16 August 2011

A note on Astrology....

The Abysmal Failure of Astrology or STFU about your stars..

A new day can always be counted upon to to offer fresh outrages, as well as the constant and recurrent. The daily astrology column, and its adherents take the form of the latter. These columns can be seen, and if you like, read, in almost any newspaper across the country (though these columns differ from paper to paper...why should that be?). At my local Starbucks the behavior of astrology fans is likewise a constant and daily source of outrage and disappointment. There are many ways to dismantle the arguments of the astrologers, but here is the argument I find most satisfying when laying waste to the pretensions of this ancient and exploded stupidity. The thrust of this argument is perhaps not original to me however I haven't heard it phrased quite this way before.

Perhaps you are looking at your horoscope and see that you, an Aquarius, have not lost your tendency to carry water, but are, nevertheless, about to embark on a five star day. Among fellow Zodiac travelers you are not alone, on this day Sagittarians (archers I guess), and Geminis (twins?) have similar positive auguries and can also expect to have a five star day (I've pulled these "predictions" from a daily horoscope found in the Portland Press Herald, dated, 13 Aug 2010). To see and hear it, many recipients of such portents find them to be quite prescient, convincing and accurate. At least these people don't demand their fortunes be told in the entrails of chickens or goats. But surely you yourself have heard someone exclaim, and exclaim is certainly the right word, "This is exactly what is happening," or maybe, "This is sooo spooky, its so accurate. That is totally you." Perhaps you have uttered something very like that,and have felt compelled to bore your fellow humans with this "news." Let me say this, gullibility displayed so nakedly is embarrassing enough to cause strangers to look away.

According to those "trained" in such arcana the predictions for any given sign are quite binding, and can be expected to unfold for anyone sharing any of the 12 Zodiac signs. In the example above, all Gemini, Sagittarians, and Aquarians can be expected to have a day characterized by five stars and some accompanying vaguery (i.e. A coworker likes you, be circumspect but remember boisterousness has its place). When I listen to such people, who-it must be said- are displaying a fairly grotesque solipsism, I am moved make a few points.

According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die every day from preventable diseases. This number is down from just a few years ago where 25,000 children died a day. For the new estimate, that leads to the depressing but unavoidable conclusion that 8.03 x 106 children die every year from utterly preventable diseases, and conditions. That is to say eight million thirty thousand kids die a year. A year. What does that have to do with astrology you ask? Well I am glad you did.

We have established, thanks to the tireless efforts of UNICEF, twenty two thousand children die every single day. Lets assume an even distribution of that twenty two thousand across the twelve signs of the fatuous Zodiac (this seems like a reasonable assumption). So that will distribute 1/12 of the 22,000 to each of the signs. If there is a more or less even distribution that gives us about 1,833 per sign. Returning to my example above, about 5,500 of those kids had a five star day! Many of those children will have died in some considerable pain, confused and scared. How many of those children, whose last day it was, would have remarked on the accuracy of those silly, and completely wrong predictions? Do you think the children dying of some pathogen causing explosive diarrhea and extreme, unremitting dehydration might have thought their three star predictions were pretty on point? Spookily Accurate? Would any of these expirations be considered a legitimate one star day? Hmmm? Why do the portents of the stars not apply to these children?

Now think of the appallingly large number of miserable, suffering people in the world that didn't die, but maybe share your (unimportant) birth month. Compare your day's astrological prediction (five stars you say?) with the experience of these hypothetical people that you know exist (think of Afghanistan, North Korea, Pakistan, Uganda, hell even in the developed world people can suffer horribly) but that you have not met, and then tell me again how accurate you think that silly "prediction" is. Maybe now we can hear a little bit less about how brutally accurate your vaguely phrased augury was, and maybe we can hear a little bit less of that idiotic, content-less question...What's your sign?

Author's Note If you are tempted to buy material associated with, or about astrology and to do so credulously let me suggest that you money and time might be better spent. Instead of that book about your readings for the year, and before you renew your subscription to your favorite astrological website you could click on the title of this entry and donate the money you were going to spend on that bullshit on something a bit better for everyone. The link takes you to UNICEF, and there they will explain to you why you should donate.

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A Letter to the (apparently) Biblically illiterate Pastor Terry "The bible Doesn't Condone Slavery" Dutton

What follows is a letter I recently wrote to a fundamentalist preacher, Pastor Terry Dutton, who should have known better. In a radio sermon he made the odd, and, as it happens, false claim that the bible doesn't condone the act of slavery. Sweeping God's cruelty, injustice and his obviously immoral (yet godly) edicts under the rug is an old problem for the clergy. It does seem as if the clerics are trying answer the following question: How do we explain away these ugly attributes, stories and behaviors that so obviously offend the senses, and annoy the average moral compass? It is likely they are trying to answer the question for themselves.

The conflict between the "morality" often found in revealed religion and that found among the non-clerical class is probably as old as religion itself and is certainly as old as organized religion that acts as a political force. When churches lose political power and the power to coerce people with the threat and actuality of violence, and when free thought and free speech are permitted very different conceptions of what is and isn't moral or ethical come to the fore. These discourses tend to spread rapidly through cultures. Such moral advancement tends to happen in the teeth, rather than with the support, of orthodox religion (anti-slavery say, or sexual equality offer two salient but by no means exhaustive examples). Since the churches cannot simply say their books were wholly written by men, without divine inspiration, these modern deflections (sometimes artful, generally artless) become necessary and unavoidable when members of the culture are free to ask questions and are not obligated to be quiet. It should be remembered that there was a time when such questions could not really be asked, because to do so probably meant death, and that by long complicated torture. It still can mean violent death in countries where clerical powers continue to hold sway.

And yet consider...no one is troubled by the behavior of Zeus, or Odin, or Ra. This isn't to say that people aren't critical of the aforementioned characters. They don't exist, so contemplating the gross infidelities of Zeus is not a source of existential angst. These mythologies, these dead religions are now largely considered human creations have an easier time of it. I am free, and so are you, to read the Iliad say and to enjoy it as literature. The work of explaining away the gods' vile tendencies is removed and they can be enjoyed and studied as mythologies and windows into the minds, and the times that created them. If Joseph Campbell is to be believed mythology may actually be useful in understanding human nature, and the things it tends to value. Extant religion tends to remove itself from such usefulness by the vigor and relentlessness with which it claims special exception.

Pastor Terry, to whom I have written, is left somewhat in a lurch. As a Christian fundamentalist he professes belief in a 3O god (Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent), he must try to square this 3O character with the revealed text and the ugliness contained therein. Terry Dutton is not the first theologian to fail in this endeavor, so he finds himself in fairly mighty company. Here we might cite ancients like Augustine, Aquinas, Tertullian, Maimonides, and Kierkergard. Or we might dredge these opaque waters at shallower depths and find a C.S. Lewis, or a Billy Graham. We might note progressives like Tillich who chose to abandon literalism but stick with some version of God. In such work we can see, at least, some struggle with the text that first gave them some hint at the entity whose character they seek to clarify. So while Terry may find himself in great company, his efforts aren't even on a par with the dreadful C.S. Lewis. Because unlike his intellectual forebears, Terry Dutton doesn't seem to understand the plain meaning of words. In the broadcast that so annoyed me, he made the claim that the bible doesn't condone slavery, or any of the negative actions taken by any character in the bible. Sometimes the latter may indeed be the case, but Dutton is clearly honestly mistaken, stupid, or dishonest concerning the former. Having listened to his broadcasts on a few occasions I wouldn't be surprised if his entire theology was some combination of the three. The bible clearly gives license for slavery and was widely cited in support of it during our own country's long argument about the practice of slavery and then later about civil rights. My letter was an attempt to point this out. The good Pastor Terry has yet respond.

Driving to the gym I occasioned to listen to your radio program. During your sermon you said something about God not condoning several actions, and behaviors on the part of characters in the bible. Much of what you said God didn't condone, is demonstrably false. The most obviously false statement you made in your attempt to excuse the character of God involved your bald assertion that the bible -which you apparently take to be the inerrant word of God- that the bible didn't condone slavery. This is nonsense. The bible clearly expects people to have slaves, has rules for the keeping of slaves, and even depicts Moses and his surly band of violently acquiring sex slaves. God seems to have specific rules for who the Hebrews could buy and who they could not. According to the bible you could sell your daughters. There is really no other way to read the bible on slavery than this: the God of Abraham clearly expects one to own slaves. To take one example, from
Exodus: 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
This is condoning slavery. Let me say it again. This is condoning slavery. If God had not approved/condoned slavery he could have put something concrete in the books of the bible, say somewhere in the Decalogue? How about "Thou shalt not own other sentient beings, nor trade in them, nor force sexual relations on them, be they Hebrew or not." That would constitute not approving, and not condoning. Not even in the New Testament can you get Jesus to castigate the practice of owing slaves. As grotesque as that is of course it is all pale in comparison to the violence and murder heaped upon the women and children of the Midianites, where all the males and male children were slain, all the females that had sex, slain, and of course the virgins the victors could keep for themselves. That sounds an awful lot like sex slavery to me.

In short the bible does condone these things. It had rules for how the practice of slavery was to be done. To give an illuminating counter example. US legal code does not condone theft. Its rules are always prohibitive. Nowhere will you find a legal code saying , Steal in this fashion, and if you steal from a fellow citizen you must return their stolen merchandise after seven years. You don't see that kind of language because the US legal code doesn't allow for theft under any circumstances. The bible does not issue prohibitive, rule of law, proscriptions against slavery, it says this is how it is to be carried out. Such language is evidence of condoning the practice of slavery.

Something to think about eh?

Thanks for your time.

Author's Note The letter above is presented with vastly fewer typos than the one I sent to the good Pastor.

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02 August 2011

Blasphemy and The Holy Spirit (Ghost): A problem with the morality of Jesus

The Facebook status update rarely seems like a good candidate for blog-fodder, but on occasion it can be generous with at least the germ of an idea. This morning however the Facebook germ rather quickly blossomed into a full grown idea. And if some may wish to push the metaphor of the germ a little further and call it a pathogenic idea I won't hold it against them. I suspect some of my religious readers-should I have any- may do exactly that.

The starting point of this discussion is the following status update:
Every sin or blasphemy can be forgiven--except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which can never be forgiven. Matthew 12:31

Here is the exact quote from the book of Matthew (beginning at verse 30 and ending with verse 32) from the New International Version (for the complete Matthew Chapter 12 you can go to The Scripture Project. The Scripture Project is the ambitious brain child of Steve Wells, and can be found-along with a great many other things- at Sam Harris' Project Reason.):
30 He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come.

A brief summary of the context is this. In the story, Jesus has just cast out some demons from a deaf/mute man, on-lookers are somewhat amazed by this, but the Pharisees suggest that Jesus' power comes from Beelzebub who is, apparently, the Prince of demons. In the story, Jesus' defends himself with stunning casuistry. After discussing the merits of an undivided house and an undivided kingdom he suggests that Satan would be defeating himself and his goals if Jesus derived his power to drive out demons from Satan. A discussion of the many flaws in this reasoning would take us too far away from the passage in question, but before we move on, I must ask a question which I am sure must have occurred to the literal minded Pharisees (and others besides). Wouldn't it be possible that Satan (a great deceiver and all that) might in his effort to lead people astray and into sin have granted a man some minor powers to get people to follow a false prophet?

One probably doesn't need to review more than Matthew 31-32. The passages are damaging enough by themselves. And one needn't do much work to see why. Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven but one? If you were asked which sin and blasphemy would be the unforgivable, unpardonable one, and your intellect were unburdened with Christian mythology, is there any way you would suggest some thing like speaking irreverently, and impiously about the Holy Spirit? I am going to guess the answer to that would be no. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, I am sure you have come up with some better candidates for unforgivable sins. However of all the evils in the world Jesus chooses as unforgivable criticism of an element of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being of which he himself is a part. One might think the rape, murder and torture of children might at least merit a mention in the ranks of the unforgivable. Or perhaps slavery (which also would have too often encompassed the aforementioned crimes against children). What about genocide? Not for Jesus. For him it is criticism, doubt and irreverence toward himself, or at least an element of himself that can earn damnation. How anyone can find this an anodyne preachment is simply beyond me.

I suppose we might expect Jesus to be somewhat protective of the Holy Spirit, it is after all the being credited with knocking Mary up. Did I just blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? What I just said was fairly impious, and certainly irreverent. So yes I think I did. In a sentence of 25 words I managed, if the Christian account be true, to damn myself to hell. Given how easy it is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the believers may want to ask if they have similarly, though perhaps accidently, damned themselves.

While the passage itself is damaging enough, the whole of Jesus' response to the Pharisees reveals what Christopher Hitchens has called the totalitarian nature of religion, which condemns one by thoughts and words alone. What Jesus said after his initial proscription against speaking ill (which is the only damage one can do to an non-corporeal, all powerful entity) of the Holy Spirit, is actually worth reviewing. In the verses that follow Jesus begins the long and bloody Christian essay against free expression, free thought, and free inquiry (or at the very least adds to it). Again from the New International Version:
34You brood of vipers, [Jesus is referring here to his critics the Pharisees] how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of he overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words will you be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

From the outset it seems that Jesus is offering the reader a false dichotomy in parsing people into good or evil. It doesn't help his case that all that seems necessary to qualify as the latter is to be on the other side of a disagreement with Jesus. However, the Pharisees need not be evil to have made their suggestion, they could just be wrong. The world, as anyone who has lived on it for more than a decade will tell you, is not divided into good people and evil people.

The last two verses though (36 and 37) seem fairly wicked to me, in that they seem so antithetical to free speech, free inquiry and free thought (at least where Christianity-indeed any of the Abrahamic traditions- is strong culturally, politically or both). When Christianity is politically strong, clergy often arrogate the power to decide what texts can be read or written, they can brand as heretical any ideas they dislike. In this way do they damage inquiry and speech. The text itself indicates that even thinking certain thoughts can condemn you, because some times our thoughts come in strings of words even if we keep them in our head un-uttered. And even if they have no political protections, and/or state granted powers, clergy still limit inquiry by dictating to their flock the same kinds of limitations. This desire to limit exposure to certain ideas often doesn't stop at their flock by the way. Given the opportunity many of these fundamentalists would like to see the freedom of those who disagree with them, who don't share their faith, and who would prefer freedom to the yoke, denied such freedoms. Even in the US there are attempts to ban books from schools and public libraries, to limit or block the release of movies, and to limit the speech of those with whom they disagree.

By words will we be condemned or acquitted? Who decides what content is evil or good? Doesn't discourse become difficult if you parse the world into such stark and sactimoniously tainted demographics? Why let some withered old algorithm do your thinking for you? Why let it do your condemning for you? This monstrous logic seems to place words above actions as we, and of course God, adjudicate on the morality of other thinking creatures. I suppose that makes some sense given that many Christian fundamentalists tend to think that if you utter a magic phrase that you suddenly have a personal relationship with Jesus that allows you to elude hell even though you may have lived a life that would make even an ambitious Viking blush. But consider two different people. One person says to you after a meeting: "Man you really get on my nerves sometimes. I just feel like kicking you in the balls sometimes." Not entirely pleasant true, and maybe those words were carelessly chosen but....now think about this. There is a co-worker who randomly gets up and kicks you in the balls. With which co-worker do you want to work? I know my answer.

If you are a believer of any stripe of Christianity please tell me in the comment's section why you think my reading of this as immoral is the wrong reading.

[Author's Note: I'm hardly the first unbeliever to notice problems with this commandment or rule or is it a law revealed in this chapter of Matthew. Brian Flemming's very game documentary, The God Who Wasn't There was, at least in part, an answer to the intense fear that he had run afoul that very commandment in his fundamentalist youth. Imagine how that would torture a young child. Youtube athiests went somewhat wild with an event called the Blasphemy Challenge wherein viewers were challenged to blaspheme the Holy Spirit on video and post that video.
The point here is that I am certainly not making a novel observation, but one that is recurrent and somewhat unavoidable.
Here is Penn Jillette's BC video.
And here is Christina's (ZOMGitsChris) BC video, a bit less on the spot: