The Bible
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading Bart Ehrman, a famous scholar of New Testament studies:

They are all excellent books and I highly recommend them; you can also find lectures and interviews on YouTube. Apart from being simply fascinating as studies of how the mythology of Christianity developed, it has also given me a new perspective on the Bible.

First, let’s acknowledge that the Bible is indisputably an extremely important book, since it underpins so much of Western civilisation; it has greatly impacted the whole world, for better and for worse. It has certainly affected literature. For this reason alone, if nothing else, I think it’s worth being familiar with it. I think I know a fair bit about the Bible—probably more than the average Christian!—but but I have not, in fact, read the whole damned thing; just an expurgated version when I was a child, and various excerpts and verses since. I’ve long thought that I need to, for a variety of reasons.

I have long thought of the Bible as a rather foolish work, in some important ways. After all, it contains lots of internal contradictions, and even presents a set of prima facie incompatible moral frameworks. If it were written by one person, it would have to be somebody profoundly unhinged. This criticism certainly applies to the literalist, inerrantist “word of God” interpretation of the Bible.

But of course I have never bought into that. I may not have known the details of how, say, the New Testament canon was formed over the first few Christian centuries as a result of various warring factions, ‘orthodoxies’, and ‘heresies’; but I knew damned well that the Bible was in fact written by a large number of people over a large number of centuries.

Somehow, though, one perspective never properly occurred to me until Ehrman emphasised it. (I feel a bit stupid and embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t, but honesty above all:) They are different books by different authors. Obvious? Let’s think more closely: It’s not one book written by one large committee of debatable competence, but sixty-six books, by an unknown number of authors (most of them unknown). It’s an anthology. They wrote separately. Their beliefs are related, to be sure, but not identical.

This means that it is not fair to dismiss the whole thing in the same way as though it were a monolith written by one confused person. Rather, the books need to be considered individually if we are to fairly evaluate their literary and moral merit, or lack thereof, as the case may be. The author of Ecclesiastes is not responsible for the brutal, tribal, genocidal violence gloated over by whoever wrote Deuteronomy. Nor can we fairly blame each author for being inconsistent with the others; after all, they didn’t collaborate. Earlier writers couldn’t know about later ones, and later writers may have simply thought that the earlier ones were wrong; or for that matter been unaware of them. They may not have had any idea at all that they would ever be combined in one canon.

This is not least true for the New Testament, where in particular, it sounds like the life of Jesus that ‘Mark’¹ believed in is a story with a good bit of pathos that’s rather diminished by reading it as though it were part of a whole with the other gospels, rather than letting it stand on its own. As Bart Ehrman says:

…The two portrayals of Jesus going to his death in Mark and Luke are radically different, [and] recognizing this radical difference is of utmost importance for understanding what each author is trying to say. The in-shock, silent Jesus of Mark, who is betrayed, denied, abandoned, and mocked by everyone, who wonders at the very end why God himself has forsaken him, simply is not the same as the calm confident Jesus of Luke, who knows God is on his side, who understands what is happening to him, and who knows what will happen to him after it happens to him: he will wake up in paradise.

And so, it’s simply unfair to ‘Mark’ to read his book while pretending that it also says what ‘Luke’ [later] wrote. It robs the story of its pathos and power and makes it worse literature. And this is, after all, literature. I will happily ridicule the whole thing as belief, but the fact that it’s ridiculous to think it’s true does not excuse dismissing it as literature. After all, I love The Lord of the Rings but would hold an extremely low opinion of anyone who believed in hobbits; and in fact it would stand up very poorly as a model of reality.

So I got myself a Bible, specifically the Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV translation, which comes highly recommended. I expect a very great slog, but I do want to read this thing, and I want to try to approach it, as best I can, with an open mind to its literary qualities. Obviously, the literary qualities of some parts will be atrocious, with mind-numbing series of begats, but at least I will try to be honest about it.

Though I may have to print myself some warning labels, to feel less embarrassed about reading this thing in public.

WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Do NOT TAKE it literally.

¹ I.e. the author of The Gospel According to Mark, whose name may not have been [the Aramaic equivalent of] Mark, traditionally identified as a travelling companion of the apostle Peter. In fact, all four canonical gospels were written anonymously, and Christians a century later attributed them to people close to the inner circle, presumably to lend them authority.

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Occam’s Razor is more than a guideline
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate

Occam’s Razor is a famous philosophical device, a pragmatic solution when faced with multiple competing hypotheses: always choose the one that necessitates the fewest additional assumptions.

Wikipedia contains this description:

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means 'law of parsimony') is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.

The principle can be interpreted as

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

In science, Occam's razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam's razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

I’d argue, however, that the paragraph cited above actually contains at least the seeds of good reasons why it is more than a mere heuristic device. Consider: There is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis…. This means that for every concrete question, there is an infinite number of answers; one of them is maximally correct, some are plain wrong, and an infinite number fit the data but make unjustified and unparsimonious assumptions. But then, the simplest explanation that fits the data is actually very special, and not just because it’s more testable, but because of that privileged position. It alone accounts for the observed data without adding extraneous assumptions.

This leaves us with a choice, not just on a heuristic and testing level, but on an epistemological level, too: Do we accept only the one explanation permitted by the data yet spared by Occam’s Razor, or do we accept more explanations? If we do not restrict ourselves to only the simplest working possibility, I do not know of any reason why we should not accept all possibilities. Then, since we have an infinite number of possible explanations, whereof only one is maximally correct, the odds of our choosing the best solution are one out of infinity—which is to say, zero. Neglecting parsimony, then, does more harm than merely making it harder to test our hypotheses: it statistically guarantees that we will choose the wrong explanations!


Occam’s Razor provides a rule for choosing a single explanation with strong heuristic properties and avoiding the arbitrary choice of complex solutions that, statistically, are certain to be wrong in detail.

That’s perhaps a bit abstract, so let’s ground it a bit. This actually came up in a discussion on religious epistemology, where I set up something like this: Agnostic (sometimes called “weak”) atheists make a negative existential claim, not based on the existence of positive evidence for non-existence, but based on the lack of positive evidence for existence. Or, in plain language: I’m not an atheist because I have evidence there’s no god; I’m an atheist because there’s no evidence of a god.

But then, runs a certain standard counter-argument, the agnostic atheist is on the same rational footing as the theist. Neither has evidence either directly supporting their position, nor directly refuting the contrary. (Perhaps, this may go on to say, the ideally rational stance is ‘strict’ agnosticism, apparently meaning a refusal to commit to any stance on likelihood.)

This, however, I reject on the basis of a stronger Occam’s Razor.¹ The reason is this: Theists and I agree on the existence of physical reality, each other, rocks, trees, suns, moons, and so on. When we run out of established physical reality, I stop. The theist goes on to add unsupported assumptions—and that’s where the trouble sets in. After all, if you are willing to accept one god without evidence, why not two? Or three? Or a billion? If you accept (though you cannot demonstrate it) that the universe was designed by God, how can you be sure it wasn’t actually designed by aliens pretending to be God? Or wizards posing as aliens pretending to be God? Or Smurfs dressed up as wizards posing as aliens… Well, you see where this goes. I can extend this list into infinity.²

If you are willing to accept any proposition without positive evidence, on the mere basis of inability or to disprove it, or impossibility of so doing, then either you must regard all such propositions as equally valid; or you must have a method of separating your proposition from the infinite number of other propositions with the same property (the property that it hasn’t been disproven, or is not falsifiable); or you are being completely arbitrary and no longer rational. But you can’t have a rational method for separating it, for if you did, it would have to be positive evidence, and you wouldn’t face this problem to begin; so either you are being arbitrary and non-rational, or you must accept them all.

And if you hold that the infinity of possible explanations is valid territory to enter, then your preferred explanation is wrong. How do I justify this assertion? Suppose that each explanation can be laser-etched onto a grain of sand, and we take all possible explanations and let the wind carry them into the sandy desert. This is an infinity of explanations, and as the text is too small to read, you cannot know which is which. With no positive evidence to point to any one explanation, your choice is arbitrary relative to the truth. Maybe one of these explanations is the correct one—but it’s one grain of sand in the desert; and it is an infinite desert. When you bend down and pick out a single grain of sand, I can be confident that you chose the wrong one.

I prefer a more consistent principle of reason, Occam’s Razor: Choose the simplest explanation that fits observations (id est, that isn’t falsified). If our investigation has been thorough enough, it is the right explanation. If not, then it is a good explanation to start from as we investigate further, and our investigation won’t be cluttered up by arbitrary (and almost certainly wrong) assumptions.

That is why, in the absence of existential evidence either positive or negative, assuming the negative is more reasonable than assuming the positive. We should be agnostic in the strict sense of being prepared to admit additional evidence—but that does not mean we should be holding our breath.

¹ This is pretty close to Hitchen’s Razor; in a way, it’s the two razors put together: Occam’s and Hitchens’s. Mine is a two-bladed philosophical razor!

² Or if not infinity, then at least until the text of my post exceeds storage limitations. I wonder if I could write a Haskell program to generate an infinite list of increasingly unparsimonious complications…

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William Lane Craig and his bankrupt ontology
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

I recently watched a video of a debate between famous apologist and Liar for Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, and well-known cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss. Obviously all my sympathies lay with Dr. Krauss, so it was with some mortification that I watched him apparently just fail to understand Craig’s distinction between epistemic and ontological basis for moral behaviour.

Those terms weren’t used in the parts I saw, but here is how I understand it:

  • An epistemic claim would be of the nature If not for God or revealed truth, we could not know what is morally right or wrong.
  • An ontological claim is different and asserts that God is the basis, not for the knowledge of moral truth, but the existence of moral truth.

In other words, the epistemic claim is concerned with how we can know what is right and wrong, while the ontological claim deals with how there can (supposedly) be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’.

Craig, for example, claims that everyone is designed to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong, and therefore does not claim that religion is epistemically necessary to assess moral propositions, but does claim that his god is ontologically necessary. This distinction is what Krauss loudly and repeatedly failed to appreciate.

That’s not to say that I think much of the argument itself. The standard objection is a chestnut that’s been around for well over two thousand years and never convincingly resolved: the Euthyphro Dilemma. Its modern formulation when addressing Christian dogma runs something like this?

  • Is God good because he does what is intrinsically good, or because what is good is defined by what God commands?
  • If the former, then there exists an objective moral truth outside of God, who is therefore not ontologically necessary.
  • If the latter, then “God is good” is a circular and hence meaningless claim, and in fact whatever God commanded would by definition be “good”, regardless of whether it resembles what we in actuality think of as good.

Craig is a firm believer in the latter option, and to his dubious credit he carries it all the way by affirming the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to DCT, if God says to kill every man, woman, child, and head of livestock in the land you invade (1 Samuel 15), then it’s right and morally good to do so; and Craig has consistently defended this view: The genocide described in the book of Samuel¹ was morally right. It was morally good to kill all those babies.

Personally, I find this view reprehensible if not downright monstrous. But there are further problems with this view that I don’t see brought up.

If God defines Good, he cannot be trusted

If whatever God wills is (by definition) good, then “good” is arbitrary (as is often pointed out). But this is not merely a problem for ontological grounding. Christian apologists like Craig argue that it’s not arbitrary, because to do other than what is in fact (as we instinctively see it) good is against God’s nature…but so what? On the view that good is defined by God’s will, there’s no real reason to suppose that it cannot change tomorrow. Craig would probably raise a lot of arguments to the effect that God has promised not to, it’s not in his nature, and so on; but how does he know that? Under DCT, it’s not wrong for God to deceive Craig about what his nature is: if he wants to, it’s good by definition. It’s not wrong for him to change his mind about what’s good: if he wants to change his mind, that’s good by definition. In fact, it’s rather Nineteen eighty-four-ish: It is wrong to kill people. It has always been wrong to kill people and always will be. It is good to kill Amalekites…

Craig fails to notice the beam in his own eye

But there’s a deeper yet much simpler problem with Craig’s view, which is this: He says that what God wills is by definition good, and that God has the right to determine this because he created the universe, owns us all, and has the right to do with us as he pleases. But this is a naked assertion. Craig claims that DCT provides an objective view of morality, meaning presumably one with no arbitrary propositions accepted axiomatically, and yet ultimately even his own moral view is arbitrary and axiomatic, too. When Krauss says it’s bad to cause suffering, Craig asks Why?—fair enough, and I fault Krauss for failing to understand this question: I think Craig is right when he implies that Krauss is relying on what amounts to an arbitrary axiom.² But Craig’s own argument is no better, because when he says that God’s will defines what is good, even someone who agrees with him might well ask Why? Craig will say it’s because God created and therefore owns the universe and everyone in it: to this I would retort Why does creating the universe give him the right to do what he wants with it? Craig spends a good deal of time insisting that you cannot get from a factual to a normative statement—you can’t get from an is to an ought—and then he blithely goes and does that very thing in the very same breath.

¹ Fortunately, it most likely never actually happened.

² Philosophically arbitrary—of course, it’s not arbitrary in terms of our neural wiring.

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“Why would a woman want to sell her body for money?”
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

Of course, sex workers don’t actually sell their bodies: like everyone else, they sell services. The “selling bodies” line is used simply for shock value and adds an assumption that it’s wrong into the question itself. But still, you might ask, why those, why sell sexual services? I think it's for the same reason that men become fishermen, which is to say that it varies, and may include

  • They are forced into it, as happens with tragic frequency on fishing boats off the coast of East Asia. Literal slavery is unfortunately not dead.
  • They have no other options, though they wish they did. In some places there are no jobs, and even if you loathe the very sight of water, let alone the stink of fish, your choice is between fishing and starving.
  • They have no access to better jobs. If the choice is between fishing and cleaning toilets, you might choose fishing.
  • They see it as just another job. To some people, fishing isn't special. Everybody has to earn a living; why not through fishing?
  • The money tempts them. The king crab fishery is hard and dangerous work, but a captain can make $200k in a season and take the rest of the year off, if they want.
  • They genuinely enjoy the work. Personally I don't get it—I love the sea and enjoy fishing under certain circumstances, but turning it from a private pleasure to a job would make me miserable. But even if it wouldn't suit me, I have no reason to think that there aren't people who love it and cannot get enough, and even if some proponents are just putting on a brave face, it seems foolish and rudely dismissive to insist that someone who claims enjoy it must be lying. Different strokes for different folks.

Personally, I think the poor fishermen kept as slaves deserve help, to be freed and helped to find new means of subsistence, lest they have no option to go back to a now angrier and warier ship owner. Child labour is horrible and should never be tolerated. Those who regard the job as a foul, stinking drudgery should have better opportunities. And obviously all fishermen should enjoy the protection of occupational health and safety laws. But who am I to criticise the others for their choice? It would be foolish to judge their job satisfaction by how I feel about the job, and if some people sneer at the hands-on, blue collar work, that's snobbery and classism we are better off without. If they're treated poorly for their profession, it's the ill-treatment we should stop, not the fishing!

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2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

It is curious how the debate after every Islamist deed of terror, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings, always results in a flood of Most Muslims aren’t like that!—in a knee-jerk response that reminds me of nothing so much as #NotAllMen. This may strike you as (needlessly) offensive, but before I bring up my caveats, please consider the parallels. (But before you respond angrily, at least do read through to the end.)

  1. It is true that most men aren’t rapists. By analogy, and in fact, it is true that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.

  2. It’s true that lots of men are vehemently against sexual assault and harrassment, just as it is true that lots of Muslims are vehemently fighting terrorism.

  3. The truth of the Not All Men reply, however, is secondary to its unhelpful deflectionism—yes it’s true, but the point is that although not all men—indeed, not even a majority of men—are like that, still a minority large enough to matter are, and the fact that it’s a minority does not mean that it isn’t an issue with men—much like, say, breast cancer is an issue for women (even though most women don’t get it and some few men do).

    Or maybe…much as how, although lots of terrorism is committed by non-Muslims, and the majority of Muslims are not involved in or sympathetic to terrorism, still it looks as though the issue is disproportionate, and mere deflection won’t do.

  4. Finally, many people writing today are complaining how unfair it is that Muslims are expected to stand up and proclaim that they’re opposed to extremism and terrorism. But then, strictly speaking it’s hardly fair that I have to speak up against rapists. Yet, I’m told, my silence may be mistaken for tacit approval (and worse yet, daring to treat it with levity—by telling or laughing at rape jokes, for instance—might make the true villains mistake me for a sympathiser). —I said I’m told—but, too, I agree, and extrapolate.

How dare I (you might ask) make this so general, as though Islam worldwide bore responsibility for what a bunch of lunatics in Paris did? You might have a point, were that and similar local incidents all there were to it, or if the appearance of sympathy were a rarity. But we know that’s not really true. The best example I can think of are the riots after the satiric cartoons in the Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten. In outrage at some Danes’ audacity in portraying their religion (or their pedophile prophet) in an insulting manner, riots were nigh worldwide. It seems that people died in consequence in Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Let’s not pretend that there is no connection.

And there is always a predictable outcry that, although some Islamists may act like this, that has no bearing on Islam, or Muslims. #NotAllMuslims! To this I can only say, poppycock! As Jason Rosenhouse said,

I heard someone on television today lament the fact that when a Muslim does something bad, somehow all Muslims are expected to condemn it. This misses the point. The issue isn’t what anyone is expected to do. It’s what moderate Muslims had better do, loudly and unambiguously and with no “buts” at the end, because right now the crazies are the public face of Islam. No one is concluding that something is wrong with modern Islam because two Muslims did a bad thing. The conclusion is based on the chaos and despotism and illiberal attitudes that seem especially rife in the Muslim world.

More broadly, there is this constant insistence that when somebody does something, and says it is because of their religious faith and beliefs, much of the world credits it only conditionally: If what they did was good, then we’ll believe them. But if they did something bad, they must be mistaken or lying: It must be extremism, maybe a cult, or maybe it’s a response to imperialism, colonialism, racism… All of those are real, important, awful factors, but let’s avoid the No True Theist Fallacy.


With that all said, there are some extra factors to keep in mind. I loathe the term “Islamophobia”, as though a hatred of that vile religion were a bad thing. (Do you think it is pristine and blameless? Go forth and read up. The scripture itself is bad enough, quite apart from all the other stuff.) There is a strong implication, which I reject and resent, that being vehemently critical of Islam implies a hatred of Muslims, and further, that it results in—or perhaps based on—racism, in particular against Arabs (presumably, then, combined with ignorance of the fact that there are many white Muslims, although they’re a minority, and that most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and that the single largest Muslim population is found not in the Middle East, but in Indonesia).</a>

On the other hand, there are factors of racism and irrational hatreds far beyond rational loathing of Islam. I’m not very familiar with Charlie Hebdo, but they certainly held a lofty moral high ground compared to their Islamic murderers—but now, a few French compatriots of the victims are working hard to give up that moral high ground by shooting and throwing grenades at mosques (and blowing up some poor restaurateur’s kebab shop). In the US, after the 9/11 terror attacks, I gather the FBI reported a 1,700% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. (And, to be sure, people whom racists mistook for Muslims. I may dislike the conflation of Islamophobia with racism, but if you assault people on the basis that they have brown skin and wear turbans, you’re a racist.)

There, then, is a very important difference between #NotAllMen and #NotAllMuslims: Men deflect in order to avoid self-examination, feelings of recrimination, or criticism. Muslims and their defenders deflect because, well, I agree with most of Rosenhouse’s article cited above, but there is one point where I’m afraid he is too optimistic:

Now, this is the point where the self-righteous types will accuse you of Islamophobia. They will lecture you about blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few.

But no one is doing that, and they know it. Almost no one thinks that all, or most, or even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for yesterday’s attacks. The problem, though, is that the attitudes underlying the attack are not those of a small, fringe minority. It is willful blindness to pretend otherwise.

I agree with the assertion that it is not a small, fringe minority, but unfortunately, I fear it is not true that Almost no one thinks that…even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for terrorist attacks. Deplorably—indeed, almost as deplorably as the murderous attacks themselves—it seems there are always people ready to take their vicarious vengeance on the nearest Muslim (or Muslim look-alike).

Here, #NotAllMen would only be comparable if the nighttime streets of our cities were haunted by roving gangs of actually-militant feminists, waylaying and beating men, and occasionally firebombing places that men like to frequent.

And, more, that attitude is probably very pernicious in subtler ways in its milder forms. I think that many Muslim-majority countries are—I’ll say it openly—barbaric. If the law sentences someone to being flogged for blogging critically of Islam, then the legal system and society that permits it are both horrid. But that doesn’t mean I’m ipso facto sympathetic to indiscriminate bombing, or drone strikes killing civilians at numbers I don’t care to guess at. But unfortunately, a sufficiently uncritical acceptance of the vilification of precisely the places and societies I am trying to vilify in a more nuanced manner, lays the groundwork for popular acceptance of—or at the very least, lack of resistance to—military campaigns that do just that. I reject the concept of Islamophobia, but I accept the sad truth that people in the Middle East (who may or may not be Muslims—I suppose most of them are; I don’t suppose it morally matters) die, every day, because people are uniquely unbothered by the idea of bombing Muslim-majority areas.

Under Bush, it was getting awfully tempting to think of this as Christian (or should that be Christianist?) terrorism on a large (and well-funded) scale.

#NotAllMuslims support terrorism. Most of them don’t. Yet it is disproportionately an Islamic problem, and toxic Islam should be excused no more than toxic masculinity. Let’s acknowledge this; let’s avoid euphemism and cowardly deflection and circumvention. At the same time, though, we should not loose sight of, nor fail to emphasise, that the goal here is to speak up—loudly, freely, offensively—and deplore violence, not return it.

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“Ignorance is strength”
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

Or, Satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, says Ottawa imam.

This is a fascinating study in the art of getting things completely backwards. It should be mentioned up front that this guy (wrong-headed though he otherwise is) does denounce the terrorist attacks and refer to the terrorists as disturbed individuals—he’s disingenuous but not an apologist for monsters. (Nor did he claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists bore the responsibility for their own deaths, unlike some old, white, male Christians¹.) That said:

"Imtiaz Ahmed...said it should be against the law to publish cartoons that depict religious figures in a derogatory way.

“Of course we defend freedom of speech, but it has to be balanced. There has to be a limit. There has to be a code of conduct,” Ahmed said."

“We believe that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute the freedom of speech in any way at all.”

Ahmed said there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material. He says that seems to be the case for events such as the Holocaust. Members of the public denounce those who say the Holocaust never happened.

It’s worth noting that his position is in fact against free speech. He’s for free speech…unless it’s just too offensive. However, the legal right to free speech is entirely about offensive speech; after all, it’s only once speech has been deemed offensive that anyone wants to silence it, and therefore only offensive speech ever needs, and uses, legal protection. In practice, “free speech except for really offensive speech’ is exactly equivalent to no free speech at all. (Incidentally, his words are incredibly offensive to free speech advocates; but of course he wants special protection only for religious speech, on the basis of…who knows?)

His remark about public denouncement of Holocaust denial is an even more stunning miss, because public denouncement of offensive remarks is precisely what free speech advocates strive for. Legal protection of free expression necessarily includes the protection of responses to said speech. That’s the whole idea of the principle: Let everyone speak their mind, and let those who are in the wrong be defeated by having their ideas exposed, rebutted, and rejected, not by shutting them up and forcing them to nurse their grievances and resentment in private.

¹ Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. Bill Donohue, everybody.

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Grander than the Grand Canyon
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

Just got back from a helicopter flight to, over, and landing in the Grand Canyon. I have a bad track record with outings, but this was sublime (though I'm not sure if anyone could tell, as it was sublime in a manner that had me wrapped in my own headspace).

The Grand Canyon itself is, well, famously grand, but focusing so much on it does a great disservice to the surrounding landscape, which defies description. I was about to construct an analogy involving craftsmen and chisels, but to compare it to human art would be to do the country a disservice and to demean it: It was not carved, but magnificently eroded.

I would not have thought that a landscape so arid would be so shaped by waters, but the entire landscape was full of dry water-courses, canyons, and arroyos; there was little water to be seen, but its trace was everywhere. (Maybe this is because it is so arid, and the soil therefore contains much less organic matter to soak and bind up the water, so that when it does rain, it flows unimpeded?) It was interspersed with cliffs and hills and small mountains -- but never a rolling landscape. Rather, craggy ridges and scarps thrust into the air, seeming to defy geology. One hulking ridge was all rusty-red down one side (from, yes, rust), whereas the other crumbled away in a dark umber, nearly black. In places, ridges jutted up at forty-five degree angles, yet were banded with what for all the world looked like the bands of sedimentary layers. Were they sediments, and were those ridges thrust up tectonically? If not, what other process was responsible? In one place a stepped ridge was in at least four different colours, each step running along the ridge distinct -- the first white, the next yellow, then rust, and finally that dark umber.

Nor was it a dead landscape. Arid, yes, and probably that is why it is so geologically dramatic, because it is thus free of not one but two great sources of erosion, rainfall and organic factors; yet though the great part of the ground was bare and dry, still you'd never have been more than a few steps from a cactus, or spiny bush, or other plant (tough, dry, spiny, thick-leaved) that I cannot even categorise. I saw no animal life save flies, a crow, and a few sea-birds on Lake Meade (which barely counts), but there was a ubiquitous buzz of insects. Somehow this appealed to me even more in some ways than a forest (though I do love to walk in a forest), perhaps because it seemed comprehensible. I don't know the few dozen important plant species, nor yet the insects and many lizards and so on, but in this arid and therefore sparser, slower-moving ecosystem, it had an air, it looked as though one might with study figure it out -- not like even a temperate forest, where I wouldn't even care to guess the order of magnitude of the number of important species. This isn't to say that I dislike a forest just because its ecosystem is too far beyond my grasp, but rather that the lure of attainable comprehension was another attraction of the desert.

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The No True Theist fallacy
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

Whenever a religious fringe group rises up in arms, be it Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Christian murderers of abortion providers, or whatever, pundits amass to fight at the steps of the podium to be first to proclaim that what those people do is not motivated by religion, that "real religion" is not like that. This is bizarre, and either dishonest or foolish.

Let's be clear: I don't like Islam, but there are about a billion and a half Muslims out there who aren't terrorists, the vast majority of whom would (I presume) be no more eager to decapitate people than I would. I am not suggesting that, for instance, ISIS aren't a fringe group. Of course they are. (And of course there are lots of non-Muslim Arabs, and the large majority of Muslims aren't Arabs to begin with.) Nor do I think that Islam is inherently more vicious than Christianity, though the latter has been somewhat defanged by the Enlightenment.

That said, it's very odd that these commentators always insist that any evil whatsoever cannot be motivated by religion, as "properly" understood. It's always other factors -- political, historical, cultural. Of course, all that context is always significant, and sometimes religious divisions are secondary (IRA?), but claiming that it's about history and culture instead of religion is an implicit assertion that religion has no influence on culture and history. If someone says that people are never motivated to evil by religion, they're implying that people's beliefs do not influence their behaviour; or perhaps that religious beliefs aren't important enough to be acted upon.

Well, that's what they would be implying, at any rate, were they not busily committing logical fallacies to protect, pardon me, the sacred cow of religion. If someone does something nice and credits “do unto others” or “whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers”, if Muslims give to charity and say it's because the Quran tells them to, everyone is happy to accept their stated motivation. But the moment they do something bad, it is widely denied that their motivation could possibly be what they say it is, even if they can cite verses in their support. “No religion condones the killing of innocents,” said Obama, apparently unfamiliar with Psalm 137-9, Hosea 13:16, and other pleasant tidbits.

I don't believe in any of this. I believe that when someone claims to act out of religious conviction, the possibility should be entertained that they may be telling the truth, whether the act be good or evil; moreover, that even if an interpretation is a minority view, that doesn't disqualify it from being religious. I believe that many people take their religion seriously and do act on their beliefs, sometimes to great good and sometimes to great evil. Let me repeat that: Religion in general, and certainly the big monotheistic ones, can motivate people just as easily to good and evil. That, precisely, is the problem—not that people of any religion are somehow intrinsically evil, but that people mistake scriptures for moral compasses.

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I cannot empathise with those without empathy
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.

When I think about the awful shit happening around the world right now—whether on the murderous level of ISIS (which I shall speak no more of qua too fucking depressing) or the sordid pettiness of the coproliths from 4chan behind #GamerGate, I often find myself in a state not so much of moral outrage as weary bafflement, unable to comprehend the kind of mentality behind it. I don’t think of myself as notably nice, and on occasion I can out of sheer irritability be petty and unpleasant (above baseline levels). Yet the thought of launching a campaign of black hat hacking, libel, and fraud to ruin someone’s career, livelihood, and life, merely because their opinions offend me, feels…unthinkable, quite literally: I can verbalise it, but I don’t know that I can actually think it per se. Thomas Nagel wondered what it is like to be a bat: to see the world through senses and perceptions completely different from those of humans. I do, too, but (albeit with less interest and more distaste) I also wonder what it is like to be that kind of active misogynist.

I read once, a long time ago, the claim that in order to truly understand something, you must believe it—that is, at least briefly entertain the notion, even though you will discard it in the next moment.¹ I do not know whether this is true, but it always seemed to me that it has a ring of truth to it.² I can verbally describe how bats perceive textures with sound modulation and motion via Doppler effects and shifting frequencies, how a particularly base and virulent form of religious extremism perverts people to cutting other people’s heads off, or how criticism of their preferred monoculture appears to stir some basement-dwellers into fomenting anger, but I have no sense at all of the qualia involved.

Sometimes I find myself wondering to what degree this is emotional self defence. Perhaps (part of?) the reason I don’t understand is that I don’t permit myself to understand—that I hesitate to gaze into and have that abyss stare back at me. Of course I don’t want to experience the qualia of being these people: after all, I find them vile and do not ever want to be like them. Perhaps that implies (in the logical sense) that I do not permit myself to understand them. It’s certainly pleasing to be able to honestly say that I cannot fathom what manner of mind would stoop to these levels.

That might not be an unalloyed good, though, because it sounds an awful lot like a defensive flavour of othering, of rejecting these people utterly and as morally subhuman³ to avoid having to suffer the quale of comparing myself to them and finding any moral similarities, however tenuous. Perhaps at the personal level, that’s OK, but on a larger scale, it leads to retributive justice systems where the focus is on ensuring that They—Those People who commit iniquities—suffer their Just Desserts: putting a priority on making rule-breakers suffer rather than minimising harm. Consider the difference between the dystopian prison system of the US with, say, Norway. My gut tells me that if I somehow found myself in the same basement with one of Zoe Quinn’s or Anita Sarkeesian’s erstwhile tormentors, the most satisfying course of action would be to hamper their typing, tweeting, and hacking abilities by breaking both of his elbows. Yet reason and data both tell me that the only way to solve these problems in the longer term is to despise the attitudes and behaviours, yet empathise and build bridges with the perpetrators.

I can’t do that. I couldn’t, even if the opportunity improbably arose—perhaps because I lack the interpersonal skills, perhaps because I lack the moral courage to attempt to understand these people well enough to talk to them, or perhaps because I’m just too judgemental and unforgiving. If, for example, your moral hackles were raised by my suggesting just now that we should on some level attempt to sympathise with the slime currently harrassing Quinn, Sarkeesian, et al, I want to point out that I’ve already described them in such terms as “sordid pettiness”, “coprolite”, “misogynist”, “vile”, and earlier in this sentence, “slime”. In my defense (on the rational side), I let this be my lodestone for personal views, not for voting in political elections—I wouldn’t want to base policy on classifying those people as slime (that and a bit of racism is how you end up with the world’s largest prison population).

Ultimately, though, we all need to remember: The #GamerGate harrassers aren’t sordid, petty, vile, misogynist, slimy coprolites. Like us, they are human beings—they just happen to be particilarly petty, misogynistic people with petty, sordid, coprolitic, and vile opinions, words, and deeds.

¹ If anyone knows the source of this idea, I should be grateful to hear it.

² Put it this way: At the very least, I feel confident that I understand the proposition.

³ I do not regard anyone as inferior on the basis of ethnicity, biological sex, gender identity, &c., but I do judge opinions harshly.

⁴ Not that I’m an expert on the Norwegian justice system, and I’m sure it has many glaring flaws, but surely the focus on rehabilitation and minimising recidivism is more useful to society than basically torturing criminals and teaching them them to hate.

⁵ Inevitably, alas.

⁶ See this Cracked list, item #3. I find it oddly touching.

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William Lain Craig seeks Reasons, hits bottom of barrel, and keeps tunnelling
2012. Photo by Hoang Do., At Grapplers Inc.
Thus spake WLC.

“Fine-tuning ergo God” is like saying “The odds of drawing just these ten cards are so small, it must be rigged!” when we don’t know the composition of the deck: A glib generalisation, as though every drawing of cards corresponded to a deck of Bicycle playing cards and a probability distribution we are, supposedly, intuitively familiar with. There’s a bait-and-switch here, since for all we know the deck we’re really concerned with is (meta?)physically constrained to nothing but straight flushes. For all we know, the deck might have only ten cards to begin with or the cards might be stuck together with string and Scotch tape.

Of course it’s entirely legitimate to wonder why the parameters of physics are just what they are (and on some level there is presumably a reason), but I find it highly suspect when someone asserts that they were a priori improbable—how exactly do you determine the probability? Can you demonstrate, from first principles of making universes, that there’s a wide range of possible parameters whereof the chemically productive parameters form a small proportion? I’m sure the cosmological community would be fascinated to learn the principles.

Point one—I must call them points, for they aren’t really reasons—point one is juvenile, point three is perversely ironic in the light of two millennia of unresolved theodicy (don’t you think the Cathars had a better idea, until the Catholics murdered them all?), point four is presumably included for the sake of hilarity alone (surely no one is expected to take it seriously?), and point five must have been added after Dr. Craig got drunk and forgot to activate GMail Goggles, but point two is offensive in its duplicity.

Oh well. For this particular atheist, Christmas—well, I think of it more as “juletid” in Swedish, precisely cognate with Yuletide, a pagan term that merged with Christmas when Jesus’s birthday was moved to mid-winter to co-opt older religious celebrations like Saturnalia and, elsewhere, Yule—was never much about religion but rather family, presents, a tree (of likely pagan origin), and good food (much of it based on pork and so presumably frowned upon by Jews like the Nazarene). Or at least, it was not about religion when I grew up. Now there’s always a heavy dose of news articles, editorials, and opinion pieces by Christians who hysterically complain that their holiday is under attack (because they’re not allowed a monopoly), that Jesus and Santa Claus are white, so there!, or (á la Craig) assert that people like me are echoing slogans rather than thinking. I don’t go pissing in his crèche, but ye gods! (both Jesus and the older myths he was based on), this editorialising gets on my nerves.

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