Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not-so-profound revelation

I finished reading Deuteronomy 19:21, then picked up Richard Friedmans "Who wrote the Bible?" at the sixth chapter - "D" - Friedman's analysis of the Deuteronomic histories.

It won't be a revelation to people who study the bible for a living, but I feel reminded that people in 600-800 BCE had very little way of knowing how much of nature worked. They still didn't understand how floods happened, why the seasons change, how weather is formed, why earthquakes occur, how pests thrive and subside and thrive again over the years, what infections are, how you get sick and how communicable diseases are passed.

Iron Age middle easterners may have had a reverence for the deities of their ancestors because their ancestors had survived while bearing these beliefs, and they hoped that it would do the same for them. It certainly was a link to their deceased loved ones.

The transition from pagan, multi theist and/or animist beliefs to a more monotheistic world view took hundreds, or thousands of years, depending on whether you truly believe that a single Yahweh-based god is responsible for all that there is, good and bad.

This transition of world view may have had some underlying reason to it. The ability to reason that this or that tree deity was responsible for making trees bear fruit would have come into tension with the idea of another imagined force being responsible for the rain, or for the sun, or for pest control. All of these things, eventually, may have converged to be seen as part of a greater milieu in which individual concerns were intertwined.

It is comforting to think that we have a modicum of influence on the individual deities - or on a single great one. That is, regardless of multi- or mono-theistic view, a great attraction. So it seems inescapable that, given the time to reflect on the condition of our being, that we, as ancient members of emerging societies, would look to entities greater than ourselves as entities that could be influenced in order to make life more bearable. But it was never reliable, it just calmed us. It would be millennia before experience, reason and science would make significant improvements to the human condition possible.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Polite Direct Firm Fair

Here's a YouTube clip that I first saw on Pharyngula, of Matt Dillahunty and Jeff Dee on the Atheist Experience TV show, answering caller "Mark" and his concerns/assertions about Matt and Jeff's road to hell: The Atheist Experience TV Show

I've watched this clip in its entirety three times in the last twenty four hours, impressed by how Polite, Direct, Firm, and Fair the two of them were in responding to Mark's comments. I might also add - the adjectives Patient, Empathetic and Effective come to mind, as well.

Rather than write a transcript, please watch the video.

Matt and Jeff make some good points that are frankly applicable to any introductory discussion with a believer:

  1. When you (the believer) chooses to believe that the outsider (the atheist or believer of another religion) is subject to divine punishment solely because they (the outsider) do not believe as the insiders do, then you immediately construct an artificial barrier to friendship and trust between you and the outsider [Jeff]

  2. What makes you believe what you believe? [Jeff and Matt]

  3. What's the evidence that the bible is divinely inspired? [Matt]

  4. How can you believe that god reveals himself to a few people, then leaves the [promulgation of this] to copies of translations of that revelation? [Matt]

  5. Faith is not the pathway to truth

  6. Why should I believe what you do? [Matt]

That's just a shallow scrape of the conversation. A few of the things that come up in my consideration of religion in general, and the question of god in particular, are these:

  1. God has never been observed, and his existence has never been satisfactorily rationalized

  2. God's existence cannot be disproved, because if he's not there, how do you prove it?

  3. Once you've accepted that there is a god (in spite of the lack of evidence and rational justification), what makes you think that a particular claim for god (e.g. the Old Testament) represents the right one?

  4. If you accept a specific claim for god (e.g. Yahweh), how do you rationalize and/or reconcile his lack of perfection, omniscience and omnipotence; and his capriciousness, pettiness, violence, oppressiveness, secretiveness, and all-around lack of admirable qualities?

  5. Why would a belief system that is based on the sayings or worship of this deity include the distrust for, exclusion of, or violence on people and groups outside the believers? Why would this be appealing and remotely pious or just?

... we could go on, but those are some pretty big hurdles that need to be overcome to mark the god under consideration as the one-and-only god that is worthy of consideration.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Appreciating the bible

I've spent decades making fun of the bible privately - because it seems frankly, nuts. Let me take two steps back and show my appreciation for it. First, our duty as living things is to procreate - so job one is to stay alive, job two is to procreate, job three is to repeat as necessary to ensure the survival of the species.

It's in this ground that my appreciation grows, because we have the written texts (the bible) that give us a glimpse of what nomadic, bronze-age life was like. If any of us today had been born 2500-3200 years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now, and would have no way of learning, because our days would be spent looking for food, water, shelter, and our nights would be dark, and spent procreating, or resting so that we could repeat the effort of gathering food and water.

I'm over-simplifying significantly, but in magnitude, the spare time that is required to learn new concepts and new skills is probably not available in the average bronze age life. They say (well, Malcolm Gladwell says) that it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. That's roughly 5 working years for modern man. Given that the nomadic struggle to subsist might take 10-12 hours a day, every day, tacking on an extra hour a day to discover the things that you and I can discover in minutes, would have been an extraordinary burden. Mastering a new skill or concept might have taken a lifetime. Change would have been slow - many generations would pass before simple things like irrigation, food preservation, nutrition, sanitation, simple health care could be advanced to free people to rise above their circumstances in a broad way.

The bible and other ancient texts give a glimpse into the past that is priceless. It gives us a further glimpse into the generations prior to the writing of the texts - generations where oral history was all that is possible. Generations where the smartest of individuals may have been as intelligent as people today, but did not have access to information, did not necessarily have an organized way of reasoning, nor a handy way of checking their logic. They did not have the independent means to verify their observations, interpretations and reasoning. They did not have the time during the day, week, lifetime, to record their observations and interpretations so that others could verify, build on, rearrange, or discard those lessons so that new intellectual edifices could be built. Oral transmission of the best, or the most memorable concepts (right or wrong) was all they had.

We are privileged to read and reflect on this, it is a precious opportunity. I have been derisive in the past of the bible - what it says may be incredible, often redundant, contradictory, and nonsensical - but I probably wouldn't have done any better had it been me doing the speaking or writing 2500 to 3200 years ago. I doubt that any of my words would have made it on to papyrus.

So ... I'm thankful that we have these words, even though they're not believable. It reminds me how little we know, even today, and how we should never cease to observe, reason, record - and read and discuss others' observations so that we can push forward the boundaries of our understanding.