About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory

Filed under: Apologetics,Ethics & human nature,Scholarly Consent — Tim Widowfield @ 3:21 am

Catching up

I’m still catching up with all things Vridar after having been on the road for awhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer a certain “dbg” who seemed quite unhappy with my post on scholarly consensus. I’m happy to see that Neil engaged with him and for the most part said the same things I would have said.

We still have no confirmation that Mr. dbg was in fact David B. Gowler himself. Indeed it is possible, given his habit of referring to Gowler in the third person, that the commenter is merely a fan who happens to have the same intials, and who happened to commandeer Dr. Gowler’s email address for a brief period. Neil tried to get dbg to “confess” his identity without success. So the mystery remains unsolved.

Appreciating Jesus’ message

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

Mr. dbg first complained that his comments in the preface to What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? in no way indicate a personal faith in Jesus Christ. He commented:

I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East[er] Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

Yes, Gowler’s book was not written from a confessional perspective. I normally shy away from such books, since they’re entirely useless to me. However, if Mr. dbg had read more closely he would have known that I was talking about people who believe in Christ as their savior and who simultaneously endeavor to write scholarly works from an academic, historical, nonpartisan perspective.

I could just as easily have quoted from an earlier paragraph in WATSA the Historical Jesus:

If we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can still hear the prophetic message of this first-century peasant artisan who proclaimed not only a message of hope for the oppressed but also one of judgment upon an exploitative, dominant class. That prophetic voice should haunt Christians like me who live in a nation that dominates the world politically, economically, and militarily. (p. viii, emphasis mine)



End of Faith and Other Pulp Fiction

harris-atranSam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)

At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.

Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.

Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.

That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.

So it was with some relief that I read a fact by fact rebuttal of Sam Harris’s diatribes against all religions and Islam in particular. The following (as well as the title of this blog post) is based on a section of Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human by Scott Atran.

Fact One: (more…)


The free-will myth: further evidence that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously in advance

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 5:14 pm

Jerry Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely making conscious choices.

It is based on a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.

Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.

On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.

What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?


Our Moral Nature

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 6:27 pm
An infant

An infant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another fascinating Radio National program worth sharing is Babies and a Sense of Morality in the latest edition of the Health Report.


Babies can recognize good and bad behaviour, and demonstrate that they believe good behaviour is preferable, and even believe that it is right to punish bad behaviour.

The experiment involved exposing babies to puppet shows — no words — in which there were three actants. One was attempting to do something such as push a ball up a hill or open a box to get a toy. Another was a helping agent who assisted the first one with the task. The other was bad, attempting to thwart the first one achieving what he wanted.

The babies demonstrated their preference for the helper.

When they saw a show in which someone was bad to the bad puppet, and another was good to him, they demonstrated a preference for the one who was “rightly bad” for punishing the bad guy.

These are behaviours in babies from 3 to 8 months old.

Check the audio file to find out how they conducted the experiments.

I’m not surprised by the findings. (I am surprised that they could figure out how to do experiments to test for such things.) Anyone who has spent time observing the animal kingdom knows that among social birds and animals there are the same basic moral norms governing their social systems as we have in ours. And they have their own protocols for administering punishments for the rule-breakers, too. The same fundamental morality seems to be part of our nature. It’s all about helping our neighbour and punishing behaviours that are harmful to that ethic. There are human universals that cross all cultures that confirm the same thing.

We don’t need no commandments from gods and preachers to teach us what’s right and wrong. (more…)


Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.


Evolved Morality

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 4:50 pm
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I  loved this video clip of Frans de Waal’s talk, Moral Behavior in Animals. (It was recently linked on Jerry Coyne’s Evolution is True blog.) It demonstrates that more animals than humans have evolved moral attributes of empathizing with others, offering others consolation, “prosocial” tendencies such as caring for the welfare of others, and a sense of fairness. The talk begins by balancing the themes we used to hear so often about our nearest animal relatives being so aggressive and territorial by showing that they also “believe in” reconciling after fights.

Or if you are short of time and want to jump to the funniest part where we see outrage over an unfair deal . . . . .


Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 7:53 pm


Science CAN say something about the supernatural

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 5:15 pm

Physicist Victor Stenger argues in HuffPo that

Scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

His article is Science and Religion. I was alerted to it through Jerry Coyne’s post on Why Evolution Is True.

Stenger opens with

I find it surprising that most scientists, believers and nonbelievers alike, refuse to apply their critical thinking skills to matters of religion. . . . . Scientists prefer to follow Stephen Jay Gould’s dictum that science and religion occupy two “non-overlapping magisteria.”

That, of course, means individuals are required to leave moral and ethical questions to “scholars who interpret ancient texts.” Provocative Stenger opines that such a situation sounds to him like “Sharia law”. Moral behaviour certainly is observable and a matter of scientific understanding. (It was my own realization that all social animals have “moral codes”, including punishments meted out to those who break them, that helped me on my own journey towards atheism.)

Stenger addresses two (of several) types of scientific experiments that have been conducted to test what should be the observable effects of the supernatural on the natural world: the phenomena of answered — or unanswered — prayer and near-death experiences.

Check the article for the details.

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Has Violence Been Vanquished — Steven Pinker

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 9:39 pm
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A thought-provoking essay, Has Violence Been Vanquished, by Steven Pinker, adapted from his new book, can be read at the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website. The same page contains links to some reviews of this book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

I am not as confident as he is that democracies per se are responsible for a reduction of violence. John Keane’s book, Democracy and Violence, has left me wondering if popular correlations are more illusory than real. Further, wonder if the deaths from state sanctions, sanctions against other states and recriminations by states against portions of their subject populations, count as violent deaths. Technically they might be attributed strictly to starvation, disease, natural causes despite the state violence that enforces these conditions.

Gwynne Dyer’s War: The Lethal Custom has likewise argued that the ratio of deaths from war has declined significantly over recent generations.

Don’t know. It’s a reassuring thought I suppose for those of us relaxing with a beer in front of TV behind locked doors. But then again I know we are lucky to be able to travel so widely and live so much longer without the same fears and insecurities that haunted past generations.

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Atheist and ex-Muslim — an absolutely enjoyable interview with Alom Shaha

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:13 pm
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If you are atheist, a bit worried about Muslims at the same time, like ideas like love and compassion as the glue that holds us together, might respect reading recommendations from A. C. Grayling, are curious about where and why Australians have a different take (at least from North Americans and the British) on atheism and religion in the world — how to be laid back about it all — and basically what atheism means to all of us of whatever religious background and in particular how ex-Muslims handle it all, then do yourself a well-deserved favour and listen to the interview with Alom Shaha on Australia’s national radio program  Big Ideas:


The ABC blurb is:

Atheist Alom Shaha: Imagine you live in a strict Muslim community. You’re taught not to question your religion. But you don’t actually believe any of it. Your interest lay in the world of science, ideas, and books. This is the world of atheist, Alom Shaha – a Bangladesh born science writer, film maker and teacher, who’s lived in London since he was young boy – who is in conversation with Paul Barclay.

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People who pray are nice

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 4:58 pm
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Praying mantis

Image via Wikipedia

In 2002 results of research into the relationship between personality and spirituality were published in Pastoral Psychology.

If you’re one of those arm-chair anti-religionists who speculates that people who pray the most probably have some psychological malfunction and are expressing a need to communicate with an imaginary friend given their inability to relate to the real world, then the research findings are against you.

If you have rejected western religious traditions and think you are a much nicer person than the average for having found value in the regular practice of Eastern meditation instead, then again the science is against you. But what do you care for quantifiable observations of this crass material world!

The findings were that those who pray the most (in the conventional or traditional sense of the word) are jolly good types who fit in well with wider social expectations. Plato would be happy. Wasn’t he the one who said a strong dose of conventional religious belief and fear was a necessary thing to keep the masses well-behaved and in line?

To be specific, the researchers conclude (using the Eysenck personality model) that those who pray the most are at the low end of the “psychoticism” dimension of personality and are thus most likely to be found to be

empathic, unselfish, altruistic, warm, peaceful and generally more pleasant, although possibly less socially decisive individuals. (more…)


Fear and Loathing in the Bible

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Tim Widowfield @ 1:27 am

Is God mad?

Cover of "I have no mouth and I must scre...

Cover of I have no mouth and I must scream

I grew up in a church that took the Bible very seriously. It was the inerrant Word of God. It was our rock, our comfort. But the funny thing about taking the Bible literally is the unspoken assumption that God is a very dangerous character. He’s interested in every little thing you do, every little thought that crosses your mind, and if he’s displeased — why, there’s practically nothing he won’t do.

For instance, a rather large number of people in my country (all the members of my former congregation, in fact) believe that God once got so angry that he flooded the earth and killed every man, woman, child, fetus, animal, insect, arachnid, etc. If you stop to consider it, this story of wild rage makes every 20th-century dictator look like a piker by comparison.

And yet this story is something children are taught at a very early age. In fact, you can buy Noah’s Ark plush toys from Amazon. Aren’t they cute? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of the Ark, and how the animals came two-by-two. However, I don’t much recall the details of the stinking, bloated, rotted corpses of the millions of dead creatures that God killed. What, no plush “floaters”?

Seriously, is God mad?

The idea of an insane god with unlimited power and a malevolent personality is a staple of speculative fiction. One well-known example is Billy Mumy’s portrayal of the ill-tempered god-child in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” (Spoiler alert!) (more…)


Day by day with eyes wide shut (What if our conscious reasoning is an afterthought?)

Until its proved otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a significant role in human behavior? Although the idea might seem radical at first, it is actually the conservative position, the one that makes the fewest assumptions. The null position is an antidote to philosophers’ disease — the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over processes that may be irrational and unconscious. The argument is not that we lack consciousness but that we overestimate the conscious control of behavior. — Robert R. Provine, p. 147 in What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers On Science in the Age of Uncertainty, 2006.

Robert R. Provine is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. And I am sharing his little spiel in the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove because he expresses an idea that I have toyed with ever since I learned of those experiments testing half-brain functions that show that people really do quite sincerely and unknowingly fabricate false reasons for why thy make certain decisions. But needless to say, I’m sure, not a few people are quite disturbed whenever I even raise the possibility. So I have learned to keep my suspicions closer to my chest but here in this post I bare all with the encouragement of a leading thinker under the title “things we believe but cannot prove.”

Provine continues:

We are misled by an inner voice that generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our actions. That the beam of conscious awareness illuminating our actions is on only part of the time further complicates our task. Since we are not conscious of our state of unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware of our actions, whatever their cause.

Robert Provine’s thoughts about unconscious control, unlike my amateur cogitations, were shaped by his field studies of “the primitive play-vocalization of laughter.” He found that when he asked people why they laughed in certain situations the answers they gave, he could demonstrate through careful observations, were wrong. They merely concocted rationalizations for their behaviour. (more…)


When it is wrong to be right as a Christian or other God-fearing believer?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 2:57 pm

I’m not saying it is right to be wrong, either, by the way. The following is a stream of consciousness thing, thinking aloud . . . I have never really tested the thoughts before to know if they do hold.

I have sometimes said that I see the mainstream orthodox versions of religious faiths as sharing a responsibility for the extremists associated with their brand of religion: the murderers of abortion doctors and manslaughterers of those needing medical care and murderers of those of the wrong ethnicity, faith, politics and real-estate. I still think that is the case.

At the same time I have found myself feeling a tad uncomfortable working with mainstream religious groups in social justice causes. Not that I dislike the people involved. Many of them are fine and sincere and good company and it’s encouraging to see them doing more than just praying.

But there’s still something wrong and a line in Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? caught my attention and reminded me of part of why even mainstream religion is not a healthy thing and why its perpetuation gives respectability to the same ways of thinking and valuing that can be turned so easily to criminality.

The ethical subject is engaged in a constant dynamic ethical exercise rather than a symbolic acceptance of a given rule. (p. 63)

That is, when we live by principles, or rules, that are inculcated or imbibed from a source external to us, we are not living a truly ethical life. It comes down to the old adage, Principles or People. If we choose to live by external sets of precepts we are failing to the ethical life of self-reflection that leads us into identifying ourselves with fellow-humanity and acting accordingly.

Likewise mainstream religion gives social respectability to faith in the occult. Occult technically means things hidden, such a spirits or a God. Once we accept such a faith as socially respectable there remains no way to control the nature of some of the gods that some people will embrace. We are giving respectability to irrational beliefs that can have dire consequences.

What I found slightly discomforting about our mainstream religious partners who joined with us in some of our activism was that they were clearly acting “as Christians” because it was their “faith” to do so, and their obligation to “perform good works”. There seemed to be a certain patronizing at work. It was as if they were needed in order to be sure the genuine ethical message was broadcast. We were simply doing it because we felt and cared for those we were trying to help. We had no thought of being “a light” to “witness” to “God’s/our love”. That was self-serving bullshit and in a sense hypocritical.



The Wandering Who?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Israel-Palestine — Neil Godfrey @ 4:36 pm
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Following is a review of Gilad Atzmon’s book. One part of what interests me about this sort of discussion is the inevitable comparison with any other similar experiences of losing one’s old identity and finding a new one. My own experience was in losing my identity as a Christian and becoming what many would call a secular humanist. I went through more than one iteration of Christianity (fundamentalist, liberal) but failed to appreciate the extent to which one’s identity can be entombed in such a belief at any level, until I left the “other-world” idea behind entirely. (One is constantly reminded that even “liberal Christians”, for example, can sometimes be just as arrogant in their humility, just as intolerant and hostile of other views, as the fundamentalist variety. The only difference for so many is that they change their targets or their levels of self-deception. But we are all where we are at and each of us has our own journey to follow.)

The original is at Gilad Atzmon’s blog here or on the VT site here.

Gilad struggled with the conflict between his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist and his awakening as a humanist

The Wandering WHO? navigates between thought-provoking personal experiences, historical and philosophical issues

by Paul J Balles

Gilad Atzmon, scholar, prolific writer and leading jazz saxophonist has authored the book The Wandering WHO? In it he astutely explores the identity crisis he himself experienced and one faced by many Jews.

Gilad struggled with the conflict between his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist and his awakening as a humanist.

His book reveals an innate ability to switch between the qualities of a down-to-earth artist (the successful sax player and word-smith) and the knowledgeable philosopher.

Without doubt, The Wandering WHO? will awaken many readers– pleasing some and disturbing others.

The pleased will include those who have experienced similar awakenings or resolved identity crises by continuously asking questions.

The book will also find welcome readers among those who have sought honest answers to the many contentious issues involving Jewish identity, Jewish politics and Israel.

The disturbed will include those Gilad might refer to as “separatist Jews…kind of a bizarre mixture of an SS commander and a Biblical Moses.”

Gilad will also face threats and complaints from those he calls “pro-war Zionist Islamophobes.”

He will undoubtedly find rejection from those who want “to stop proud, self-hating Jews (like Atzmon) from blowing the whistle.”

The Wandering WHO? navigates between thought-provoking personal experiences, historical and philosophical issues.

In the forward, Gilad tells the most remarkable story of his Jewish upbringing and the challenging questions raised by his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist.

In the chapters that follow, Gilad remarks that “Israel is the Jewish state and Jewishness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation.”

Atzmon draws a distinction between Jews as: (more…)


Are true believers “insane” like Breivik?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism — Neil Godfrey @ 9:31 pm
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I’m thinking of the true believer who believes in another reality as more real than the real world here and now.

The lawyer for Breivik has said his client appears to be insane because he is convinced that “only he understands the truth”. The rest of the world, he believes, will understand him 60 years from now. He has a completely different perception of reality, for instance believing torture exists in Norway’s prisons.

If that is insanity, then how do we describe those who believe the whole world lies in wickedness under the rule of the Devil while only they understand the truth? Or those who believe that Jesus will return in only a few years and demonstrate his favour to them before the whole world, to show the world that they were the ones who were right all along? Or what of those who believe in behind-the-scenes 666 world-takeover conspiracies, weird things about atheists, Catholics, Muslims, gays, the beneficence of the treatment of Bradley Manning, or weapons of mass destruction?

Breivik kills people but true believers don’t do that, do they? Breivik, we are told, used drugs and other aids to help him keep his nerve through it all. True believers don’t do that, but when acting as part of a much bigger institution upon which they can hang their personal responsibilities, like a nation or national government, they have been known to actively support mass murder, torture and other forms of systemic violence.

And on a personal level how many are prepared to “suffer persecution” for their willingness to cause heartache by forsaking and breaking up their families, removing themselves from healthy social intercourse, allowing loved ones to die from treatable illnesses, covering up sexual abuse for the “greater good”, all “for Christ”. And what of those who really are prepared to sell everything, lose or leave their jobs, all in the belief that they are soon going to be “taken away” to a better place?

I’m so thankful I got out of the true believer status myself. And so thankful I did not go the way of some of my former friends who likewise left but only turned to other brands of “true believer”. I have wondered why some other ex-fundamentalist atheists come across as so bigoted and arrogant when speaking of those who are still trapped in the same place they once were themselves. What happened to growth in self-understanding? I think the WIkipedia article on Eric Hoffer’s book might give us a clue:

With their collapse of a communal framework people can no longer defeat the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty by belonging to a compact whole. If the isolated individual lacks vast opportunities for personal advancement, development of talents, and action (such as those found on a frontier), he will seek substitutes. These substitutes would be pride instead of self-confidence, memberships in a collective whole like a mass movement, absolute certainty instead of understanding.

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Understanding the Reasons for Anti-Semitism

Gilad Atzmon recommends a number of books that address underlying causes of hostility against Jews. One is The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine. Of Slezkine’s theory of ethnic identity the Wikipedia article explains:

Slezkine characterizes the Jews (alongside such groups as the Armenians, overseas Chinese, and Gypsies) as a Mercurian people “specializ[ing] exclusively in providing services to the surrounding food-producing societies,” which he characterizes as Apollonian. With the exception of the Gypsies, these “Mercurian peoples” have all enjoyed great economic success relative to the average among their hosts, and have all, without exception, attracted hostility and resentment. Slezkine develops this thesis by arguing that the Jews, the most successful of these Mercurian peoples, have increasingly influenced the course and nature of Western societies, particularly during the early and middle periods of Soviet Communism.

My gut reaction to reading a theory dividing people into Mercurians and Apollonians was that this is surely rubbishy oversimplification. But then I read a sample of the book . . . .


The publisher of this book makes a key sample chapter available online and I find the concepts most interesting. It appears that Slezkine has been able to understand anti-semitism much more broadly than any thesis that seeks biology or religion as an explanation. I have bolded some of the key sections for easier skimming.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the social and economic position of the Jews in medieval and early modern Europe. Many agrarian and pastoral societies contained groups of permanent strangers who performed tasks that the natives were unable or unwilling to perform. Death, trade, magic, wilderness, money, disease, and internal violence were often handled by people who claimed–or were assigned to–different gods, tongues, and origins. . . . .

All these groups were nonprimary producers specializing in the delivery of goods and services to the surrounding agricultural or pastoral populations. Their principal resource base was human, not natural, and their expertise was in “foreign” affairs. They were the descendants–or predecessors–of Hermes (Mercury), the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art. (more…)


The Good Book – a secular or humanist alternative to the Bible

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 9:25 pm

This last weekend I listened to an interview with “teacher of philosophy” A. C. Grayling. (He is not a philosopher, he says: that label belongs to names like Aristotle and Socrates.) He was discussing his new book, The Good Book, which sounds cheeky enough, but which I learned was really both a very good idea and a book I will soon buy and read.

I heard that the book is popular enough to be used even by some couples getting married as the book on which they make their vows.

I knew of A. C. Grayling from his other books on philosophy, and in particular for his contribution to the”New Atheist” onslaught against religion. But there is no substitute for hearing the guy live in an interview — except having time and opportunity to grill him yourself, no doubt. His self-effacing jokes against philosophers serve as a lovely wine and appetizer before the meal. (He is taught by his wife when she tells him “Be philosophical about it: don’t think about it.”)

One thing I liked about his book, The Good Book, as he explained it, was that it was not — as many fear mongers have declared — an attack on religion or the Bible. (He has done that in other venues, as in his Against All Gods.) This is a positive, healthy alternative to the Bible. It is a series of statements –the great thoughts — of Spinoza, Hume, Plato, Aristotle, all the wise of the East (China) and the  West. It takes the best of the Bible, its handy division into chapters and verses, and applies them to the best thoughts of humanity –the thoughts that give us the best guide about how to think and live with ourselves and others. (more…)


I left the cult and met the enemy

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 2:12 pm
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My past cult experience taught me that no matter how clever and diligent one was in researching and “proving” a set of beliefs, the results of such studies were all an illusion if the whole enterprise had been built on faulty assumptions.

The teachings of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite logical, quite rational, to anyone who accepts their starting assumptions.

Belief that one has been abducted and experimented upon by aliens is quite reasonable if one begins by accepting as true the requisite propositions.

(What also worries me a bit are those split brain experiments that show just how clever we are at fabricating rational tales that are in fact all bollocks.)

It was during my process of leaving the cult that I fully appreciated just how easily we can embrace faulty assumptions under certain conditions, and how of utmost importance it is to guard one’s thinking and examine every layer of one’s beliefs and every facet of new propositions before embracing any of them.

I had been so cocooned in the cult world that when I was leaving it I naïvely expected to meet a world full of people smarter than I had been. I thought, well, they didn’t fall for what I fell into, so how refreshing it will be to rub shoulders with the rest of the world who can think critically about what they hear, and examine the foundational assumptions to test the validity of any logical edifice.  (more…)


It’s inevitably human

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:40 pm
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crop of :File:MemlingJudgementOpen.jpg

Image via Wikipedia

Some events are just too horrific to comprehend, we all know, so I suppose it’s only human to invoke the gods, or ancestors.

Tokyo Governor Sorry For “Divine Punishment” Comment

Mr Ishihara, 78, said yesterday that Japanese people were becoming “greedy” and highlighted the case of people who continue to pocket their parents’ pensions by delaying death notifications.

“It is necessary to wash away the greedy mind… by using the tsunami,” he told reporters.

“I think that it is divine punishment.”

Fortunately he had the good grace to “deeply apologise”, acknowledging the comments had hurt the victims.

Maybe it’s a cousin of the scapegoating propensity we fall in to when things go wrong. Many of us have traditionally blamed the Jews, the socialists, progressive schooling, the foreigner, the down and out. But when the horror facing us is too much death itself, we have nowhere to look but to the divine executor. So why did this angel of death do this to us? Because of the Jews, the socialists, the down and out . . . . or whatever their appropriate substitute in the mind of the one trying to make sense of it all.

But there’s no sense to any of it. It’s all totally random. That ought to be the humbling fact that burns our flesh to share the pain and tenderness of our common humanity.


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Seeking the Sacred. But why?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:21 pm
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17th century representation of the 'third eye'...
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Listened to an interesting discussion with Stephanie Dowrick (“psychotherapist, interfaith minister, writer and commentator”) on national radio this morning — http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2010/3058168.htm — arguing for the need for us to value all life, others, etc. and that this can be achieved through a new self-awareness or identity that comes via a spiritual mindset or consciousness.

I agreed completely with the values she was expressing, but kept wondering: Why the need for “spirituality” in order to embrace them?

Is it not enough to see us all as vulnerable members of the one species? To see oneself as one with others simply on the basis that we all have the same basic needs and desires, were all born as helpless babies and someone cared for us enough to enable us to survive and be where we are now? Does not such a thought, or awareness, consciousness or whatever, humble us enough to see us all “as one”, so that when we lose our cool with a colleague, it does not take too much to calm us and forgive? And of those who are really bad, who do do harm and relish in doing harm to others, we can at least maintain some sense (most times) of understanding the makeup and background of such a person, so that we do not have to lower ourselves to respond in kind.

And proactively, does not such an awareness — an awareness that is based entirely on the genetic facts that we all share — direct us to seek to alleviate, help, improve the lot (where we can) of our fellows? Some join Meals on Wheels, some Amnesty International, some Rotary, some the World Socialist Forum, some teaching and volunteer work, some risk their lives with activist subversion, and some just like to give their small change to beggars.

We do all of these things for different reasons, but I personally find it enough to know that we are all here for a short time, with the same genes, the same feelings, pains, hopes, loves, frustrations, needs.

I don’t see the least need to envision anything “spiritual” to bring all this together at all.

But if some find that image works, then I guess that’s good for them. I can understand that my “this is all there is” view has had a bad press and some may have been conditioned to find the very idea leaves them cold. But to me, the awareness that “this is all there is” makes all this more precious than ever.

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Evolution, creationism, civil discourse and “you know what”

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 5:24 pm

Yesterday I was browsing in a bookshop the many shelves of books about evolution (or “life sciences” — but most books were about evolution). I was slightly amazed how many of those books were scholarly publications that their cover blurbs explained were addressing Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents. Every one of those that I opened up was a serious, respectful, direct and fact-based book explaining the evidence for evolution and addressing Creationist’s objections and arguments. All were written by scientists.

Not one was a ridiculing or derisively putting down Creationists or their arguments.

Now I believe that Creationist arguments should not be taught in public schools. I am sure most of those scientist authors would believe the same. But it was obvious that they also believed that those arguments “deserved to be heard”. Why else would they write respectful books about them?

It is one thing to exclude certain arguments and speech from forums marked off for certain purposes that exclude that form of speech for justifiable reasons. It is quite another to say someone who is not inciting harm or invading privacy and such does not deserve to be heard. (It is also obviously legitimate to speak out strongly against ideas that we do believe to be harmful.)

Having just caught up with McGrath’s recent post, I should be clear and let it be known that I am very sure that not all scientists are always so tolerant and civil in their approach to Creationism. But fortunately in the “free market of books and ideas”, the jerks were not published and on the shelf for sale. At least not in Borders’ Singapore’s Orchard Road branch.

At the same time I have no reason to think that even those who publish respectful books are always the model of decorum, even in private company, when the topic is raised. But that’s fine. Farting is always best kept private.

I can’t speak for others, but one reason I think that even arguments, for example, about alien abductions and Atlantis and even Christianity “deserve to be heard” is because they are very often sincerely entertained by my brothers and sisters, fellow humans. It’s about respect and simply trying to be a decent human getting along with others as vulnerable as myself. I was introduced to Enlightenment literature when quite young and I still feel attached to the idea of hearing people out and sharing what I can with them and respecting them enough to continue with their own journey. And always — literally always — in the back of my mind is how wrong I have been before when I was so sure I was right, and how tentative human knowledge and understanding have always been.

Thus when people bring up the topic of alien abductions I am able to share with them my experience with sleep paralysis, and how during those years, being religious, I then understood the experience described today by some “alien abductees” to be demonic. In the case of the talk of Atlantis, I am able to share my knowledge of the history of the idea itself and origin as a myth.

Probably most of us who have had the benefit of more education than others, or some experiences that have enabled insights from uncommon perspectives, feel our lives are more worthwhile if we can give back to the community, to others, something of what we have gained. It’s all about sharing experiences and ideas and trusting enough people to make the more justifiable choices and responses.

I tend to think of creationists as being the ones who do the ridiculing and play the avoidance games and latch on to side-irrelevancies (sophistry), and of the scientists being the ones who engage in a serious, direct, respectful, evidence-based argument.


Street sign for Orchard Road in Singapore.

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Would the world really be better without religion?

Tamas Pataki

http://www.atheistconvention.org.au/tamas-pataki/ The Rise of Atheism: 2010 Global Atheist Convention

And it gets better. This is the link to the second part of Tamas Pataki’s address: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/08/13/2981969.htm

I was moved by humanity expressed in Pataki’s 2007 book, and it is refreshing to find this expounded once again from a secular humanist viewpoint. (more…)

Giving atheism a bad name (On Atheism, Religion, Humanism)

There is a wonderful article by Tamas Pataki at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/08/10/2979163.htm

Tamas Pataki is honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne and honorary fellow of Deakin University. His most recent book is Against Religion (Scribe, 2007). This is the first part of an edited version of the address he delivered at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, on 12 April 2010.

I have discussed his book Against Religion a few times on this blog — collated in the Pataki archive.

The whole article should be read for his nuanced views on atheism, religion and humanism.

I’ve tried to bottle a few of the passages that struck a chord with me below, but more for my own record. Read the full article at the above link. (more…)


What is wrong with Peter Singer’s ethical views?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 12:16 pm
Peter Singer lecturing at Washington Universit...

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I can understand people being shocked by some of Peter Singer‘s conclusions, but I am a little surprised that certain academics (professional thinkers) have reacted so strongly against his views. Many critics strike me as falling into the logical fallacy of arguing from adverse consequences. (The argument is false because I don’t like it’s conclusion.)

Singer does not argue, from what I recall of my reading of any of his books, that abortion, euthenasia or infanticide “the morally right” or “the morally justifiable” thing for people “to practise”. It strikes me as a gross misunderstanding of his arguments to claim that he argues that a cockroach is of more value than some human lives. I don’t have my Singer books with me now, but none of those ideas are what I took away from reading any of them. Did I miss something?

Where I understand his analysis takes us is to realizing that the value of another person’s life is multidimensional. There is the innate value of a person’s own life-quality and potential. But there is also the value and meaning that each person has for others, especially family. The love a parent bears for a child, the supreme value a parent places in a child, makes infanticide unthinkable for most, for example.

And we are above all by nature social animals. Everyone loves and values the cuteness of infants. So even in those tragic circumstances where parents do not want their children, a child is not unwanted or unloved.

The value of Peter Singer’s work is, to my thinking, in helping us see ourselves for what we are — one of many species inhabiting this planet, and that there is a lot more in common among a range of social animals than we have often cared to admit. Other scientists of consciousness have likewise shown that consciousness is not something that is an either-or phenomenon, but something we see in varying degrees throughout different species.

I think some of the more extreme criticisms of Peter Singer’s conclusions actually demonstrate the strength of our social nature. Humans as societies, not just as parents, do care for infants.

At the same time, advances in biology must necessarily challenge our understanding of ourselves, and not only the values we impute into each other, but the value we place on ourselves within the context of all sentient species.

My reading of Singer’s discussions on ethics is not so black-and-white, nor even contrary to normal human compassions, than some critics seem to suggest.


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How Facts Backfire (Why facts don’t change people’s opinions)

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 11:16 am
FACTS ubt 2
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How Facts Backfire is an article by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe discussing a major threat to democracy. I select only those portions of this article that have more general relevance, and that can just as well apply to scholarly debates, and the mythicist-historicist arguments in particular.

Here’s the first startling passage (with my emphasis etc):

Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

And then there is this:

[People] aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

And this:

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.

And this

A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. . . . . . . the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. . . . . Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.

Is Self-Esteem a factor?

Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

What of the most highly educated?

A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.

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If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 3:39 pm

One still reads enlightened (or benighted) twenty-first century scholars asserting that there can be no purpose in life, no standard for morality, if we are “merely nothing more” than a set of chemicals and our minds the product of “nothing more than electro-chemical reactions”.

By couching the argument in the rhetoric of “merely” or “nothing more”, I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ famous quip:

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.

That our level of consciousness, aesthetics, ethics, and all that goes to make us the species we are, have evolved as the products of chemistry and physics is not something to be dismissed as a “merely” or a “nothing more”. It is a staggering, mind-blowing thing to grasp. What makes it so damn hard to get my mind around is my inability to comprehend the vastness of the time involved.

None of our abilities, apart perhaps from our language faculty, is a sudden or unique leap that stands in total isolation from everything else. Consciousness is not unique. We can see gradients of consciousness across various species. Social and personal rules of conduct, with punishments for breaches, are observed in many other species that live in social groups. There even seems to be some sort of aesthetic sense at work among bower birds who plant blue objects in a nest to impress a mate, and will notice if human vandalizes their efforts by relocating a blue peg in their nest, and will immediately restore the original layout.

I loved watching the magpies in my backyard in Australia. If a male found a particularly interesting grub or beetle, its female partner would only have to sing out and the male would bring it over for her to eat instead. A kookaburra agonized us all at the office one day by perching on our office window ledge and holding a struggling lizard in its beak. Why wouldn’t it eat the thing quickly and put it out of its misery? We waited some minutes till finally its partner flew up to stand beside him. We realized he had been waiting for her when he then gave her the lizard to eat.  Our agonies over the distress of the lizard turned to “Ohhs!” on seeing this act of affection or love in another species. An ill mouse that could not make it up the ladder to its bed of tissues was soon covered in those tissues to keep it warm — its partner had dragged the tissues down and covered its ill mate with them.

Are all such animals “merely bunches of chemicals”? If in one sense they are, it only magnifies the grandeur and mystery of it all. We can either attribute all this to an imaginary being wrapped up in a mystery itself, or we can attribute it to the laws and evidence we see in operation around us. To my mind, the latter attribution is cause for the greater sense of awe and wonder. Being able to explain it all eventually will not rob us of any of this feeling. (more…)


Why being an atheist is better than being seriously religious

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 3:52 pm
Thaipusam – DSCF2949(lr)
Image by williamcho via Flickr

I must be bored. Here is a repeat of a few truisms.

Bishop John Spong has said that, as a matter of general observation, atheists are more relaxed than religious believers. The latter, by contrast, tend to have an up-tightness about them. Pastor Jim West says atheists are angry and forever attempting to deny what they “really know” — that torments of hell await them. But Spong is something of a liberal theologian, and West is, at least by my standards and definitions, a fundamentalist. Neither likes the thought of anyone becoming an atheist, but I can imagine their different religious stances explains their different observations of atheists.

When religious believers impugn some sort of intellectual dishonesty to atheists, accusing them of “knowing better deep down in their hearts” — a false accusation also found in the Bible, both in Psalms and the writings of Paul — they apparently fail to realize that they are declaring themselves to being ethically immature.

All the ethics taught in the Bible are meant to keep people at the level of children. One can even suggest, as Nietzsche did, that the ethical teachings of the Bible function to instill a mentality of subservience. But slaves are not part of our society and most of us can relate more easily to the immaturity of children.

I see nothing noble in the teachings of Jesus. They are all predicated on the threat of damnation if you don’t obey, and nice happy big fat rewards if you do. What sort of ethic is that? But even if we reflect on the noblest principles of Jesus quite apart from their reward-punishment matrix, they don’t ring an unambiguous clarion call for the ethical progress of humanity.

His most famous “love one another” passages in the Gospel of John are all about the importance of loving those in your own circle of like-minded subservients to the exclusion of others. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Love one another.

It seems that the Gospel of John is an attack on the sentiments put into the mouth of Jesus by the Gospel of Matthew. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

But Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is justified on some quite inhuman precepts. Jesus is appealing to his followers here to prove themselves to be “more righteous” than others in their community. His command is presented as a challenge, or more accurately a threat, to win the contest of showing themselves to be superior ethically to Pharisees and such. And to do this, they must set their minds to become as impersonal and perfect as an impersonal and perfect agent that sends rain and sunshine on the just and unjust alike.

Now all of this sort of rationale for a particular behaviour sounds very primitive, very immature, and very inhuman to me. I am reminded of Vardis Fisher’s novel, Peace Like A River, where one meets ascetics rivaling one another to show off badges of greater ‘godliness’. Or more close to home (at least here in Singapore), I am reminded of the devotees parading through the streets showing off their glorious feats of suffering and endurance at their Thaipusam festival.

Would not humanity be better off — more relaxed and “naturally” good for goodness’ sake — if it ever can eventually leave behind the immaturity of the extrinsic reward and punishment ethics that religion generally spawns?

Actually I do think that many people do tend to be “good for goodness sake”, even many of the ostensibly religious. But the religious rationale does still keep intruding itself far too often, and the result is not always the greater happiness for the greater number.

The poverty of religiosity is also apparent when devotees cannot conceive of any reason to live if there is no reward for them in an afterlife. If only they could be reminded of Jesus’ injunction  that to enter the kingdom one must be like a child. Now that can be too often a pernicious little saying in the hands of the religious in that it serves to keep people in a constant state of immaturity and failure to accept personal responsibility for their own lives. But turn it around and see how it can look without God. Children don’t need “a reason” to live. Life fills them with all that is meaningful without thoughts for tomorrow. Reasons and causes follow. They are not the engine.

Why Believe in a God?

Image by TerranceDC via Flickr

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It’s not necessarily bad to be against religion

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 11:36 pm

This afternoon I was feeling a punch-gut of illness after reading blogs by classical humanist intelligentsia openly referring to “dumbshit masses”, “mob morality”, “village atheists”, “education for character” and the like, and was in dire need of some reassuring contact with the everyday people who make up those supposedly benighted masses. One of the hardest parts of those elitist writings to swallow was a cameo remark of the need to comprehend and embrace the fact of human frailty. Specifically, it was in this area that “new atheists” are said to have failed.

What depressed me so much was reading how such scholars are so free and easy with the way they label others and the pursuits of the less well educated, but so very self-conscious and finicky before suggesting any appellation that might be applied to themselves.

So to cut to the chase here. Sure, I call myself an “atheist”. But that’s in order to communicate the general idea of my position on the idea of god or gods. If pressed, I will not align myself with every nuance that the etymology and derivation of the word may suggest. It is simply a convenient way of letting others know, by means of very broad brush strokes, where I stand on something they are curious to know.

Similarly for the term “humanist”, or specifically “secular humanist”. Or for describing myself as a “naturalist”. Or a “rationalist”. I could go on.

None of this means squat, though, for anyone who is more interested in discussing and sharing the finer details of what we think and feel about issues.

People are not their religion, or philosophy, on life, much less any label that one might tie on them personally or collectively.

I am opposed to much of what strikes me as latent intolerance in the writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in their attacks on religion. I think Harris, in particular, is very under-informed about the deeper historical roots of tensions that have expressed themselves through religious ideas.

But labeling such authors as ‘new atheists’ and relegating them all to some back room crate for waste combustibles, and wishing to replace them with a more sophisticated open acceptance of religious values, is misguided.

Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens, despite the many areas where I find myself at odds with them, do at the same time have some very valid reasons for fearing the dark potential of any irrational belief system. It is healthy to bring these fears out into the open where they can be publicly addressed.

One can be opposed to religion without being rabid about it, and not all people labeled ‘new atheists’ are fanatical as they have been accused. I can be opposed to smoking without making myself a total jerk with all of my smoker friends. I can even love and enjoy the company of my smoker friends.

Last week saw Vesak celebrations among Buddhist Chinese communities. One can’t escape the religiosity of the occasion. But there’s also something peaceful and tolerant about it all, a certain happiness and goodness comes through many people gathering at shrines and statues and to hear speakers etc. There was a poster in English explaining a particular gathering, and the focus was on removing hatred from one’s thoughts. The non-judgmental nature of the whole occasion was demonstrated by prostitutes taking time out to offer their prayers alongside everyone else.

How can I oppose a religion like that? Well, it’s easy to accept it because I’m a newcomer and know very little about it. I only see the goodness of it as an outsider.

But I’ve also seen the goodness of some very active Christians working to better the lot of the down and outs in very practical ways.

It’s the prescriptive religions — and philosophies and ‘isms’ — that are easy to oppose. Those that prescribe what people should do, how they should live, according to principles supposedly external to and above oneself.

People don’t need to be “taught” morals as if there are certain good ways of behaviour they would never otherwise think of applying in their own lives. We are, by nature, moral animals. And being social animals, our moral tendencies work in favour of the well-being of all in our various circles of self-identity. We don’t need to learn to build “character”, as some religions insist. We only need to accept ourselves and others, and the rest follows. Generally speaking, that is. Religion does have a tendency to toss up a lot of extraneous thoughts that get in the way of this simplicity.

There are the exceptions always to the generalities. Knowing how to handle and respond to these, especially when they are doing outright harm to others. And very often the harm can be related to a tolerance and support for irrational beliefs, including religious beliefs. Now that is where I think “character” comes into the picture. But it’s not something that one has to be a saint to acquire. It is simply a matter of being honest and true to oneself and the greater good. And if one finds that some atavistic religious or other irrational belief is getting in the way of that, then one has a responsibility to speak out against that. Like a cancer warning on a packet of cigarettes. Sometimes more than speaking out is necessary.

This is all truism and I’ve only spilled out the obvious.

All I mean to say is that one can be a “humane humanist”, one who acknowledges and respects the frailty of being human, and who embraces the fullness of human experience, including the healthy irrational, and still rightly oppose and believe in working towards ending, if possible, the role of god-centred religion in human existence.


Biblioblogs peddling bigotry and ignorance

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Media, Propaganda,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 2:28 pm

Daily Mirror headline from http://www.currybet.net blog

I rarely look at anything much on the web now unless it is (a) work related; (b) news related (don’t read “real” newspapers anymore); (c) and gmail. Work consumes most of my time, and this blog is a kind of mental escape.

But today I decided to have a look at what a few other blogs are doing, particularly biblioblogs. I had thought biblioblogs were blogs about the Bible, but that appears to be only partially true. I had also expected those blogs run by professional scholars would be in the lead when it came to promoting tolerance and humane values. I have kind of tended to associate secularism, rationalism and humanism with advanced studies, and to think that more often than not they are accompanied by the more progressive and democratic values.

So I guess my naivety was hit hard when I checked out numero uno biblioblog by an academic and church pastor, Zwinglius Redivivus. The Bible passage that this biblioblogger seems to repeat most often is

“Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress. (Jeremiah 11:14)

And it is always in connection with a newsbyte worthy of the worst scandal rag of a newspaper from a Rupert Murdoch publication. The worst news sells papers when its wrapped up in the worst possible titillating or bigoted way, and it is appears to be what a lot of other academics in religious departments want to read on a regular basis — at least when it comes packaged with Doctor Jim’s Jeremiads.

Is there an article about incest? Or a plot to murder? Then bring it on and flaunt it with all the bigoted ignorance of a mind still warped by primitive b.c. ramblings of hate and judgment. (more…)


free will and the value of self-deception

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science — Neil Godfrey @ 10:07 pm
Tags: ,
choose determinism
Image by alyceobvious via Flickr

Paper of the day: “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” A scientific study that shows why many scientists and philosophers are reluctant to tell people they don’t have free will.

This is from the commonsenseatheism site, which many readers of this blog will already have seen, but for the others, it’s interesting reading. I think I can relate to its conclusions.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing or want to test the water, some extracts:

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. In a massive survey of people in 36 countries, more than 70% agreed with the statement that their fate is in their own hands (International Social Survey Programme, 1998).

Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment (e.g., Bargh, in press; Crick, 1994; Pinker, 2002). There is reason to think that scientists’ sentiment is spreading to nonscientists. For example, the news magazine The Economist recently ran the headline, ‘‘Free to Choose? Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will’’ (‘‘Free to Choose?’’ 2006). What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or, as Sartre suggested, might the adoption of a deterministic worldview serve as an excuse for untoward behaviors?

That’s the opener. The conclusion . . . . (more…)


Why it would be a good thing to humanize Hitler

Adolf Hitler 1889
Image by Daniel Semper via Flickr

I have begun to ready my second Chris Hedges book, this one, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and have even more deeply mixed feelings about it than I had for American Fascists. It was not what I expected. I had expected a more philosophical treatise about atheism per se, but it’s nothing like that. I agreed with just about every criticism he makes of Sam Harris, and with a number of his criticisms of Chris Hitchens. I was particularly pleased to see Hedges refer to Robert Pape’s research (Dying to Win) debunking the myth linking suicide terrorism with a particular race or religion. (Suicide bombers have included Christians, Buddhists, socialists as well as Muslims – and the reasons for it are despair in the face of tyranny/evil, not religion. See also Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism.) Hedges casts his rhetorical net far too wide, however, in his interpretations of the writings of Daniel Dennett as some form of intolerant “new atheism”, and is certainly tendentiously selective in his treatment of the Enlightenment.

But I do find myself in strong sympathy with one of his themes in particular, on condition that I can change one key word. Hedges speaks of “sin”. I would substitute “evil”.

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. (p.13) [let’s say, “who do not believe in evil”].

Evil seems a more universal reality, sin strikes me as a particular cultural and religious concept that itself has been responsible for much evil. I fully agree with Hedges that the human species is not advancing morally. What is advancing, with however many reversals, are some aspects of our social evolution through which we have learned to modify and control some of our more destructive natures.

But evil can only come of seeing evil in others and not in ourselves. Waging a war on “evil” (equating it with terrorism) is only perpetuating the bloody evil at the root of “terrorism” in the first place.

Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, is worth a read to remind us, according to its subtitle, “how good people turn evil”. He shows how normal healthy everyday people can so quickly turn into the very image of psychopathic and sadistic monsters in their treatment of others.

I fear that thinking in terms of “sin” only opens the door of religious faith for certain people to think they can be completely absolved from sin, meaning they are free from the same propensity for evil that we all share. Born again Christians have been known to launch wars of aggression. And as per the Nuremberg principles, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

It’s been a mistake (understandable, of course, but still a mistake) since the Second World War for media and leaders to regularly sign up to any opportunity to demonize Hitler and the Nazis. (And any other monsters you might prefer to think of.) There was outrage with the film Downfall a few years ago because it showed the human side of Hitler. He was shown as a man with normal human compassion, sensitivities, loves, feelings, like the rest of us.

This is a mistake because it enables us to deny the facts of our common humanity. Hitler really was one of us. We are all the same basic nature. Sure, some of us wish others had some curative lobotomies or brain-cell laser treatment to make annoying and malicious people “more like us”, or just more “normal”. Yet of course all such variations of propensities and predispositions is part of the collective human experience. It’s hard to recognize the range of our real natures when ensconced in modern state-controlled environments, with the benefits of enlightened education and relative prosperity. We are a bit like our pet dogs that seem to have been part and parcel of our evolution. Domesticated, they know how to behave. They are nonetheless by nature wolf-pack animals, and we know what our pet topsies can become when they escape outdoors to join a pack of their own kind.

What fascinated and disturbed me when I saw the film of Eichmann’s trial was the undeniable fact that I was watching a man who was like me and my colleagues. The banality of evil, etc. What is the difference between those who snuff out thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb (to save the lives of their soldiers) and the Nazi officer who shoots half a dozen villagers (to save the lives of his soldiers)? I suggest it is only personal circumstances and conditioning experiences. Is this also enough to explain those who oppose the evil of both?

Recognizing the dark side of  our common humanity — this is the horror that hits home when we understand Hitler. Demonizing him is a denial of our real natures.

One word, I suspect, in Chris Hedges’ book prompted me to write this now. He spoke of the Weimarization of the United States. The alienation and disillusionment of the public in relation to the political processes. Coincidence, of course, but I recently linked to an interview by Chris Hedges with Noam Chomsky who spoke of the same thing. A warning.

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When the poor call for our aid

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:44 am
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I was enjoying myself at a music festival when the news of the tsunami broke (2004). It changed everything. The whole site became dedicated for the next few days to raising money for the victims.

I was planning on visiting Padang in southern Sumatra, Indonesia, when the earthquake hit them. I knew that again western countries would be being deluged with efforts to raise money and many would give generously.

Inevitably there are concerns expressed, too. Where does the money actually end up? But that doesn’t seem to really matter tooo much in most cases. Even if only 20% of what we give “gets through” — that yields a better result than having given zero.

I had not realized how western-centric I had become, thinking it was all a matter of “us westerners” giving to the poor. Stories circulated about corruption at the other end.

So I was moved to see when I did visit other outlying islands of Indonesia to find that the locals seemed not to have heard of western aid. They acted as if it was all up to them. I confess I was a little moved to see such poor people acting in solidarity with their own and giving what they could. I didn’t want them to give anything — how could they afford it? Where you can get “a meal” for a little as a few cents from a street hawker, the poorest were giving the equivalents of a few cents, a few even of a dollar or two. They were the equivalents of a westerner giving tens and twenties of dollars.

And it is all in open boxes. No receipts. No tax breaks. No accounting. Just trust. People acting together to care for their own.

When approached by those raising money I felt all eyes on this western visitor to their country to see what he would do. I put in a blue looking note with a few zeroes on it, not much at all in my currency but far more than any other single donation in the box. I knew I had done the right thing when a man from across the street yelled in gratitude and gave me a thumbs up and big smile. The word got around ab0ut how this privileged westerner conducted himself among at such a time.

It was unforgettable — to think how easy it is for westerners to forget that we are only helping from the sidelines. Those people themselves are the ones with the heartaches, and they think only of seeing what they themselves can do. Western aid is an extra. (It is mostly money in the pockets of the western contractors, too, but that’s another topic for another time.) It was a sobering experience that helped put me back in my place. It is the local inhabitants who are bearing the burden, of both suffering and relief efforts.

Indonesian youth preparing to walk through the market to collect money for their earthquake victims in Padang, 2009.

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The Nonsense of the Freedom argument when accounting for Evil

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 8:31 pm
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It’s become a trite argument for religionists to justify evil in the world by saying we want our freedoms. God also wants us to be free to choose, so we are told, and that’s why he allows evil. To prevent evil he would have to take away our free will.

I think that’s bollocks.

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Evil has nothing to do with being free or having free will. It is all about being human on a planet not entirely benign for its many life-forms.

Being human is not always bad. Most people anywhere I think are basically caring and hospitable and kind to others. There are arseholes too, of course, but they are mercifully the few. I don’t believe either type of human is the way they are because they “choose” to be like that. Or I should rather say I doubt that they are. Sure we may think a lot before deciding to give to a particular charity or beggar or before deciding to actively commit to a social justice cause. But isn’t that just a matter of us being us?

What worries about free-will (it also kind of reassures me) is that set of experiments that have demonstrated that people really make up their (false) reasons for making a particular decision. I wish I could think of sources and specifics right now.

It might be worrying to think that we will be shown to not have the freedom of will we like to think, and that our responses are as basic or hidden as they are for any other social animal. But at the same time there’s a hope and a reassurance in there. It’s nice to know we really “are what we are”, and we are all of the same kind. More room for understanding and compassion.

Not that I “choose” to have more understanding and compassion, mind you. It’s just that that’s me. As I keep having to remind my partner, I really am just a nice guy after all. Like most of us.

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Latest interview with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Evolution, Science,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:21 pm

A lovely interview with Richard Dawkins on the Australian ABC TV program Elders was aired this evening — interviewer Andrew Denton. Check out video excerpt and transcript here.


God, the Army, and PTSD : Is religion an obstacle to treatment?

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,Fundamentalism,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:10 pm

Tara McKelvey’s article discusses the impact of war on the faith of soldiers and how “religious ideology has played a central role in denying veterans access to treatment.”

Tara’s article is published in the Boston Review

Also accessible at Information Clearing House


Hungry Ghosts and Holy Ghost : cultural perspectives

Filed under: Ethics & human nature,God and other deities,Singapore — Neil Godfrey @ 11:41 am

Lately I have seen many Chinese here in Singapore offering food and joss sticks and burning “ghost money” for hungry ghosts. It’s the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival — there are other specific Singapore explanations here and here. The ghosts come out every seventh lunar month. One Chinese colleague explained to me that it is believed there are more accidents than usual in this month. That would explain why so many offerings and joss sticks are placed at road intersections and stairways. When I mentioned this to some relatives back in Australia they thought they whole idea was “crazy” or “a bit peculiar”. And so it seems to westerners. But I could not help thinking of Christian Pentecost and western celebrations commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost and how churches also mark this day with fruit and candles, and some with babbling tongues.

So a Hungry Ghost is weird but a Holy Ghost is normal? One is superstition but the other is religious faith?

There has also been an unfortunate story of a Moslem woman in Malaysia being sentenced to caning for imbibing a drug (alcohol) in public. Another work colleague made the interesting observation that in some western countries individuals can suffer degrading treatment and even ruin through their legal systems for being caught with a different brand of drug.


Table of food for ghosts at a food court



Encouraging ghosts to be kind to people traversing the stairway



Making ghosts happy where the pedestrian pathway meets the road



Burning (offering) lots of ghost money



Time for quiet reflection



7 predictors of belief in God; and the different reasons why “I” and “They” believe

Why Darwin Matters contains several sharable nuggets of dot-points findings and here’s one more. In 1998 Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer surveyed 10,000 Americans about their beliefs in God. Here are the summaries (pp. 34-37):

The seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parent’s religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

They also asked respondents whey they believed in God and the top 5 reasons were as follows:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (8.2%)

But an interesting thing happened when they were asked why they thought others believed in God. What had been the mainly rational reasons for each respondent believing (concluding design required a designer, thinking about life experiences) were dropped to last and third places when asked why they thought others believed in God. Others — not themselves — were mainly thought to believe for emotional (nonrational) reasons.  Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)

  1. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
  2. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
  3. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (13.0%)
  4. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
  5. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Related post — Why people do not accept evolution

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Why people do not accept evolution

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The simple answer is “Fear”. Creationist arguments are very often bracketed with gospel messages, and ever since Darwin’s day the lines have been starkly drawn. Religious fundamentalists fear that “belief in” evolution leads to a rejection of God, a rejection of godly values, a loss of any higher meaning or purpose for human existence, an ethic of bullying and of a “me-first” struggling for survival. The scientific arguments are secondary, if they matter at all. Hence popular fallacies about evolutionary theory are still proclaimed as facts by Creationists regardless of their having been established as fallacies ever since the days of Darwin himself. What really is at stake is the fear that evolution means there is no need for God or biblically prescribed morality, and that faith and purpose are all lost.

Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters quotes extensively from William Jennings Bryan of Scopes trial fame in support. One example:

The real attack of evolution, it will be seen, is not upon orthodox Christianity or even upon Christianity, but upon religion — the most basic fact in man’s existence and the most practical thing in life. If taken seriously and made the basis of a philosophy of life, it would eliminate love and carry man back to the struggle of tooth and claw. [Closing statement of WJB in Scopes trial, 1925 — p. 23 of Why Darwin Matters]

Shermer cites the syllogistic reasoning thus (p. 24):

Evolution implies that there is no God, therefore . . .

Belief in the theory of evolution leads to atheism, therefore . . .

Without a belief in God there can be no morality or meaning, therefore . . .

Without morality and meaning there is no basis for a civil society, therefore . . .

Without a civil society we will be reduced to living like brute animals.

This is what bothers people about evolutionary theory, not the technical details of science. Most folks don’t give one whit about adaptive radiation, allopatric speciation, phenotypic variation, assortative mating, allometry and heterochrony, adaptation and exaptation, gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, and the like. What they do care about is whether teaching evolution will make their kids reject God, allow criminals and sinners to blame their genes for their actions, and generally cause society to fall apart.

Where did they get such an idea?

The fact is, of course, that belief in God and the Bible or Koran or any other religion does not guarantee moral behaviour, and “accepting evolution does not force us to jettison our morals and ethics” (p.29). The Bible Belt of America is notorious for its violent crime rate and premarital pregnancy statistics. International crime statistics do not show special favours for Christian nations. I lived many years in country town Toowoomba which is dominated by very conservative Christian stakeholders, yet is also the unfortunate recorder of child abuse and domestic violence statistics among the worst nationally.

Believe in God, but Accept Gravity . . .

Michael Shermer suggests that one of the obstacles to accepting evolution for some people is that they feel they are being asked to make a choice between “believing in” God or evolution. Shermer comments:

evolution is not a religious tenet, to which one swears allegiance or belief as a matter of faith. It is a factual reality of the empirical world. Just as one would not say, “I believe in gravity,” one should not proclaim, “I believe in evolution.” But getting hung up on the idea that one is supposed to “believe in” evolution just as you “believe in” God is just one brand of resistance to evolution. (p. 30)

Shermer lists five specific reasons he believes people resist the theory of evolution (pp.30-32) — the comments are a mix of Shermer’s and my own:

1. A general resistance to science

People generally choose their religion over science, especially if they think they must opt to “believe in” one or the other. If they generally use the findings of science as supports for their religious beliefs, many religious opt to reject any scientific finding that does not support their beliefs.

2. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets

Many religionists dismiss the geological evidence that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and reinterpret other evidence to support their belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

3. Fear that evolution degrades our humanity

Shermer observes that it is one thing for science to discover that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that is one of many planets orbiting countless suns,  but it is quite another order of consciousness to think that humans might be subject to the same natural laws and natural history as other animals.

4. Equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration

Some people who rely on hope and revelation from higher beings for a sense of purpose and moral direction cannot imagine a meaningful and ethical life unless without a belief in God.

Comment: On the other hand many find a deep sense of purpose and basis for moral behaviour by seeing themselves as part of humanity alone. The fact that life is so temporary and unpredictable is strong incentive to make the most of our time here and now, and that includes finding a rewarding and worthwhile life through promoting and doing whatever might enhance the well-being of our fellow-beings. By identifying ourselves with our species lifts us out of more parochial self-identities based on race or any other narrow grouping. Species-identity (or what was once in less politically correct days called “the brotherhood of man” idea) gives us a higher view of our place in the world, and encourages a life in pursuit of humane causes and actions.

Evolution also explains good and evil, and offers sure foundations of ethical behaviour. People are both selfish and unselfish as a result of how each attribute has equipped us for survival as a species. Selfishness has enabled us to protect ourselves and our families or groups to survive against enemies and competitors, while unselfish acts have enabled us to cooperate as larger social units, from families to village communities. And we also have the ability to reflect on our behaviours and work at modifying or controlling them. All societies have prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and lying. This is because no society would be possible otherwise. And humans are among the most social of animal species. Murder obviously cannot be tolerated if people are to live together; and trust must be established between people for communities to thrive. Religions may have codified such innate views of right and wrong behaviour, but the fact that such ethics are found across all societies shows that no particular religion is necessary to inform people that such things are right or wrong.

Fundamentalists will generally point to all the negative news and behaviours in our midst, often as a sign that we are now in “the last days”. Yes there is much evil in the world, but the fact that we can view the world from within stable communities demonstrates that evil is not the whole story. For every rude person on a train who does not give up his seat for an elderly or other needy person, I have seen dozens who do give up their seats. For every time I have been spoken to rudely by strangers or colleagues, there are scores of times I have been treated with friendliness. Most people really do like to help others when given an opportunity. And it has nothing to do with their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Or at least the same is found among people whether they be Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or “Other”.

5. Fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature

There is also a common fear that acceptance of evolution will mean that criminals can plead responsibility lay with “their genes” for their actions. Personal responsibility will be a thing of the past.

Comment: But people will always be held responsible for their actions, and this is a basic fact of all societies. (See “why oppose . . .“). Science may well discover certain inherited conditions that predispose a person to a certain type of behaviour (e.g. to be quick to lose one’s temper) but societies always hold each member responsible for their actions. Awareness of predispositions enables both individuals and a society to assist in treating such conditions and avoiding catalyst situations, as well as in deciding the most appropriate punishment or other response to intolerable behaviours.

The urge to rape may in our distant past have had some value to enhance the survival of our species, but we have — through our social natures — reached a point where we have been able to reflect on our actions and their consequences, and learn to control our feelings and build up social fences that encourage (or threaten) members of our community to fall into line, too.


eyewitness testimony . . . . if false, they would not have said . . . . Paul teaches . . . .

You can never find a Christian who has acquired this valuable knowledge, this saving knowledge, by any process but the everlasting and all-sufficient “people say.” In all my seventy-two years and a half I have never come across such another ass as this human race is.

– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

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