Consequences; Good and Evil, Part II – A World of Euthyphros

Euthyphro appears in one of the dialogs of Socrates as a man so cocksure he knew the difference between good and evil that he was prosecuting his own father for murder. Socrates, using his well known dialectic technique, revealed to both Euthyphro and his listeners that he really didn’t have a clue. It turned out he had no logical basis for his certainty in matters of morality. No one has really come any closer to providing one in the ensuing two and a half millennia, and yet, if the daily flood of moral denunciations and ostentatious public piety on the Internet are any indication, there are more Euthyphros about than ever before.

We flatter ourselves about our unique ability to reason, but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. In fact, our intellects are blunt tools. Normally, we respond to our environments emotionally, like other animals. By “emotionally” I don’t mean “hysterically.” I merely mean we act according to innate predispositions and preconceived notions that have little if any connection with intelligent thought. We really have little choice in the matter. It’s the way we’re programmed to interact with others of our species. If we tried to apply logical thought to each such interaction, we would be as awkward as someone who tried to apply logical thought to each step in walking. Our perceptions of good and evil are part of this mental software, and we perceive them as absolutes, just as other animals do. Why? Because they work best that way, or at least they did at the time our morality evolved. There weren’t a whole lot of philosophers around in those days, and morality didn’t promote our survival as something relative we had to stop and carefully think about each time we applied it. It promoted our survival as an imperative, as an absolute. Today we still experience it as in imperative and an absolute, as something having a real, objective existence of its own outside of ourselves. In fact, it really doesn’t.

This wasn’t a problem 100,000 years ago. Today, it is potentially a big problem. We have experienced vast social changes in a time that is very short when measured on an evolutionary timescale. Our mental software has had no chance to evolve in response to the changes. It is no longer clear that the way in which we perceive good and evil and act according to those perceptions promotes our survival. In fact, in the context of our current societies, “moral” behavior may well be self-destructive. Assuming we decide survival is still a worthy goal, we can no longer afford to be as self-assured as Euthyphro.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we are programmed to have a dual moral code. I have already mentioned it in earlier posts as the Amity – Enmity Complex. As Sir Arthur Keith put it,

The process which secures the evolution of an isolated group of humanity is a combination of two principles which at first sight seem incompatible – namely, cooperation with competition. So far as concerns the internal affairs of a local group, the warm emotional spirit of amity, sympathy, loyalty, and of mutual help prevails; but so far as concerns external affairs – its attitude towards surrounding groups – an opposite spirit is dominant: one of antagonism, of suspicion, distrust, contempt, or of open enmity.

Hate is as intrinsic to our moral universe as love. But the result of hate directed against “out-groups” containing tens or hundreds of millions of members armed with modern weapons is quite different than that of hate directed against a small neighboring clan armed with sticks and stones. If the “other” is another country, the result may be a general war in which tens of millions of citizens on either side who have been inoffensively living their lives are marshaled into armies to kill each other, or slaughtered by bombing raids on their cities, or overrun by the enemy and subjected to all the familiar horrors of war. If the “other” is another social class, the result may be the murder of 100 million “bourgeoisie,” and, as we have seen in the case of Russia and Cambodia, the annihilation of a large percentage of the most intelligent and productive citizens, effectively resulting in national decapitation. If the “other” is another ethnic group, the result may be a Holocaust. If the “other” is another religious sect, the results may be the indiscriminate slaughter and devastation of another Crusade or Jihad, not to mention the butchery of hundreds of thousands of “witches.”

Sometimes, shaken by all this devastation, we try to adjust our moral systems, creating new “evils” to combat the old ones. Irrational hatred of Jews becomes the evil of anti-Semitism. Irrational hatred of other races becomes the evil of racism. Irrational hatred of those who seem to be better off than ourselves becomes the evil of class warfare. Irrational hatred of other religious groups becomes the evil of bigotry. The creation of all these new “evils” as a way to combat irrational hatred of specific out-groups is like trying to behead the hydra. In the end, the hatred is natural. It will always seek an object, and, if one is put out of bounds, it will find a new one. We must stop treating symptoms. Instead, we need to grasp the nature of the disease itself. We must come to grips with the reality that it is our nature to hate as much as it is our nature to love. We must understand the fundamental behavioral traits which give rise to hate and control them, because hate no longer promotes our survival, it threatens it. In a world full of nuclear weapons the stakes are getting higher every day.

If you’re looking for corroborating data, visit some Internet forums. You won’t find many disinterested philosophers. Rather, you’ll find lots of people whose “points of view” are easily recognizable as corresponding to some familiar ideological dogma. They are all busily demonizing people who subscribe to dogmas different from their own, with posts and comments that commonly call the moral virtue of their opponents into question, even as they rush for the moral high ground themselves. Take a look at what any one of these specimens says about any given ideologically loaded topic, that is, any topic that happens to part of the ideological box they live in in one fashion or another, and you will find that you can predict with very high accuracy what their opinion will be on any other topic that happens also to be a part of that particular box. This does not bespeak independent, logical thought. Rather, it is characteristic of a species with a hard-wired predisposition to adopt a dual moral code, and which happens to be intelligent enough to distinguish in-groups and out-groups in terms of ideas as well as more mundane features such as facial features and smell.

If we want to survive, we will probably have to learn to do a better job of controlling these behavioral traits. It won’t be easy. One finds some of the most intelligent thinkers around, people who reject the existence of supernatural beings and who accept the hypothesis that morality is an evolved characteristic without a quibble, turning around and, virtually in the next breath, referring to morality as if it were a real, objective thing, universally applicable not only to themselves, but to others as well. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins. In chapter 6 of his recently published book, “The God Delusion,” he explicitly accepts the evolutionary roots of morality. In the very next chapter, he turns around and presents the moral Zeitgeist, a version of morality that changes with the times, but which Dawkins otherwise endows with all the characteristics of an objective moral code and an absolute legitimacy that transcends anything that could properly apply to the subjective trait he describes in the previous chapter. He treats religious believers with all the animosity normally reserved for an out-group, and, at least in my opinion, happens to suffer from a rather commonplace variant of European anti-Americanism. You can read the book and see if you detect the tell-tale symptoms yourself. If a man as brilliant as Dawkins can’t escape the moral treadmill, things don’t look too promising for the rest of us. Still, I suspect it would behoove us to continue groping for a solution.

What might that solution look like? The problem is extremely complex, and I have no infallible nostrums. However, the solution will certainly not take the form of amoral behavior, or failure to act consistently according to a fixed moral code. However, it will need to be a moral code that, while compatible with the kind of creature we are, will promote our survival, rather than our self-destruction. It will also need to be one for which even Euthyphro could provide a rational justification. We will consider what such a code might look like in a later post.

Consequences: Good and Evil, Part I

Good and Evil. They are only real within our minds, impossible to extract from a thicket of emotions and predispositions. They are inseparable from our consciousness. They are subjective, but they are real, they exist. It is impossible to set them aside for detached, objective analysis because they are a part of us. Studying them is like trying to study a raging whirlpool when you are caught in the middle of it. Their existence predates that of our species by millions of years, and they first evolved in minds incapable of even attempting to understand or second guess them. We have inherited them from our hominid ancestors, and experience them as absolutes, just as other animals do. They defy understanding because they are part of us, can never be “turned off,” and so are not subject to cool, logical analysis from a distance. We cannot think about them without feeling them in the background, insisting, “Yes, we do exist outside of your mind, yes, we are real, yes, we are absolute, yes, we are universally valid.” It is easy enough to understand morality and why it exists. It is much more difficult, once we do understand it, to come up with logically supportable, objective reasons why we really “should” do anything at all. Obviously, we cannot deal with the topic of human moral behavior and all its ramifications in a single post. We will make a start.

To begin, let us consider why morality exists to begin with. As with everything else I will write on the subject, what I write here are hypotheses. Some of the hypotheses will be “stronger” than others, depending on how much supporting information is available to back them up. When it comes to understanding the fundamental nature of morality, it seems to me the hypotheses presented here are very strong in that respect, but certainly not complete. To confirm them, we must understand the fundamental physical processes in the brain that result in consciousness, including consciousness of what we perceive as right and wrong, and how those processes are affected by what we experience. Such knowledge is not beyond our reach, and I am confident we will acquire it as long as we remain free to search and inquire.

My first and basic hypothesis, then, is that morality is an evolved characteristic. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it is not difficult to understand why it evolved; “We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.”

The concept of morality as an evolved characteristic, hard-wired in our brains, appeared shortly after Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” Indeed, Jean Meslier had suggested that our concepts of good and evil existed as a result of natural causes more than a century earlier; “The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.”

Much more could be said about the reasons for the hypothesis that morality evolved. Those reasons have been set forth convincingly and in great detail by many writers more capable than me. For example, copious supporting evidence as well as citations of much related work by others may be found in the works of Robert Ardrey and Sir Arthur Keith. In particular, see “A New Theory of Human Evolution” by the latter. For more than a hundred years after Darwin published his theory, these thinkers were largely ignored by those whose minds were closed by blind faith in religious or ideological verities. It’s encouraging to note that, as these religious and dogmatic blinders have weakened and frayed, a little light has begun to trickle through. Forty years ago the very mention of human nature based on innate predispositions was politically incorrect. Today, it is accepted almost as a commonplace.

What, then, are the consequences? If morality, like everything else about us, exists because it has evolved, the theological basis for good and evil disappears. If they did not come from God, then the basis for claiming that they are absolute and have an objective existence independent of the human mind disappears as well. If we accept the hypothesis, then morality is subjective. If human beings ceased to exist, then human notions of good and evil would cease to exist with them. In later posts, we will examine the implications of these conclusions.

Does God Exist?

Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier
In my opinion, no. I am not certain that I am right, but none of us can be logically certain of anything. As human beings, we must be satisfied with probabilities, not certainties. There are few things that I consider more improbable than the existence of God, or any other supernatural being, for that matter. I shed my belief in God at age 12. Everything I have learned, experienced, and thought since then has confirmed that very fundamental conclusion.

Why fundamental? Because our conclusions about the nature of good and evil, the reasons for and purpose of our existence, and the logical basis for our goals in life must depend on whether we believe in God or not.

We often see discussions about whether belief in God has been useful to society or not, whether it has lead to destructive behavior or not, whether it has been responsible for one historical disaster or another or not, or whether it is necessary to motivate people to act morally or not. All these are moot points. The question we must answer is not whether belief in God is useful, but whether belief in God is true.

For most people, religious beliefs are not based on logical thought. So much is obvious if we look at the differences between different countries. The population of one might be mainly Moslem, and of another mainly Christian. The disparities do not depend on the ability of one group of citizens to reason more accurately than the other. Rather, they reflect prevailing customs and traditions. Based on this evidence, we must conclude that the majority of people, whether they think more or less about the matter, end up adopting the beliefs of the society or group to which they happen to belong. This behavior is hardly surprising, given what we know about the nature of human beings. However, given the consequences, it is probably not something we should wish to emulate.

For example, most Christians believe, at least nominally, in the Trinity. According to the Koran, those who believe in the Trinity will burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, and more. In fact, they will burn in hell forever. I take a less drastic view of the matter. I don’t think that either Christians or Moslems will burn in hell forever because they disagree with me. I simply believe that it is better to base ones actions, goals, and the way in which one relates to others on that which is true rather than on that which is false.

Why do I reject belief in the supernatural? There are a great many reasons. I found some of them on my own, but most of them are not original. In the beginning I may have thought they were, but since then I’ve found many others who’ve thought the same thoughts, had the same ideas, and come to the same conclusions. These include Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who’ve all recently published books rejecting religious belief. However, of the many I’ve found whose ideas reflected my own, the greatest thinker of them all was a simple French priest named Jean Meslier. When he died in 1729, he left three copies of his Testament, in which he set forth what I consider the most thorough and the most profound rejection of religious belief ever written. Voltaire admired Meslier and did much to circulate and preserve his work, but commented that he wrote “in the style of a carriage horse.” His condescension was ill-considered. I am grateful to Voltaire. He probably did more to liberate mankind from the shackles of political and religious obscurantism than anyone before or since. However, I consider Meslier the more powerful of the two thinkers. Voltaire was a deist, and somehow found in Meslier’s work a confirmation of his own beliefs. In fact, Meslier demolished deism as thoroughly as the rest of religious belief. Somehow, Voltaire missed the point.

Meslier’s style may have been unpolished, but his case against religion was clear, concise, and thorough. His work includes virtually every argument that has ever occurred to me, and many more. I have read many apologies for religion, but none, in my opinion, that could even begin to stand up against Meslier’s logic. One feels a sense of awe when one recalls he wrote more than 100 years before the publication of “The Origin of Species.” One can occasionally find English versions of his work published under the rather affected title, “Superstition in All Ages.” I will have more to say about Meslier in future. In the meantime, do yourself a favor: read his book and think about it. Here are a few excerpts:

“What is God? What is spirit? They are causes of which we have no idea. Sages! Study nature and her laws; and when you can from them unravel the action of natural causes. Do not go in search of supernatural causes, which, very far from enlightening your ideas, will but entangle them more and more and make it impossible for you to understand yourselves.”

“Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without a God; that is to say, in order to explain what you understand so little, you need a cause which you do not understand at all. You pretend to make clear that which is obscure, by magnifying its obscurity. You think you have untied a knot by multiplying knots.”

“I would admit without question that the human machine appears to me surprising; but since man exists in nature, I do not believe it right to say that his formation is beyond the forces of nature. I will add, that I could conceive far less of the formation of the human machine, when to explain it to me they tell me that a pure spirit, who has neither eyes, nor feet, nor hands, nor head, nor lungs, nor mouth, nor breath, has made man by taking a little dust and blowing upon it.”

“According to the notions of modern theology, it appears evident that God has created the majority of men with the view only of punishing them eternally. Would it not have been more in conformity with kindness, with reason, with equity, to create but stones or plants, and not sentient beings, than to create men whose conduct in this world would cause them eternal chastisements in another? A God so perfidious and wicked as to create a single man and leave him exposed to the perils of damnation, cannot be regarded as a perfect being, but as a monster of nonsense, injustice, malice and atrocity.”

“But if the choicest work of Divinity is imperfect, by what are we to judge of the Divine perfections? Can a work with which the author himself is so little satisfied, cause us to admire his skill?”

“Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.”

“In calling mortals into life, what a cruel and dangerous game does the Divinity force them to play! Thrust into the world without their wish, provided with a temperament of which they are not the masters, animated by passions and desires inherent in their nature, exposed to snares which they have not the skill to avoid, led away by events which they could neither foresee nor prevent, the unfortunate beings are obliged to follow a career which conducts them to horrible tortures.”

“Their (the animals) peaceable ignorance, is it not more advantageous than these extravagant meditations and these futile investigations which render you miserable, and for which you are driven to murdering beings of your own noble kind?”

I am in awe when I read things like this. It boggles the mind to think that “my” reasons, and many more, for rejecting religion were all written down by this genius who lived more than 280 years ago. I will discuss some of those not touched on above in future posts.

What is the consequence of my conclusions regarding religion? Everything else I write here; my ideas concerning good and evil, human nature, the purpose of life or lack thereof, everything. Religious beliefs or the lack thereof matter. There are consequences for getting it right and consequences for getting it wrong, and they are very weighty consequences as far as our lives are concerned. For that reason, we must be particularly zealous in guarding freedom of speech concerning matters of religion. We simply cannot afford to suppress the critical discussion of religious belief because we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or “insulting” their beliefs. There can be few better proofs that an idea is false than its proponents’ fear of criticism. The truth should not be afraid of confronting falsehood.

Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

The Great Library of Alexandria has Gone Missing!!

Pompey's Pillar and the ruins of the Serapeum
Pompey's Pillar and the ruins of the Serapeum
Just as I was about to indulge myself in a self-congratulatory smirk for pointing out certain anomalies in the gaudy tales of the Great Iranian Coup now current on the web, I find that, while I was landing a sunfish, other bloggers have been reeling in muskies. To wit, Dave Schuler over at The Glittering Eye has just pulled off a controlled demolition of no less an edifice than the Great Library of Alexandria itself! Quoting the Eye:

“My take: Alexandria was undoubtedly a center of learning and scholarship and, consequently, had a lot of books. Over time Alexandria’s influence, learning, and scholarship all declined. Was there a Great Library? I don’t believe that the evidence supports the idea.”

Now, it happens that the worthy proprietor of “The Glittering Eye” is rather a more credible source than, say, the current author of the Wikipedia article on Mossadegh. When such a one claims that the Great Library is a mere mirage, it is most unlikely that clicking up a few links on Google will prove the opposite. I realize this will come as no small disappointment to those for whom the destruction of the Library has long served as a spendid historical club, for there are accounts to suit every taste. Depending on the particular object of ones disapprobation, one can bludgeon the Christians, Moslems, pagans, or even great Caesar himself, for there are versions of the story to suit all these occasions, and more.

I can find nothing that directly contradicts the Eye’s conjecture. However, by way of throwing in my two cents worth, I will draw attention to a very interesting chapter on the subject in “The Arab Conquest of Egypt,” by Alfred Butler, which includes a great number of links to source material on the subject. From the account therein, it appears that the claim of Moslem culpability in the destruction of the Library can be dismissed with little ado. However, Butler does not let the Christians off so easily. He agrees that the existence of a Great Library cannot be proved, or at least not after the time of Julius Caesar. However, basing his conclusions on passages from Aphthonius, Eunapius and Rufinus, among others, he claims that the Serapeum, which was destroyed by the Christians in 391, apparently in accord with an edict of the emperor Theodosius, housed a very extensive library. If this was the Great Library (a very big “if”, and one that Butler by no means proves), he concludes,

“The argument now stands as follows: the Library is proved to have been stored in rooms which, like the shrines of the old Egyptian gods, formed part and parcel of the temple building. The temple building is proved to have been utterly demolished and destroyed (by the Christians in 391). Therefore the Libary suffered the same destruction.”

So much for the one pebble I could find to further muddy the historical waters. As Obama said to President Zelaya, “I hope that helps.”

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”  

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.  

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

Genesis, the Firmament, and Christian Fundamentalism

Drawing attention to the many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, as well as the verses that contradict what we’ve learned about the age of the earth, the size of the universe and the earth’s place in it, etc., can occasionally open minds if they are open to reason to begin with. Some of the best and brightest among us have always had the ability to find these discrepancies on their own, and the honesty to point them out to others. Such a one, for example, was Jean Meslier. This simple French priest composed three copies of a testament that demolished Christianity, not to mention all other versions of belief in a Supreme Being, more than a hundred years before Darwin published his theories. Somehow Voltaire and a few other kindred spirits got wind of the Testament, and so preserved it for later generations. Since then, it has been an inspiration to many who have also had the courage to think for themselves. Unfortunately, minds that live in little steel cages of “faith” aren’t so accessible. They can always adjust reality to fit scripture as needed.

Take, for example, the discrepancy in the genealogy of Jesus between the versions in the books of Matthew and Luke. It would seem that, on reading these two vastly different versions, a logical, open-minded person would conclude that the claim that the entire Bible is infallible is wrong. After all, a God who really loves us and wants us to find our way to a truth so critical to our welfare in the hereafter would hardly make us the butt of crude practical jokes, or allow gross mis-tranlations of his word to bamboozle generations of true believers. However, logical thought and open-mindedness are not strong suits of Christian true believers. They have simply come up with a host of “interpretations” of these contradictory genealogies to “make them right.” The interested reader can find an example here.

Another famous historical example, cited by Voltaire, among others, is the difficulty with the description of a “firmament” in the King James Version of the Bible. Early civilizations commonly believed that the sun, moon, stars and other heavenly bodies were set in a solid, crystalline shell, or “firmament.” That such a version of the firmament was exactly what the author or authors of Genesis had in mind seems obvious on the face of if to anyone who actually reads the book. For example, we read in Genesis 1:4, that it acts as a barrier, and there are waters above the firmament, placing the heavenly bodies beneath this body of water. According to Genesis 1:17, the stars are set in the firmament.

Thanks to Project Apollo, and a few other inconvenient interventions of reality, later generations of true believers didn’t have the luxury of standing pat on the firmament theory. No matter. They simply hand-waved it out of existence by mistranslating “firmament” as “sky.” This was a bit much to swallow for some of the more erudite and honest among the faithful. Christian evangelist Paul Seely is a case in point. He has given us a wonderful commentary on the historical facts relating to the notion of a firmament in many cultures, complete with observations on the original Hebrew as well as the later translations into Greek and English. He demonstrates conclusively that a solid firmament is precisely what is meant in the book of Genesis. Alas, Mr. Seely is a faithful Christian, and so had no trouble squaring the circle his philological inquiries had revealed. He concludes his paper with the observation that, “Certainly the historical-grammatical meaning of (the Hebrew word) raqiac is ‘the ordinary opinion of the writer’s day.’ Certainly also it is not the purpose of Gen 1: 7 to teach us the physical nature of the sky, but to reveal the creator of the sky. Consequently, the reference to the solid firmament ‘lies outside the scope of the writer’s teachings’ and the verse is still infallibly true.” (!!) Faith will always find a way.

Not surprisingly, this rather startling conclusion was rather too much of a mental double back flip for believers of lesser intellectual agility among fellow fundamentalists. They chose, predictably, to rearrange reality to get rid of the pesky firmament in the time-honored fashion noted above. Examples abound, and a few of them can be found here and here. Google “Genesis firmament” and you will find many more.

Of course, the book of Genesis also has a serious issue with the disconnect between its version of the earth’s age, at 6,000 years, give or take, and the fact that vast numbers of heavenly bodies have been discovered so far away from us that it took light thousands of times that long to reach us, and yet we see them nevertheless. There is an interesting discussion of the subject here. A slam-dunk for science say you? Wrong again, oh ye of little faith, For the fundamentalist, the Bible is, a priori, the absolute truth. For one who is determined to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and the absolute truth against all odds, no evidence to the contrary will ever suffice. You see, facts that seem to contradict the Bible simply can’t be true. One accommodates them very easily, by simply readjusting reality.

I know! The same thought has occurred to me. We are living in an insane asylum. Occasionally I am bothered a little by the reflection that I, too, am a human being, just like the fundamentalists who have these fanciful notions. How much superior to them could I really be in matters of intellect? After all, we both belong to the same species. For that matter, if I glance about the asylum once again, I may discover a host of atheist “fundamentalists” with ideological notions that, though secular, are as inaccessible to reason as the faith of a theist. Well, enough of this. I’m not ready to turn myself in at the front desk just yet.

Marsilius of Padua and “Defensor pacis”

How is it that I never heard of Marsilius of Padua until now? Yes, I know, ignorance, but even the illustrious Dr. Johnson was guilty of that occasionally. (In case you haven’t heard the anecdote, he erroneously defined a pastern as “the knee of a horse,” in his famous dictionary when it ought to be “that part of the leg of a horse between the joint next the foot and the hoof.” When he was asked, at a large dinner, how he managed to get this one so wrong, he was unevasive: “Ignorance, Madam, ignorance.”)
But I digress. Marsilius was one of the outstanding thinkers of the middle ages, and made a profound impression in his own time, and for centuries thereafter. More to the point, in his book, “Defensor pacis,” which I heartily recommend to the gentle reader, he makes some powerful and brilliant arguments in favor of the separation of church and state, drawing heavily on scripture. In a word, he was the Roger Williams of his day. Perhaps the reason that he is virtually unknown outside of academia today is that fact that his teaching must certainly have been uncomfortable to those who cherish the good things of this world that can be acquired by gulling others into a belief in the world to come. I suspect that the same may be said of Jean Meslier, and many another brilliant but unconventional thinker.
It has been a great boon to mankind that one of the world’s greatest religions could produce thinkers like Marsilius and Williams from among the ranks of its own clerics. Drawing their arguments from scripture itself, they provided a strong philosophical basis for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. It is regrettable that Islam never produced similar thinkers. One can only hope that, some day, it will.


Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier

Rest in Peace, George Tiller

You were a brave man. Once again, after egging on the murderers and bombers, the “pro-life” crowd treats us to more hypocritical handwringing and crocodile tears. What a fine “Christian” cause they represent; the usurpation of state power to force their point of view on the rest of us. No doubt that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Meanwhile, standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, they remind us once again that it’s not a question of rendering to Caesar, it’s a question of becoming Caesar.

Gregory of Tours, the Trinity, Gay Marriage, and Liberal Christianity

Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
I am the least spiritual of men, and believe in no gods or supernatural beings of any kind, my only deviation in these matters being a slight case of triskaidekaphobia. However, I do take an interest in history, and religious belief has certainly played a significant role therein. It’s interesting that the times most people would consider the most enlightened are not necessarily those coincident with the highest levels of sophistication when it comes to religious belief. In fact, some of the writings that have come down to us from what Europeans call the “Dark Ages” are hardly behindhand in that regard. To support this assertion, I call to the stand Gregory, Bishop of Tours, who wrote in the latter half of the 6th century A.D., a time when England was shrouded in a deep historical mist. Gregory was a chatty, gossipy, entertaining writer, who lived in and described firsthand the horrific scene in western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a time of warring petty states whose kings and nobility tortured, murdered, and robbed their subjects, of constant devastating plagues, natural disasters and famines, and periodic social chaos. If you want some real insight into what it was like, read Gregory’s “History of the Franks.” He won’t disappoint you.

In spite of it all, Gregory, scion of an old Roman senatorial family, somehow managed to acquire an education, and no mean skill as a theologian. In those days, the Goths, Vandals, and most of the other Christianized barbarian tribes had adopted a Unitarian version of the faith before Athanasius and his followers had managed to gain acceptance for their Trinitarian teachings. When the Trinitarians gained the upper hand in what remained of the Empire, the surrounded barbarians remained Unitarians, with the exception of the Franks. In the excerpt that follows, Gregory, an orthodox Catholic, describes a debate he had with a visiting Unitarian cleric from the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. What’s noteworthy about it is the subtlety of Gregory’s theological arguments. As you’re reading it, try to imagine a “modern” priest or bishop teaching a similarly sophisticated version of the Trinity. I rather suspect most of us have never heard anything of the sort. Turning it over to Gregory…

“As envoy to Chilperic (one of the Frankish kings who ruled part of France) King Leuvigild (Visigothic ruler of Spain) sent Agilan, a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument, but distinguished by his hatred of our Catholic faith. Tours (seat of Gregory’s bishopric) was on his route and he took advantage of this to attack me concerning my beliefs and to assail the dogmas of the Church. ‘The bishops of the early Church made a foolish pronouncement,’ he said, when they asserted that the Son was equal to the Father. How can He be equal to the Father, when He says: ‘My Father is greater than I’? It is not right that the Son should be considered equal to the Father when He Himself admits that He is less, when it is to the Father that He complains about the miserable manner of His death, when at the very moment of His death He commends His spirit to the Father, as if He Himself were completely powerless. Surely it is quite obvious that He is less than the Father, both in power and in age!’ In reply to this, I asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and if he admitted that He was the wisdom of God, the light, the truth, the life, the justice of God. Agilan answered: ‘I believe that the Son of God was all those things.’ Then I said: ‘Tell me now, when was the Father without wisdom? When was He without light, without life, without truth, without justice? Jast as the Father could not exist without these things, so He could not exist without the Son. These attributes are absolutely essential to the mystery of the Godhead. Similarly the Father could hardly be called the Father if He had no Son. When you quote the Son as having aaid: ‘My Father is greater than I,’ you must know that He said this in the lowliness of the flesh, which He had assumed so that He might teach you that you were redeemed not by His power but by His humility. You must also remember, when you quote the words: ‘My father is greater than I,’ that He also says in another place: ‘I and my Father are one.’ His fear of death and the fact that He commended His spirit are a reference to the weakness of the flesh, so that, just as he is believed to be very God, so may He be believed to be very man.’ Agilan answered: ‘He who does what another commends is less than that other: the Son is always less than the Father because He does the will of the Father, whereas there is no proof that the Father does the will of the Son.’ ‘You must understand’, I replied, ‘that the Father is the Son and that the Son is in the Father, each subsisting in one Godhead. If you want proof that the Father does the will of the Son, consider what our Lord Jesus Christ says when He come to raise Lazarus – that is if you have any faith in the Gospel at all: ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.’ When He comes to His Passion, He says: ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ Then the Father replies from Heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the Son is equal in Godhead, and not inferior, and He is not inferior in anything else.”

…and so on. As noted above, I’m not a believer, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in church. I’ve never heard the Trinity discussed by pastor, bishop, or priest with anywhere near that level of sophistication. I grew up in the Methodist church, and one of our pastors in my early youth was a throwback who took theology seriously. He is the only Christian teacher I’ve ever heard who so much as made a serious attempt to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to his flock. However, his sermons never approached Gregory’s level of subtlety or refinement. What’s the point? I guess that, when one compares intellectual development in the “Dark Ages” with that in modern times, one should answer the question, “What kind?”

The “kind” of theological debate Gregory excelled at no longer exists outside of obscure seminary classrooms because the conclusions of that debate have become irrelevant. Today, the “theology” of the more liberal sects of Christianity is a mélange of badly digested “progressive” ideology. To the extent that the Scriptures have any significance at all, they are rifled through in the search for verses that appear to support some already foregone conclusion, borrowed from the realm of politics. The “doctrine” of the church conforms to a prevailing political fashion, and not vice versa, limited only by the reluctance of the clerics’ more conservative flocks to go along. This is what one might expect. Modern “in-groups” and “out-groups” are far more likely to be defined by politics than religion in first world countries with a European background. (See my post on the significance of in-group/out-group behavior in the archives.) If one wants to play a role in a group that has relevance in modern society, one must conform to the fundamental doctrines that define the intellectual boundaries of the group. If the groups happen to be political, then so much the worse for religion. Its “teachings” must conform to politically derived ideological doctrines, regardless of what the contents of its written scriptures might be. Thus, for example, one finds a number of Christian sects embracing gay marriage, in defiance of the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual acts. The sophistication of Gregory of Tours and the “Dark Ages” is exchanged for “Christianity Lite.”

As an infidel, I offer these remarks as an observation on the human condition, and certainly not to support or condemn gay marriage, or any other aspect of Christian belief. As for the battle between Athanasius and Arius, I am content to let sleeping dogs lie.