that we should not withhold any good from a man that we can give him, but it does not mean that we should give goods to a man who cannot receive them. In this case, a man who betrays trust is not trustworthy. Forgiving him means that if he needs help, one should help him. By all means A should (if practical) take a day off work to help B move his stuff from one apartment to another. If B is hungry, A should feed him. But there is absolutely nothing in the concept of forgiveness that means that A should trust B when there is no reason to believe that B is trustworthy and good reason to believe that B is not. Forgiveness means not holding grudges, it does not mean being unrealistic. Now, I should probably add that it is possible for people to reform, and for a man who was untrustworthy to become trustworthy. And forgiveness should be open to that possibility. But that does not in any sense mean that forgiveness should assume that such a thing has happened in default of evidence that it has, and still less in the face of evidence that it hasn’t.

And in fact, it is uncharitable to tempt a man who struggles with temptation. If B has a hard time keeping trust, it is uncharitable to place trust in him and thus expose him to the temptation to violate that trust. Telling secrets to a gossip is not only unwise, but it is unkind.

There are those who want to simply forget the past, of course, mostly because they had conflict and want it to magically disappear. That’s not forgiveness, that’s cowardice. Of course, cowardice will always try to disguise itself as something else; that’s part of the nature of cowardice. After all, you can’t expect cowardice to have the bravery to admit what it is.

In short, forgiveness means being willing to give what you can, even to a man who has hurt you. It does not mean being willing to give what you can’t.

Glory to God in the highest.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.

Two Interesting Questions

On Twitter, @philomonty, who I believe is best described as an agnostic (he can’t tell whether nihilism or Catholicism is true), made two video requests. Here are the questions he gave me:

  1. If atheism is a cognitive defect, how may one relieve it?
  2. How can an atheist believe in Christ, when he does not know him? Not everyone has mystical experiences, so not everyone has a point of contact which establishes trust between persons, as seen in everyday life.

I suspect that I will tackle these in two separate videos, especially because the second is a question which applies to far more than just atheists. They’re also fairly big questions, so it will take me a while to work out how I want to answer them. 🙂

The first question is especially tricky because I believe there are several different kind of cognitive defects which can lead to atheism. Not everyone is a mystic, but if a person who isn’t demands mystical experience as the condition for belief, he will go very wrong. If a person who is a mystic has mystical experiences but denies them, he will go very wrong, but in a different way. There are also people who are far too trusting of the culture they’re in, thinking that fitting into it is the fullness of being human, so they will necessarily reject anything which makes it impossible or even just harder to fit in. These two will go very wrong, but in a different way from the previous ones.

To some degree this is a reference to my friend Eve Keneinan’s view that atheism is primarily caused by some sort of cognitive defect, such as an inability to sense the numinous (basically, lacking a sensus divinitatus). Since I’ve never experienced that myself, I’m certain it can’t be the entire story, though to the degree that it is part of the story it would come under the category of non-mystics who demand mystical experience. Or, possibly, mystics who have been damaged by something, though I am very dubious about that possibility. God curtails the amount of evil possible in the world to what allows for good, after all, so while that is not a conclusive argument, it does seem likely to me that God would not permit anything to make it impossible for a person to believe in him.

Anyway, these are just some initial thoughts on the topic which I’ll be mulling over as I consider how to answer. Interesting questions.

Debunking Believe-or-Burn

This is the script from my video debunking believe-or-burn. It  was written to be read aloud, but it should be pretty readable. Or you could just listen to it.

Today we’re going to be looking at how abysmally wrong the idea of “believe or burn”, which I prefer to render as, “say the magic words or burn,” is. And to be clear, I mean wrong, not that I don’t like it or this isn’t my opinion. I’m Catholic, not evangelical, so I’m talking about how it contradicts the consistent teaching of the church since its inception 2000 years ago (and hence is also the position of the Eastern Orthodox, the Kopts, etc), and moreover how one can rationally see why “say the magic words or burn” cannot be true.

I’m not going to spend time explaining why non-Christian religions don’t believe you have to say the magic words or burn because for most of them, it’s not even relevant. In Hinduism, heavens and hells are related to your karma, not to your beliefs, and they’re all temporary anyway—as the story goes, the ants have all been Indra at some point. In Buddhism you’re trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and the whole point is to escape. To the degree that there even is a concept of hell in Buddhism, you’re there now and maybe you can get out. Many forms of paganism don’t even believe in an afterlife, and where they do—and what you do in life affects what happens to you in the afterlife—what happens to you is largely based on how virtuously you lived in society, not on worshipping any particular gods. Animistic religions are either often similar to pagan religions or they hold that the dead stick around as spirits and watch over the living. For the monotheistic religions, few of them have a well-defined theology on this point. Their attitude tends to be, “here is the way to be good, it’s bad to be evil, and for everyone else, well, that’s not a practical question.” For most of the world’s religions, “say the magic words or burn,” isn’t even wrong. And Islam is something of an exception to this, but I’m not going to get into Islam because the Quran doesn’t unambiguously answer this question and after Al Ghazali’s triumph over the philosophers in the 11th century, there really isn’t such thing as Islamic theology in the same sense that you have Christian theology. Christianity holds human reason, being finite, to be unable to comprehend God, but to be able to reason correctly about God within its limits. Since Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the trend in Islam has been to deny human reason can say anything about God, past what he said about himself in the Quran. As such, any question not directly and unambiguously answered in the Quran—which, recall, is poetry—is not really something you can reason about. So as a matter of practicality I think Islam should be grouped with the other monotheisms who hold the question of what happens to non-believers acting in good faith to be impractical. And in any event there are hadith and a passage in the Quran which do talk about some Jews and Christians entering paradise, so make of that what you will.

There isn’t an official name for the doctrine of “say the magic words or burn”, but I think it’s best known because of fundamentalists who say that anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in hell. I think that the usual form is saying that everyone who isn’t a Christian will burn in hell, for some definition of Christian that excludes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t think that the King James version of the bible was faxed down from heaven and is the sole authority in human affairs. You generally prove that you’re a Christian in this sense by saying, “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior”, but there’s no requirement that you understand what any of that means, so it functions exactly like a magical incantation.

As I discussed in my video on fundamentalists, when they demand people speak the magic words, what they’re asking for is not in any sense a real religious formulation, but actually a loyalty pledge to the dominant local culture. (Which is fundamentalist—all tribes have a way of pledging loyalty.) But the concept of “say the magic words or burn,” has a broader background than fundamentalists, going all the way back to the earliest Protestant reformers and being, more or less, a direct consequence of how Martin Luther and John Calvin meant the doctrine of Sola Fide.

Before I get into the origin of “say the magic words or burn”, let me give an overly brief explanation of what salvation actually means, to make sure we’re on the same page. And to do that, I have to start with what sin is: sin means that we have made ourselves less than what we are. For example, we were given language so that we could communicate truth. When we lie, not only do we fail in living up to the good we can do, we also damage our ability to tell the truth in the future. Lying (and all vices) all too easily become habits. We have hurt others and damaged ourselves. Happiness consists of being fully ourselves, and so in order to be happy we must be fixed. This is, over-simplified, what it means to say that we need salvation. Christianity holds that Jesus has done the work of that salvation, which after death we will be united with, if we accept God’s offer, and so we will become fixed, and thus being perfect, will be capable of eternal happiness. That’s salvation. Some amount of belief is obviously necessary to this, because if you don’t believe the world is good, you will not seek to be yourself. This is why nihilists like pickup artists are so miserable. They are human but trying to live life like some sort of sex-machine. They do lots of things that do them no good, and leave off doing lots of things that would do them good. Action follows belief, and so belief helps to live life well. We all have at least some sense of what is true, though, or in more classical language the natural law is written on all men’s hearts. It is thus possible for a person to do his best to be good, under the limitations of what he knows to be good. God desires the good of all of his creatures, and while we may not be able to see how a person doing some good, and some evil things under the misapprehension that they are good, can be saved, we have faith in God that he can do what men can’t. Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that God would permit errors to occur if they couldn’t be overcome. While we don’t know who will be saved, it is permissible to hope that all will be saved. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

OK, so given that, where did the evil and insane idea of “say the magic words or burn” come from? Well, Sola Fide originated with Martin Luther, who as legend has it was scrupulous and couldn’t see how he could ever be good enough to enter heaven (I say, “as legend has it” because this may be an overly sympathetic telling). For some reason he couldn’t do his best and trust God for the rest, so he needed some alternative to make himself feel better. Unfortunately being Christian he was stuck with the word faith, which in the context of Christianity means trusting God. Martin Luther’s solution was to redefine the word faith to mean—well, he wasn’t exactly consistent, but at least much of the time he used it to mean something to the effect of “a pledge of allegiance”—basically, a promise of loyalty. The problem with that is that pledging your allegiance is just words. There’s even a parable Jesus told about this very thing: a man had two sons and told them go to work in his fields. The one son said no, but later thought better of it and went to work in the fields. The other said, “yes, sir” but didn’t go. Which did his father’s will? And please note, I’m not citing that to proof-text that Martin Luther was wrong. One bible passage with no context proves nothing. No, Martin Luther was obviously wrong. I’m just mentioning this parable because it’s an excellent illustration of the point about actions versus words. But as a side-note, it’s also an excellent illustration of why mainline protestants often have relatively little in common with Martin Luther and why it was left to the fundamentalists to really go whole-hog on Martin Luther’s theology: it was a direct contradiction of what Jesus himself taught.

John Calvin also had a hand in “say the magic words or burn”, though it was a bit different from the influence of Martin Luther. Though Luther and Calvin did agree on many points, they tended to agree for different reasons. While Martin Luther simply repudiated free will and the efficacy of reason—more or less believing that they never existed—John Calvin denied them because of the fall of man. According to Calvin man was free and and his reason worked before the first sin, but all that was destroyed with the first sin, resulting in the total depravity of man. Whereas Martin Luther thought that free will was nonsensical even as a concept, John Calvin understood what it meant but merely denied it. Ironically, John Calvin’s doctrines being a little more moderate than Martin Luther’s probably resulted in them having a much larger impact on the world; you had to be basically crazy to agree with Martin Luther, while you only needed to be deeply pessimistic to agree with John Calvin. Luther held that God was the author of evil, while Calvin at least said that all of the evil was a just punishment for how bad the first sin was. If outsiders can’t readily tell the difference between Calvin’s idea of God and the orthodox idea of the devil, insiders can’t even tell the difference between them in Martin Luther’s theology. Luther literally said that he had more faith than anyone else because he could believe that God is good despite choosing to damn so many and save so few. The rest of us, who don’t even try to believe blatant logical contradictions about God, just didn’t measure up. In the history of the world, Martin Luther is truly something special.

However, since both Luther and Calvin denied that there was such a thing as free will these days, Sola Fide necessarily took on a very strange meaning. Even a pledge of allegiance can’t do anything if you’re not the one who made it. So faith ends up becoming, especially for Calvin, just a sign that you will be saved. The thing is, while this is logically consistent—I mean, it may contradict common sense, but it doesn’t contradict itself—it isn’t psychologically stable. No one takes determinism seriously. The closest idea which is at least a little psychologically stable is that God is really just a god, if a really powerful god, so pledging allegiance is like becoming a citizen of a powerful, wealthy country. You’ll probably be safe and rich, but if you commit a crime you might spend some time in jail or even be deported. I realize that’s not the typical metaphor, but it’s fairly apt, and anyone born in the last several hundred years doesn’t have an intuitive understanding for what a feudal overlord is. This understanding of Sola Fide can’t be reconciled with Christianity, the whole point of which is to take seriously that God is the creator of the entire world and thus stands apart from it and loves it all. But this understanding of Sola Fide can plug into our instinct to be part of a tribe, which is why if you don’t think about it, it can be a stable belief.

So we come again to the loyalty pledge to the group—in a sense we have to because that is all a statement of belief without underlying intellectual belief ever can be—but with this crucial difference: whereas the fundamentalist generally is demanding loyalty to the immediate secular culture, the calvinist-inspired person can be pledging loyalty to something which transcends the immediate culture. I don’t want to oversell this because every culture—specific enough that a person can live in it—is always a subculture in a larger culture. But even so the calvinist-inspired magic-words-or-burn approach is not necessarily local. It is possible to be the only person who is on the team in an entire city, just like it’s possible to be the only Frenchman in Detroit. As such this form of magic-words-or-burn can have a strong appeal to anyone who feels themselves an outsider.
And the two forms of magic-words-or-burn are not very far apart and can easily become the other as circumstances dictate. And it should be borne in mind that one of those circumstances is raising children, because a problem which every parent has is teaching their children to be a part of their culture. In this fallen world, no culture is fully human, and equally problematic is that no human is fully human, so the result is that child and culture will always conflict. Beatings work somewhat, but getting buy-in from the child is much easier on the arms and vocal cords, and in the hands of less-than-perfect parents, anything which can be used to tame their children probably will be.

This would normally, I think, be a suitable conclusion to this video, but unfortunately it seems like salvation is a subject on which people are desperate to make some sort of error of exaggeration, so if we rule out the idea that beliefs are the only things that matter, many people will start running for the opposite side and try to jump off the cliff of beliefs not mattering at all. Or in other words, if salvation is possible to pagans, why should a Christian preach to them?

The short answer is that the truth is better for people than mistakes, even if mistakes aren’t deadly. This is because happiness consists in being maximally ourselves, and the only thing which allows us to do that is the truth. Silly examples are always clearer, so consider a man who thinks that he’s a tree and so stands outside with his bare feet in the dirt, arms outspread, motionless, trying to absorb water and nutrients through his toes and photosynthesize through his fingers. After a day or two, he will be very unhappy and a few days later he will die if he doesn’t repent of his mistake. Of course very few people make a mistake this stark—if nothing else anyone who does will die almost immediately, leaving only those who don’t make mistakes this extreme around. But the difference between this and thinking that life is about having sex with as many people as possible is a matter of degree, not of kind. You won’t die of thirst and starvation being a sex-maniac, and it will take you longer than a few days to become noticeably miserable, but it will happen with those who think they’re mindless sex machines as reliably as it will those who think they’re trees.

Pagans are in a similar situation to the pick-up-artists who think they’re mindless sex robots. Because paganism was a more widespread belief system that lasted much longer, it was more workable than pick-up-artistry, which is to say that it was nearer to the truth, but it was still wrong in ways that seriously affect human happiness. It varied with place and time, of course, but common mistakes were a focus on glory, the disposability of the individual, the inability of people to redeem themselves from errors, and so on. The same is true of other mistaken religions; they each have their mistakes, some more than others, and tend toward unhappiness to the degree that they’re wrong.

There is a second side to the importance of preaching Christianity to those who aren’t Christian, which is that life is real and salvation is about living life to the full, not skating by on the bare minimum. Far too many people think of this life as something unrelated to eternal life, as if once you make it to heaven you start over. What we are doing now is building creation up moment by moment. People who have been deceived will necessarily be getting things wrong and doing harm where they meant to help, and failing to help where they could have; it is not possible to be mistaken about reality and get everything right. That’s asking a person with vision problems to be an excellent marksman. A person who causes harm where they meant to help may not be morally culpable for the harm they do, but when all is made clear, they cannot be happy about the harm they did, while they will be able to be happy about the good they did. To give people the truth is to give them the opportunity to be happier. That is a duty precisely because we are supposed to love people and not merely tolerate them. Though I suppose I should also mention the balancing point that we’re supposed to give people the truth, not force it down their throats. Having given it to them, if they won’t take it, our job is done.

OK, I think I can conclude this video now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Satanic Banality

Here is the script of the most recent video I posted. Or if you’d prefer, you can go watch it on youtube.

Some time ago, I made a video talking about the strange symbolism in the music video of Ke$ha’s song, Die Young. Here are all of the symbols she used:
kesha_die_young_symbols
The curious thing about them all is that despite the fact that the video is supposed to have a satanic theme, the symbols Ke$ha used are all actually Christian symbols. Here’s what I concluded in that video:

Ultimately what I think I find so frustrating about this video is that it’s use of symbolism is, essentially, magical thinking. Symbols have power, because they communicate something. A symbol stands in for something greater than itself, which is why it has more power than random scribbles. Using symbols without reference to what they mean is trying to use get power without invoking their function – it’s trying to steal their power.

But on further consideration, I’ve realized that this is actually quite fitting. Yes, this was rather incompetent satanism, but that is really the most consistent satanism possible. Diligence is a virtue; if she put a lot of work into her satanism—if she really tried to do a good job—that would undermine the entire point. Skillful Satanism is actually something of a contradiction in terms.

And this is something C.S. Lewis complained about in literature. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, talking about artistic representations of the angelic and diabolic, he said: “The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognized as symbols. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite, and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much too Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell. The humorous, civilised, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.”

There’s nothing all that particular to Satanism in these complaints, though. It’s really the same as a mistake that we tend to make about all evil. I think that the origin of this mistake is, roughly, the intuition that if a person is trading their soul for something, there must be something quite valuable which tempted them to do it. Consider the scene in A Man For All Seasons where Richard Rich has just perjured himself to produce false evidence that will get Sir Thomas More executed for treason:

More: There is one question I would like to ask the witness. That’s a chain of office you’re wearing. May I see it? The red dragon. What’s this?

Cromwell: Sir Richard is appointed Attorney General for Wales.

More: For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?

(If you haven’t seen A Man for All Seasons, please do. It is an excellent movie.)

Why would somebody do something evil if it doesn’t benefit them? The answer to this question is straightforward, but we need a few concepts in order to be able to give the simple explanation. The first is the the Greek concept of hamartia. It comes from the verb hamartenein, which was, for example, what an archer did when he didn’t hit his target. It means, roughly, to miss. Hamartia thus means an error, or a mistake, or by the time you get to the early Christian church, sin. The key insight is that evil is not something positive, but something negative.

I think that people go wrong here by not taking nihilism seriously enough. We think of a world working in perfect harmony and unity as the default, and of evil as a deviation from that. But in fact the default is nothing. There need not be anything at all. No matter, no energy, no space or time or physics. Just pure nothing, is the default. And yet, there is something. I don’t even care at the moment whether you attribute that creation to God or to a “quantum fluctuation”—well, I care a little bit because the latter is still assuming that some sort of contingent laws of physics exist, but whatever. The point is that anything whatever that exists—in our contingent world—is more than had to exist. Whether you think of it as a gift or as something that fell off of some cosmic truck that was driving by, from our perspective it is all a positive addition to the nothingness which is logically prior to it.

When you look at it this way, you can see that good is not a maintenance of the status quo, but an addition to it. But of course good is not merely anything at all existing. This is why a table is better than a pile of splinters, and why in the ordinary course of events using an axe to turn a table into a pile of splinters is wrong. It is bringing the world closer to the default of nothing. Good is not just any existence, but existence ordered according to a rational relationship. By a rational ordering, small things can become something more than themselves. Put together in the right shape, splinters can be beautiful and hold things up off the ground. That is, they can be a table.

Incidentally, this is why hyper-reductionists have such an easy time seeing through everything. Because every good thing is a rational relationship of lesser things, it is always possible to deny that the relationship is real. You can look at a table and see no more than a pile of splinters. Why a reductionist is proud of seeing less than everyone else is a subject for another day, but if you look at anything you know to be good, you will see this. It is itself made up of a rational relationship of parts that form more than they would in some other relationship. Further, all good things themselves fit in a rational relationship with other good things. Anywhere you look, whether chickens or statues or vaccines or video games; all good things have this property. And all evil—murder, arson, terrorism, or just lying—all have the property that they destroy rational relationships between things. They destroy the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is also the case that there is no other possibility for what constitutes good and evil. I don’t have time to go into details, but if you examine any attempt to define good and evil which is not convertible into this definition, it invariably consists of taking one sort of rational relationship and calling that the only good. Good is doing your duty, or good is the family, or good is the state or good is pleasure. Every such thing, if you really spend some time looking into it and seeing what its proponents actually mean by their words and actions—they are all taking some rational relationships and elevating them above all other rational relationships. They are taking a part and treating it as the whole.

And this is why sin is analogous to an archer missing what he was shooting at. We all aim for doing the good, but it’s very rare that we actually hit our target. Sometimes our aim is off because we twitch—that is, we can’t hold steady—but very often it’s because we mistake what we’re looking at. We think it’s closer or further, or that we’re looking at one part when we’re looking at another. We go wrong not because we think, “oh man would it be great to shoot this deer in the log under it!” but because we thought we were looking at its chest. We weren’t, as proved by where our arrow struck. Or we can go wrong by being mistaken about where we’re aiming, thinking that because we’re looking at something, that’s where we are pointing our arrow. Know thyself is often quoted by unpractical people, but it’s actually intensely practical advice.

The drug addled, sex-crazed rock star doesn’t think she’s using Christian imagery when she’s trying to be Satanic. She has not traded looking like a buffoon for some amazing benefit we can’t see. In her mind, she doesn’t look like a buffoon. She thinks she looks awesome; that anyone sensible would cower in awe of her satanic majesty. She has missed her target, and hasn’t yet gone to see where her arrow has actually struck. There’s a reason why pop musicians rarely last a decade; once they realize what they’re doing, they stop doing it; once they stop believing in it, they can’t sell the illusion anymore. And then their popularity fades, because it was not them, but the illusion they were selling, which was so popular.

Satanic Majesty is always an illusion, which is why you can only ever encounter it in art. Art contrives to convey experience; to show you what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. But Satanic Majesty always looks banal from the outside; it’s only from the inside that it looks spectacular. This is part of why pride is the deadliest of the sins: if you wrap yourself up inside yourself, you can fool yourself forever without anything to check your downward, inward progress. And this is why music videos feature so many reaction shots. It’s also why movies and TV and virtually everything fictive, features so many reaction shots. The thing itself rarely looks very impressive, but people’s reactions are limited only by their imagination and acting skills. It’s why in Power Rangers series, after they lower the camera to the monster’s feet, the next shot is always the power rangers looking up. Our age has been called the age of many things, but it is the age of nothing so much as it is the age of the reaction shot. TV news shows the reactions of people on the street, but it never shows you the considered opinions of people on something that happened ten years ago. Collectively, we don’t like reality; you can tell a tree by its fruit, which is why we prefer to look at seedlings.

It’s everywhere in entertainment—in which category news most certainly belongs— but it can be found throughout life, too. We endlessly discuss people’s reactions, but we rarely discuss things and ideas. And if we look at ourselves, when we are tempted, we can see the same thing. We do not consider our temptations in themselves, but only how they will make us feel. I mean when we’re experiencing them, not when we’re regretting having given into them afterwards. In the actual moment of giving in, our attention is never on the reality of what we’re about to do; we’re concentrating on how happy it will make us. That’s why one of the techniques for avoiding temptation is to face up to what we’re actually doing. Of course sometimes we can’t avoid facing up to what we’re actually doing; in addiction it’s called hitting rock bottom. But when one is young and healthy, it’s very rare that reality makes us face up to what we’re doing. On TV they always pick pretty people who smile for the camera, and it’s so hard to believe that anything can be wrong when pretty people are happy. On Facebook people post pictures of when things are going well, and the very fact that it’s rude to tell people about how bad your day was means that we don’t often face up to the reality of what is going on in life. A person has to be very unhappy indeed before they won’t smile for the camera.

Which is a pity, because so many people use reactions to tell whether the thing being reacted to is good or bad. Since people will put their best foot forward, this doesn’t work; to know right from wrong we must investigate the things themselves. And in fact in our world whether an action is defended on its own or by the reactions to it is actually a good heuristic for figuring out whether it is moral or immoral—if you can say something good about the action itself, it is probably moral. If it is only defended by people’s reactions to it, it is probably immoral. That’s only a heuristic, of course; people dance because it’s fun, and dancing is legitimate. But dancing is also beautiful, at least when it’s done well. There’s very little you can say about heroin except that it’s fun.

That’s all for now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.