Archive for February, 2016

The Holy Grail

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

In my professional life I teach a class entitled “Skepticism, Conspiracy Theories, and Critical Thinking;” for the most part I tend to avoid the religion angle in that course. I don’t know if that’s cowardice but I think that teaching a class in which I publicly run through the reasons that religion doesn’t hold up to critical thinking might get me in trouble. I don’t know with whom, but for some reason in this age of political correctness someone will take offense if I spend a couple weeks bashing the Bible. Because the anti-PC crowd sure doesn’t like it when you force them to call someone by the name they prefer but you always have to show them the utmost respect for their beliefs.

The class primarily deals with various conspiracy theories, myths, and pseudoscience. One that I concentrate on in particular is the myth of the Holy Grail. This is one of the few intersections that my class has directly with religion (I’m planning on an Apocalypse/End of the World lesson but I’m currenrlt working on it).

The problem for the myth is that it doesn’t make any sense from any perspective, that’s if we even take the story of Jesus and the last supper as being true. Let’s ignore the supposed powers the grail is supposed to give its owner and just talk about the grail itself. Despite the legend surrounding the grail we have to remember that it’s just a cup. A cup, it’s nothing other than that.

The last supper is the story of Jesus’ passover meal with his followers. The cup bears some importance as the whole affair serves as the basis for the Catholic sacrament of Communion and is recreated in various other Christian sects. However, we must still remember that it’s just a cup at a dinner.

The meeting place was rented, we know this because Jesus offered up a prophecy that there would be reservations made for the place. If we move the whole affair to the current time we would see how silly it is that a cup used in a restaurant would be saved for any reason at all. Imagine that not only would the table bussers keep one particular item but that they would even notive it in the first place. I’ve bussed tables before but I’ve never notived what anyone at any of the tables said, did, or really, even who they are. Now I admit that the world is a different place and that most likely the workers at the place were the same as the family that owned it, but still does that matter? It doesn’t seem so.

The only people there were the members of Jesus’ Apocalypse cult. Unless the members of the staff were also followers of him they would pay the group no mind. This is unlikely though as if the supper was a Passover meal then the workers would have been Gentiles and thus probably not into the whole Hebraic Messiah thing that Jesus was preaching at the time.

Now some of the legends have the cup catching the blood of Jesus on the cross. Yet this isn’t substantiated by any of the biblical stories. This part of the story doesn’t appear until the 12th century as part of Robert de Boron’s story Joseph d’Aramathie. De Boron’s story has the grail being given to Joseph by the resurrected Jesus. We don’t need to get into the problems with the story as it is clearly an attempt to connect the British mythology with the Christian one, in what was probably an attempt to legitimize the Arthurian legend.

As Dan Brown, yes I’m seriously referencing his fictional work–because I’ll feel sick if I have to refer to Holy Blood, Holy Grail, points out through the improbably named Leigh Teabing (it’s an anagram of the names of the authors of the aforemntioned work of pseudohistory) that in Leonardo’s painting (which I suppose I could have just referenced) there are many cups. Now of course the painting is not a photograph of the event but it’s important to know that the idea that there was a a specific cup hadn’t stuck by the Italian Renaissance.

The story gains prominence with the Aurthurian legends. As those gained prominence the grail itself gained prominence. To this very day it is still the matter of curiosity, but can we be curious about a thing that doesn’t exist? Sure, it’s a story and sometimes the story is very interesting.If it weren’t for the intrigue underneath the Catholic religion, and the Vatican itself it probably would have disappeared. Of course that neglects one of the motives that finding the grail would legitimize the story of Jesus itself. This is like the discovery of the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When it was originally discovered people were excited that there was corraborating evidence for the biblical story of Noah. However, their excitement was quickly extinguished when it was discovered that the Sumerian epic was older than the Bible’s. The grail story is just a legend about a myth. That’s not even getting into the massive conspiracy that currently surrounds it. The conspiracy almost bears no mentioning since the whole idea of the bloodlines was concocted by an admitted con artist who forged the primary documents.

An Evil Problem

February 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Teaching my courses I almost always have a final paper due rather than an exam. Philosophy is a writing discipline and exams don’t evaluate students correctly in terms of the application of knowledge and argumentation that a final paper does. The exception to this, obviously, are the logic courses. I almost always let my students choose their own topic, they have to submit it first for my approval, but mostly I just approve them with a quick glance. The good students, as Kant said, take care of themselves and by the end of the semester they have a good handle on it. The middle students, they require a bit of direction but there’s no reason I have to pick the topic for them. The bad students? Well, they usually don’t turn in subjects and then they don’t turn in papers. The system works itself out that way.

Topic-wise I only restrict two: abortion and euthanasia. My reasoning is not political. I ban these two topics because I’m sick of reading them. The subject applies to ethics, bio-ethics, intro (we cover ethics in intro), and it could be shoe horned into a political philosophy class as well (but we have to cover something related to the subject and my political philosophy class doesn’t). I’m sick of reading them because at the introductory level there’s only two papers that are going to get written. One paper (pro-choice, pro-Euthanasia) is going to be some derivation of right to privacy, my body-my choice. The other paper (pro-life, anti-euthanasia) is going to be a sanctity of life paper. They are all boiler plate retreadings that bring nothing new to the table.

I say “restrict” and not “ban” because I encourage free speech, and I don’t care what the students believe as long as they have a sound valid argument for their position. I don’t care if they disagree with me (I’m pro-choice and pro-euthanasia) so if they are going to talk about abortion and they are pro-life they have to justify their stance by either stating some justification for a “life begins at conception” or their position that the embryo is just as important as the woman carrying it. If they are pro-choice they have to concentrate on the dividing line between when embryo is a person and why because at some point there is a moral responsibility line since you can’t just kill a baby. In both cases they have to avoid loaded terminology which is almsot impossible for them to do. I make it tough because the subject is difficult and most people, not just my students, think that one phrase is a hammer that obliterates the opposition.

I bring it up because yesterday I spent a good half hour discussing the problem of evil with reference to the Epicurean paradox–which he never said. He couldn’t have, since in his world there were no omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent gods (as one student astutely pointed out). In either case the Christian screed by the writer Lactantius runs that if god is good, wise, and powerful, evil exists in the world, therefore either god is indifferent, unwise, or unable to prevent it. Thus it cannot be called god. Lactantius used this argument to assail the Epicurean school, he thought that by convincing people the Epicureans were atheists (they were actually Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin) people would abandon the school. Historically it didn’t exactly work but he had the opposite effect of what he intended. Instead of drowning the Epicureans in accusations of Atheism he unwittingly provided a pretty good paradox against his religion.

One half hour of pretty great student involvement. We only stopped because class was over. What’s amazing to me though, is that I’ve never had a student write a paper on the problem of evil (theodicy). I could see some of them struggling with it as I introduced the issue and then drew the strong line between natural evil (tornadoes, earthquakes, infant cancers) and personal evil (murder, rape, genocide). You have to draw that line because if you don’t the conversation gets pretty muddled very quick when you have one student explain that Tornado is just a natural event while a murder is clearly something that should have been stopped but another student says the opposite. It’s just a good way to keep from getting confused.

The way we were going we could have continued for awhile. I would love to have done so but it is frustrating to see so much interest in a subject and then never receive a paper on it. It’s not only a good subject it’s an impotant one especially for those students wearing crosses on their necks, some of whom who seemed to wince at my counter arguments to free-will or “the plan.”

I always hate the justification of “the plan.” First off, it’s contradictory to the idea of free will. If the plan requires the X gets murdered, then X and the person that killed X had no say in the matter. Secondly, it’s an argument from ignorance. It requires that you surrender all inquiry into the matter and just wave the issue away. It’s an argumentative fallacy and it’s important that people realize that it explains nothing. Some would argue with me that I’m trying to teach atheism, but I assure you I’m not. I’m merely trying to teach reasoning, and “the plan” isn’t reasoning it’s an attempt to cast a spell.

I much more interested in their long thoughts about the subject and the reason I shoot down such glib answers is to push them into thinking about it more than what they think they know from before. This is a huge question that still hasn’t been resolved for the religious. The Atheists and the Deists in my class pretty much just shrugged. For them the question is settled because it begins on a false premise (for the Deist though the false premise is only the “omnibenevolence” and maybe the “omniscience”). Perhaps that’s why I never get papers on the subject.


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The Superbowl Analogy

February 9, 2016 3 comments

In the U.S. we just had the Superbowl. It’s kind of a big deal here as the American football is the most popular sport and this was the final game of the season. I didn’t watch it, I don’t care about it, and no, I’m not going to be that guy who brags about how he doesn’t watch the Superbowl. Essentially those people are bragging about not doing a thing which isn’t special at all. I can not do something all day. If my facebook news feed is an accurate indicator, and the viewership of the Superbowl is roughly half of all Americans with televisions. Not being in that percentage isn’t special but it provides a useful religion analogy to those people that can’t understand what atheism is.

What follows are my answers to questions from the incredulous person (“people” in my experience) who doesn’t understand how I don’t watch the sport.

You don’t watch football? 

I have no interest in watching the games, I don’t have a favorite team, and my only involvement with it is that I keep on the standings just so I can understand what people are talking about around me (most of my friends are football fans in some fashion). This year, the most football I was exposed to was watching an entire quarter of a college football game that was on during the first week of the season. It was inadvertent. I’m entirely atheistic about football.

What about a big rivalry game, like the Bears v. Packers?

Why would I care? I don’t mean that to be a jerk, I literally want to know why I would care about that. It’s like when someone in a Red Sox hat asks me if I hate the Yankees (or vice versa). No, because there existence means so little to me that if one or both of the teams vanished off the planet it wouldn’t affect me in the least. I have friends that are Packers fans and I have friends that are Bears fans so I’ll find out who won if only to give them a hard time and a congratulations respectively. However, I’m just trying to take a small interest in something that’s important to them.

But you watch the Superbowl right?

No, because I haven’t watched all season therefore the final game doesn’t matter to me. I know lots of people watch it even though they haven’t followed the sport all season. However, that isn’t me and I don’t know how people can stay interested if they only do a thing once a year. I know Denver won the game as a trivia fact but I doubt it’ll hold in my memory.

Oh, so you don’t get football?

Again, no.

I get the sport. I used to be a huge football fan in the 90s. I routinely watched ESPN for the scores and updates for all of the teams. I used to do a weekly pick 10 betting thing (with the point spread) through a bar that my Dad frequented. I’ll confess that I never watched college football like I did the NFL but I’ll even further confess that I have willingly watched the Toronto Argonauts and the Canadian league. I had sports cards for the European NFL. I get the sport, I just no longer find it interesting.

You root for team X though? I mean you kind of have to.

No, I don’t and no, I don’t. Team X, is usually the local team and in this case it’s the Buffalo Bills. The Bills have a long running problem getting into the playoffs, as in they never do it, but it’s of little interest to me. Again, I’m not a football fan so why would I care about anything having to do with the sport. When the Bills owner died and they were talking about moving the team I immediately thought of how I wouldn’t have to plan my Sunday around homegames (I live in an hour from Buffalo but because my family and friends live there we visit frequently. I have a specific time to leave certain residences during a home game so as to miss the traffic).

Again, I don’t have to do anything. The important thing is to not walk around talking about how much I don’t care for a thing that everyone else around me does. I’m doing it now for the sake of this post, but in general I only bring it up when it’s appropriate.

So, Superbowl? Not even the commercials?

Absolutely not. There one of the primary reasons I stopped watching in the first place. The last Superbowl I watched was the last one the Chicago Bears were in and I couldn’t stand how frequently they cut to commercials. I get why, the event can sell a huge amount of space for an obscene amount of money, but I refuse to just watch commercials. Also, since the internet there isn’t even a reason to watch them on the television. If I were so inclined I would look them on a Youtube page or whatever other news site (because commercials are news for some reason) posts them. There is no reason that I should watch them live. I’ll check out the movie trailers but I like to watch them at the movies.

I get it, but if you get invited to a Superbowl party you won’t go?

See that’s different. I’ll go to a party. If a bunch of my friends are watching at a bar, I’ll do that as well if I’m able. However that’s because I like parties and I like my friends. I’ll go to the party to hang out with them but not because of the game. I’ll probably throw down some money on a pool or make silly bets (first field goal, coin toss, etc.) to force myself to be interested in the game. I’m not going to be the guy who comes to the Halloween party talking about how much they hate Halloween. Also I like fatty salty foods and that’s almost all that gets served at these get togethers. I’ll even make something for the party.

I think I get it. You don’t like football, so you don’t watch it. You have no stake in it, so the championship game is of no interest to you. 

There you go. Think of how most people are aware of the NBA but it’s routinely the lowest rated professional sports. That’s how I feel about football.

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Response to Cracked 2

February 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Part 1

Continuing on with Luke McKinney’s article, “5 Atheist Arguments Which aren’t Helping Anyone.”

2: Religion Starts Wars

McKinney here makes a mistake, for the most part he’s quibbling on the argument. Typically this argument is deployed when a religious person talks about the good that religion has done for the world. The atheist then points out that religion has been the cause of many wars throughout history. The religious person usually retorts with a “no true Scotsman” fallacy and then the conflict goes on from there. McKinney makes the mistake of attempting to point out that the reason for the order commanding war isn’t usually religious, but that it’s the religion that’s the exploit (in his words) to get people to go along. He then attempts to draw an analogy from contemporary times by saying that we just substitute the word “Freedom” now and it’s much the same thing.

Except, it isn’t. The “freedom” cry isn’t necessarily about giving other people freedom, it’s about protecting ours. We went into Afghanistan ostensibly to protect our freedoms from the terrorists that hid there, not to give them freedom. I may be leaning a bit political here, but Afghanistan was about bringing Al Qaeda and Bin Laden to justice (and I fully supported that motive if I’m being honest). It doesn’t work the same as claiming “god commands you to kill X” because the threat of divine punishment/reward isn’t nearly the same.

Yet I understand his point. Sure, the call to combat is sometimes completely independent of religion but it’s completely disingenuous to claim that religion has no role here. The many wars for Irish independence from Britain were political, that’s for sure, however without the Catholic-Protestant divide it is certainly a plausible claim that it would have been much quicker and less bloody. You can even look at the immigration issue today, if the Syrians weren’t largely Muslim the anti-immigration strain in the United States would lose most of its fire. The sheer tribalism of the religious factor is the gasoline that gets thrown on already tense situations. I’ve no doubt that there are a lot of poor disenfranchised people that are taken advantage of by leaders who use religion to compel them to blowing up buses and murder, but it’s the religion that allows them to do so. Otherwise they would have to resort to reasoned arguments to convince a person of the unreasonable.

That’s not to mention the wars that were purely religious. It’s trite to mention the crusades but we have to. There was no resource grabbing, oil wasn’t important. The crusades were about religion and religious control. Yes there was the Turkish threat, there was the desire to unify the two distinct branches of Catholicism, but those are religious motives. If as some writer’s posit the reason for war was the mistreatment of Christians in the Muslim lands, that’s still a religious argument for war. We can look at the Sunni/Shiite conflicts in the Middle East where massacres of pilgrims occur every year by one side against the other, these are purely religiously motivated crimes. Examples of religiously motivated wars may not be as omnipresent as the Atheist argument goes: but examples of atrocities in war by those claiming “deus vult” abound.

The argument’s place is in a cost-benefit argument. Bringing it up apropos of nothing is merely a non-sequitur. It can only be used in such a specific setting.

1: Arguments Directed at a Person

The last point he makes is to refrain from directing an argument against a specific person. First off, this is the weakest section in the article because he spends so little time explaining his position instead opting for a legitimate tirade against religiously motivated laws that harm women in his country (Ireland) and the immense wealth of religious organizations which are supposed to be helping the poor.

That aside I get his meaning. One should never use general arguments against a specific individual or small group of individuals. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes if the group is doing something wrong you should point out that they are doing something wrong. For the most part pointing out that religion causes war isn’t going to sway an individual, because that individual is unlikely to have the authority to be able to do so. Attacking a Christian because 2 Timothy says that women should have no authority over a man is foolish because that person didn’t write the book.

It’s not a good strategy because the individual isn’t the problem, the belief system is so it’s missing the point. I’ll write about fundamentalism, I’ll attack religion, but the only specific religious individuals I go after are those that have made themselves public speakers for their beliefs. Attacking an average person for believing that long curly sideburns are a mark of a good person is only going to make that person become defensive. It’ll more than likely have the opposite effect. If someone points the finger at me saying that religion preaches equality, I don’t attack them personally, I attack the claim. The claim is what is wrong. This is a simple ad hominem fallacy.

We’re not supposed to be against people but beliefs which make them do terrible things like justify slavery, kill non-believers, and deny objective reality. Don’t attack the body, attack the belief.

McKinney makes some good points but he flubs a bunch of others. The best tactic for having these arguments is to know the source material. Knowing the religions offers the best arguments against them especially when encountering literalists. Once you the material is known all you have to do is ask pointed questions regarding it for instance, “why would I want to be in a religion that says I own my wife as it does in yours at…?”

You won’t change their belief. I’ve never seen anyone swayed by an external argument, but you will show them that you have your own mind, that you are a person who has thought about it, and if they can’t resolve their contradictions then it’s up to them to figure it out for themselves.

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