Before discussing a matter, study it well

In my post Sunrise, sunset, which I wrote back in March 2011, I discussed Jewish law pertaining to the definition of a day in the polar regions. My main point was that it’s strange indeed to imagine that an omniscient deity who created the entire universe would not have laid down clear laws which would continue to be applicable as the Jewish people began to live outside the Levant. This kind of oversight, I argued, strongly suggests that Jewish rules and traditions were not created by a god but rather created by an ancient tribe of people limited in their knowledge of the world.

Before launching into that argument I made a brief, almost parenthetical remark that

[the] task of interpreting ancient rules to modern circumstances is interesting and absurd in its own right. I will never cease to be amazed that Orthodox Jews consider it “work” to drive a car (or be driven) to synagogue and therefore walk several miles on foot instead, or that they really do consider electricity to “count” as fire.

Recently, commenter Daniel Nuriyev wrote,

This article shows the extent of your ignorance in the Jewish religion. Before discussing a matter, study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way. Imagine a person completely ignorant in physics ridiculing some unobvious laws of physics, such as Einstein’s concepts of time and space.
For example you say that you don’t understand how driving is work. If before writing this you had tried to find this out, you might have found out the following: the Jewish Law forbids 39 specific types of ‘melakha’. The word melakha may mean ‘craft’. One of the melakhoth is lighting fire. When you start a car, you ignite fire. A deeper question is why it is so important not to light fire in any form or way but this question is deeper and requires preparation. LInear Algebra cannot be explained without a few years of intensive math study.

(I haven’t edited the comment in any way, but copied it verbatim from what Daniel posted.)

It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I’m not nearly as ignorant of Jewish law as Daniel presumes. I am aware that various kinds of work are prohibited on the sabbath, because it is supposed to be a holy day of rest, the same way that God supposedly rested after spending six days creating the world. In clarifying what counts as non-resting activities, halachic teachings hold that these specific forms of “creation” or “craft” meet the definition, by analogy to what God was up to before resting. My comment was primarily in reference to the fact that this list itself is bizarre. I sympathize with the idea of designating a traditional rest day (or two!) for the community, but who needs to rest after, for example, erasing? The “craft” definition of work doesn’t match up with actual exertion; see: walking instead of driving. Also, turning a key which closes a circuit through a spark plug, igniting a pressurized gas inside a complex mechanical assembly, is very technically “lighting a fire” but looks nothing like the labor-intensive process of fire-starting several thousand years ago. This is all pedantry and seems to miss the point, even if you grant the theological premises.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the underlying idea in Daniel’s comment: that before I discuss a religious practice, I should “study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way.” Is this really the best way of examining beliefs that we don’t share?

Surely, you need to learn what you’re actually trying to talk about, before you talk about it. It’d be ridiculous for me to discuss Judaism and critique its key teachings without learning anything beyond the name of the religion. I should read some reputable sources, talk to some actual Jews about what they think and how they practice, and so on.

But it sounds more like Daniel’s saying I don’t have the right to criticize Judaism if I haven’t studied in a yeshiva, and a sufficiently orthodox one at that. (An interesting problem, because many Orthodox Jews wouldn’t permit a woman like me to study the Torah and Talmud in the same way that men do. Does that mean I can never criticize Judaism? Convenient.) It also seems strange to eliminate all other Jewish traditions besides the severest orthodoxy as not Jewish enough to be valuable here. I have a number of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish friends and extended family members who would be insulted by this insinuation.

Moreover, it’d be impossible for me to study Judaism “in the orthodox way” right now because I don’t believe it. The only way for me to meet Daniel’s standard of being sufficiently informed to criticize a religion is basically for me to first convert to that religion. I hope it’s clear on face why this is an unfair and unnecessary standard — but it is one held by many religious people, of a wide variety of theological stripes. Yet by presuming from the start that religious teachings are to be devoutly followed, we’re restricting the set of conceivable discussions. An outsider, informed by the facts but not extensively trained — or, one might say, indoctrinated — in orthodoxy, can offer much more objective insights. You need to be able to question, to think outside the box, in order to have a discussion that’s more than a regurgitation.

I suppose Daniel and I agree that before discussing a matter, one should study it well. We just disagree on what that good study should actually entail.

Defensive reactions

While reading an excerpt of David McAfee’s Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer over at Friendly Atheist (a loooong time ago), I came across this bit that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about:

When you tell someone — even if it is a family member or close friend — that you don’t believe in their God, a defensive reaction isn’t surprising. Oftentimes, you’re telling them that everything they’ve ever known, everything their parents and their childhood idols ever told them, is wrong.

McAfee goes on to give realistic, insightful advice about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it’s not in any way my intention to take issue with that. But I do think the fact that a defensive reaction is so expected does itself say something interesting about this whole religion issue.

Let’s consider, as we so often do, an analogy. Everyone I’ve ever known my whole life has always told me that when I drop something, it will fall down. I have always believed that gravity is real, and while my understanding of gravity has grown slightly more refined as I’ve gotten older (to incorporate special circumstances such as one’s apparent weightlessness while in orbit or in a zero-g aircraft, which I have been taught to interpret as the subject falling at the same rate as their environment), it has always been a fundamental part of my understanding of the world around me. I honestly don’t know how I would conceive of the physical world and its phenomena without gravity existing. Now let’s suppose someone comes to me and says, “NFQ, I have to tell you something: I don’t believe in gravity. I just don’t think it’s real.” How am I likely to react?

I might laugh, or if I were able to keep it together, stifle some laughter. I would certainly be surprised. I would also be sad that this person’s scientific literacy is so poor. But would I get defensive about it? I highly doubt that. What would I even be defensive about? Someone else’s ignorance, which doesn’t impugn me in the slightest? The idea hardly makes sense. Even if someone wanted to argue with me, to try to convince me to stop “believing in gravity,” I wouldn’t be offended — mostly just amused, and eventually bored.

When I think about religious beliefs, I tend to think of them as statements of fact about how reality works. Like gravity — you do this, then this will happen; or, this is a driving force underlying the shape of the universe as we experience it. If a religious person truly believes their own doctrines in that way, I don’t think they would be defensive about them. Someone else’s disbelief would simply seem bizarre and/or sad. Yet most people do become defensive when you challenge their religious beliefs, or even just state that you don’t happen to share those beliefs. It seems to me, then, that most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

I’m going to say that again, because it’s really strange: Most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

But … if a religious person doesn’t think their own religious doctrines are true statements, what on earth does it mean to be a believer?

Back for real!

You guys, you guys!

I finished my PhD, and I’ve got a job, and things are pretty okay! I think the job has settled down enough that I can reliably post about once a weekday, so I’m back now, and this time I mean it.

Posts in the hopper include: thoughts on atonement in the wake of Yom Kippur; responses to some of the more interesting/emblematic comments that were left during my protracted absence; and reviews of a whole pile of GotQuestions.org’s “Question[s] of the Week” that I’ve been saving up just for you. I’m looking forward to being back on the intertubes!

Accidentally insightful WLC

According to Christian apologist William Lane Craig (via Apologetics 315):

If Christians could be trained to to provide solid evidence for what they believe and good answers to unbelievers’ questions and objections, then the perception of Christians would slowly change. Christians would be seen as thoughtful people to be taken seriously rather than as emotional fanatics or buffoons. The gospel would be a real alternative for people to embrace.

What a beautiful quotation. I have two immediate reactions:

  1. Yes, yes, exactly! If Christians could provide solid evidence for what they believe, I would start to take them seriously instead of seeing them as “emotional fanatics or buffoons” — at least when they’re in their religious mindset, not compartmentalizing it. In the absence of that evidence (i.e., in the present world in which we live), the gospel is not a viable “alternative” to reality.
  2. Hmm… it’s interesting that (even WLC acknowledges!) there are all these Christians who don’t have evidence for what they believe, and can’t answer others’ questions or objections. Why, one might ask, do they believe it in the first place? It seriously breaks my brain trying to understand how people can believe things without having reason to think they are actually true.

Leaving family traditions behind

I find it can be helpful to examine one’s own culture by analogy, considering another set of customs to which one is an outsider. In this spirit, I hope you’ll enjoy this comic from Pictures for Sad Children (click for the full image):

For those of you who used to ritually feast on the flesh of your god take communion, I suppose this might have an added flavor of familiarity….

I’m easy to convert, actually

As I picked up litter gospel tracts scattered in a shopping mall parking lot the other day, I got to thinking about what a Christian — or, any other variety of theist — might be able to say in order to convert me. So many of them (including the writer of these tracts) take the basic approach of saying, “Have you heard what the Bible says?” and just sort of stopping there, as though the Bible’s mere existence is proof of its contents’ veracity. This is, shall we say, not very effective.

A better strategy would be: list the facets of our world that are better explained by the truth of your religion than by the truth of any other religion or by a wholly non-supernatural universe. Bonus points for focusing on things that your religion specifically claims should happen. Here are some suggestions:

  • Performing our specific rituals before/during a major life event secures the blessing of our god/s and prevents things from going wrong. (e.g. people who are married in our churches never get divorced; the babies we circumcise all live long, happy, and healthy lives; cars that we bless at our temple never get in accidents; etc.)
  • Our houses of worship and sacred sites have never been damaged by natural disasters or other destructive weather phenomena.
  • Members of our religion always (or, significantly more often) remain unharmed in natural disasters, or man-made ones such as wars and other violent acts.
  • Members of our religion are observed to be nicer and kinder, and possess more moral integrity, than members of other religions or non-religious people. (e.g. members of our religion never commit crimes / commit crimes at far lower rates than would be expected from our proportion of the population; no member of our religion has ever resigned in scandal from a public office or other visible position of authority; etc.)
  • Members of our religion who pray to our specific god/s always get what they ask for in prayer, even when it seems physically impossible. People who pray to other gods, or who don’t pray, only get the things they’re able to do for themselves anyway.
  • Members of our religion never fall ill; -or- members of our religion who fall ill always recover when they pray for recovery; -or- members of our religion who fall ill and pray for recovery do get better at rates that are significantly higher than members of other religions who pray to their gods and non-religious people who do not pray. (If this latter case, I will ask you why not one of the earlier two, but it’d at least be a start.)
  • Members of our religion are significantly wealthier than members of other religions and non-religious people.
  • Those in our religion who claim to speak directly to our god are able to make predictions about the future that always come true. Meanwhile, prognosticators of other religions make many false predictions.

These are just a few of my ideas. I look forward to seeing what people come up with to add in the comments. And of course, I’d love to hear from any religious people who think that their religion could put forward one or more of these claims … but I won’t be holding my breath.

Did Jesus really exist?

There’s a lot of scholarly work out there attempting to settle the question of whether or not the Jesus of the Christian Bible really existed. I’m not going to pretend to summarize or even really discuss that work here. I just want to highlight something I think is often missing from debates between Christians and non-Christians on the topic: what do we actually mean by the question? As with so many other instances of “interfaith” dialogue, it seems to me that each side is using the same words to refer to very different things.

The question, “Did Jesus really exist?” makes it sound like there are only two answers, yes and no. In reality, I think there are three possibilities:

  1. Jesus was a real historical figure whose life went exactly as described in the New Testament;
  2. Jesus is a fairy tale character who is completely fictional with no basis in reality; or
  3. The story of Jesus is “based on a true story” in the Hollywood sense — there was really a person with a similar name, who did a bit of similar stuff, but many of the details are exaggerations or even complete fabrications.

(Well, there’s sort of a continuum between the extremes of #1 and 2, with #3 representing varying amounts of Biblical details being accurate, but let’s call it three options just for simplicity.)

Now, I’d argue right off the bat that #1 is impossible — the New Testament books don’t even agree with each other about the events of Jesus’ life. The closest we could get to a “yes” answer is #3. And as an atheist, you might well say, “Yes, I think there’s sufficient evidence that Jesus really existed,” and mean that the Bible was “based on a true story.” Perhaps there was a young man in Galilee about 2000 years ago who claimed to be the messiah, preached about the end times, and had a small cult following. In fact, we know that there were a bunch of people claiming to be the Jewish messiah and drumming up followers around that time — and before, and since. He almost certainly didn’t walk on water, heal lepers with his touch, or rise from the dead, but that doesn’t prevent there from being (again, in this Hollywood sense) a “real Jesus” at the root of the stories.

But it’s difficult to explain all of this in casual conversation. Usually, we feel forced to choose between a “yes,” which might be technically correct but which appears to grant the Christian a lot more ground than we intend to, or a “no,” which might be overreaching — and at the very least opens us up to some annoying conversations about random archaeological finds that happened to have the name “Yeshua” inscribed somewhere. Answer #3 is an atheist’s “yes, there probably was a historical Jesus” and at the same time it’s a Christian’s “no, Jesus is a myth.” Plus, there’s the ever-popular bait-and-switch tactic of evangelists on the street, or online — they’ll get you to admit that there were apocalyptic preachers in the right region in the right time, and then they’ll act like you agreed that every line of the Bible is supported by mountains of evidence.

Like so many issues in atheist/theist dialogue, I think this is one that can be addressed by simply asking, “What do you mean?” The way I like to think about it is: if we were to go back in time together and look for “the real, historical Jesus,” what would we have to observe to know that we’d found him? Tell me exactly which Jesus you think is the real one. Only then can I tell you if I believe he was real, too.

Coexisting phases of atheism

As I’ve said before, I’ve been an atheist ever since I had the abstract thinking skills to form a coherent opinion about it. However, the way my atheism manifests itself has gone through several distinct stages throughout my life — already! (I’m only in my twenties.)

As a child, and pretty much up through high school, I was in what I’ll call my “let’s all get along” phase. I thought of religions as traditions that different people followed, and although I didn’t personally find any value in following any of them, I was really bothered by the idea that some people were willing to kill other people simply because their traditions were the “wrong” ones. If you asked me about a particular religion, I’d probably tell you I thought their beliefs were false and rather silly, but some part of me found a kind of poetic beauty in religious practice anyway. I almost wished I was Jewish (I really liked the story about Abraham arguing with God as well as the melodies of Hebrew prayers). Others’ questions about my religious beliefs were usually met first with an explanation of Unitarian Universalism, followed by an admission that I didn’t believe in any gods myself but didn’t begrudge others the opportunity to do so if that was their preference. My primary concern was religious freedom — both in the sense of freedom from religion for myself and other nonbelievers, and in the sense of free exercise of all religious faiths.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the transition happened, but definitely by the time I got to college I was pretty angry about religion. We’ll say this is the “anti-apologist” phase. Somehow, it finally occurred to me that there were people out there who genuinely, truly believed that the earth was less than 10,000 years old, that Noah really put two of every animal on his ark and the entire planet was flooded, that women should not be allowed to go to school or even drive a car, that members of slightly more lax sects of their own religions should be spat upon and attacked in the streets. There were people who wanted to make sure that children were not taught about evolutionary biology, despite the mountains of evidence for it, and instead demanded that their Bronze Age superstitions be presented as literal fact. A religion wasn’t just a bunch of pretty traditions anymore; it was actually a set of factual claims that ought to be treated as such. Yes, there were (and are) more liberal religious people, but in this phase they frustrated me more than they reassured me. They were playing along with the whole sham, believing the parts that seemed nice while ignoring the other parts, with no more actual evidence to support the nice bits than the discarded ones … all the while propping up the numbers of their religion, helping the zealots’ case appear stronger. I would go out of my way to ask religious people why they believed what they believed, and I was happy to invest a lot of time and energy debating them on those reasons (provided they could come up with any). My primary concern was helping religious people see that they were mistaken in their beliefs, so they would stop doing all the terrible and stupid things they do in the name of those same beliefs.

The third phase of my atheism comes with being bored and dissatisfied with these debates. It can be incredibly draining arguing with someone who will never, under any circumstances, change their mind or even admit you’ve made a decent point. Even the religious people who are nominally interested in having “challenging” conversations are so entrenched in their mythologies, so insulated by centuries’ worth of carefully crafted excuses, that it’s difficult to get anywhere with them. And it certainly looks more and more appealing to set all that aside, surround myself with atheists and apatheists, and focus on what we as pragmatic, critical thinkers can accomplish together. I’d characterize this by a sort of “what now?” attitude. Now, I don’t think I’m entirely within this mindset (yet?), but rather oscillating between this and the previous one, spending slightly longer here with each swing. It’s this paradigm, though, that leads me to identify with Atheism+. I don’t spend nearly as much time arguing with campus evangelists as I used to; instead, I speak frankly about how religion is irrational (when it comes up in conversation) and I channel that extra energy toward scientific progress (i.e., my degree) and a variety of other efforts to make the world a better place.

That’s a whole lot more navel-gazing than I usually engage in here, but I also have a larger point: there are a lot of different ways to be an atheist. I’ve only named three here, but I’m sure that’s not exhaustive. (Tell me what you’d add, in the comments!) Even when I look back on perspectives I’ve had in the past that I don’t currently identify with, I don’t feel like I was wrong then. It’s just that I had slightly different priorities. And it’s fine for one person at different times, or different people at the same time, to have different priorities. That’s how we, the atheist community, can pursue a wide variety of goals at once. We can work for religious freedom and tolerance, teach critical thinking and debunk superstition, and apply our rationality to other societal issues — all at once!

I wish atheists in one phase would more consistently acknowledge the value of people in other phases. Do your interfaith work, but don’t boost your credibility with your religious friends by distancing yourself from “those angry New Atheists.” Debate religious apologists, but don’t try to silence those atheists who want to talk about something else for a while. Work for broader social justice, but don’t belittle others who are focused on getting society to recognize “just dictionary atheism.” All of these things are worthwhile.

Jesus died … why, again?

The basic message of Christianity, the key part that distinguishes it from the Judaism it grew out of, is that Jesus died on the cross in order to save humanity from our sins. His death was the final, greatest sacrifice which provided atonement for everyone, provided they believe in him as the Messiah and son of God. I hope this characterization of the Christian faith is not controversial.

Here’s what’s been really bugging me lately about this story: Pontius Pilate, Judas, the Jewish high priests … all the people who (according to the Bible stories) played a role in Jesus’ crucifixion, they’re all depicted as bad guys. Good Christian children are not supposed to look to Judas as a role model. He is a betrayer, a traitor to Jesus. We’re supposed to be saddened and outraged in when we read about Jesus’ pain and suffering as he died on the cross, crying out in anguish. What a terrible thing to do to the son of God, to the King of Kings, we are supposed to think.

But … if we are to trust the teachings of Christianity … wasn’t the whole point of Jesus coming to Earth so that he could sacrifice himself and atone for our sins? Wouldn’t it have been, like, extremely shitty for humanity — within the framework of the Christian worldview, of course — if we hadn’t crucified Jesus? There’d be basically no way to get to heaven! We’d all be doomed to infinite torment in hell!

So, I don’t get it. Why don’t Christian pastors routinely celebrate and thank Judas in their sermons? Why isn’t there a holiday commemorating the Sanhedrin for the role they played in securing salvation for humanity? Why, instead, have Christians throughout history slandered Jews by calling them “Christ-killers”? For that matter, why is it even a bad thing to be an essential part of what is supposed to be the greatest gift given to humankind since the Garden of Eden?

Terribly inconsistent, isn’t it? I mean, it’s almost like this whole story is a myth cobbled together after the fact by people scrambling to explain why their megalomaniac cult leader got himself killed…

Know your Buddhist gods: Tara

Here’s the next installment in my “Know your Buddhist gods” series. The background: I’m tired of hearing crunchy hippy New Age types insist that Buddhism is just about “getting in touch with yourself” through meditation and doesn’t have any of those wacky supernatural beliefs like the “Western” religions do. It’s especially irritating when people insist that Buddhism is atheist. Several key sects of Buddhism recognize the existence of gods, and I think it’s time we hold them accountable for that.

From Religion Facts:

Tara (Sanskrit, “star”) is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning “she who saves.” The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).

The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment.

And from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Tara, Tibetan Sgrol-ma,  Buddhist saviour-goddess with numerous forms, widely popular in Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia. She is the feminine counterpart of the bodhisattva (“Buddha-to-be”) Avalokiteshvara [link inserted by NFQ]. According to popular belief, she came into existence from a tear of Avalokiteshvara, which fell to the ground and formed a lake. Out of its waters rose up a lotus, which, on opening, revealed the goddess. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is a compassionate, succouring deity who helps men “cross to the other shore.”

As someone pretty well immersed in a Christian culture, I found it particularly interesting to see another deity besides Jesus referred to as a “savior.” Note that it’s not necessary for Tara to be saving people from some sort of infinite torturous afterlife; she’s just (supposedly) protecting people in the usual sense during their lives on earth, and guiding them towards a good afterlife of enlightenment. I actually think this makes more sense for a savior, since it’s pretty twisted to be “saving” someone from a punishment you/one of your incarnations made up.

Tara is also referred to as the “Mother of Mercy and Compassion.” Sound familiar? (And yes, I think any sensible definition of what it means to be a god should include Mary and the saints within Catholic teaching, although I don’t expect them to admit it any time soon because it would compromise their precious “monotheism.”) She’s clearly a major player in the Buddhist pantheon. I’ll feature other gods and goddesses in the future that aren’t the most important in any particular tradition or country (or “autonomous region“), but Tara alone certainly provides a clear counterexample to the assertion that Buddhism is atheistic.