Virgin Birth

I am fully aware that authoring this post makes me a heretic, as that term is defined by many Christians. Whatever.

In order to be a Christian, I had to believe, as a matter of faith, that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. You see, if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, then he couldn’t be God. That would mean that he could not die on the cross for our sins, come back from the dead, and so forth.

Thus, the Evangelical Christian religion hinges entirely on this one question:

Was Jesus Christ born of a virgin?

For any practicing Christian, the answer to that question must be a resounding: Yes! Otherwise, if there is doubt, then the entire belief system collapses. That was certainly the case with me.

So, the question becomes:

What evidence do I have that Jesus was born of a virgin?

In my mind that evidence is wanting.  I have seriously studied the scriptures, as you can tell if you read this blog. For me to doubt the virgin birth does not take very much at all. I only really need to doubt one thing: The conversation between Mary and the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:26-38 (NIV), which reads:

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Now, it is pretty obvious that there are some serious problems here. First of all, the only witness to this entire conversation was Mary. Second, the account was only written down around 70 years after the actual events at the earliest. Thus, Mary, Joseph, and everyone else involved in the events were all dead. The (supposed) added credibility of having Elizabeth (Mary’s relative, possibly an aunt) witness to the divine incarnation is evaporated once I understand that Elizabeth (who was older than Mary) was dead and gone before all of this got written down.

My father told me what he considered his “great heresy”. It went basically like this:

There was a nice Jewish girl named Mary. She was desperately and hopelessly in love with this young Jewish man. They lived in a small town called Nazareth in an ancient time. Because they both lived within a rigid, terrifying cruel religious culture, they knew their relationship was doomed: Mary had been given by her father in an arranged marriage to an older man named Joseph. Mary and the young man both knew if they consummated their love, that they could be stoned. If Mary became pregnant that would be the ultimate catastrophe. Yet the temptation proved to be too great for them. In an awkward compromise, the young man only penetrated Mary very gently and very shallowly, to avoid breaking the hymen. Nonetheless, he transmitted his seed, and Mary conceived.

When Mary became pregnant, they were both terrified. They came up with an insane plan: Mary would insist that she was a virgin! Thus, the conception must be divine! Knowing that her only other choice was either death or a life of terrible hardship, Mary agreed.

The plan worked beyond her wildest imagination! The priest examined Mary and declared her a virgin. Everyone acknowledged the miracle.  Joseph even agreed to support Mary and her son without having relations with her. Mary took the secret with her to her grave. Not even her own son knew the truth.

There is a rule of logic know as Occam’s Razor. This rule states that, when faced with two explanations for an event, choose the one which is simpler, and requires the fewest assumptions. In order to believe Mary’s account, we must assume:

  • God, the creator of the universe, the pre-existent, single cause of everything, craves an intimate and personal relationship with me, and is capable of monitoring my every action, including my own thoughts.
  • God has a very strong opinion about the way in which I should live my life, and has codified those preferences in the old testament law contained in the bible.
  • God will punish the slightest infraction of that law with an eternity in a place of torment.
  • Although I had no active participation in the event, I am nonetheless damned to eternal torment due to the original sin by my ancestors, Adam and Eve.
  • God decided in order to satisfy his own wrath to horribly torture and kill his own son (also divine).
  • If I believe all of that with no doubt, I will no longer be damned. Instead, I will go to a wonderful place when I die.

Six assumptions in other words. In order to believe my father’s account, I only need to believe this:

  • A teenage girl who was angry about an arranged marriage had sex with a random guy and lied about it.

Not sure about you, but I’m going with the simpler explanation.

More later.

Memes vs. Modules

I have been studying a bit on the area of brain science, much of which explores the idea that human consciousness is best understood as a piece of software. A good example is Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett lays out a theory that religion is a meme, basically a self-replicating idea which propagates in human culture in a manner similar to a gene. Dennett thinks that human consciousness can best be thought of as a collection of memes. This idea was first proposed (at least so far as I know) by Richard Dawkins’s seminal work The Selfish Gene.

I find that I do not agree entirely with Dennett’s analysis, though. Based upon my own experience, I still believe that the cultural phenomenon we refer to as religion has a genetic basis. I call this basis the Faith Module. I refer to the units of design within human consciousness as modules, and some of these modules (the Instinctive Modules) have a genetic basis. One of these, I believe, is the Faith Module.

In my own personal experience, my Faith Module fired, big time, when I was 28 years old. Prior to this point in my life, I had dabbled a bit in religion, largely as a result of influence from my wife at the time. But I regarded religion as a social club. I did not take any of the ideas of religion any more seriously than I took  the science fiction books which I loved to read at the time.

Until my mid-twenties, I had a serious case of what psychology calls infantile omnipotence. This is the idea that I am invincible. Then a series of traumas hit me. The first trauma was my daughter who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 4 (although she had been an undiagnosed autistic for two years). This was followed by the death of my sister who committed suicide at the age of 28 (when I was 26).

And then very quickly, I lost my job by getting fired for being stupid, and had to move to a city where I knew no one in order to find work. As a result of all of this, I was simultaneously emotionally devastated and socially isolated. Also, my entire sense of invincibility had collapsed, and I was at an all time low in terms of self confidence and self esteem. At that time, an older man approached me and showed an interest in my life.

I was desperate. The deal was simple: Believe, truly believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead and is at the right hand of God the Father. Then accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. At that point, I will be saved, and Jesus will take over my life. Although I will be aware, my life will now belong to Jesus.

And the unspoken part of the deal: By accepting these historical facts on Faith (i.e., complete, uncritical, uncompromising adherence to the truth of these tenets, with never ever even admitting to a shred of doubt), I would have access to the love and support of my new friend, plus his entire social group. I would obtain all kinds of emotional and physical support as part of the deal.

No problem. I had nothing to lose. I took the deal. Big time. And I did this without reservation. That is, I completely believed these propositions. As I result, I became seriously buzzed by religion, and this buzz lasted for years.

When I say buzzed, I mean high. You know, euphoria, pleasure, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who says that Faith does not make you high has never experienced Faith, in my opinion. In any event, the Faith Module flooded my brain with all kinds of positive emotional sensations continuously until my delusions began to collapse. But it took a good 4 or 5 years for that to begin, during which period I had a very good time, believe me. I did make some terrible decisions during that period, though.

I found the experience of Faith very similar to my experience with believing in Santa Claus. In many respects, I think that Santa Claus can be thought of as a religion with training wheels. Certainly, believing the fiction about Santa Claus comes with very real benefits. And all I had to do was convince my parents that I had been good this year. Not that hard, assuming fairly loving parents.

Have you ever noticed how parents speak to their children when teaching them about Santa Claus, fairy tales, or similar things? There is a special voice I call the Faith Voice. I certainly did this with my own children. This voice for me is a little breathier. It has more variation in tone than normal, kind of sing-songy. And my Faith Voice is always accompanied with a loving smile that’s difficult to resist.

My children bought into a bit of my Faith Voice, but ultimately the Faith Module only really fired in one of them: My daughter. Both of my sons never really had the Faith experience, at least not up to this point in their lives. But they’re young. Who knows what the future holds?

So Faith is a module which enables me to believe something that my senses may disagree with. Certainly, during my normal daily life, I did not see a lot of folks who looked like Santa Claus and did the things he supposedly did. Thus, the story of Santa Claus can be thought of as astronomically improbable. I certainly reached that conclusion very early, much earlier than I let on to my parents. But remember those benefits? Believing in Santa Claus (or pretending to believe) is a really good deal.

But Faith is qualitatively different than believing in Santa Claus as well. In the case of Faith, if it truly fires (and I readily admit that many, many so-called Christians have never truly had a Faith experience), then my entire identity and survival becomes bound up with the idea of Faith. I would truly and sincerely die for my Faith, willingly and without reservation. If I am willing to sacrifice my life and potential to reproduce for something, then there must be a very, very good reason for this.

And I think I understand the reason fairly well. Again, evolution only favors reproduction. And we have established that Faith dramatically enhances one’s chances for reproduction. Enough said on that score.

On the meme vs. modules debate, I think the difference matters. (Again, technically the distinction is that a meme is merely an idea, whereas a module may have a genetic basis.) The difference matters because of the outcome in terms of how I approach life and society. One of the areas where I think Richard Dawkins is completely full of crap is the idea that we should make teaching children about God illegal. Aside from being fascist and ugly, it wouldn’t work: Assuming that Faith has a genetic basis, then trying to stop Faith from spreading would be stupid, evil, wrong-headed, crazy, etc. By assuming that religion is merely an idea, Dawkins goes down a very ugly and negative path.

Having said that, the Faith Module can be trained. As I have experienced in my own life, it is possible to unlearn the lessons of religion. A few years ago, I took the things that I believed on Faith and placed them on a mental shelf. I had figured out that being religious wasn’t working for me. I needed to do something else. So I evaluated and deconstructed the things I believed on Faith. Once I began to examine these beliefs, I found the evidence for them wanting. Eventually, I came to the state I am in now: I could no longer believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, etc., than I could fly to the moon of gossamer wings. Physically impossible.

More later.

The Non-Cultural Truth: The First Draft

I have been searching for a while for what I call the Non-Cultural Truth: The truth about the way that things really are, stripped of all human culture and bias. This has been a tough quest, believe me. However, I am willing now to at least propose the following as a first draft:

  • The principle of doubt: I embrace doubt. Like Socrates, I accept that I know nothing. Doubt is good: Doubt keeps me humble. If I live in a state of doubt, I will not stubbornly and dogmatically assert the truth of unproven propositions. Faith is the opposite of doubt, and faith thus blinds me to the truth.
  • The principle of proof: The burden lies with religion, politics, or any other movement within human culture, to prove the truth of facts which they assert to be true as a matter of faith. Thus, I cannot accept on faith any factual proposition for which the evidence is dubious at best. The virgin birth of Jesus is a good example: I have no direct evidence of the manner in which Jesus was conceived. I have the accounts in the gospels, nothing more. These accounts assert that Jesus was born of a virgin: That is true. I can accept the truth of the fact that these accounts exist. That says nothing about the truth of the accounts themselves. I must judge these claims separately, and in most cases, the evidence for the absolute truth of these propositions is dubious at best. Thus, for me to accept that Jesus was born of a virgin (especially to assert this passionately as a matter of faith) without any direct evidence on the matter is simply another way in which I delude myself.
  • The principle of freedom: Sin is the idea that God is legalistic. Sin claims that God has some form of legal code with which I am expected to comply, or else face divine wrath. This is also a religious factual proposition for which the evidence is sorely lacking. It is impossible for me to know if God exists at all, so how shall I know that he has a divine code that I am obligated to follow? And what the content of that code is? I must reject this idea completely. Thus, I am not a sinner. I have not displeased God in any way. There is no divinely-prescribed law which I am bound to obey. I am empowered to live my own life in whatever manner pleases me. I am both responsible and free.
  • The principle of the present: Given that, how shall I then live? Since I have no assurance of divine reward after death, what happens to me when I die? I have no idea. I accept that the only thing I have is this present moment, this breath. I do not even know if I will make it through my next breath. That is my state. Given my mortality, it falls to me to make the best of this present moment, because that is all I have.
  • The principle of love: The only thing left to me is relationships. This is my purpose in being: To engage in relationships with my fellow creatures, to enhance their lives, and allow them to enhance mine, if they so choose. Thus, I seek to enlarge my empathy to include all of mankind, and to be at peace with my fellow men and women. I will strive to love everyone as well and as truly as I can.

More later.

Holy Rock

Faith is a module in the Human Consciousness Program (HCP).

As I pointed out in my last post, human consciousness can be thought of as a piece of software. The analogy breaks down somewhat when you get into the details, but certainly this is the best way to describe the nature of human consciousness that I have found. I will uniformly refer to this piece of software as the HCP on this blog.

The HCP is a program that was written by the process of evolution. Thus, everything in  the HCP is an adaptation which promotes the successful reproduction of the human race. Remember that evolution promotes reproduction (including the rearing of offspring which are in turn prepared and capable of reproducing as well), and nothing else. This is the basic underlying fact that drives all of the logic in the HCP. Modules in the HCP do not need to be rational, logical, ethical, or anything else positive. Modules can be illogical, irrational, and even negative in terms of human suffering, no problem, as long as the given module increases reproduction.

So, how do we get faith as a module in this software? Simple. Assume that there was a proto-humanoid primate in a paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe somewhere in the world. We will call this individual Leo. (The gender is arbitrary: This person could have been either male or female.) Leo had an interesting genetic mutation: He was mildly delusional. This particular form of delusion caused Leo to be able to believe facts which were not true (at least not provably true in the traditional sense), and behave in a manner as if these facts were true. Also, when he asserts the truth of these facts to himself, despite the evidence of his senses, his brain rewards him with a form of pleasure: A sense of awe and wonder.

In our scenario, let’s assume that Leo is down by the riverbed one day, and he finds a rock. This is a very unusual rock: It is shaped like a torus (what we refer to as a doughnut). He is filled with awe: This rock has a place which is there, and yet isn’t. Leo finds it enchanting and wonderful. He believes he can hear a voice speaking to him from the rock. This voice tells him of how special, significant and wonderful he is. He is flooded with a profound feeling of peace and love. He decides that the rock is holy. He calls it The Holy Rock.

Leo takes the rock back to his village. He shows the rock to his village, and tries (in his proto-humanoid, pre-language) to communicate the idea of how special and significant The Holy Rock is. Most of his tribe finds him to be absolutely crazy, but a few of the females are fascinated by him. They find his ideas very interesting. As a result, they hang around with Leo, and allow him to mate with them. In the process, Leo has a large number of offspring, many of whom inherit his mutation.

He then shares with his children the ideas about The Holy Rock, and many of them believe as well. In the process of believing in The Holy Rock, these individuals become tightly bound with each other. They share common values and ideas. Further, they have a sense that the rest of the world is against them, and thus they need to be united with each other. This increases the level of empathy and cooperation within this group dramatically.

Empathy and cooperation are absolutely adaptive traits in humans which promote reproduction. Think about what happens when a pre-agricultural hunting party tries to take down a wooly mammoth. If one of the young men gets hit by a tusk while going in for a spear thrust, he had better hope than one of the other humans in that party will carry him back to the village and feed him while he gets back to health. Otherwise, that man is going to die. Thus, a strong bond of love between humans is required for optimal survival and reproduction. As a result of this, Leo’s group flourishes, and breeds competing groups out of existence.

Religion is simply the combination of culture with faith. Faith is now a built-in module which has the capacity to fire if necessary. Once the Faith Module has fired in an individual, that person will tend to express that faith in the context of their culture. This creates religion.

The Faith Module also directly encourages reproduction: It is patently obvious that very religious people have a higher birth rate in general than less religious humans. When I was in Christianity and was considering going into the ministry, I was repeatedly warned by my fellow Christians (especially those already in the ministry) that ministers face a daunting amount of sexual temptation. Apparently, intimate contact with a religious leader is a powerful aphrodisiac for human females. Religious leaders are very high status males, and thus attract lots of sexual attention from women. We see this readily in our own culture in all religions, especially Christianity, where many religious leaders get caught in sexual infidelity.

Faith has several other positive effects aside from increasing reproduction:

  • Faith decreases mortality stress. A religious person is able to believe that they are immortal in some sense. Thus, they do not have to worry as much about death. Believe me, this is a significant source of anxiety, even in our own time. I should know: I am an older man with serious health problems. I would love to be able to believe that I will be ushered gloriously in the presence of Jesus when I die. Oh well.
  • Faith decreases situational stress as well. A religious human group living in an area where there has been no rain in a long time are able to pray for rain. In the process of prayer, they submit the issue of rain to some divine source (the gods, God, or whatever). By doing so, they relieve themselves of some of the anxiety over a situation over which they have no direct control. Thus, faith creates the illusion of control (or at least influence) over circumstances over which a human does not have any direct control. In our own time, relationship stress is a good example. If a religious man has marital problems, by praying, he is able to turn over the problem of his marriage to some divine source. In the process, again, he releases his responsibility over the issue, and this reduces his anxiety over the situation. I have found personally that letting go of religious delusions has increased my own stress. I am now completely aware that I am both responsible and free: I have to manage my own life as best I can. This places the burden on me, not on God.

Unfortunately, religious faith also has some serious negative affects on our culture. Certainly it is spectacularly wasteful in terms of resources. In my own environment, I can barely go outside and throw a rock without hitting a Christian church of some type. Just the land use alone is a huge waste. And that’s in modern times when religion has declined in importance. In places like Cologne, Germany, the local cathedral has provided the dominant source of resource consumption for the entire area for centuries.

Further, religious folks, by virtue of believing facts which are not provably true, open themselves up to being manipulated and exploited. I have certainly fallen into this trap numerous times. The Hallelujah Diet is a great example. Although it shows up on the QuackWatch website, the Hallelujah Diet remains hugely popular among Christians, especially evangelicals, who stubbornly refuse to accept that this program is completely unscientific, and likely does more harm than good for most folks. My experience with the Hallelujah Diet is very instructive: When my wife became seriously ill, many of our Christian friends strongly recommended that she go on the HD program. Later, after we figured out that HD was a completely ineffective approach, I went back to these Christians and asked them about their personal experience with the HD. Without exception, they had also abandoned the HD, and concluded that it did not work for them. So, I asked, why did they recommend the HD so highly, especially given the combination of their own negative experience, plus all of the information about the HD which is available on the internet? I got a lot of shrugging of shoulders and shuffling of feet while staring at the ground on that one. Near as I can tell, for these religious folks, the Christian nature of HD trumped all other questions: Since George Malkmus is such a great Christian brother, and hears from God, and so forth, the HD must be good. It just didn’t work for me. Never mind that it is a well-known quack cure, as documented on the internet. Most Christians don’t even check for that when considering Christian programs like the HD. They simply implicitly trust other Christians, often despite all reason.

Other obvious examples of financial exploitation are readily available in our culture. Many televangelists live off of this stuff, and are able to raise large sums of money, most of which is simply wasted. Thus, in that sense, religion often becomes a legalized form of theft. I will not belabor the point further.

Perhaps the greatest negative effect of religion is the development of war. Recall in our example that the tribal group that Leo started believed that they were unique, and that the rest of the world was opposed to them. (Some resistance to religious ideas is inevitable from folks in whom the religion gene does not fire.) In Christianity, this takes the form of the persecution myth. This leads eventually to the formation of competing religious groups, such as Christianity vs. Islam.

Also, religious folks believe that the divine is on their side. This gives religion a powerful motivation and rationale for war. The promise of divine reward after death has been used as a manipulation for glorious death in battle (or as a suicide bomber) for all of human history. It is pretty likely that the first wars had a religious context, and as we see in human history, many (if not most) wars are over religion in some form.

More later.

My Friend Joan

I have a dear old friend named Joan who posted the following comment to my Facebook page, in response to my most recent blog called I am not a Sinner. Here is the quote from Joan’s comment:

Get over it Jeff, you continuously contemplate God….etc., etc., but YOU make no REAL meaningful or significant changes/ differences IN YOUR LIFE….I follow you, but, you never seem to move on, in ANY direction, there is ALWAYS so much confusion andso little advancement, with so little clarity in what you say….Hopefully, maybe, moving forward with contemplated changes and positive decisions in your life WILL make a difference….(outside of all the other crap)……..SOOOOO…sorry… but life’s a bitch!!!!! I’m just trying to find anything substantial or significant in your writing thats worth holding onto throughout your rants…. Maybe your intellect is beyond mine…but sometimes I think life is purely nothing more than life…..moving forward without all the intro-spectrum stuff……ENJOY!!

Lets look at whats outside….and then try to move in….academics can sometimes cloud things…..A LOT!!! xo

First of all, let me say to Joan: I am delighted that you are following me. I find it significant and inspiring that this blog caused you to to have such a strong response. That’s wonderful.

Now, in terms of what you said in your comment, well, yeah. That’s kind of the whole idea behind that particular blog post: Moving on. I can tell you since that day (the day I referred to in my previous post in which I had a profound spiritually transformative experience), I have been very different. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife. We had a conflict before that day. Now we don’t. That’s because I let go of all the rage. I am no longer trying to change my wife, my friends or any one else in my life. I no longer want folks to be like me. I am happy and content to allow all of my loved ones to be exactly who they want to be, right now, in this present moment, in the area of spirituality as in all other areas.

So, I have a great deal of peace now. That’s what happened on that day. I think that’s pretty much “moving on”, as you put it. Let me know your thoughts.

In terms of your comments about academics clouding the issues, well, again, yeah. Certainly, I definitely have a tendency to get bogged down in the technical details. I can understand your frustration. I will try to lighten it up a bit in that respect. Watch for my next post, which will be another intensely personal account from my family history. No academic content in other words. I hope you enjoy it.

Having said that, I’ve got to read someone. I have a reading habit, and I like that habit, so I am not going to try to break it any time soon. In that regard, I have chosen to read (arguably) academics like Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, as opposed to (say) Joel Osteen. I find Armstrong and Wright to be much more balanced in their approach, and I like who I am when I read them as opposed to the overtly Christian writers. I suppose that’s just a matter of taste, but this is where I am. My current read, as I think you know by now, is The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. An incredibly insightful book. But, again, I won’t be blogging on anything like that anytime soon.

Stay tuned though. I enjoy the interaction, and, again, I am thrilled that you are listening.

I am not a Sinner

I had a transformative spiritual experience recently. I was driving from Las Vegas to Phoenix (about a 6 hour drive) alone on a beautiful day. I found myself surrounded by the desert, mountain valley after valley moving behind me, as I drove through this incredible landscape.

An environment which is conducive to reflection, that’s for sure. I found myself replaying in my mind an email conversation that I had with my Christian friend Ray, in which he stated that I “blamed God for all the negative things in the law”. As well as the atrocities committed in the name of Jesus by the Christian church, etc.

I realized that I did not think I really blamed God for these things. But that’s a natural mistake on Ray’s part. He was thinking as he is: A Diest Christian. So he has a personal relationship with his Creator. Most days these days, I am agnostic. Certainly I know at this point in the core of my being that the existence or non-existence of God is an unknowable fact. Certainly not knowable by me, that’s for sure! So I do not know, and cannot know, if I am in a relationship with my Creator. Thus, it would be very difficult for me to blame Him for things of which I don’t believe He is is capable. No. I think that the negative things in the bible and the acts of men in His name are simply acts of human beings. Perhaps acting under a particularly ugly form of delusion. But acts of man nonetheless.

That led to the question: So why is it that I am so pissed off about the law? Why do I get so incensed about the stupid, evil, racist, misogynistic, cruel and inhumane stuff in the law? I mean, beyond normal incredulity at the insanity which is the biblical law. Certainly, my ire seemed to me to be more intense than most folks in our time and culture.

And then I figured it out. What I was angry at was not the law. What I was angry at was sin.

Here is what the idea of sin says: The creator of the universe hates me. And He wants to kill me. And after that, he is going to put me in a terrible place when I die, where he has legions of demons who will torture me to death continuously. Although I won’t be able to die. So the suffering will go on and on and on.

And the only way out of this inevitable abyss (about which I have nothing to say, by the way) is to accept that this same Creator took his own son and tortured him terribly instead. And then if I believed, really believed, all of that, I would be saved, and God would not want to kill and damn me anymore.

Once I got my arms completely around that idea, I did get a bit pissed. I realized the real problem with traditional religion in all of its forms is this very thing: The idea of sin.

So I let it fall away. I simply determined at that moment that I am not a sinner. I have not displeased the Creator in any way. This does not mean that I am perfect. Far from it. It simply means that there is no divinely prescribed code of behavior for humans to follow, the violation of which brings divine ire. I have the right to live my own life, in what ever manner I see fit. I am both responsible and free.

This revelation (if you can call it that) was followed by several hours of driving through an incredible desert landscape with tears streaming down my face as I was bathed in an incredible feeling of love.

Was I visited by God? I don’t know. It certainly felt like it. I have been different from that day. I can feel the difference. It is quite weird, and a bit scary. But I would not want to go back to the way I was before.

More later.

Evolution

I have discovered evolution. I spent many years when enmired in Evangelical Christianity as a creationist who believed that life began in the Garden of Eden. I now know (if I know anything) that life evolved. I have studied this one extensively, and the evidence for evolution is everywhere, if you look for it. For example, I am now burning my way through The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (the author of The Evolution of God, one of the most transformational books I have ever read). Robert Wright is an evolutionary psychologist. That is, he believes that the phenomenon of human consciousness can be explained in evolutionary terms. I am finding this thesis very convincing.

I had a personal experience which demostrates the role of evolution recently. I take my dogs, Diogee and Napoleon, for a walk almost every day, weather permitting. Typically, we go for a 2 mile walk in the middle of the day, as close to solar noon as possible so that I can be exposed to natural UV light, which is really good for my health. More on this later.

I observe my dog Diogee (actually my wife’s dog, but I digress). Diogee has a behavior which Napoleon does not have: He scratches the ground after he does his business. He does so almost invariably, and he did not have to be taught to do this. He knew how to scratch the day I met him (and he was a very small puppy at that point). At the age of 10 (70 doggie years in other words), he still does this. So where did this behavior come from?

Viewed in terms of evolutionary psychology, it makes perfect sense. This behavior is the expression of a gene which Diogee has and Napoleon does not. At some point in the evolution of the dog (which is actually a wolf), there was some adaptation which caused the animal to bury his / her droppings. Possibly there were prey animals which used the droppings to identify the location of predators. If so, then burying the droppings would be a desirable trait. (In evolutionary terms, “desirable” means that the animal will be more successful at reproducing, and thus expressing this particular gene.)

Eventually, scratching after doing your business no longer had any significant benefit. Certainly, after humans took over the job of deciding how the canine species evolved (an event which happened in the mists of pre-history), the presence of dog droppings did not help prey animals to avoid being eaten. The archeological record is replete with evidence of how devastatingly effective a human hunting party was, when accompanied by a pack of domesticated wolves. All the humans had to do was use the dogs to drive the prey animals into a difficult area, like a swamp or a stand of canes. Once the prey animals were trapped by the dogs in an area which made movement difficult, the humans moved in to finish the prey animal off using spears. In this manner, after the dog was domesticated, humans were able to bring down huge animals like wooly mammoths, elk, moose, and the like.

Anyway, this particular gene was selected by evolution at some point during the development of the wolf. Later it became irrelevant, but it did not harm the ability of the animal to reproduce. Thus, the gene persists at least in some dogs. It is not being selected for anymore, but neither is it being selected against. Thus, Diogee has the trait, but Napoleon does not.

In The Moral Animal, Wright investigates the role of evolution in the development of human sexuality and marital relationships. One phenomenon which is pretty much universal is the so-called “Maddona-Whore Dichotomy”. That is, men tend to sort women into two sets: Those who are appropriate for casual sex and those you marry. The difference is the sexual promiscuity and libido of the woman involved. In terms of long-term relationships, as Wright amply demostrates, men actually prefer women who are relatively non-sexual, and have to be wooed and coaxed into having sex. Why? Simple. Human beings are a type of species referred to as having high “male parental investment” (MPI). Thus, a man is driven by his genes to foster the success of his offspring, and will expend a great deal of effort doing so. This is true in pretty much every human culture in the history of the world.

This is in turn driven by the nature of the human species itself: Our babies are born at a very early stage of  development relative to other primates. Bonobos infants are capable of clinging to their mothers from birth, an essential trait given that bonobos monkees live in the canopies of trees. With humans, the female is typically completely devoted to the care of the infant for at least three to four years after birth. In order for this to be feasible, the father really needs to hang around and provide food, protection, shelter, etc.

In the sexual dynamic, the interests of the female and the male are in conflict: The female’s interest is to attract a male to invest in her offspring. The male’s interest is to avoid having the female mate with any other males, as that would make his investment worthless, in terms of expressing his genes. Thus, the value of virginity in females is a virtually universal human trait. The effect of cheating is different for each gender: For a male, a cheating wife is devastating: He can no longer ensure that the offspring will be his. Hence the extreme response of human males to infedility which can, and does, include violence. Female response to male infedility is very different: What threatens the female is not sexual infidelity. A bit of casual sex can be tolerated, and almost always is in many cultures. The threat to the female is emotional infidelity, because it threatens the male’s continued investment in her offspring. If the male becomes emotionally bonded to another female, he may abandon her for another family. This can, and often does, happen even in very primitive cultures. Hence the classic stereotype of jilted females sitting around commiserating about their unfaithful husbands and concluding that all men are scum.

The difference in libido is dramatic as well: Male humans have an insatiable sexual appetite compared to females. Why? Because for a male the mating opportunity presents another chance to spread those genes! A male human can mate hundreds of times a year, assuming he can get enough females to cooperate. This has actually happened in very polygamous ancient cultures like Judaism where kings like Solomon had so many wives and concubines that he could have sex with a different woman every night of his life, and not repeat for years (and possibly never repeat at all, given the acquisition of new wives and concubines!). On the other hand, a female can only reproduce about once per year (and that’s pretty aggressive), given the huge investment required by the female to bear and rear the child. Thus, once a female has mated once in a year, that’s good enough. She would rather find something to eat or catch a nap. Reproduction is not that important to her, as long as she can find a male to mate with often enough, and that does not need to be very often. The way females ovulate is very telling: Other primates have an explicit form of ovulation so that all males around her will know that she is fertile. Human females have no such cues. In biology, this is referred to as obscure ovulation. This means that the female is able to mate pretty much anytime, neatly fitting into the massive sex drive of the male. Since the male cannot tell if the female is fertile, he happily has sex with her, in the hope (at least in evolutionary terms) that she might be fertile. In the process, the emotional component of sexual love is enhanced, further ensuring the male’s parental investment.

You get the idea. Many of the characteristics which define us as a species can be explained quite well in evolutionary, Darwinian terms. I find this enchanting.

More later.

The Old Testament Law According to the West Wing

In my last post, I pointed out that the Old Testament law is “bigoted, misogynistic, and cruel”. I actually had a plan in mind to go through several more iterations of this theme: Pointing out the areas of the Old Testament law which violate (often violently) our current moral standards. However, I have been watching a lot of The West Wing lately (which portrays Christianity rather positively in most respects). I have become quite fond of Jed Bartlet, and like his character immensely. I just saw Season 2, Episode 3, called “The Midterms” in which Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) comments on the Old Testament law far more succinctly and eloquently than I possibly could. In this scene, President Barlet is responding to a radio journalist who has just pointed out that homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22. Here’s an excerpt from the show containing President Bartlet’s response:

I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?

Which just about says it on the Old Testament law. So here’s where I am: I cannot conceive of a God who would condemn me to a terrible death, by declaring me permanently unclean, because I have psoriasis, a skin disease which in the ancient times was commonly confused with leprosy. My NIV study bible contains a footnote for every single word in the Old Testament which is translated as “leprosy” which reads:

The Hebrew word translated as “leprosy” refers to a large variety of skin diseases, not merely leprosy.

That’s because an ancient Hebrew priest could not distinguish between a person who has leprosy and one who has psoriasis. Or eczema for that matter.

I know that the argument against this particular law is not as strong as the one against slavery, stoning a woman on her wedding night because she is not a virgin, forcing a girl to marry a man who raped her, stoning people because they violated the sabbath, or any of the other ridiculous, rascist, misogynistic and cruel things in that law. That’s because this one had to do with protecting people from a terrible disease, misguided and wrong though they might have been. But this one law happens to be personal. It affects me. So I will stick with that one.

More later.

The Law of God

My friend Ray and I have been having an interesting discussion on the Old Testament law. You see, the Christian gospel relies upon the OT law to establish the standard of sin. The basic elements of the Christian gospel are as follows:

  • God exists, has a personal interest in each of us humans, and also has a standard of behavior which He has prescribed for us, commonly known in the bible as the law (in Greek usually the word logos, and in Hebrew almost universally the word torah).
  • Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in violating the law of God, sin entered into mankind, and we fell. Sin is defined as missing the mark, i.e., meaning failing to meet the standard laid down by God, again the OT law.
  • Jesus Christ is the solution to this problem! God the Father decided to sacrifice his own son, Jesus, so that the OT law could be abolished, and we could enter into a relationship with God, free from the constraints of the law.

There you have it. Note that God must meet three requirements in order for this gospel to be true:

  1. He / She must exist. I actually do believe in God most of the time, more on this later.
  2. He / She must be capable of communicating with us humans, and care about our affairs. I refer to this as God being personal. This is not actually as trivial as it sounds. Many intelligent folks (including Thomas Jefferson, for example) have long believed in a God who exists, but is not capable of communicating with us. Christians generally ascribe all sorts of human-style emotions to God. (God is grieved by the state of moral decline in our country, etc.) Other religions frequently consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry for this reason. More on this later. Many physicists believe that if God does exist, He / She would be completely outside of our normal space / time. Thus, the likelihood of something that great having concern for us is not a trivial question, like I said. Nonetheless, Christians do believe generally that God has intimate concern and awareness of our every action, including our thoughts.
  3. He / She must have an opinion about human behavior and morality. I call this God being moral. This one is a big stretch, actually, but if you buy the general idea of God having a standard of behavior for us humans, then you have to deal with the core issue of this post, which is:

Does the law of the Old Testament qualify for something you would regard as divinely prescribed?

And this question is very important to Christianity because, again, the law is the standard which is raised by God in order to define the concept of sin. As Paul pointed out, without the law, there is no awareness of sin. Also, of course, the Old Testament is replete with praise and adulation for the law. (Many examples could be cited, but Psalm 119 pretty much says it all.) Thus, certainly, most conservative Christians would agree that the law as laid down in the Old Testament is the standard of God which defines the concept of sin.

Thus I propose to examine the Old Testament law and determine (at least in my own mind) whether it qualifies as a candidate for a divinely prescribed law. I will begin with the law of rape, which is contained largely in Deuteronomy 22. Here is the basic gist:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV)

OK, let me get this straight. A man rapes a woman who is a virgin and not engaged. For this he has to pay her father 50 coins and then marry her? In other words, a woman is required to marry her rapist, and live with him for the rest of her life?

No wonder rape is not included in the proscriptions in the 10 commandments. In the Old Testament law, rape is simply not considered to be a very serious crime!

So there you have it. Do you consider this law of rape to be divinely prescribed? Would you live in a society in which this was the law?

As usual, comments are welcome.

Reasonable Christians

I met a reasonable Christian today. It was a bit weird, actually.

My wife wanted to visit a local Anglican church where my Christian friend Ray and his wife attend, and I thought: Sure, why not? So we went. There you have it. I actually set foot in a Christian church today. And I have no doubt that many of the Christians in that room would be offended by the things that I say on this blog (although I would certainly love it if they would read it).

Be that as it may, I was immediately drawn to a young woman when we arrived. You are probably thinking that this was due to my (admittedly) heterosexual nature. But, no, in this case, I was not attracted to this person in that way at all. For one thing, she was dressed in a very traditionally religious manner, which is about as sexually unattractive as it is humanly possible to be. And she had done absolutely nothing to make herself attractive, as that standard is described in our current culture. (Not that I find that necessarily attractive either: More on that later.) It was not that she could not have made herself attractive in our terms, had she tried. She simply did not care to try.

What drew me to this person was her absolute, visible and obvious rebellion against the direction of our modern culture. As soon as I started talking to her, she explained to me about how the Anglican church we were in was “officially a mission of the Anglican Church of Rwanda. You see, the Rwandans decided that America was an evil, secular, and godless place that was in need of evangelizing. So they planted this church.”

I still cannot tell if this statement was dripping with irony or not. If so, she delivered it very well, and very straight. She had me immediately.

I confessed that I was an extreme theological liberal, and told her about a bit of my journey. How I had made a terrible mistake: I decided to read the bible as a work of human literature, and put my faith on the shelf for a while. As a result, my belief systems traumatically collapsed and left me as you see me here: A spiritual wreck. Of course, the irony in my case was more obvious.

Interestingly, she understood. Turns out that she is studying the New Testament at a major university in Israel. (A very interesting place to decide to study the New Testament.) She said she had been through a similar journey. She was, as she put it: “Aware of the difficulties.” That is, she has a place at the conversation because she is at least familiar with the material concerning the origins of Christianity, the bible and the rest, and is not simply deluding herself, as many Christians do. The good news, she said, was: “You can make it through this to a better place.”

I did not get to continue the conversation past that point, although I would like to. Is it possible for a person who does not even believe in Hell, or the concept of sin (as in failing to meet the standard set out by God in His law) to be a Christian in some way? Perhaps it is, so long as it is clear that I am also a Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. As well as an agnostic, and in times of deep despair, possibly even an atheist.

But the Christian might be the better part of me.

One thing my friend Ray pointed out to was the 10 commandments, as a part of the standard raised by God. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded by that very much. If I had to come up with a set of human laws to live by, I would have created a very different list than these. Especially when you put it in the context of the rest of the Old Testament law. Like the commandment against adultery. I would certainly not condone the form of marriage described in the law of Moses, which was, as I have pointed out frequently, polygamous, blatantly discriminatory against women, and fundamentally a form of slavery. I would have certainly added a commandment against rape. (Want to get your hair raised? Read the laws in the Old Testament on rape.) And I certainly would have added a law encouraging compassion and empathy towards every human, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Which is obviously missing from the Old Testament law, as it is completely bigoted in favor of the children of Israel, and against the rest of the human race.

So there is the challenge: Can a man like me fit into a community of Christian believers? Not sure. I guess we’ll see.

More later.