Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

The Church of Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

PKD“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

 

We need to declutter the world of bullshit memes. It’s time to apply Marie Kondo’s techniques for getting rid of unnecessary things to unnecessary beliefs. We all live in a fantasyland of lies, myths, untruths, and endless other forms of bogus thoughts. There is too much truthiness in the world and not enough truth.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about all the bullshit beliefs that pollute our minds. As I began tallying those crazy concepts I realized I’d need to write a whole book to cover the topic. This morning I discovered that book has already been written, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Anderson. Here is a portion of chapter 1, “Now Entering Fantasyland,” but I highly recommend following the link to Amazon and reading the whole chapter.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of people’s beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think, but from reams of research, drilling down and cross-checking and distilling data from the last twenty years, a rough, useful census of American belief, credulity, and delusion does emerge.
By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.
A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.
A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

What we need is a movement to zap unreality whenever we encounter it. We need a Church of Reality where the ten commandments work to clear the collective consciousness of delusion. Of course, that’s Zen Buddhism, which has never caught on big. Too bad we can’t all walk around with bamboo sticks and give each other a politic whack if we hear something attacking reality.

If John Kelly had a keisaku, swatting Donald Trump every time he said something foolish, I wonder if the President could be conditioned into seeing reality more clearly? Would it help any or all of us if we got a little sting when we said something unreal? Maybe Apple and Google could develop apps for our phones that listen to us like Alexa and honks rudely when hearing silly remarks. Think of it as an AI friend like Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek who would be cool and logical.

Anderson, in Fantasyland, goes into the history of how we’ve become such a looney nation. It used to be crackpots were loners seldom seen, but the internet has turned them into preachers gathering huge flocks of crazy followers. To compound the problem our country is creating an anti-authority establishment. Politicians and businessmen have learned that two-thirds of the population will believe anything they tell them so they greedily take whatever they want by lying. Currently, they are pulling off the biggest con in history with their tax-cuts using tired old lies that have been disproven for decades, yet they continue to succeed.

There is one external reality in which we all reside, unfortunately, the human mind creates its own subjective reality that each mind prefers to believe. Science is the only cognitive tool that tells us statistically which aspects of the external reality are probably real. Any Church of Reality we create needs to teach people how to tell shit from Shinola. I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s lessons need to come from an external source. I can picture us each having a robot that follows us around and routinely says in the voice of Jeeves, “I’m sorry sir, what you just said is incorrect” or maybe in the voice of Marvin the Robot, “Damn human, you certainly are full of crapola today!”

JWH

 

 

Is There Any Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her world was rocked when she attended a lecture by Rev. Dr. William Barber who is leading a moral movement to repair the breaches in our society. I assume Laurie found hope in the idea we can save ourselves by creating a new moral order. Even though I’m an atheist, I’m all for this. The trouble is our society is too fractured. Is it even possible to put it back together again? I’ve recently wondered if there is any kind of movement that everyone could embrace and find agreement? I figured it would have to be as powerful as Christianity was in its first four centuries — and yet work with non-Christians and non-believers.

How can we find common ground? Everyone talks about America being politically polarized into conservatives and liberals, but I believe there are far more divisions than that cracking up our society. If every group identity is going to demand society conform to their narrow vision we are doomed. How can we find common ground when so many different viewpoints want to dominate making the rules? Instead of seeking cooperative compromises they all fight to impose their view while demeaning everyone else’s.

In small, homogenous societies, social coherence is found with shared morality. We live in a vast, heterogeneous society with countless ethical/moral visions which makes having shared values almost impossible. In the past, we all tried to agree on some social conventions such as etiquette, acceptable public behaviors, and abiding the laws. Such efforts are almost universally ignored now.

Our greatest obstacle to finding social consensus is defining reality. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” is how the apostle Paul began the divide between religion and science by attacking what he called the “empty logic of the philosophers.” Several hundred years later, St. Augustine continued with “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The-Closing-of-the-Western-Mind-by-Charles-Freeman

I got these quotes from The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. They explain perfectly how and why modern believers deny science. The faithful intuitively understand faith is threatened by science. It’s why Christianity embraced Plato and not Aristotle when they discovered the Greeks. It’s why conservatives have a never-ending guerrilla war with education working to undermine K-12 and higher education. They deny the results of science by denying science.

Is it even possible to find a common morality sharable by the sacred and the secular? We can’t even agree murder is evil. How can Christians embrace stand-your-ground laws, gun carrying permits, and AR-15s in light of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s strange that godless liberals support diversity, a concept that St. Paul brought to Christianity when many modern Christians reject it today. Not only is our secular society fractured into countless pieces, but so is Christianity. If believers in a single divine authority can’t agree how can secular society?

The old saying claims money is the root of all evil. I think it’s truer than ever. Money promotes self-interest, and self-interest promotes justifying the acquisition of money by any means. Our plutocratic society has escalated lying to the supreme tool of the greedy. Wealthy people and corporations have learned that lying pays big dividends. A great book that makes that point is The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway.

There is a war on science, knowledge, expertise, and intellectualism. The greedy have aligned themselves with the faithful to attack science, and they are winning the war. We can never achieve a universal morality if half the population believes the end justifies the means, thus rationalizing lying. The age of fake news and endless assaults on journalism will never stop before society collapses. I sometimes wonder if the goals of the radical right are to destroy society so they can start over fresh.

There is no hope for any moral movements if we all can’t agree to stop lying. We all need to accept that science is the only tool we have for verifying reality. Science was invented to work across cultures and weed out subjective bias. It is an extremely effective tool for explaining the objective reality we all live in. We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true. Religion has two choices. It can embrace science or reject it. Religion will strengthen itself if it accepts science, even if science denies it’s metaphysical assumptions. The real value of religion is creating shared values and stable communities — heaven on Earth rather than silly promises in exchange of silly declarations of beliefs.

The greedy are currently using religion to attack science to protect their wealth. The greedy have aligned with the faithful who are also attacking science to defend ancient memes created by primitive folks thousands of years ago. There is a logical synergy to their union but if it succeeds it will destroy our current civilization. Thus, greed is corrupting modern Christianity. I find it hard to accept the faithful who claim the moral high ground when Mammon is their ally.

I don’t know how they can assert America is a Christian nation when our society isn’t even close to resembling the sayings printed in red in their bibles. I believe Jesus tried to teach social action that has more in common with the Democratic party than the Republican. To me, the only valid analysis of Christian philosophy comes from what Jesus said. Everything else said in his name or about him is corrupt. Read The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar to understand what I mean, or the books of Bart D. Ehrman.

I believe our only hope is to get the faithful and faithless to agree on common secular morality. This is what the Founding Fathers intended when they created freedom of religion. Because religious beliefs are infinite in variety they need to stay out of politics and remain personal. We need laws and common morals that protect everyone equally. We need to ignore the politics of special interest groups that want special treatment for the few.

We need to agree that science is the only arbiter of explaining reality, promote universal quality education, develop a set of ethics that all agree on which protects both people, animals, the plant world, the environment, that develops a sustainable society. What we need is worldwide Constitution and Bill of Rights for everyone in the 21st century. We need to protect the poor and helpless, but allow the ambitious to succeed without collectively destroying the planet.

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

I’ve read two articles this week that suggests this won’t happen. Both are about the war on science and knowledge. The first is Bill Moyers dialog with Joan Scott at Salon, “In the Trump age, an embolden attack on intellectuals.” And this older article at The Federalist by Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise” which later became the book, The Death of Expertise.

Hope involves believing people can change. Since we haven’t for two hundred thousand years, why expect the human race to get its shit together at the last moment to avoid an apocalypse of our own making? We could save ourselves if we weren’t so greedy. Unfortunately, we live in a civilization where greed is the foundation.

JWH

 

Comforting Words of Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 2, 2017

I’m restless. I became depressed after hearing about the mass killing in Las Vegas. I needed uplifting and realized I hungered for a comforting science fiction story, the kind I found inspiring in my youth. I pulled out my iPhone and brought up my ebook copy of The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak called me to read it. It’s a huge book, as big as The Bible. I believe I turned to this story today like the faithful turn to a favorite passage in their good book. My unconscious mind picked it for me, and as usual, it was right.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

After reading the story I hankered to hear it. I prefer listening to fiction, and once again I prayed my atheist prayers for an audiobook edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction. (Audible, are you listening?) If you are a believer try listening to an audiobook version The Bible, and you’ll know why.

I was able to find “Desertion” in the audiobook version of City, a fix-up novel Simak created from several unrelated short stories that he tied together about myths of extinct humans told by surviving robots and dogs. I’ve saved the video to where the story starts.

For those you who prefer to read with your eyes, here’s a .pdf of the story.

Whether you listen or read, the story is not very long. Take some time to enjoy it. Any true believer of science fiction will find it moving, even heartwarming. “Desertion” provides the kind of sense of wonder that many of us true fans feel define science fiction. Warning, I hope this story will make you cry, it should if you’re not a misanthrope.

I’ve often written there are many similarities between the appeal of religion and the attraction of science fiction. Maybe that’s why I find the sense of wonder in this story so comforting on this bleak day.

“Desertion” is a tale of pantropy and transhumanism – think born again. I’m an atheist to both religion and science fiction. Even though their stories are unbelievable, they are comforting. I lost my faith in God when I was twelve. I’ve been a humanist ever since. However, in my last third of life, I’m even losing my faith in humanity. Does that make me a post-humanist?

JWH

To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents

Faith

Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life

JWH

The Soul v. Evolved Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 19, 2017

I keep trying to understand the core cause of our polarized political conflict that’s pushing us to destroy our current civilization. We have the knowledge and technology needed to solve our problems but we don’t apply them. We choose to viciously fight among ourselves instead. Self-interest is winning over group survival. Decade after decade I keep wondering why. I keep refining my theories, and the current one says this conflict originates in a divide between theology and philosophy.

Most people don’t think in terms of theology or philosophy, so how could cognitive tools be the cause of so much hatred? People act on beliefs without being aware of their beliefs or the origins of their actions. My current theory explores if we’re divided by a fundamental sense of self: either assuming we have an immortal soul or an evolving consciousness.

Because science cannot explain why we’re conscious animals the origins of consciousness remain open to interpretation from theology and philosophy. Of course, even when science can overwhelmingly explain such mechanisms as evolution, many people refuse to accept science because of their innate theology, even when they can’t explain that theology in words or logic. But where does theology come from? Why do some people process reality with a theological perspective and other people with a philosophical or scientific perspective?

Humans are not rational creatures. We are rationalizing animals. Our thoughts are not logical, but seek to reinforce our desires. The perfect lab animal for studying this irrationality of humanness is Donald Trump. From my perspective, humans are the product of billions of years of evolution and we’re currently at a paradigm shift of consciousness, where half of us perceive reality in the old paradigm and half in the new.

The old paradigm assumes God created us, giving us immortal souls with time in this existence being temporary because there’s a greater existence after death. The new paradigm is reality is constantly evolving. I use the word “reality” to mean everything. We used to say, “the universe” to mean everything, but it now appears our universe is part of a multiverse, and even that might not be everything. So, I call everything by the term “reality.” It includes all space, time, dimensions, and everything we’ve yet to discover or imagine.

Humans are bubbles of conscious self-awareness popping into this reality that eventual burst. I believe our consciousness minds evolved out of brain evolution, which evolved out of biology, and biology evolved out chemistry, and chemistry evolved out of physics, and physics evolved out of cosmology. Other people believe a superior being called God using the magical power of the Word created us.

It comes down to the soul v. evolved consciousness. Humans whose thoughts arise out of a belief foundation of the soul perceive reality differently from humans whose thoughts arise out of the belief we’re a product of evolution. I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious choice either. I’m guessing our unconscious minds work based on how each paradigm has wired our brains. Obviously, only one paradigm explains our true existence, but individuals live their lives perceiving reality from one or the other paradigm. That perceptual different makes all the cultural, social and political differences.

The people who act like they have souls want to shape reality based on their beliefs, and the people who act like they are evolved consciousnesses want to shape reality according to their beliefs. This causes our political/social/cultural divide. People with souls don’t care what happens to this planet, people with evolving consciousness think this planet is vital.

Sparrows and Prayers

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 14, 2017

Even as an atheist I’ve always loved the sentiment that God knows every sparrow that falls from a tree. It’s a comforting feeling to know that we’re watched by someone who loves us. A 2008 poll showed 60% of Americans believe in a personal God. But according to one estimate, there are ten times as many stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on Earth. The next time you’re at the beach, contemplate the sand and imagine that each grain contains as many humans as Earth, and then imagine what it would be like to hear all their prayers, and then remember you’d need to listen to all the beings on all the other grains of sand too. Can any mind no matter how vast discern so many voices?

There are over 7 billion humans on this planet and between 200-400 billion birds. How can God know every sparrow that falls from the sky or listens to every prayer we make? Now imagine multiplying 407 billion times every planet in the universe. Now multiply that times every universe in the multiverse.

sparrows and prayers

The only person that hears our prayers are ourselves, and maybe a few people who love us if we tell them. The idea that there’s a loving being that listens to all our wants, desires, and fears is a story primitive people told themselves. How can we believe it when we know so much more? Our reality is even larger than what we can see with the Hubble telescope. There’s no reason not to assume it’s infinite.

We need to individually listen to our own prayers and answer them ourselves. We need to collectively listen to each other’s prayers and work together to answer them as species. Humans need to note each sparrow that falls from the trees and care for them.

We should all want universal health care, we all get sick. Why should the rich get their prayers answered, and not the poor? Why should the rich be the sparrows that get noticed?

JWH