bookmark_borderLiberal pseudoscience

You have to wonder about American liberals, as represented by the Democratic party. Their foreign policy difference from Republicans is that they claim to be even better at slaughtering Muslims and erasing civil liberties. Their economic difference is that their version of neoliberalism tilts more toward certain Wall Street factions and Silicon Valley, rather than other Wall Street factions and extractive industries.

I will admit, however, that liberals in power have been more reluctant to attack science. I doubt this is for any principled reason—mainstream science has become the establishment view in much of education, and no liberal would ever dream of criticizing anything established. Nonetheless, there is a real contrast here with those American right-wingers who have lost contact with reality, acting as a prime constituency for anything from conspiracy theories to global warming denial to creationism.

Still, I don’t entirely trust liberal support for science either. American liberal circles have long had a soft spot for their own variety of pseudosciences. They just happen to be the more Newagey sort rather than the Religious Right variety.

Here’s an interesting recent example. Mario Beauregard is that very rare creature, a dualist neuroscientist.  This has naturally associated him with the intelligent design movement, which more usually goes together with hard right politics. (See his book The Spiritual Brain, written with ID hack Denyse O’Leary—it’s a weird, weird thing.) But lately, he’s written a new book, which apparently takes a more Newagey angle on his dualism, using Near Death Experiences as alleged evidence of nonmaterial souls. So a few years ago, when he was doing an intelligent design version of dualism, he was celebrated in right wing circles and web sites. (I ran into him first through the Discovery Institute.) And now, he’s doing much the same thing, but with a Newagey coloration, so I ran into him on a prominent liberal site, Salon.

So yes, we’ve had a “Republican war on science.” But maybe it’s just a historical accident that we haven’t had a Democratic war on science. After all, it’s mainly an accident that our post-9/11 war on Muslims and civil liberties was initiated by Republicans and later intensified by Democrats in power. It could have easily been the other way around.

I don’t want to say there’s no difference. Our conservative-identified pseudosciences are global warming denialism and creationism. Our liberal-identified pseudosciences are alternative medicine and progressive evolution. And that is a difference—if I were forced to choose between sets of religion-linked bullshit beliefs, I would in fact choose the liberal ones. They seem less harmful. But they’re still bullshit.

bookmark_borderDemographics on our side?

These days I often run into the notion that in the US, demographics is on the side of nonbelief. The excessive politicization of the Religious Right has turned off the poor, minorities, and the young. The new generation of “millennials” or whatever is less identified with organized religion. So if we just ride out this latest, last-gasp wave of theocratic politics such as attacks on contraception, time is on our side.

I’m dubious. For a long time now, I have also regularly run into a version of this demographic argument in a political rather than religious context. Demographics, we have long been told, favors Democrats over Republicans. Conservative Republicans rely on a constituency of wealthy, middle-aged white males, turning off the poor, minorities, and the young. The new generation is less identified with conservative politics. So if we just ride out this latest wave of conservative politics like the Tea Party, time is on the Democrats’ side.
And yet, in the past decades, the Republicans have flourished even though they have been less and less embarrassed to present their fascist aspects in public. Democrats, whatever their advantage among the young or women, have themselves become in most respects a right-wing party. They represent a technocratic version of neoliberalism rather than a desire to directly turn everything over to business interests, but the practical difference is not exactly huge. And with Democrats, what we usually see is a passive politics of being not-as-bad as Republicans, or overtly being Republican-lite, rather than, say, presenting an alternative stance robustly defending the notion of non-market public goods.
And so it may be with religion. Ostensibly we are poised for a decline in conservative religiosity and a uptick in the fortunes of more liberal approaches to faith, including outright nonbelief. But again, there is also an air of passivity in the expectations resting on demographics. There is little out there that both presents a real alternative to the faith-soaked nature of American public culture and has a hope of making serious inroads into that culture. So we sit back and hope that demographics will work its long-term magic in our favor. But if recent political history is any indication, we may just end up with a culture that is superficially more liberal religiously, but as deeply mindless as anything in a megachurch service.

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 21

Another bit of historical information allegedly supporting the spear-wound-of-Jesus story in Chapter 19 of the Fourth Gospel is a quote from Origen.  I think I originally came across this information five years ago from a website called A Lawyer Examines The Swoon Theory.  The website is still available:

The Origen quote is still on the above web page:

Roman custom required stabbing under Jesus’ circumstances.  It wasn’t a coincidence.

Most people, even most theologians and historians, believe it was pure coincidence that a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus.  Most people believe the soldier stabbed Jesus to make sure He was dead.  Usual Roman practice was to leave the corpses of crucified victims on the cross to be eaten by wild animals or to rot in public view—after all, crucifixion was intended to be the ultimate degradation and humiliation … and a warning to others!  Interestingly, there was an exception.  According to Quintilian, a first-century author, a victim’s relatives were permitted to take down the body and bury it if the victim was first pierced by the executioners. In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, says the lance thrust to Jesus was administered “according to Roman custom, below the armpit.”  (See Humber, Thomas.  The Sacred Shroud. New York, Pocket Books, 1977)

From the bottom of the web page:

This site and page written by Texas attorney Joseph “Rick” Reinckens.

Note that there are no quotation marks in the above paragraph, except for the phrase quoted from Origen.  Note that the quote is not taken directly from a book by Origen, but is from a modern book by Thomas Humber, who provides the quote in English. The use of a secondary source like this (when a primary historical source is available)  is our first hint that Mr. Reinckens is not a competent historian nor a competent scholar. 

If you read my previous post (Part 20), then you know that the comments about Quintilian are mistaken and provide only very weak and sketchy support for Mr. Reinckens’s claim in bold above the paragraph by Mr. Reinckens.  This is our second hint that Mr. Reinckens is not a competent historian nor a competent scholar.

The third hint that Mr. Reinckens is not a competent historian nor a competent scholar is that he does not even bother to provide the page number for the secondary source that he has used.  And this web page has been up for at least five years, but he has never bothered to correct that obvious failure to provide basic information about his source.

So, I ordered a used copy of Humber’s book, The Sacred Shroud,  and went searching through it for the quotation of Origen.  The book is over two hundred pages, but I found the quote of Origen on page 60, as well as Humber’s discussion of Quintilian.  You don’t have to go digging around for a copy of this book from 1977; I will give you the relevant passage (an actual quotation, not a paraphrase):

“Usually the victims of crucifixion were left on their crosses to be devoured by wild beasts or birds of prey or to rot. According to a Roman law of the imperial period, however, it was possible for the families of the deceased to obtain the bodies for decent burial.  In such cases a single reference of antiquity suggests that the executioners were required by law to administer a sort of coup de grace to the crucified–even when they were apparently dead–before giving over the remains to the mourners.  Quintilian, an author of the first century, writes: ‘Crosses [or the crucified] are cut down, and the executioner does not forbid the burial of those who have been smitten [or pierced, presumably with a sword or javelin].’ 
     Origen, in the Latin translation of his Commentary on Matthew, says that the lance thrust was administered ‘according to Roman custom, below the armpit.’ …” 
(The Sacred Shroud, p.60)

It is easy to see that Humber is also not a competent historian nor a competent scholar.  Humber does not indicate what book or source the Quintilian quote comes from, and although he does give a general indication of where the Origen quote comes from, he does not cite the specific edition, translation, section, or page where he found the Origen passage.  It is unclear whether he is citing an English translation of a Latin text, or if he himself has provided the translation from Latin.

To be fair to Humber, we should take into account the very first sentence of his book:

“I am neither a scholar nor a scientist, and this book is largely the product of secondary research, an attempt to present clearly in one accessible volume the complex story of the Shroud of Turin.” 
(The Sacred Shroud, ‘Acknowledgments’, p.7)

So, Mr. Reinckens not only fails to cite a primary source (a work by Origen) in support of his historical claim about the spear-wound story, but the secondary source he uses to obtain the quote from Origen and information about Quintilian is not only not a competent historian nor a competent scholar, but is a person who in the opening sentence of his book states that he is not a scholar and that the book is itself based on sec
ondary research.
 Humber is obviously not even a solid secondary source, given that he fails to provide basic information about the texts or editions or works where he gets his quotations of Quintilian and Origen.

To be continued…

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderAssessing evidence for the existence of Jesus

Here is an argument that I present and examine in my paper “Evidence, Miracles and The Existence of Jesus”, published in Faith and Philosophy, April 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2. Pages 129-151). The defence of premises P1 and P2 is in the paper, which can be viewed here.

William Lane Craig’s response is here.

In the paper, I make a case for being sceptical about the existence of Jesus (though I am no less scepticial about the mythicist position). The paper challenges the consensus among Biblical scholars and historians that the existence of Jesus has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

1. (P1) Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there’s good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.

Notice that this argument is presented in the context of a discussion of what it is or is not reasonable to believe on the basis of the historical evidence.  The argument combines P1 and P2 with three further premises – 2, 5 and 6 – concerning the character of the available evidence. These are the premises on which historians and Biblical scholars are better qualified than I to comment.

Clearly, many historians also accept something like 2 and 5. A significant number remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and so they, at least, are clearly not much tempted by the Presuppositions Move outlined above (which involved the suggestion that, for those coming to the evidence with Theistic presuppositions, the New Testament miracle claims need not, in the relevant sense, qualify as “extraordinary”). Michael Grant, for example, says: “according to the cold standard of humdrum fact, the standard to which the student of history is obliged to limit himself, these nature-reversing miracles did not happen.” . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides good, independent evidence for the existence of Jesus. Those texts provide some non-miracle-involving evidence, of course, but whether it can rightly be considered good, genuinely independent evidence remains widely debated among the experts.

So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable.

My suspicion is that a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept something like all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question would be: while many Biblical historians accept that the empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most would also accept something like P1, few would accept P2.

I’ll provide the argument for P1 and P2 in a separate post.

bookmark_borderFazıl Say to exile himself; Turkish “secularism”

Since earlier I mentioned the trouble Fazıl Say, a famous Turkish pianist, has run into due to his open atheism, here’s an update. Apparently he has decided Turkey has become too intolerant of religious dissent, and that he would live in exile in Japan. (Where, let’s face it, a classical pianist will be much better appreciated anyway.)

And still, at the end of the news story, there’s the obligatory lazy comment that “Turkey is an officially secular country.”

Well, maybe. Under some loose definitions of secularism, I suppose.

But even before the Islamization starting in the 1980’s, Turkey’s “secularism” included officially organized and supported Sunni orthodoxy (with a slight reform twist). Turkey had, and still has, a powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs through which the state and religion are closely intertwined, an extensive parallel religious schooling system organized by the state, and a pervasive understanding throughout state institutions, including the military, that “our religion” is Sunni Islam. Turkey has never been a state that belongs to all of its citizens equally, regardless of religion.

On top of that, add three recent decades of state-sanctioned—often state-imposed—Islamization. Turkey is not a secular country. Don’t confuse a history of violent conflict over issues such as the role of the de facto clergy in government with a move toward really separating mosque and state.

bookmark_borderDoes it matter how people reject religion?

By and large, I’d prefer it if more people did not hold supernatural beliefs—or at least, if they did not hold politically potent supernatural beliefs. (While I’m at it, I’d also like world peace, for my knees to suddenly not show the effects of my age on the basketball court, and so on and so forth.)

I’m not sure it matters much how such nonbelief would come about. Given my general cynicism about the human race, I don’t expect that any widespread nonbelief would be due to careful, reflective rejection of supernatural claims. Sometimes I run into hopes that better science education, for example, might help—if more people absorbed a scientific outlook, they should be more critical of unsubstantiated fantastic claims about gods and revelations. But then, my experience suggests that broad-based, in-depth, quality science education is too resource-intensive to be realistically possible any time soon. And even for those small segments of the population today for which science education is available, I’m not sure it can make a lot of difference. Thinking scientifically across the board is too difficult, and religion too easily finds the many loopholes it can exploit to insinuate itself into normal human minds.

A better suggestion is that perhaps if life circumstances improve for many more people, if we generally have more secure lives, religiosity will also decrease. I guess it might, at that. And in some locations, Jesus may well become not the “done thing” anymore, while politically impotent dabbling in shamanic “wisdom” and alternative medicine drivel-of-the-month will become more common.

I can’t get much excited about such a scenario either. In any case, we’re almost certain to continue to collectively behave like morons. If religion were to wane, we’d just have one color fade a bit in a wide spectrum of human folly.

bookmark_borderFree speech for Muslims?

I often complain about how conservative Muslims’ overdeveloped sensitivity to religious insult erects barriers to the freedom of speech, and particularly speech criticizing anything Islamic. That’s a serious problem for nonbelievers and anyone who cares about freedom of expression.

But here in the US, where we so love to posture about how we’re so much freer than those benighted Muslim countries, our paranoia about terrorism has created an environment where American Muslims cannot feel free to speak their minds for fear of the possible consequences.

These consequences unfortunately include imprisonment for nothing but speech. The recent conviction of Tarek Mehanna is an illustration, already remarked on by civil libertarians.

I can predict some of the Muslim responses, especially those accusing Western critics of hypocrisy when they call for Muslim governments to loosen up on the freedom of speech.

But I’m also curious about how atheists, particularly atheists convinced that conservative Islam is a major barrier to certain political liberties, are going to respond. Are we really concerned about freedom of speech, including speech we think is thoroughly obnoxious, or are we going to figure Islamists deserve everything coming their way?

bookmark_borderTurkish pianist under investigation for atheism

Fazıl Say, a Turkish pianist of international renown, apparently has a twitter habit and a tendency to say what he thinks. And since in a couple of tweets he has expressed atheism and engaged in some light mockery of Islam, he is now under investigation by the office of the Public Prosecutor, under suspicion of violating a Turkish law against insulting religion.

Once again, reason to be thankful I don’t live in a Muslim country.

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 20

Before I continue to examine the historical reliability of Chapter 19 of the Fourth Gospel, let’s take a step back and consider some historical evidence from outside the Gospels on the question of whether Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross:

In addition the Gospel of John reports that one of the guards pierced Jesus to confirm that he was already dead (see John 19:34-37), a practice likewise mentioned by Quintillian, a Roman historian in the first century.
(Michael Licona, from “Can We Be Certain that Jesus Died on a Cross?” in Evidence for God, p.166)

There are at least two problems with Licona’s claim:
1. Quintillian was not a Roman historian,
2. Quintillian probably did not write the passage that Licona references.

I’m a bit surprised that Licona made the first error, because in a previous book defending the resurrection that he co-authored with Gary Habermas, the claim about Quintillian was more circumspect:

The Roman author Quintillian (A.D. 35-95) reports of this procedure being performed on crucifixion victims.
(The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.102)

However, in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, no actual quote is provided; the footnote gives only the following reference:

53. Quintillian, Declarationes maiores  6:9.

From the fact that Quintillian is referred to merely as a Roman “author” one can reasonably infer that Quintillian was NOT an historian, and one would be correct to draw that inference in this case.  Furthermore, the fact that no actual quote is given in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, as well as with the reference to Quintillian in The Historical Jesus (by Habermas, see p.74), and also in The Son Rises (by William Craig, see p.38) should raise suspicions that the evidence is not as clear as Licona and Habermas and Craig would like us to believe.  This reasonable suspicion turns out to be correct as well.

The fact that Licona refers to Quintillian as a “Roman historian” indicates that Licona literally does not know what he is talking about.  If Licona simply understood the meaning of the title of the work that he cited, he should have known that Quintillian was not an historian, but was instead a rhetorician:

As we have received them in the textual tradition, the Major Declamations are a collection of nineteen entire fictitious courtroom speeches of accusation or defense which were composed sometime during the Roman Empire.  These controversiae, as they are technically termed, were composed by one or more professional teachers of rhetoric, although they have been ascribed since late antiquity to Quintillian (ca. 40 AD — ca. 96 AD)., the noted orator, teacher, holder of the Imperial Chair of Rhetoric…
For nearly six centuries the capstone of any young Roman male’s education in preparation for a career in either public service or private gain was the school of rhetoric.  There, under the tutelage of a professional rhetorician, he spent the years of his teens composing and delivering practice speeches.  These declamations, as they were called, fell into two categories: suasoriae, speeches of advice to historical figures, and controversiae, the more elaborate and demanding practice judicial speeches intended for advanced students.  In these, the teacher assigned a hypothetical court case involving usually one law or sometimes two, and a specific situation regarding a supposed violation, with the requirement that the student compose and, after suitable revision, deliver a full speech for one of the parties to the case.
(Lewis Sussman, The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian: A Translation, p.1)

Licona was not quoting from a Roman historian named Quintillian, rather he was quoting from a practice speech for a fictitious court case composed by an unknown Roman rhetorician who wrote the speech at some unknown date during the Roman Empire, and which was later ascribed to a famous Roman orator and rhetorician named Quintillian.

Although Licona demonstrates his own ignorance about the source he is quoting from, he does at least, give us the quotation (in a footnote), unlike Habermas and Craig:

As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.

Note that there is no mention that a Roman soldier is the one who does the piercing.  Note that there is no mention of a spear being used to do the piercing.  Note that there is no mention of the location of the piercing on the body of the victim.  Note that there is no explanation of the purpose of the piercing (i.e. it is not stated to be a test for determination of death nor to be used as a coup de grace).  Given the lack of details and clarity, it is now obvious why Habermas and Craig don’t bother to actually quote this passage from Declarationes maiores.

But the evidence is even weaker and more ambiguous than that, because the translation given by Licona may well be incorrect.  There is only one modern  full English translation available of the Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian, and that translation does not agree with the translation provided by Licona.  Lewis Sussman has provided the only modern full English translation of this work, and here is how he translates the passage in question:

But bodies are cut down from crosses, executioners do not prevent executed criminals from being buried…
(The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian, translated by Lewis Sussman,p.75)

Note the absence of the key word ‘pierced’.  The Latin word ‘percussos’ is translated by Sussman as ‘cut down’ rather than as ‘pierced’, though the word can have both meanings.

So, we have a passage not written by a well-known Roman historian of the first century, but rather written by an unknown teacher of rhetoric sometime during the Roman Empire.  And we have a passage that does not clearly describe a Roman soldier piercing a victim of crucifixion in the chest with a spear as either a test for determining death or as a coup de grace, but rather we have a possible reference to some person or other  piercing a victim of crucifixion on some body part or other with some implement or other for an unknown reason, and the best available translation does not even mention piercing, but rather speaks of cutting down the victim, meaning removing the victim from the cross.

So, the next time you read a Christian apologist citing some ancient historical source but not providing the actual quote
, you can reasonably infer that the actual quote is probably unclear or ambiguous.  And even when the apologist gives the actual quote, you need to be suspicious of the accuracy of the quote, especially if they are giving you a translation of a quote that was originally in another language.

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts: