Tuesday, September 30, 2014


What with ISIS chopping heads off of journalists and forcing conversions of Christians and Yazidis to Islam, it is easy to lose track of the fact that may formal nations in the world still have laws on their books that condemn and penalize blasphemy. In some cases these laws can cause real hardship for people, like in the case of Raif Badawi who is currently in prison for criticizing his country's religion, or Mariam Ibrahim who narrowly escaped a death sentence for refusing to convert to her father's Islamic faith.

Today is Blasphemy Day; a day to raise awareness about these crimes against humanity committed in the name of one god or another. Although we enjoy a much greater amount of religious freedom here in Canada, we are not immune to these inane types of suppression of speech. Even so, I feel little threat of being jailed or executed for exercising my freedom of speech as others around the world do.

Even in the U.S., there is currently a teenager who is facing prosecution for putting himself against statue of Jesus in a, uh, "compromising position". I doubt that these charges will ever stick. Even so, I firmly believe that no person should have to face potential criminal charges and harassment for a teenage lapse in judgement and/or good taste; least of all when no person is hurt and no property has been damaged by their actions or words.

I look forward to a day when worldwide, we can openly discuss our ideas without threat of harassment, persecution or violence. In that vein, I would like to offer up some of my own words of blasphemy in an act of solidarity with those around the world who are oppressed.

If your god is potentially insulted by anything that I might have to say: you've made him up. Any god too weak to stand up for himself is obviously not real, and any words to the contrary are not offensive to a god; they are offensive only insecure followers.

And on that note, I offer the following blasphemous cartoon that some of you might find amusing, and others of us will probably hate me for.

Cartoon courtesy of Jesus and Mo http://www.jesusandmo.net/2010/01/05/care/

Friday, September 26, 2014

The two worst verses in the Bible.

Let me start with an apology.

I'm sorry that you have to listen to me talking about the Bible so much.

Maybe I should just settle down with a nice warm cup. Of something.

I'm sure some of you wish I would stop. Sometimes I wish I could. But I am compelled. It may have  to do with the fact that I spent most of my life thinking that the Bible was more than just a book. Now that I have gained a more objective view of things, I find that I enjoy examining it the way more like I would any story, be it the myths of Zeus or the adventures of Batman. The Bible is an important part of my culture and my worldview. As well, it will always be a point of reference to analyze ideas that I hear and actions that I see. I have read it cover to cover, memorized many passages, and meditated on it at length.

And now, there are some parts of it that I hate to read. Parts that I hate to thinks about, even. Yet so many people around me still want to use its words as an authority in their lives. Sometimes these are people who haven't read it all, or haven't thought through what it implies. I want to show people that things may not be as simple as they believe them to be, and I want to get people to think about the Bible in ways that they may have never before. I want to discuss these things, and writing in this blog is the way I coax people into these discussions. Um, yeah - sorry about that.

Expected result of critical discussions about the Bible in western society.

So, the Bible: it is full of all kinds of things that people read and use as arguments for the appropriateness of their actions. This happens even when the Bible itself doesn't really say what these people claim it does. Honestly, I can understand that - I used to do that myself. But there are some passages, the predominant interpretation of  such I may not dispute, which I simply don't agree with. When I do disagree with an interpretation, (or with the text outright), I frequently stew on these verses. There are many of this kind  of passage in its pages, but a couple in particular are ones which I would like to point out because I find them to be particularly vile.

These are not the passages you likely have in mind. I hate to make assumptions, but I imagine you would suggest something from Leviticus or Deuteronomy; telling us that we should stone gay people or mandating that a rape victim must marry her rapist, or that you may beat your slave as long as he doesn't die from it. I mean, there's a lot of that to choose from. However, I think  these ones are simply too easy - I don't think I need to explain to people why a commandment to murder gay people is wrong.

I don't want to talk about this guy any more.

What I do object to are the passages that seem innocent, but promote a certain worldview. These kind can direct a person how to think, and this flawed thinking can manifest in terrible actions. We may end up with a group of people running around, oblivious to the fact their well-meaning action is not innocuous. There are two passages in particular that I find, when added to each other together, make Christians hard to swallow for the rest of the world; and here they are.

John 14:6New International Version (NIV)

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

So let's get this out of the way: yes, I have chosen the words in red letters to object to. No, I do not like what Jesus is reported to have said in this verse. I realize that I may alienate a portion of my readership with this admission. So be it: it would not be the first time. This is the verse that creates the exclusivity of Christianity. None of the other gospels have Jesus saying this kind of thing: only the Gospel of John. I do not believe it is a coincidence that John was also likely written a generation after the other Gospels, and that it contains an excessive amount of material that does not agree with any of the earlier New Testament writings. Am I saying that Jesus never said this? Perhaps. I am certainly saying that I don't trust the author of John to be historically accurate or honest. Even if Jesus said this (or something like this) there is a high possibility that the context is wrong. In any event, I would rather that the words of Jesus didn't contain such a statement.

Jesus, pictured here showing little concern for past PR disasters.

There are several billion people on this planet, most of whom do not know about Jesus. In general, religion is a geographic phenomenon: When someone is born and raised in a Muslim country, they will probably revere the Koran and praise Allah. A child raised in Japan will probably have no religion at all. The idea that a loving and all-powerful God would have his most important message fail simply because of geography is absurd.

Additionally, there is a slippery slope here; someone has to define what it means to "come to the Father", and "by Jesus." I have been pretty clear in my writing that I have a low tolerance for confusing a metaphor with a real thing. A metaphor requires interpretation, and can effect one listener different from the way it effect another. If Jesus was offering to physically escort believers to a literal throne that the Father is sitting on, then the effect of this verse would be different. But people have all kinds of divergent ideas on what it could mean for Jesus to connect people with the Father.

Yet here we have the Bible telling believers that they belong to an exclusive club. Christians use this verse as evidence that they have special knowledge, a connection to the divine that no other group of people can have. It fools believers into thinking that all those who are not Christians (whatever that means) are in denial of some kind. It leads  believers to show utter disrespect for those who have differing beliefs. It is the greatest of follies.

This is bad, but it gets worse:

Matthew 28:19-20New International Version (NIV)

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Now what happens if someone holds a special belief; a unique piece of knowledge that is thought to be essential to life; and that any person who does not have this knowledge will die. Additionally, they are told that it is their duty to ensure that all people are given this news. Is that not a recipe for creating a group of obnoxious people who think they have an allowance to subject their ideas and values to everyone? Let me help you out with that answer: yes, it is.

Do you ever wonder why evangelical Christians are bent on being allowed to discriminate against gay people? It's because they think that the gay person needs to believe like them, and it's their duty to tell them so. How about Christian employers trying to reject coverage of contraceptives for their employees? How about trying to have Christian mottos and artifacts placed in public venues despite opposition from other religious (or non-religious) groups? Or sending Bibles to developing countries when they really need food, shelter, clean water and healthcare? These things are nonsensical and offensive to those who do not share the belief.

On top of this, any person or any thing that opposes evangelism becomes a threat to all of Christian belief. After all, if the Bible is true, then it must be true for everyone. Therefore, if someone claims that it is not true for them, then they must be in denial, or ignorant. The true evangelical believer must think that people in their position is inherently entitled to greater rights. Their knowledge and their judgement comes from God, whereas those who disagree with them are simply wrong.

Do you see any problems coming out of what I describe in the paragraph above?

If it sounds like I have a growing disdain for evangelical Christianity, I can't deny that. I am way past anguishing over the threat of being labeled a heretic by people who know the Bible less than I do. What I do care about is that people are treated with dignity and respect, and I find it hard to see how one can hold respect for another who they believe to be like a lost sheep, especially when one has been commanded to change that person's mind.

This approach also squelches any thinking that might violate the orthodoxy. The church becomes an echo chamber, where ideas - if they have been mainstream long enough - can simply go on unchallenged. For a lot of years, I could not speak up or question things that seemed odd to me, lest I become a "project" of someone who needed to ensure that I was on "the right path", or someone that others avoided talking to. If you want to see this at its extreme, look at the crusades or the inquisitions. Many believers think that the core of Christianity is clear-cut, but I have come to understand that that is simply not so. Yet nobody wants to hear that.

If you have this mindset, you would probably consider me to be gravely mislead despite the enormous amount of thought I have given to this subject. I have received words from friends to that effect when they have commented on my writings. I do not hold it against them: their comments sound condescending and dismissive, yet I realize these are caring people who are just driven by bad ideas.

Lieutenant Dan and I invite you to hang on!

And so what? I would rather be an informed heretic than a blind follower. I do know that I have studied the Bible considerably, and I know that many portions of it are of dubious origin. If Jesus is credited as saying something in the Gospel of John when none of the other gospels have noted a similar saying; maybe it's John who is the heretic and not me? (Especially if his work doesn't jive with what Paul wrote - since Paul's letters were composed far earlier than even the synoptic gospels he deserves precedence.) I personally don't grant that being critical of the Bible is heretical, rather it is only practical.

Of course, there is a lot more in there for me to disagree with. Much is of a personal nature, affecting how a person views themselves and their own philosophy and spirituality. I choose these two verses because I believe they impart the greatest effect on how Christians treat other people. If Christians refuse to play nice with everyone else, it is because these two verses have ordered them not to.

As for the reset of us, we would like to say: Jesus is not the only way to anything, so please just leave us alone!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Engineering well-being

Try to think about one of the simplest engineering problems there can be: how does one replace an empty toilet paper roll. Normally, when we think of engineering, we think of examples like building bridges: things that are complex projects requiring quite a bit of study, rigorous planning, and a requirements list that includes financial considerations, available building materials, measurements and traffic studies, and any number of other factors that the engineer or engineers need to take account of. In the end, though, for all it's complexity building a bridge is really just installing toilet paper writ large.

Personally, I like to think that I am a qualified toilet paper roll engineer. You may be interested to know that when I place a toilet paper roll, I put the paper hanging "over" and not "under". Just like an engineer constructing a bridge, I arrived at my conclusion by examining the mechanics of the problem and choosing the method with I could see had the most benefit. For your convenience, a fellow toilet paper roll engineer has written up a nice summary of his own analysis which I totally agree with.

...and then there's this guy.

Of course, I settled in my mind that "over" was the right way to place the toilet paper a long time ago. I have proceeded to share this information with a few people since then. Most people can't argue with me since, after all, I had studied the mechanics of the problem and they had not. That is until I finally found one person who informed me that "over" did not work for them: they needed to place the toilet paper with the paper facing the wall. Curious as to how this could be, I asked them why. They replied that if they did not, their cat would unwind the entire roll onto the floor. (Another solution would be to eliminate the cat, since cats are evil - unfortunately not everyone understands the danger they present. But I digress.)

This just goes to show that, in engineering, there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to perform any one task. There are only solutions to problems, some of which are more fitting than others. For example, it may be a valid solution to set the roll on the window ledge and eliminate the dispenser altogether. Such a technique is not ideal in my world, but in a certain scenario (e.g. no tools available to mount dispenser) it may actually be the only viable plan. Despite these exceptions,  I believe the world would be a better place if most people placed the toilet roll in the "over" position as I suggest. This is how we create rules and normal practices.

Building a bridge is a much more complicated endeavor, and has many more variables that an engineer must account for; but it is essentially the same as changing the toilet paper. An engineer assesses the mechanics of the problem using the well-known laws of physics. An engineer also has the benefit of standard patterns and research into how good bridges are designed. Science has given us a lot of information that we can use to solve these problems: there are a set of laws that govern how the world works (like gravity will always pull down), and experience shows us what works and what doesn't. There have been a lot of bridges built: some held up well and other did not. We learn from our failures and our successes.

"Let's make a few changes next time, mmmkay?"

Note that it is not the scientist who designs the bridge, even if the scientific discoveries are essential to proper bridge building. What this all comes down to is our proper application of scientific knowledge. As we understand how our world works, we can apply what we have learned to confront challenges we face. Engineering is this action.

However, some areas of science are further behind others, though. Newton explained our basic laws of motion  and gravity in 1687. This allowed our engineers to be able to calculate forces on an object for the first time. In the 1860s, Maxwell published the equations that led us to harness electricity. Just before this, Darwin published "On the Origin of Species", which would lead us to our modern understanding of biology, especially after Watson and Crick discovered DNA in 1953.

"Did somebody mention science? You can trust me, I'm an engineer!"

The science is well defined when it comes to building bridges and hanging toilet paper rolls. But there are many things that we need to manage in our lives that can also be informed by science where the science is not as developed.

Can we compare a healthy person to a well-built bridge? I don't see why not. The more we understand about the science of biology, the better equipped we are to engineer health care solutions. Essentially, the science of the biology following Darwin and Pasteur created the practice of modern medicine. What our doctors are doing can be described as an engineering process : using the information that our medical researchers have come up with to solve problems with our physical well-being. Once again, there may not always be one answer to a question since there are many variables to the equation. That doesn't mean that a doctor cannot know the best course of action. Just like with the toilet paper roll problem, there may be an action that is generally good. Any conscientious doctor with good scientific information will know to follow the consensus of other medical experts, but will still be attentive to any additional variables that are specific to their patient.

This guy knows what I'm talking about.

What this means to you is that stuff like vaccination is a no-brainer: all the scientific data shows that we should vaccinate our children, and almost every doctor agrees. There is no anomalous data, despite what Jenny McCarthy might tell you. It also means that chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are better treatments for cancer than whatever mixture of water your naturopath would like to give you, or some dosage of hemp oil, or whatever. Scientist continue to study treatments that show promise, and will update our doctors accordingly. Some practices have been studied scientifically and are shown to have a degree of effectiveness - and some practices have not. The ones who know which ones are the doctors.

This idea of engineering well-being also extends to emotional well-being (i.e. mental health). And what about societal well-being? Adam Lee writes a great piece in more detail than I have using health science as an analogy for how science-base evidence can be applied to morality. The canonical reference for this thinking, though would be "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris. In it Harris argues that we can clearly determine that some moral actions lead to well-being and some do not based on measurable consequences. Sometimes multiple possible actions could be beneficial, and we must choose between them. He compares the consequences of these actions to hills and valleys in a landscape, and we can choose moral laws that yield the highest benefits.

Picard detects a moral low-spot.

Often we get these moral laws wrong because not all the data is in when they are written. We used to think that homosexuality was immoral. As it turns out, there is no reason to think this, and we even see that it naturally occurs in many mammalian species. After studying our world, we can see that we were mislead because of a paucity of scientific data. We are in the process of re-engineering our morality to compensate.

On the other hand, we used to believe that it was beneficial to punish children corporally. "Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them." We know now from our studies of psychology and neuroscience that this is simply not true. Maybe that doesn't stop all the people like Adrian Peterson from continuing to administer the same abuse to his children that he received from his parents. But the outrage the erupted when he did shows that we have changed our minds on that subject. Our understanding of the consequences of our actions is continually making us re-calculate how we are to act.

Or maybe you'd rather the thing just give up on you?

Morality is so problematic because the science that allows us to measure our responses to moral actions is very new and immature. fMRI allows us a new view into our minds. Communication technology allows us to exchange ideas instantaneously, and see the effect of people's actions all over the world. Psychological studies accumulate and show us the effects of our actions. Even ten years ago, we couldn't do these things or have much of this data, yet some of our moral laws were written thousands of years ago.

The other problem we have is choosing who gets to interpret this data. Who gets to engineer our morality? We don't all design our own bridges, so should be let someone else tells us how to act? Traditionally, we have let our religious leaders do that, but this solution doesn't work well. Most of those leaders are trying to interpret morality based on centuries- or millenniums-old texts that do not apply to us. We could turn to moral philosophers, but they are usually too enamored of philosophy itself to examine the scientific data itself. And our lawmakers are even worse, usually pandering to whoever can pay them in the end.
Quimby says you're doing it right. You paid the bribe, right?

No, in the case of morality we must follow the lawmakers out of necessity, we must tolerate the religious leaders out of tradition, but ultimately it is each of us who must learn whatever we need to know to design our morality.

Sciences only makes observations, and submits theories. It cannot determine correct actions: this is applied science, or engineering. In applying this to morality, we can paraphrase Hume, "you can't get an ought from an is". We all have a responsibility to make decisions that affect the well-being of ourselves and other. Hopefully, we all can find the correct data and surround ourselves with others who are rational and can do what we must for the benefit of ourselves and others.

I have hope that we shall. To understand how we have changed over the lifetime of our civilization, I would recommend Stephen Pinker's book "The Better Angels of Our Nature". It's a very thorough analysis of the historical decline in violence. If Pinker is right, then we are learning these lessons as we go, and as frustrating as it is that we see some people who continue to live using outdated information, the trend is going in the right direction as a whole.