Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

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The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

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The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

Gimme That Old Time Meditation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 29, 2015

Meditation is gaining secular and even scientific acceptance. I first heard about meditation in the mid-sixties when The Beatles ran off with that guru. I even took up meditation in the 1970s during the New Age movement. For most of the last half-century, meditation was something aging hippies in sandals pursued. Then in the last decade, meditation has been embraced by therapists, human resource departments, Christian churches and even the military. All of this is well chronicled in 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris. Dan Harris is a reporter and anchor for various ABC television shows. His high-stress career and obsessive personality started causing on-air panic attacks and he began searching for solutions. Harris slowly embraced Buddhism and meditation because of covering stories about them while assigned the religion beat. His book is about his struggle to discover if there is any validity to meditation and Buddhism, and how to separate provable results from spiritual woo-woo. Essentially, he demystifies Buddhism and meditation. This is a great book for anyone skeptical about ancient self-help practices.

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What I really liked about this book was Harris’ skepticism. As a reporter he knew how to ask hard questions, and whenever he met a new guru he didn’t hold back. Over the course of this story, Harris meets star gurus of the self-help circuit who promises the masses various forms of enlightening and happiness. Harris eventually concludes, on average, meditation has helped him to become 10% happier. He also believes if he works at it, he might even get an even higher return, but that meditation is no magic pill for transforming anxiety and depression into bliss. In other words, there is no free lunch.

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What’s really involved is learning how our brains work. Meditation was discovered long before science, but it’s essentially a systematic way of observing our own brain. We can supplement meditative experiences with modern scientific research on the brain. I highly recommend The Brain with David Eagleman, a 6-part documentary currently running on PBS that’s based on his book. Last night’s episode was about the unconscious mind and how little our conscious mind knows. We all need to become amateur brain researchers to study our own minds, and meditation is a good observing technique.

Harris first encountered Eckhart Tolle after his panic attacks and was very receptive to his message. However, Tolle troubled him with a lot of mumbo-jumbo spiritual talk. Eventually Harris met Deepak Chopra and even the Dali Lama. With each guru he kept pushing them for exactness, and felt each man had some real understanding, but was often confused or turned off by weird unscientific terminology. Harris then he found psychiatrist, Mark Epstein, who was also exploring Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. Epstein introduced Harris to Joseph Goldstein, a master meditation teacher. Harris, who is Jewish, found practical kinship with these two Jewish meditators, and they connected him to scientists doing actual research on meditation.

This path took Harris years, and he carefully explains all his ups and downs trying to stay sane and happy while pursuing a high pressured job. Harris always felt Eastern wisdom seemed to conflict with Western ambition. At one point he even felt meditation had made him happier and kinder, but mellowness had deflated his drive to get ahead. By the end of the book, Harris is working on increased ambition combined with increased work towards Enlightenment, which is a goal I’d think most Americans would embrace. We all want success and happiness.

10% Happier shows a real difference between Eastern and Western religions. Western theologies just ask their followers to believe, whereas Buddhism asks their follows to work hard and observe. The Buddhists even have a saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” That’s to remind their followers that it’s very easy to get caught up in bullshit.

Table of Contents

Sex and the Soul

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2015

If your soul was drawn to this essay because of the word “sex” then you need to be asking yourself why. By the way, this is no prurient clickbait come on. This is a philosophical exploration of why the soul is influenced by sexual chemistry. And full disclosure, I’m an atheist, so you might find it a bit discombobulating to hear me use the word soul. I could have called this essay “Sex and The Observer” but that could create all kinds of kinky misunderstandings. And I could have labeled this discussion, “Sex and The Self-Awareness,” but that’s kind of clunky and maybe onanistic. I happen to like the word soul, and I’m willing to accept that some folks believe they have an immortal soul. Since I’m an atheist, I believe my soul expires with the body.

Now, to the point. When you yearn for physical contact with another person, is that your soul or your body doing the yearning? In other words, is horniness inside your soul, or outside? Many readers are going to think this is a silly, pointless question. But if you know this history of the concept of the soul, it’s a fair question. Just study Plato and Aristotle, or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas, to see what I mean. Christians fervently believe they have a soul. Most don’t spend much time contemplating it—they just believe if they say the magic words, “I believe in Jesus” their souls get a free pass to heaven to hang out with friends and family for eternity. The main selling point to Christianity and Islam, is we have a soul that won’t die, but I doubt if even one percent of those populations ever contemplated the nature of the soul. They might be disappointed. In fact, when most people study the soul, they quickly get bored. The philosophy and theology behind the concept is deep and tedious, and often borders on the effort of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

To catch up on the 2,500 year discussion of the soul, I recommend reading A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.

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If you’ve ever studied meditation, then you’ve come across the concept of the observer. If you’ve ever studied artificial intelligence or brain science, then you’re familiar with the concept of self-awareness. It’s just easier to call it the soul. (My atheist friends cringe when I do this.) Once you understand why philosophers have been examining the concept for the last several thousand years, then this essay will make more sense. Or you can just practice meditation, and sooner or later you’ll notice that you can watch your thoughts. Then you can ask questions like: “Is the observer, my soul, the self-awareness that lives in this body, writing this essay, or my thinking mind?” This implies dualism, which is a black-hole of a topic. Modern thinkers see humans as a whole, with completely integrated parts. But if you meditate on your wholeness you’ll notice it has parts. The act of observing gives the illusions that the observer is separate from the observed.

Sexuality feels like part of the whole because people mostly think “I want to get laid.” But contemplate this thought problem: “If I die, will I still get horny in heaven?” I keep bringing up heaven and the afterlife, even though I don’t believe in them, because conceptually it helps to analyze the problem. In ancient times Christians believed they would be reunited with their bodies before they went to heaven. That’s why they wanted to be buried properly. Modern believers know the body deteriorates, and even allow for cremation. This allowed people to believe the soul leaves the body upon death. There is a subset of Christians who are concerned with abortion, who believe the soul is created at conception. And there are other believers who believe the soul exists before birth. The ancient Greeks thought the soul animated bodies. They observed when people died, their bodies became inert, and assumed whatever mechanism that animated those bodies had departed. This little bit of logic probably got the whole ball of wax rolling.

I take a totally different view of the soul. Brain and computer scientists want to discover what creates self-awareness. They assume it’s a bio-chemical process that can be replicated in silicon. In both the spiritual or materialistic sense, the soul is the driver of the body, whether it’s a human body, or a future robot body. Like I said, if you meditate, you can get to a place where you feel like you’re a passenger in the body, and you can watch it be driven around. Are you the driver, or something else? Strangely, the observer can only observe. A vast unconscious mind does most of the work.

One of the things the body likes to do is have sex. The question I’m asking is: “Does the soul desire sex or does desire originate in the body?” Many people will think this is a silly question. But if you are plagued by tormenting horniness or depressed because you can land Mr. Right, it might not. You might want to study Buddhism. If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting laid, is that the observer, or the body?

I think the soul is what’s created in our complex brain that allows us to be self-aware and conscious of reality. I think animals have this feature to a lesser degree, but they lack language, or the thinker. I believe our souls can evolve, become more complex, and more aware. I believe it’s possible to move further and further away from our animal nature. Currently, I think the observer/soul is different from the thinking mind because as we get older, or suffer disease or injury, it’s possible to damage the thinking mind, but the observer can still exist and even grow. Just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sack for evidence. However, the soul can be damaged, or diminished too.

Modern thinkers don’t like the concept of the soul. They don’t like dualism. But they accidently bring up this problem when they speculate about brain downloading. This is a mostly science fictional concept that real scientists are exploring. What if you could record whatever makes up a person before he/she dies and then write that to a clone body or robot body. I doubt this is possible, but a lot of people hope it will be. I’m not a dualist. Brain downloading is the secular version of rebirth and immortality. I find it a fascinating topic because it opens up the question: “What is a person?” I believe we could call this theoretical entity that we hope to transfer to another body, the soul. Religious people have been using the same concept for thousands of years, why not repurpose the word for modern times?

We know a person can lose a leg, arm, eye, etc. and still be the same person. What if they lose a whole body? I believe, like modern scientists, that who we are is an integrated whole, and we can’t separate soul from body. But I do think it’s possible to create new souls in computers—which is the goal of artificial intelligence.

By now, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the juicy sex discussion. Science is learning more about gender identification and sexual preference every day. Studies with transgender children only emphasize how deep gender identification goes into our programming. We’ve also come to accept that sexual desire comes from a deep genetic level and not layered on cultural conditioning. So, does the soul have gender? Does it have a sexual preference? Or is that the body? For those who don’t separate soul and body, this is no problem. But if you plan on residing in heaven or hope to reincarnate in a robot body, it might. I think it’s also an interesting question for meditation. Is the observer, the mechanism that is self-aware and watches reality, an observer of gender and sex, or a participant?

Ultimately, this is a theoretical discussion. It has no answer, at least until science can recreate consciousness and self-awareness in the laboratory. Yet, it’s a great philosophy exploration in the vein of “Know thyself.” It’s also very important to asceticism. The world has a long history of people who seek to avoid suffering, and maybe gain enlightenment, from detaching themselves from the physical desires of the body.

Spiritual believers feel we are a soul that is visiting physical reality to inhabit a body for a limited time. Materialists believe we are accidental self-aware beings that have evolved inside biological creatures through brain complexity. Spiritual people believe the body corrupts the soul. I wonder if the body dominates the soul and if its possible for the soul to dominate the body. Why are some people are civilized and other people little better than savvy animals? Is that a choice? Is it cultural conditioning? Is it genetics? Is it a matter of seeing your soul separate from your body?

JWH

What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”

Think-Outside-the-Box

To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?

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JWH #971

If God Created Everything, Who Created God?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Do we still ask the same philosophical questions at 60 that we did at 6?

Many youngsters will ask their mom who created the world, and when they are told God, the smart alack kids will ask, “Who created God?” Because of this who created the creator problem I always wondered as a kid why wasn’t there nothing. I kept trying to imagine a void without time or space ever starting anything. This caused a lot of philosophical agony in my little kid self. To put my mind to rest, I concluded that nothing can’t exist, and reality is everything that can be, because if nothing could have existed, nothing would have existed. That was my best solution to that philosophical conundrum.

Science had another solution – The Big Bang – which on the surface seemed a clever explanation to the origin of everything, but we still have to ask where that original singularity came from. Now that we’re exploring the idea of a multiverse, we’re back to how was the multiverse created. Philosophically, we’re no better off than it’s turtles all the way down.

As I got older, I encountered another impossible question – “How can bad things happen to good people?” I eventually solved that one by accepting the theory of evolution. Evolution is indifferent to our suffering. We can’t take it personally. Bad things happen by chance.

There are a lot of impossible questions out there that torment little kids. With countless religions how can one be right and the rest wrong? If God is all powerful why can’t he make his message obvious? If God is all powerful why does Satan exist? One of my solutions to that last one is Satan doesn’t exist, but is the illusion created by false ideas about God. Of course, that creates another impossible question – if all gods are Satan but one, which is the real God. And if God is all power why are there so many illusions?

Is it any wonder that I became an atheist by the eighth grade? As a kid I wanted to know the answers to those impossible questions. One problem with atheism was I’d never know. I use to fantasized that dying would grant me answers. I imagined being told the answers to all my agonizing questions before being shown the door to oblivion.

Now that I’m older I feel like I’ve found all the answers, and I know the reality of reality. Of course I don’t, but like religious people, I’m just going to assume I have. It’s easier that way. In case your curious, here are my answers.

I use the word reality to describe the whole shebang. The universe has gotten too small to encompass everything. Reality has always existed, and will always exist. It’s infinite in all directions. Humans are infinitely small, but there’s an infinity of things smaller than us, and an infinity of bigger things. There’s no edge, either expanding larger, or shrinking smaller. Time had no beginning or no end. We exist on the Earth by accident of cosmological and biological evolution. Humans will exist on this planet until we go extinct or the Earth is destroyed. Reality will continue without us. As individuals we are conscious of being in reality, but that awareness expires when we die. Ideas about gods were invented by earlier humans to explain reality but now that we see more of reality those explanations no longer work. There is no intelligent designer. There is no creator. We don’t have ask who created God because there is no God. We don’t have to wonder about good and evil because there is no good or evil. We exist. There is no why.

Some people answer childhood questions by accepting religion. I don’t think I had the religious gene, so I answered them differently. But does it matter.

My bit of personal philosophy does explain why I’m so concerned with climate change. Humans exist on Earth by accident, and are aware of reality by accident, but if we want to continue to exist we need to preserve the Earth. The reality of reality is we will exist as long as we do, and then reality will continue without us. It’s not personal. It is personal to want to stay alive, and it is personal to want your species not to expire. And although reality is indifferent to our desires, it is also indifferent to us making something of ourselves. We can do whatever we want within the limits of reality.

A human can push life for about a century if they are lucky. Humanity could push existence for billions of years. It’s only a matter if we choose to do so, otherwise the odds of reality are against us. Nothing in reality has everlasting life except reality. As a being aware of reality, I dislike the idea of nonexistence but that’s part of reality. I wonder how many other beings in far flung reality are aware of its existence. It seems tragic that as a race of reality aware beings would let ourselves go extinct. If we do, that’s how reality works. If we don’t, that’s how reality works too.

I no longer suffer impossible philosophical questions. I enjoy existence and study reality. The only thing that makes me suffer is my declining health and my species insanity to each other and how we’re collectively committing species suicide. It’s a comfort to know it’s not personal. From Buddhism, I know my suffering is caused by attachment and desire. A modern Buddha would now say suffering is caused by trying to control reality.

But reality allows that too. We are aware of reality, and we can shape it to the extent of our powers, and the cost is suffering the effort and desire.

Now that I’m in my sixties, I’ve stopped asking such questions. Along the way I found some answers I can live with.

JWH

A Totally New Reason To Give Up Old Religions

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 22, 2014

I am an atheist, but I accept that other people want to be religious. However, even my religious friends are willing to admit that religions have their problems. No need to go into specifics, just pay attention to the news. The results of those problems are religious people arguing and killing each over details of religion that happened centuries and even millennia ago.

My advice is to give up the past and start over. If there are inherent aspects of reality that support religious morality, they should exist now, and there’s no need to endlessly speculate about what happened a very long time ago. Whatever Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, etc. saw in our existence should still be here now, and modern people should be able to tune into it.

Many of the problems threatening old religions is modern experiences. Old religions can’t handle the discoveries of science, human diversity, egalitarian equality to all, and our current sins. Old religions were invented when people were homogenous tribes that were horribly xenophobic, and their sins were much different from ours. The old concepts of religions were invented before all the concepts of systematic knowledge.

People want religion for guidance on how to live fairly and just, to reward the good and punish the bad, and hopefully find everlasting life.  Most of the ethical rules people want from religion can be hammered out democratically and should work on a global level. The desire for the soul to be eternal must be taken on faith, and if that’s so, it should be pure faith, and not anything that tries to deny what we know about reality.  Denying the knowledge gain from science does not prove the possibility of eternal life.

Any new religions created now should always incorporate modern knowledge. Modern knowledge provides no encouragement for eternal life and heaven, but it doesn’t preclude those possibilities either. Instead of denying science, just say there’s hope one day our souls will transcend this reality, and let it go at that.  It would also be wise to say that God is unknowable and beyond description.  Let science explain this reality and choose to believe that there is a greater reality that is impossible to detect from this reality.

Any speculation about a transcended reality is pointless, other than the faith and hope that it exists. Such speculation can generate an infinity of possibilities, all of which will lead to arguments and killing. This reality has its own rules and structure. To ignore them is delusional. We won’t find out if another reality exists until we die, and then we can learn its rules and structure. Any moral or ethical considerations about this reality should be based on how this reality operates, and not speculation on other possible realities. If there is a God, and that being put us in this reality, it should be obvious that understanding this reality is the important job of being here.

Most people love religion because it gives them purpose and a community to belong to. Rejecting old dogmas does not mean giving up these core fulfillments of religion. My challenge is to the faithful to invent new religions that are globally encompassing, egalitarian, anti-xenophobic, and structured to incorporate all the knowledge we have about this reality.

JWH

Jesus, The New Testament and Bart D. Ehrman

I have now read five books by Bart D. Ehrman about Jesus and The New Testament.  This is rather strange considering I’m an atheist.  The books were

  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005)
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
  • Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011)
  • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)
  • How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)

The reason why I’m so fond of Ehrman’s books is he’s a historian writing about how Christianity came about and does not digress into theology.  I study the origins of Christianity in the same way my friend Mike studies ancient Greek literature and philosophy.  Ehrman works very hard to walk the razor’s edge seeking the academic truth of things, but in doing so, often offends the faithful. 

Most people in America who consider themselves Christians aren’t interested in the historical details of their faith—they believe because that is what they were taught growing up and never took the time to study The New Testament.  If they did, they’d find it to be a black hole of endless scholarship.   Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and he says his classes are very popular with all kinds of people, and points out that his conclusions of historical scholarship are middle of the road, and most of what he teaches has been common knowledge for a long time in seminary schools.  Readers are often shocked by what they read in Ehrman’s books but that’s because the ideas are new to the readers, and not to historians of Biblical scholarship.

If what you know about Christianity and The New Testament is was what you learned in Sunday School you might find Ehrman’s books both fascinating and a challenge to your beliefs.  Ehrman started out as a Evangelical himself, but after years of Bible study has become an agnostic.  His books do not attack beliefs or believers.  Ehrman is the kind of truth seeker that learned the ancient languages of The Bible so he could do his own translating, and got a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Ehrman moved from believing in The Bible to becoming obsessed with how The New Testament came about.  He has written over twenty-five books on the subject, some for the general reader and others for academic scholars.

We know very little about the actual man Jesus, but through the detective work of textual analysis, anthropology and historical studies of the times in which Jesus lived, Ehrman pieces out one view of Jesus that he claims is a pretty common view among Bible historians.  This is best seen in Did Jesus Exist?  Then Ehrman explains how the followers of Jesus made him into the God we know today in the book How Jesus Became God.  Then his books Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted and Forged explores how The New Testament and Christianity evolved in the first four hundred years after Jesus’ death.  If you read these five books you’ll have a pretty good overview of the current historical studies on Jesus and The New Testament.  Ehrman also has a number of entertaining courses at The Great Courses site.

I read these five books in the order they were written and published, but I’d recommend reading them in a different order if you are new to Ehrman.  They all cover the same big territory, but they each focus on threads of finer detail.

Did Jesus Exist?

I’d start with Did Jesus Exist? because Jesus is how everything got started in the first place.  Ehrman finds the most objection to his books by fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of The Bible, and strangely for this book, by atheists and agnostics who wish to disprove the existence of Jesus.  There is a growing population of humanists who wish to turn Jesus into a myth, and Ehrman’s historical work undermines their beliefs too.   Basically, Ehrman walks a middle ground between the fervor of belief and disbelief.

Did Jesus Exist 

I wish the conclusion to this book was available online so I could link to it.  Ehrman explains how he attended a meeting of the American Humanists Association to receive their Religious Liberty Award and was surprised to find the non-believers spending so much time talking about religion.  He was also shocked that many of these scientific minded people have thoroughly embraced books by writers who claim Jesus is a myth.  It disturbs Ehrman because he knows the pseudo-scholarship approach to proving Jesus is a myth has as much academic validity as Creationism and Intelligent Design and these proclaimed embracers of science don’t seem to know that.

Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? has to attack ideas many of his most popular fans cherish.  Ehrman’s books clearly disproves the fundamentalist view of the literal interpretation of The Bible, which agnostics and atheists love, but his scholarship also finds consistent evidence that a man named Jesus did exist.  So, in one book Ehrman undermines the faithful and the unbelievers.  Ehrman shows the same kind of airy philosophy that goes into convincing people that Jesus was a God is the very same kind of philosophical slight-of-hand that goes into making Jesus a myth.

Whether you’re a believer or disbeliever, don’t you want to know the truth?  I’m not saying the Ehrman  knows the absolute truth, but I am saying his middle of the road, conservative academic approach is more scientific and reliable than just taking other people’s word for things.  What we all need to do is learn to demand the evidence for anything claiming to be true.  And we need to learn the difference between bullshit evidence and research consensus evidence.

Ehrman embraces the study of history as if it was a science, demanding evidence.  The mythicists, as Ehrman calls the Jesus as myth people, promote their beliefs without real academic vigor.  Some only offer wild speculation, but others, some even with PhDs, do attempt to make their points with evidence, but Ehrman makes a good case their evidence is poor, and their logic weak.  It’s a fascinating book that sets the stage for his next book.

How Jesus Became God

Ehrman works to prove that Jesus did not see himself as God, or even divine, but that his followers after his death did deify him.  Ehrman carefully and academically explains the historical existence of Jesus and how Christians transformed a flesh and blood man into divine being to serve their purposes.  This is a great book for The New Testament Bible study because Ehrman spends most of his time exploring the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, Acts and other references in The New Testament to show how Jesus changed over time.  The textual analysis Ehrman makes should be obvious to anyone who just reads The Bible.  So, why haven’t most Christians noticed what Ehrman points out?

How Jesus Became God

Most people who read The Bible, read it in pieces, jumping around as it’s presented in a Sunday School lesson or sermon each Sunday.  Ehrman suggests reading it by comparing all the stories from different books about the same event.  This any reader can do.  What Ehrman brings to the table that most average Bible readers don’t have is the scholarship that explains when various parts of The Bible was written and by who.  When you plot what was said when, you’ll begin to notice that The New Testament is full of contradictions but they make sense if you look at them on a timeline.  It’s quite obvious that theology developed over time, and the theology was constantly changing.  Even within The New Testament its possible to see that Jesus went from a man to a God.  However, to fully understand this transformation requires further study of Christian theologians and their writing for the next three hundred years.  How Jesus went from human being to The Trinity took three hundred years to hammer out, and there were a lot of strange side trips along the way, especially by Christians now called heretics and Gnostics today.

How Jesus Became God sets things up nicely for the first Ehrman book I read.

Misquoting Jesus

Have you ever wondered how The New Testament was written, edited and published?  Especially since it was put together over a thousand years before the printing press.  Have you ever wondered who wrote The New Testament?  Many people think it’s the absolute word of God, as if God dictated The Bible to someone.  Have you never noticed that Bible stories have many different points of view, writing styles and often contradict each other?  Have you never wondered how something that was written almost two thousand years ago could be published consistently without errors and changes?  Have you ever tried to copy a passage in a book by handwriting?  How well did you do?

Misquoting_Jesus

Once you learn that who Jesus was is determined by who was writing about him, then it’s easy to understand how The New Testament was put together and why.  Actually, The New Testament is very poorly edited because its far from consistent.  It leaves in evidence of earlier thinking that was supplanted by later theology.  And it becomes all too obvious that your favorite Jesus quote depends on when that portion of The New Testament was written, and what his orthodox followers believed at that time.

And as manuscripts were passed around the Roman world, copied by scribes in different locals, with different beliefs, often they were altered to reflect a particular view of Jesus.  We don’t have the original drafts of The New Testament books, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of copies that showed up hundreds of years later.  We can trace changes that were made as they circulated from community to community.  And scholars have also detected forgeries.

Forged

Have you ever heard that some of the books in The New Testament were forgeries?  For example, for over a hundred years now, some scholars believe some of the books claimed to be written by Paul were obviously not.  How did they learn that?  Plagiarism and forgery did not exist like it does today, so Bart D. Ehrman has to explain how the various books were written and how their authorship got attributed.  Back in the early days of Christianity, in the first four hundred years after Jesus died, being a famous author was not like it is today.  If you wrote something you wanted people to believe, you often said it was written by someone else, someone people would believe.

forged

Using contextual study, and even computers to analyze style and content, it’s possible to determine if the same person wrote or did not write two different essays.  But even without the skills of a historian or a computer, it’s pretty easy to see that certain lessons from different books in The New Testament teach radically opposing ideas.  Reading Forged will show the common Bible study student how to read scripture far more closely.  This leads us to the last book I’m recommending to read.

Jesus, Interrupted

Knowing what Jesus really said is very difficult.  Most religious people assume everything printed in red in The New Testament is something Jesus actual said.  Well, historians like Ehrman would beg to disagree.  What’s so fascinating about this book is Ehrman gets to write a bestselling book pointing out contradictions in The New Testament that any careful reader should have already noticed for themselves.  I have a feeling that most believers attending church were like me as a kid.  I listened to the preacher quote a passage of The Bible and then tie in some personal experiences from his own life or people in the church, and then turn scripture and contemporary life problems into a sermon.  As a kid I never read The Bible from start to finish.  If we did, we might remember while reading The Gospel of John things said that might contradiction what we head already read in The Gospel of Mark.  Most readers don’t cross-compare, but just work to decipher scriptures one line at a time.

jesus_interrupted

Ehrman teaches readers the trick of parallel reading.  Pick specific incidents in the life of Jesus, and then read about the same incident in different places throughout The New Testament.  It becomes all to obvious that the various writers had different stories to tell, and different theology to preach.  The contrast between the stories in Mark and John are startling.  Why haven’t the average Bible reader notice that?  I’m sure many have, but I think most haven’t.

If you go searching for reviews of these books at Google you can find lots of reviewers who attack what Ehrman has to say.  Now there are different kinds of attacks.  Sometimes, other scholars call Ehrman out on his scholarship.  It seems to me that in Ehrman’s newer books he spends far more writing time explaining how he made his conclusions in comparison to other scholars, in a preemptive attack on this kind of criticism.  This makes for good writing and better reading.  The other common kind of attack on Ehrman’s work is by Christian apologists who seek to defend their specific theological view.  The quality and validity of these kinds of criticism vary greatly.

Ehrman constantly reminds his reader that he is a historian and that metaphysics lies outside the scope of historical studies.  The trouble is the true believer, especially the fundamentalist, believe that their theology is the true view of history.  They assume the metaphysical is part of history.  This is what makes Ehrman’s books controversial with certain readers.

I am an atheist.  I don’t believe the metaphysical exists.  To me, Ehrman’s books are excellent explanations on how Christianity got started in a historical context.  His books also explain to me at least, when and how some Christians acquired their theological and metaphysical ideas.  True believers don’t seem to understand that all concepts, all memes, have a history.  Someone thought them up.  Where we differ is I see them as ideas and they see them as God’s word.

These five books by Bart D. Ehrman go a long way to explaining the history of certain ideas that are programmed deeply into Western culture.  No historian, philosopher or scientist will ever be able to prove or disprove the cherished metaphysical desires of believers.  However, most believers embrace their beliefs without much analysis.  Reading these five books could dissolve such beliefs because they raise logical questions that are corrosive to simple thinking.  However, there are many believers who develop very complex thought systems to maintain their beliefs.  These people will have to read Ehrman and come up with rationalizations that counter his assertions.

JWH – 7/21/14