Class Warfare Blog

April 20, 2015

Put a Fork in It

I am just finishing reading Richard Carrier’s two part magnus opus, Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus. In the first book Dr. Carrier addresses the flawed tools used by most biblical scholars when analyzing scriptural texts. And since he is trying to make an air tight case, he is very (very) thorough. For instance, often biblical schools would use a principle that if scripture states something that is negative about Christianity, then we can be assured that that statement is more likely to be true, arguing that redactors (editors) would not dare change or remove the truth. This is about as sensible as those who claim that the more unbelievable a statement is, the more likely they would believe in it (otherwise the writers would be open to ridicule for spouting nonsense).

Dr. Carrier points out the flaws in almost all of these “tools” used to analyze scripture and then points out that there is a way to make decisions about scripture that is both more reliable and more quantitative and that is the use of Bayes’s Theorem. This mathematical construct can be used to determine probabilities of even historical statements being true. All of Proving History is a setup, basically proving his tool for analyzing the New Testament in On the Historicity of Jesus.

Please recognize that this is an historical study, approached with the tools of an historian. The goal is to determine the probability that Jesus was a real person, that is an historical person. An historian approaches things differently than theologians do, which is partly why the situation we have is so confused. Theologians, for example, choose to believe in miracles. Historians do not believe in miracles, for the simple reason than no miracle has ever stood up to rational scrutiny (and this test has been failed many, many times). Much of biblical scholarship was done by people who accepted the traditional interpretation of scripture and then were trying to prove it valid. Working from a conclusion backwards to the evidence is hardly a valid scholarly approach, but it was the dominant trend in scriptural analaysis and biblical archeology until recently.

So, here is the approach Dr. Carrier takes in analyzing the entire NT: he sets up two very minimal hypotheses, one in which Jesus was a real person, but only the most spare claims are made (no miracles, no resurrection, etc.). The counter thesis is that Jesus was a “celestial being,” an archangel, in essence, and not a real person. These were considered the barest bases for the religion that was to come. Then two probabilities are estimated (yes, estimated) for each and every piece of evidence as to whether that evidence supports either hypothesis. To make the argument ironclad, Dr. Carrier creates a high and low estimate for each. His estimates are very (very) generous for the traditional interpretation of Christian scripture. I would not have been so generous, but this is even accounted for by the math being done out in the open and readers encouraged to make their own estimates and doing the math themselves.

Then we slog through the evidence: the extra-biblical evidence, including Christian and non-Christian sources, archeological evidence, etc., the biblical evidence. Particularly interesting was the investigation of Paul’s contribution. It is now common knowledge that scripture and other evidence shows that Christianity had two main branches at it’s inception (Gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity) and that Paul’s contribution was fundamental to the gentile branch that grew into the Catholic Church and all the rest while the Jewish branch dwindled away under pressure of being branded heretical by the Roman Church. So, Paul, in essence created Christianity. His letters contribute 20,000+ words to NT scriptures. There are indications that he made other writings that were lost, but being lost means they can’t be analyzed. The part, though, that can be analyzed is huge. In that part (paul’s letters or epistles), do you know how many times the word “disciple” is used? The exact number is zero. The number of times that Paul quotes Jesus or uses his ministry as an example of something. Again, zero. Paul refers to “apostles” of the Lord which can be translated as a bearing of a message, a messenger. He claims repeatedly that he got this message from no man, that he got it scripture (he quotes the OT ad nauseum) and refers to his personal revelations (visions, whatever). If it were up to Paul, we would have no knowledge whatsoever of a historical Jesus nor would we know of any disciples or familay members of Jesus or that he was a preacher and had a mission and…. All of Paul’s letters (the true ones, not the forgeries) talk only about church matters responding to letters he received from members of certain churches but in none of the letters apparently were any questions asked along the lines of “what was Jesus like?” or “did he have a family?” or “where was he born?” It is beyond comprehension that there would be no questions about the central figure’s personal life, but there you have it.

How could Paul ignore what is in the Gospels, you ask. Simple, he died before they were written. Paul dies before the War of 66-70CE. The Gospels were written after the war, in some cases well after. A deep analysis of the Gospels shows that they bear numerous (very numerous) marks of being literary works and almost none of being historical works. There is so little reliable history in the Gospels that they can only be labeled 100% fiction. So, why were they written? Why are there four of them? Well, there were a lot more than four written but only four made it into the final cut (made in the fourth Century CE). Interestingly each of the Gospels are not competing interpretations of the same events. One writer doesn’t mention in the way of discrediting the others and saying “I am right, they are wrong.” Each was written for the same goal: supplying a reality-based back story to the Jesus cult, just as the Pentateuch was written in the 500s BCE as a back story for a Judean king. That four different versions were accepted into the final bible was a political decision, each of the congregations that used those gospels was too big to exclude so their gospel had to be included.

So, how much history can the gospels provide? Very (very) little as it turns out as there is no corroboration, no identification of their writers (the originals had no authors, they were “added” later), no identification of sources and no other documentary evidence confirming anything done or said. This, though, does not necessarily undermine there was a real person named Jesus.

Dr. Carrier leaves no stone unturned. Approximately 40% of the text of OTHOJ is in the form of scholarly notes (most of which I skipped over). And the final verdict? The hypothesis that Jesus was a real, flesh and blood person (not that he was the son of god or anything else) came out to be somewhere between 33% and 0%. And the 33% figure is based upon ridiculously generous probabilities assigned to evidence for the “historical hypothesis,” so one could argue that a fair estimate is much closer to 0% than to 33%. The zero figure is also rounded off, the actual probability came out to be 1/12,000 but since the odds of being struck by lightning are 1/10,000 it was considered fair to round it to essentially zero.

The hypothesis that Jesus was a mythical creature came out somewhere between 67% and 100% (the remain probability out of 100%) as the hypotheses were assumed to be mutually exclusive and that no competing hypotheses were available.

Now, this is not conclusive, per se, but it does something wonderful. It establishes a sound scholarly basis for any counter arguments. If you want to argue that the results should be different, you need to establish that the individual probabilities are wrong (and since they were very (very generous in favor of an historical Jesus, that is going to be very difficult) or you need to provide additional evidence and since people have been looking strenuously for centuries, that is also going to be difficult. (Dr. Carrier even went to the trouble of showing what a single piece of new evidence, strong pro-historical Jesus evidence, would do to the calculations and since the amount of evidence is so large, it would have to be really significant to have much of an effect.)

My conclusion? Well, it is simple: The New Testament “Good News” is the Fox News of the First Century, you know “Fox News, Where the Truth Lies.” The NT is not historical. This doesn’t mean that people can’t have Christianity as a religion, they have already believed much stranger things. That Jesus’ story is most likely allegorical is not that much larger to swallow. But inerrant biblical literalness? Put a fork in it. It is cooked.

April 17, 2015

The Biblical Literalist’s Dilemma

In my previous post I mentioned the compartmentalization of beliefs (and how it is infecting our politics). One of the largest of these beliefs is that the Bible represents the words of God and that those words cannot, therefore, be wrong. (This attitude is not found in Judaism or in many sects of Christianity, but is a mainstay in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity.)

A recent correspondent used the device of printing out a three page list of all of the contradictions in the Bible, each being two statements which cannot both be true. Now one can hide from such a revelation, by simply stating that those who “have faith” can see beyond the contradictions but that barely suffices as a lame excuse. One of the contradictions concerns the two creation stories in Genesis which differ as to what day plants were created. No amount of belief will make two different days the same (unless you are willing to accept it is a story, pure and simple, and stories can be changed).

My most recent approach in such discussions is to point out that what we know of Jesus is in the four gospels. None of the rest (the Epistles, Acts, etc.) add information about Jesus per se (although Acts does contradict the gospels, it is only in quantities). And, in the four gospels we are told over and over and over again that we cannot just look at the words. I will use Mark’s Gospel as all of the rest are based upon Mark to some extent, so his gospel (whoever Mark was) came first (sometime after the war that concluded in 70CE for the reason that the marks of that war (no pun intended) are clear in the gospel).

Consider:
11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” …
21 He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? 22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

Basically Jesus was giving his secret knowledge to his disciples but the rest just got, to quote a musical comedy, “words, words, words …” So, the words spoken by Jesus to the multitudes were, in essence, in code. One must have the key to the code to figure out what they really mean. No key has been provided, so the inerrancy of the words is hardly important, is it? And if they are inerrant, then the key needs to “fix” all of the inconsistencies and by that fact alone, we will know that we have the correct key.

So, where’s the key?

The Role of Evidence in Religion and Politics

I was commenting on a post regarding the role of the quality of evidence in religion and belief systems and had a minor epiphany. Here is that comment: “One could argue that since God is ‘outside of space and time’ that there can be no evidence (of God’s existence), so estimates of its quality are moot. One could argue that a being outside of space and time could not have an impact inside of space and time, which would also make Yahweh’s sojourn with Moses in the wilderness less than correct. And in politics we are urged to ‘follow the money’ to determine the channels of power. In religion, we should be ‘following the belief’ as that is the source of the power of the religions. Religions are belief creating machines, they latch onto vague feelings we all have and claim that they know the reasons for them. If someone believes those claims, kaching!, money in the bank for that religion (for example, Scientology).

The ability to compartmentalize one’s beliefs is an essential characteristic for believers because, well, nonsense is prone to contradiction. As one believer passionately put it: “If Genesis one is not to be taken literally man did not sin and the purpose of the rest of the Bible, redemption, and the coming of Christ to die for our salvation are useless.” Aye, there’s the rub. All of Christianity fails if Genesis 1 is not accepted to be literal, ergo it must be taken literally. That doesn’t explain, though, why so many Christians do not take it literally. Compartmentalization of beliefs does.

So, what are the consequence for us that people are fairly comfortable with putting completely contradictory statements in separate mental boxes and believing them both. One of the consequences is the Modern GOP. It could have been any particular political party, it just happened to be the GOP (which is a sad outcome for the Party of Lincoln). When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, racist Democrats in the South became Republicans in protest. (Please note that the GOP didn’t go looking for racists to bolster its ranks, it was just gifted a passel of sitting Senators and Congressmen.) This lead to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to get elected President and the correlation of the “south” and Evangelical Christianity brought evangelicals in droves into the GOP sphere. So, to attract evangelicals, Republicans must be “men of faith” and the more they can demonstrate that, the better received they are by evangelical voters. So, a certain mindset in the GOP is created. One can state the most ridiculous claims (e.g. climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists to get government grants, Evolution is a religion, etc.) for which there is not only no evidence but no history or prior example of such a thing and this is considered normal discourse.

“In other words, religious thinking has massively infected political thinking.”

In other words, religious thinking has massively infected political thinking. We are thinking about concrete political issues like we think about abstract religious issues. This is a disaster. Religious thinking eschews evidence for belief. The basis for belief is teaching that such belief has merit; it is how children are proselytized. Beliefs about politics are thus essentially divorced from reality and thus we will, more and more, be making political decisions based upon things that have nothing to do with the issues at hand. This strategy is equivalent to throwing darts through the air and hoping that there is a dart board nearby that they might hit.

What can we do? The only thing I can think of is to “call bullshit” ever time you hear it, politely, please, so as to not lessen your message. When a politicians states, say, the “climate change hoax” meme so popular in conservative circles, ask “Do you really believe that hundreds and hundreds of scientists, from dozens of different countries, have conspired to create a hoax that would ruin the careers of all involved if it were to be exposed? And that none of those scientists has a big enough ego to want to take down all of his competitors? Do you really believe that? If so, do you have evidence of a time where this has happened before? Do you have evidence of people doing it now or is this pure speculation based upon your lack of understanding of how science works?

Grill, baby, grill!

April 16, 2015

Fox U.S. History(TM)

According to Sean Hannity, Fox (sic) News superstar, the U.S. is “a country of immigrants and not an illegal immigrant country.” Not surprisingly, he has his history all wrong. Immigration of people into this country was first regulated in about 1790, at least immigration as we know it now. Prior to that it was a matter solely residing in the “states/colonies” and then the restrictions were mostly religion–based, that is affecting Quakers, Jews, Catholics, etc.,  and those regulations ended at the state’s borders.

Prior to 1790 then, all of “us” were illegal immigrants. None of us received permission to land here from the original occupants. Any of those original occupants who objected to us being here too vociferously were killed.

And if you think immigration law was well-kept, think again. During the Gold Rush of 1850, so many gold miners “invaded” and so many “officials” hied off to the gold fields, that nobody was checked. California wasn’t a state earlier on in this period and even when it became one, creating an efficient bureaucracy wasn’t the highest priority. So the bulk of the Anglos making up the state when it became part of the U.S. were what we would call “undocumented aliens.” Their path to citizenship was apparently being here when the Congress acted to make California a state.

So if you look at the creation of this country and the forces driving the major changes in our configuration, you must believe that the majority of the people involved were what we would call today “undocumented aliens.” Nobody gave us permission to land and stay here; we just did it.

Why Fox continues to pay the likes of Hannity is beyond me. The only thing I can figure is that Hannity’s education and biases match that of his audience, roughly that of a racially prejudiced eighth grader. And Fox’s knowledge of our history completely sucks.

Hey, Gang, I’ve Got an Idea!

My home state of California is currently being ravaged by very severe drought. And while you might think I’d be someone who laid this drought at the feet of Androgenic Climate Change, that’s not what this is about right now. Right now, we need solutions.

Here’s one.

Currently almond growers use more water than all residential users in the entire state, and the bulk of their crop is exported. California cannot afford exporting water in the form of almonds in such a crisis. So, here’s a plan: pay the almond growers what they would have profited from their crop for the next twelve months. Cut back their water use to the bare minimum needed to just keep their trees alive and healthy.

Ta da, a huge amount of water was just saved. Almond growers made a large amount of money without working all that hard and the almond shortage will probably spike demand when they begin producing again.

And if it works for almonds … ?

By the way, the big banks can borrow money at 0% interest, so I guess California could do the same.

April 14, 2015

The Impulse to Fight

Sam Harris has a great many interesting conversations with other fascinating people which he shares on his blog (www.samharris.org). His most recent post (“Fighting”) was a conversation with the author Jonathan Gottschall, who had written a book about his venture, as an adjunct English professor, into a mixed-martial arts ring. In the conversation Prof. Gottschall made the point:

“Telling someone to “just walk away” is going against the grain of hundreds of thousands of years of hominid evolution, during which it really was damaging to suffer a slight to your honor.”

This was in reference to Sam Harris prescription regarding self-defense when threatened with violence (one of three steps, “The Truth About Violence,” you can find it on his blog).

This misunderstanding is at the core of us trying to understand our inner urges. According to everything anthropologists and paleontologists can scrape together, in primitive primate and hominid societies, the role of alpha male was in full display. The alpha male was the biggest, strongest, bravest male in the group. Since males are biologically larger than females, females didn’t qualify to be the “baddest dude in these parts.” And the rules are fairly simple (still): if another male challenges the alpha male in any way, shape, or form, the alpha male would whup his ass. The only beings who stood a chance were those that were very close to the alpha male in size and skill in fighting. Since only those stood a chance of winning, and the cost of losing was getting a beating, all of the rest didn’t even bother. They watched as the challengers to the alpha male got beat senseless and recognizing that they would fare worse, they never challenged. If the alpha male insulted them, they apologized for offending the alpha male, offered peace with donations of food, grooming, etc. There was no useless, stupid idea of “honor.”

Only when human societies created a large disparity between the wealthy and the rest was there a cadre of well-fed, well-trained males who could afford the cost of a “sense of honor.” Even in the days when people fought with swords (duels), unless you were very well trained, a duel with the wrong person could mean death. To those folks, rich or poor, a sense of honor was about as useful as a peacock’s tail. It might attract a female of two, but was as likely to attract predators as well.

What has gotten effed up in our culture is we stuff stories into young male minds about things like honor, but we do not provide outlets for it to be displayed, with the possible exception of sports. The easy availability of handguns and other firearms has created a situation where males closer to zed than alpha think they can compete. Liquor isn’t the source of false bravery, it is the false power of guns. The smallest wimps on the block, even children, feel like “real men” when they are “carrying.”

Notice that in most other cultures guns are used infrequently by police officers. Here we have allowed our police cadres to become honor societies who feel the power of the weapons at their hands and the numbers they can call in to back them up. So, our police take offense at slights and having very little other skill by which to intimidate their “opponents” they use lethal force. (He gave me lip, so I shot him./He was selling cigarettes, so we choked him to death. etc.)

Our problem is we have empowered males who are not of high quality and endowed them with “alpha” status. We then create honor societies out of their departments to protect them. Consequently they act as if they are the end of the chain of authority and proceed to beat others to a pulp or kill them as if it were their right.

It is not going to be easy to untangle this mess, but if these underlying issues are not dealt with, every effort will fail to solve the problem.

April 13, 2015

And Then What Happens …

As a society we have a very well developed faculty for ignoring obvious consequences. For example, our conviction that  the Iraq war will only take a few weeks or a few months when we hadn’t prepared for what would obviously happen after three days (chaos, looting, sectarian and political revenge taking, etc.)

There is an apparent willingness amongst Americans to accept the wealth inequality which is making now the Second Gilded Age as the “new normal.” The push back for wealth re-redistribution is quite feeble to this point. Yes, wealth re-redistribution because the current wealth distributions were created by policies, not markets, per se. Wal-Mart’s business plan would have failed miserably were they not able to take advantage of government support systems for their workers, plus tax advantages, etc.) Any of you who think wealth is created by hard work, free markets, and grit/spunk/initiative need to have your heads examined. Wealth has always been created by protectionism and force, always.

So, what happens next … if we accept the radically different distributions of wealth that are now taking shape, with a major fraction of the country’s wealth held in the hands of just a few hundred people. Psychology tells us that when people first acquire wealth, they become very much concerned with hanging on to it, which should surprise no one. The consequence is that they become more conservative in that they wish to conserve the status quo as any king of change may be to a scenario in which they have less wealth. Having very large amounts of money allows them the ability to affect the political process, directly by supporting candidates and issues but also by making changes in the political process. Money is a powerful tool in our politics. So, very wealthy people are inclined to be “political” to the extent that they are either preserving the status quo or are making their position better. And uber-wealthy people have now a great deal of power, now more than ever because of the rule changes they have gotten effected.

Does this sound at all familiar?

In this country, most politicians are seeking tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and benefit reductions for the poorest. Did this situation come about through sober reflection on the state of those classes of people in the U.S.? Or … not? If we accept the current state of wealth inequality and do not change our policies to reduce it, yes, by redistributing it back to the people it was redistributed from, we are accepting, explicitly not just tacitly, a plutocratic society where the Golden Rule trumps all; as my father often described it: “Them’s what has the gold, makes the rules.”

April 10, 2015

Hillary Versus the Republican Horde

As it seems that Hillary Clinton will announce her candidacy for President this weekend it seems fair to look ahead to the match-ups. (Maybe we should have brackets like in March Madness; it would be more orderly.) I sincerely hope Mrs. Clinton takes off the overly polite kid gloves approach of most Democrats and faces things square on. For example …

Hillary v. Rand Paul
Hillary: I will put my record up against Rand Paul’s except, well, he has no record. They call the U.S. Senate “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” but I don’t see where Senator Paul has done, well, anything, certainly no deliberating. Oh, he did sign the seditious letter to the Ayatollahs in Iran trying to undermine the diplomacy of the Secretary of State and the President. If he had done that on my watch, heads would have rolled.

Hillary v. Ted Cruz
Hillary: I will put my record up against Ted Cruz’s except, well, like Rand Paul, he has no record either. He has sponsored no legislation. He has written no legislation. Oh, wait, Senator Cruz did orchestrate a shutdown of the federal government that cost U.S. taxpayers 28 billion dollars. The net effect of his shutdown? A loss of 28 billion dollars. Hellava record, Senator.

Hillary v. John Bush aka “Jeb”
Hillary: I will put my record up against Jeb Bush’s and unlike those other two clowns, he has one. Let’s see, oh, yes. As Governor of the State of Florida, he is the one responsible for injecting the state government into the tragic case of Terry Schiavo, a legally dead woman being kept going on life support for like a decade. (Her husband petitioned a court to take her off life support and allow her to die and receive a decent burial. The local court said okay.) And Jeb got special legislation passed transferring the case the state government, but when the state couldn’t intervene hard enough, ole’ Jeb ran up to Washington (Washington, D.C. mind you) and got his brother the President to intervene. After weeks of this legal and media circus, the grieving husband of Terry Schiavo was allowed to remove her from the machinery and succumb to her natural state. An autopsy showed her brain has decomposed to half of its former size she had been dead so long. Governor Bush claimed his interventions were driven by a religious respect for life. Funny way to show your respect.

Hey, any of you Republicans still think ole’ Jeb is a small government guy? You want him interfering in your personal affairs? If you do, go ahead an elect him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Hillary v. ???
Hillary: Next!

April 9, 2015

Killing the Boston Bomber

Now that the man has been convicted and seems to be guilty without doubt, should be take him outside and kill him?

I say no.

And it hasn’t anything to do with my lily-livered liberal disposition. I am against capital punishment in general as are the people of the State of Massachusetts (the trial is being held in a federal court under federal rules, so the state’s eschewing of the death penalty doesn’t aply). My reasons are simple.

  1. Too many mistakes are made. Hundreds of people condemned to die at our hands because of crimes they apparently committed have been found later to be innocent of those crimes and have been let go. How many innocent people have been executed is unknown and now possibly unknowable. We also find it much easier to condemn people of different skin color than ours and, I presume, any other markers of difference, so the process is biased.
  2. It costs too much. It costs a great deal to finally execute somebody (in my home state studies showed the costs were many times what it took to keep someone in prison for their natural lives) and the costs are not just in the form of money. Many Americans are Christians and their god has told them that “Vengence is His.” So, it is an un-Christian act we commit. We are also a co-participant in the murder of another person (the government is “us”) regardless of religious injunctions.
  3. It terminates suffering which terminates any possibility of redemption or rehabilitation. Why would anyone want to cut short the punishment of someone who has (apparently) committed a heinous crime? Should they not suffer their loss of freedom for year after year?

Dick Cheney Unfairly Criticized

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 10:45 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Ex Vice-President Dick Cheney recent stated his opinion that President Barack Obama is “the worst President we’ve ever had.” Mr. Cheney has been attacked over this comment (and not just for its poor grammar) and I think that is unfair. Mr. Cheney has the bona fides to make such assessments, after all, he was the worst Vice-President ever.

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