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The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part I of 4: Mark

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Previously, I’ve written about the historicity of Jesus, and mentioned how the most recent analysis, in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (the first comprehensive, academically published, and formally peer-reviewed book written on the subject), showed that it was in fact very unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed as a historical person, but rather likely began as a celestial deity who was later euhemerized, that is, placed into history as if he were a real person.  As a part of Carrier’s comprehensive analysis, he analyzed the Gospels, and thoroughly demonstrated (as many other scholars have before him, though to varying degrees) that the Gospels are quite obviously mythical allegorical fictions, and thus can not be used as evidence to support the historicity of Jesus.  As a former Christian, I never analyzed the Gospels from a literary or historical-critical perspective, as this wasn’t particularly relevant nor entirely feasible with my faith-based assumption that I was reading an “inerrant book inspired by God” supposedly based on nothing but true history.  As a result, I never gave it much thought, nor realized just how much literary invention there was.  In some cases, the care and thought taken to write these narratives is nothing short of brilliant.  I wanted to share some of the content and literary devices discovered not only to illustrate that the Gospels are demonstrably mythical allegorical fictions, but also because I thought some of the literary devices used were impressive feats in themselves which I believe deserve recognition.  I’ll be discussing a few of these elements found within the Gospels, as mentioned (though in greater detail) by Carrier in his comprehensive analysis.  I’ve decided to split this into a series of four posts, one for each Gospel.

First of all, before even identifying or examining these literary constructs, allegories, and prospective elements of myth, we can already see by reading the Gospels that they fail to show any substantive content of being actual researched histories.  Nowhere in the Gospels do they ever name their sources of information, nor do they read as eye witness testimonies (nor do they identify themselves as such), nor is it mentioned why any sources used would be accurate to rely upon.  The authors never discuss any historical method used, nor do they acknowledge how some contents may be less accurate than others, nor do they mention alternate possibilities of the events given the limited information they had from their sources.  They never express amazement or any degree of rational skepticism no matter how implausible an event within the story may be — something we would expect from any rational historian (even one living in antiquity).  The authors never explain why they changed what their sources said, nor do they even acknowledge that they did such a thing in the first place — despite the fact that Matthew and Luke clearly relied on Mark as a source (as did John, though less obviously so), for example, and then they all redacted Mark’s version as needed to serve their own literary and theological purposes (which explains some of the contradictions found between one Gospel and another).  Instead, the Gospels appear to be fictional historical biographies, likely written by specially interested Christians whose intent was to edify Jesus, just like many other fictional historical biographies that were made for various heroes and sages in antiquity.  In fact, all students of literary Greek (the authors of the Gospels wrote their manuscripts in literary Greek), commonly used this fictional biographical technique as a popular rhetorical device — where they were taught to invent narratives about famous and legendary people, as well as to build a symbolic or moral message within it, and where they were taught to make changes to traditional stories in order to make whatever point they desired within their own stories.

So we already have a bit of contemporary background information showing us that fictional biographies were commonplace at the time, and thus warrant caution when examining writings that may look like histories upon first glance.  However, there are also certain things we should expect to find in writings that are laden with myth and allegory as opposed to history.  We can’t simply try to categorize the writings as fitting within some particular genre, as myths have been written in any and all genres, even as historical biographies (as was just mentioned), for example Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.  In fact, quite a large amount of ancient biography, even of real people, was composed of myth and fiction, and thus we are forced to actually examine the content in detail to determine whether or not it is more likely to be myth or history.  Some characteristics of myth include (but are not necessarily limited to): potent and meaningful emulation of previous myths, or potent emulation of real events in some cases; the presence of historical improbabilities — which is not only limited to magic or miracles, but also natural events and human behaviors that are unrealistic as well as the presence of amazing coincidences; and also the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements, since a myth often incorporates some real historical people and places that surround a central mythical character and story (just as we see in most fiction, e.g., though Dorothy’s home-state of Kansas is a real place, the primary setting, main characters, and story in The Wizard of Oz, including the Wizard of Oz himself, are fictional constructs).  It should be noted that not all of these characteristics need be present simultaneously for a story to be myth, but the more that are, or the more instances of each type found, only increases the likelihood that what one is reading is in fact myth rather than history.

From a historical-critical perspective, the most important thing to note is that whenever there are elements of myth found in a story, the rest of the story can no longer be used as reliable historical evidence (concerning any of the more plausible events found within the same story), due to the principle of contamination — just as a court of law assumes that a personal testimony that contains claims of magic, miracles, amazing coincidences or other implausibilities occurring is highly suspect, unreliable, and therefore must be dismissed from the pool of evidence under consideration.  So in the context of the Gospels, if they are in fact demonstrated to be filled with highly devised literary structures constituting elements of allegory and myth, though that fact isn’t in itself evidence against a historical Jesus, it means that the Gospels can no longer be used as evidence for a historical Jesus.  Furthermore, if any mythic content found in the Gospels can be cross-examined with other examples of myth found in history, for example, if one demonstrates that there is a historically high probability that any person claimed to possess certain attributes (e.g. being born of a virgin) are usually non-historical people, then the Gospels can in fact be used as evidence against the historicity of Jesus (as opposed to them merely being unusable to support historicity).  Before I begin, I want to mention that although the Gospels in the New Testament (NT) had anonymous authors, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the authors as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

Beginning with the later story of Barabbas in Mark’s crucifixion narrative (Mark 15.6-15), Mark tells us:

“At the feast, Pilate used to release to them one prisoner of their choice.  And there was one called Barabbas, chained up with those who’d engaged in rebellion, who in the insurrection had committed murder.  The mob went up and began to ask him to do what he usually did for them.  And Pilate answered them saying, ‘Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?’  For he realized the chief priests had seized [Jesus] out of jealousy.  But the chief priests stirred up the mob, so he would release Barabbas to them instead.  And Pilate again answered and said to them, ‘So what should I do about the one you call the King of the Jews?’  And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, released to them Barabbas, and sent Jesus to be whipped and crucified.”

There are several elements in this passage alone that suggest it is surely myth, and not historical fact.  For one, no Roman magistrate, let alone the infamously ruthless Pontius Pilate, would let a violent and murderous rebel go free, and most importantly, no such Roman ceremony (i.e. letting the mob choose to free a particular prisoner) is attested as ever having taken place, as we simply don’t have any Roman documentation or archeological artifact found thus far to support such a claim.  Even more telling though, is the fact that this ceremony quite obviously emulates the Jewish Yom Kippur ritual, namely the scapegoat and atonement, and this apparent allegory takes place in a story that is itself about atonement (Jesus’ fundamental role as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel).  Since there is quite a bit of evidence that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus’ death served to merge the sacrifices of the Passover and Yom Kippur, it is surely no coincidence that Mark appears to have done just that, by having Jesus be a Yom Kippur sacrifice during Passover.

Another interesting coincidence is the name Barabbas itself, an unusual name that means ‘Son of the Father’ in Aramaic, and Jesus is often portrayed as the ‘Son of the Father’ as well.  So in this story we have two sons of the father; one released into the wild mob carrying the sins of Israel (such as murder and rebellion), effectively serving as an allegorical scapegoat (Barabbas), and the other sacrificed so his blood may atone for the sins of Israel (Jesus) — and we have one bearing the sins literally, and the other bearing the sins figuratively (just as we find in the Yom Kippur ceremony of Leviticus 16 in the Old Testament).  We get further confirmation of this belief in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9-10), where we hear Jesus’ death described as the ultimate Yom Kippur atonement sacrifice. Interestingly enough, it is also implied in this part of Hebrews that Jesus’ death and resurrection would have taken place in the heavens, as that was where the most perfect atonement sacrifice would be made and where the most perfect holy temple would be for which to pour the blood of that sacrifice (another element supporting the contention that Jesus was initially believed to be a celestial deity rather than a historical person).  So Mark here appears to be telling us through his own parable, to reject the sins of the Jews (notably violence and rebellion) and instead embrace the eternal salvation offered through the atonement sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, in this story, Mark seems to be pointing out how the Jews are erroneously viewing Jesus as the scapegoat, where Jesus is scorned, beaten, spat upon, crowned and pierced, and dressed in scarlet, and though Barabbas is the actual scapegoat, the Jews mistakenly embrace him instead.  So Mark seems to be portraying the Jews as acting completely blind to the situation and choosing their sins (i.e. Barabbas) rather than their salvation (i.e. Jesus).  Finally, this story seems to suggest that the Jews have also chosen the wrong model for the expected messiah.  Whereas Barabbas could be seen as the murderous revolutionary, in line with the common Jewish belief that the messiah was expected to be a kind of revolutionary military leader, Jesus on the other hand, exemplified the suffering servant model of the messiah (another Jewish messianic model, though arguably less popular than the former), and one that would circumvent any need for a military revolution by enacting a spiritual victory through his death instead.  So the Jews appear to have chosen the type of messiah they want, rather than the type of messiah that God wants instead (or so Mark believes anyway).  Furthermore, rather than using a random lottery (i.e. God) to choose which “goat” would serve as the scapegoat, and which would serve as the atonement, the Jews removed God from the equation and made the choice themselves.  If one looks at all of these elements together, we can see just how brilliant Mark’s story is, having multiple allegorical layers weaved into one.

Only a few verses later, we read about the rest of the crucifixion narrative and find a link (a literary source) with the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament (OT):

Mark 15.24:  “They part his garments among them, casting lots upon them.”

Psalm 22:18:  “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon them.”

Mark 15.29-31:  “And those who passed by blasphemed him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Save yourself…’ and mocked him, saying ‘He who saved others cannot save himself!’ ”

Psalm 22.7-8:  “All those who see me mock me and give me lip, shaking their head, saying ‘He expected the lord to protect him, so let the lord save him if he likes.’ ”

Mark 15.34:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22.1:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

On top of these links, Mark also appears to have used Psalm 69, Amos 8.9, and some elements of Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9-14, and Wisdom 2 as sources for his narratives.  So we can see yet a few more elements of myth in the latter part of this Gospel, with Mark using other scriptural sources as needed for his story, whether to “fulfill” what he believed to be prophecy or for some other reason.

Earlier in Mark (chapter 5), we hear about another obviously fictional story about Jesus resurrecting a girl (the daughter of a man named Jairus) from the dead, this miracle serving as another obvious marker of myth, but adding to that implausibility is the fact that the tale is actually a rewrite of another mythical story, told of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.17-37 as found in the OT, and also the fact that there are a number of very improbable coincidences found within the story itself.  In the story with Elisha, we hear of a woman from Shunem who seeks out the miracle-working Elisha, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help her son who had recently fallen gravely ill.  Someone checks on her son and confirms that he is now dead, but Elisha doesn’t fret about this, and he goes into her house, works his miraculous magic, and raises him from the dead.  In Mark’s version of the story (Mark 5.22-43), the same things occur.  We hear about Jairus coming to look for Jesus, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help him with his daughter.  Someone then comes to confirm that she is now dead, but Jesus (as Elisha) doesn’t fret, and he goes into his house, works his miraculous magic, and raises her from the dead.

As for some other notable coincidences, we see Mark reversing a few details in his version of the story.  Instead of a woman begging for her son, it is a man begging for his daughter.  While in 2 Kings, an unnamed woman comes from a named town (Shunem) which means “rest”, in Mark we have a named man coming from an unnamed town, and the man’s name (Jairus) means “awaken”.  In Mark’s conclusion to this story (5.42), he mentions that “immediately they were amazed with great amazement”, and he appears to have borrowed this line from 2 Kings as well (4.13 as found in the Greek Septuagint version of 2 Kings), which says “You have been amazed by all this amazement for us”.  It’s important to note that this verse from 2 Kings (as found in the Greek Septuagint), refers to an earlier encounter between the unnamed woman and Elisha where he was previously a guest in her home and this verse was what the woman had said to Elisha on that occasion.  Then Elisha blesses her with a miraculous conception (as she was said to be a barren woman in 2 Kings).  In fact, this miraculous conception was of the very son that Elisha would later resurrect from the dead.  So to add to this use of 2 Kings we also have another reversal from Mark, reversing the placement of this reaction (double amazement) from the child’s miraculous conception (in 2 Kings) to the child’s miraculous resurrection (in Mark 5.42).

Another hint that Mark is writing historical fiction in his Gospel is the way he structures his narrative such that he can successfully accomplish certain literary goals rather than historical plausibility.  One primary example of this is the ceaseless incomprehension of the disciples to what Jesus is saying and doing, where they are quite honestly dumber than can be reasonably believed.  This archetype of the “dense lackeys” appears to be adapted either from Homer’s similarly unrealistic portrayal of Odysseus’ fickle and clueless crew, or the portrayal of the Jews in Exodus.  Mark’s use of this type of literary device, requiring the invention of narrative material to make the structure work, thus allows him to accomplish a certain literary theme that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The disciples also behave unrealistically in other ways, such as being gullible beyond belief.  For example, in Mark 1.16-20, we read:

“As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, catching fish with a net.  Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.”  At once they left their nets and went with him.  He went a little farther on and saw two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat getting their nets ready.  As soon as Jesus saw them, he called them; they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and went with Jesus.”

So after one brief statement from Jesus, without even a second thought, these random fishermen simply dropped what they were doing and followed him?  These fisherman didn’t have to be persuaded at all, even though they know nothing about this man, who Jesus is, or his reputation.  They don’t bother making sure that their means of income and food (including their boat) are taken care of as they leave?  Instead, they simply drop it all, leave it all, and go without question.  This kind of behavior is incredibly improbable in real life, as people simply don’t act like this.  However, in myth and (unrealist) fiction, it happens all the time.

Another way Mark develops this theme is through an elegant ring composition, another common literary device popular at the time (used in myth as well as in history).  In the central part of Mark’s narrative (revolving around Jesus’ travel by sea), Mark carefully crafted nested cycles of themes specifically to convey an underlying message about faith and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to understand the gospel.  Here is what the ring structure looks like:

Cycle 1:

Phase 1 (4.1-34) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (preaching from a boat)

Phase 2 (4.35-41) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (5.1-20) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 1:  Step 1 (5.21-43) — First stop (after an uneventful boating)

Step 2 (6.1-6) — Second stop

Step 3 (6.6-29) — Going around

Cycle 2:

Phase 1 (6.30-44) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (6.45-52) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (6.53-55) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 2:  Step 1 (6.56-7.23) — Going around

Step 2 (7.24-30) — First stop

Step 3 (7.31-37) — Second stop

Cycle 3:

Phase 1 (8.1-12) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (8.13-21) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (8.22-26) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

It’s really quite brilliantly crafted when you look at it: three triadically composed intervals, each of which contains one triadically composite minimal unit.  Furthermore, every “Phase 1” in all cycles, takes place during the day and describes Jesus’ actions with crowds on one side of the sea.  Every “Phase 2” occurs on the evening of that same day (though not stated explicitly in Cycle 3’s “Phase 2”, it is implied by what would have been a long sea crossing), and also describes actions between Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat while in transit across the sea.  Each “Phase 3” represents Jesus’ healing (and/or exorcising) of people who either come to him or that are brought to him following his arrival on the other side of the sea.  Then there are other healings or exorcisms that are interspersed among the intervals that follow each “Phase 3”.  Each cycle of this triad occupies one day, so the whole ring structure represents three days, ending with a resolution on the third day — all of which concludes by transitioning into a debate regarding who Jesus really is and what the gospel really is (Mark 8.27-9.1, which is the first time we hear Jesus speak about any of this himself).

Prior to this triad, Jesus had also journeyed to the sea and taught by the sea three times without embarking on a boat (Mark 1.16, 2.13, and 3.7), and then he embarks on a boat (Mark 4.1, and 3.9), and makes six journeys by boat, three eventful ones (each being a part of a three-phase cycle repeated three times) and three uneventful ones that constitute a looser pattern (Mark 5.21, 6.32, and 8.10).  In between the three eventful sea journey cycles, we find two intervals where Jesus travels inland away from the sea of Galilee and back again, and these two journeys also share another triadic pattern: three land journeys in chiastic arrangement.  The first one, from the shore to the house of Jairus (Mark 5.22), then another from the house of Jairus to the hometown of Jesus (Mark 6.1), and finally from the hometown of Jesus to circulating around the towns (Mark 6.6), thus completing “Interval 1”.  Then the sequence is reversed, first circulating around the towns (Mark 6.56), followed by stopping at Tyre (Mark 7.24), and finally back to the shore (Mark 7.31), thus completing “Interval 2”.  So the arrangement appears to be ABC : CBA.

In both intervals, the first stop is always at a house, and in each case involves women and children.  Each circulating phase involves both the disciples and the authorities (Herod or the Pharisees).  The second stop in each interval is also an inversion of the other.  In the first case, in his hometown (a metaphor for Israel), “Those hearing him” are “astonished” and don’t believe in him (a metaphor for the Jews rejecting the gospel), while in the second case, in a foreign country among the gentiles, where he miraculously makes a man “hear” and the people are “astonished” in the exact opposite sense, saying he does everything well and proclaiming and spreading his fame everywhere.  So in both cases, “they were amazed”, yet the first was negative amazement, and the second, positive amazement.  As we can see, every unit of this narrative appears to serve the same purpose, a particular message about faith and the gospel, with the incomprehension of the disciples and rejection of Jesus by his neighbors and kin on the one hand, and the near instant faith of outsiders on the other hand, despite the fact that they don’t even understand it.  We even see this cyclic triad beginning and ending with the theme of “seeing, hearing, understanding” (Mark 4.12 versus Mark 8.17-21), and it continually contrasts human expectations with the actual realities that Mark explains of the gospel.

Adding to this already brilliant triadic ring structure is another one interwoven within it: two matching sequences of five miracles each, interspersed with parables, preaching, and some general references to miracles.  All of the narrated miracles in the triad form a well crafted sequential structure:

1st Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Stilling of the Storm) 4.35-41

“Exorcism of a Gentile Man” (The Gerasene Demoniac) 5.1-20

“Curing an Older Woman” (The Woman with a Hemorrhage) 5.25-34

“Curing of a Younger Woman” (Jairus’ Daughter) 5.21-23, 35-43

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 5,000) 6.34-44, 53

2nd Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Jesus Walks on the Sea) 6.45-51

“Exorcism of a Gentile Woman” (The Syrophoenician Woman) 7.24-30

“Curing of a Deaf Man with Spit” (The Deaf Mute) 7.32-37

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 4,000) 8.1-10

“Curing a Blind Man with Spit” (The Blind Man of Bethsaida) 8.22-26

It should be noted that many miracle narratives of Jewish holy men, including Moses, exhibit a sequence of five miracles, and in fact the two sequences that Mark uses have notable correlations with the wilderness narrative of Moses (Exodus 13-17), thus suggesting another likely source that Mark used for his miracle sequences.

Another literary construct that Mark employs involves the way he structured the entire Gospel, basically into four different parts: The Discipling Narrative (Chapters 1-3), The Sea Narrative (as described before, chapters 4.1-8.26), The Road Narrative (Chapters 8.27-10), and The Passover Narrative (Chapters 11-16).  While there is already a brilliant internal several-layer triadic ring structure in the Sea Narrative, there is yet another chiastic ring structure surrounding it, where the Discipling Narrative and Road Narrative mirror each other around the central Sea Narrative as follows:

A – Peripheral ministry begins (1.14-34)

B – People looking for Jesus to be healed (1.35-38), but Jesus says he needs to teach more people.

C – Jesus ventures out (“throughout all Galilee”; 1.39-45)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (2.1-12), and explains that he can forgive sins.

E – Problems and controversies (2.13-3.12)

F – An important gathering on a mountain (3.13-19)

G – Jesus is accused of being in league with Baalzebul (3.20-35), and preaches that those who reject Jesus are damned.

— The Sea Narrative (Chapters 4-8) —

G – Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with Satan (8.27-9.1), and preaches those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are damned.

F – An important gathering on a mountain (9.2-13)

E – Problems and controversies (9.14-32)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (9.33-50)

C – Jesus ventures out (expands his ministry beyond Galilee; 10.1-6)

B – People looking to Jesus for boons (10.17-45)

A – Peripheral ministry ends (10.46-52)

Just as was most typical in the myths and legends of counter-cultural sages, Jesus’ ministry has two phases, the central one (in Jerusalem) and the peripheral one (outside Jerusalem).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ central ministry doesn’t begin until the last narrative, that of the Passover.  In the Passover narrative we see a few more ways where Mark employs triads, having three women who appear three times, touching each of the three days of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and at three stages: his death, his burial, and his resurrection).  Another notable finding within the Passover Narrative are parallels to Jesus’ Baptism mentioned earlier in Mark.  For example:

A- John cries with a loud voice (1.3)

A – Jesus cries with a loud voice (15.34)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (Mark 1.6; 2 Kings 1.8)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (15.34-36)

C – The heavens are torn (1.10)

C – The temple curtain is torn (15.38), which is a symbol of the barrier between earth and heaven.

D – Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus (1.10)

D – Holy Spirit departs from Jesus (15.37)

E – God calls Jesus his son (1.11)

E – The centurion calls Jesus God’s son (15.19)

The final parallel that I wanted to mention was that found between the Passover Narrative and the story of a different Jesus, named Jesus ben Ananias.  This was a man who was known as an insane prophet that was active in the 60s CE who was then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (around 70 CE).  His story was told in Josephus’ Jewish War, and thus Mark was likely to have known about it, and the number of parallels between what Josephus wrote and that of Mark’s Passover Narrative are far too numerous to be a mere coincidence.  Clearly Mark either wrote his narrative based off of what Josephus wrote, or based on the same tale known to Josephus.  Here are the parallels between Mark’s Jesus and that of Jesus ben Ananias as found in Josephus’ writings:

1 – Both are named Jesus. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

2 – Both come to Jerusalem during a major religious festival. (Mark 11.15-17 = JW 6.301)

3 -Both entered the temple area to rant against the temple. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

4 – During which both quote the same chapter of Jeremiah. (Jer. 7.11 in Mk, Jer. 7.34 in JW)

5 – Both then preach daily in the temple. (Mark 14.49 = JW 6.306)

6 – Both declared “woe” unto Judea or the Jews. (Mark 13.17 = JW 6.304, 306, 309)

7 – Both predict the temple will be destroyed. (Mark 13.2 = JW 6.300, 309)

8 – Both are for this reason arrested by the Jews. (Mark 14.43 = JW 6.302)

9 – Both are accused of speaking against the temple. (Mark 14.58 = JW 6.302)

10 – Neither makes any defense of himself against the charges. (Mark 14.60 = JW 6.302)

11 – Both are beaten by the Jews. (Mark 14.65 = JW 6.302)

12 – Then both are taken to the Roman governor. (Pilate in Mark 15.1 = Albinus in JW 6.302)

13 – Both are interrogated by the Roman governor. (Mark 15.2-4 = JW 6.305)

14 – During which both are asked to identify themselves. (Mark 15.2 = JW 6.305)

15 – And yet again neither says anything in his defense. (Mark 15.3-5 = JW 6.305)

16 – Both are then beaten by the Romans. (Mark 15.15 = JW 6.304)

17 – In both cases the Roman governor decides he should release him. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

18 – But doesn’t (Mark)…but does (JW) — (Mark 15.6-15 = JW 6.305)

19 – Both are finally killed by the Romans: in Mark, by execution; in the JW, by artillery. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.308-9)

20 – Both utter a lament for themselves immediately before they die. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.309)

21 – Both die with a loud cry. (Mark 15.37 = JW 6.309)

The odds of these coincidences arising by chance is quite small to say the least, so it appears Mark used this Jesus as a model for his own to serve some particular literary or theological purpose.  In any case, we can see that Mark is writing fiction here, through and through.

The last scene in Mark’s Gospel that I’d like to mention is that of Jesus clearing the temple (11.18).  This is another unbelievable claim, especially since the temple grounds were enormous, occupying many acres (the temple as a whole occupied nearly forty acres, and a large portion of that, more than ten acres, was devoted to public space), and they were extensively populated.  In fact, there would have been hundreds of merchants and moneychangers there, and the temple would have been heavily guarded by an armed force deployed specifically to prevent this sort of thing from happening.  Jesus would have been killed on the spot had this actually occurred.  It appears that Mark added this scene for another literary purpose, namely the parallel between Jesus and Jeremiah.  When Jesus clears the temple he quotes Jeremiah 7.11 (in Mark 11.17).  Jeremiah and Jesus both enter the temple (Jer. 7.1-2; Mark 11.15), they both make the same accusation against the corruption of the temple cult (Jeremiah quoting a revelation from the Lord, Jesus quoting Jeremiah), and they both predict the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7.12-14; Mark 14.57-58; 15.29).  Mark thus appears to be exhibiting knowledge that the Romans would destroy the temple, further illustrating that he was writing this Gospel after 70 CE, and so he composed a fictional story to suit the fulfillment of that “prediction”.

So we can see a large number of literary sources that Mark merely re-wrote for his fiction, a large number of parallels with other sources, many strange coincidences and other implausibilities, and most impressively several intricately crafted literary structures (some interwoven into others and/or several layers in complexity) and other literary devices that obviously served some overall literary purpose that Mark was trying to accomplish.  It’s easy to see why Mark would have to invent the various narrative materials that he did (hence the numerous historical implausibilities) in order to get the literary structure he wanted to work successfully.  There were indeed more elements of myth than those listed in this post, but I think these were the most telling and some of the most impressive ones found within Mark’s Gospel.  In the next part of this series, I will be discussing some of the elements of the Gospel According to Matthew as mentioned in Carrier’s analysis.

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Christianity: A Theological & Moral Critique

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Previously I’ve written several posts concerning religion, including many of the contributing factors that led to the development and perpetuation of religion (among them, our cognitive biases and other psychological driving forces) and the various religious ideas contained within.  I’ve also written a little about some of the most common theological arguments for God, as well as the origin and apparent evolution of human morality.  As a former Christian, I’ve also been particularly interested in the religion of Christianity (or to be more accurate, the various Christianities that have existed throughout the last two millennia), and as a result I’ve previously written a few posts relevant to that topic including some pertaining to historical critical analyses.  In this post, I’d like to elaborate on some of the underlying principles and characteristics of Christianity, although some of these characteristics will indeed also apply to the other Abrahamic religions, and indeed to other non-Abrahamic religions as well.  Specifically, I’d like to examine some of the characteristics of a few of the most primary religious tenets and elements of Christian theology, with regard to some of their resulting philosophical (including logical and ethical) implications and problems.

What Do Christians Believe?

There are a number of basic beliefs that all Christians seem to have in common.  They believe in a God that is all-loving, omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (yet somehow transcendent from an actual physical/materialistic omnipresence).  This is a God that they must love, a God that they must worship, and a God that they must also fear.  They believe that their God has bestowed upon them a set of morals and rules that they must follow, although many of the rules originating from their religious predecessor, Judaism (as found in the Old Testament of the Bible), are often ignored and/or are seen as superceded by a “New Covenant” created through their messiah, believed to be the son of God, namely Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, the sacrifice of their purported messiah is believed to have saved mankind from their original sin (which will be discussed further later in this post), and this belief in Jesus Christ as the spiritual savior of mankind is believed by Christians to confer to them an eternal life in heaven after they die.  Whichever list of rules is accepted by any particular sect or denomination of Christianity, along with their own unique interpretation of those rules (and the rest of their scripture for that matter), those rules and scriptural interpretations are to be followed without question as a total solution for how to conduct themselves and live their lives.  If they do so, they will be granted a reward of eternal paradise in heaven.  If they do not, they will suffer the wrath of God and be punished severely by an eternity of torture in hell.  Let’s examine some of these specific attributes of the Christian God.

Omnibenevolence
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This God is supposedly all-loving and omnibenevolent.  If we simply look at the Old Testament of the Bible we can see numerous instances of this God implementing, ordaining, or condoning: theft, rape, slavery (and the beating of slaves), sexism, sexual-orientationism (and the murder of homosexuals), child abuse, filicide, murder, genocide, cannibalism, and one of the most noteworthy, vicarious redemption, though this last example may not be as obviously immoral as the rest which is why I mention it in more detail later in this post.  Granted, some of these acts were punishments for disobedience, but this is hardly an excuse worth defending at all, let alone on any moral grounds.  Furthermore, many of the people harmed in this way were innocent, some of them children, which had no responsibility over what their parents did, nor over what society they were brought up in and the values bestowed upon them therein.
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Most Christians that are aware of these morally reprehensible actions make excuses for them including: the need to examine those actions within the cultural or historical “context” that they occurred (thus implying that their God’s morals aren’t objective or culturally independent), the claim that whatever their God does is considered moral and good by definition (which either fails to address the Euthyphro Dilemma or fails to meet a non-arbitrary or rational standard of goodness), and/or that some or all of the violent and horrible things commanded in the Old Testament were eventually superceded or nullified by a “New Covenant” with a new set of morals.  In any case, we mustn’t forget about the eternal punishment for those that do not follow God’s wishes.  Does a God that threatens his most prized creation with eternal torture — the worst fate imaginable — and with no chance of defense or forgiveness after death, really possess omnibenevolence and an all-loving nature?  Some people may have a relatively easy life where circumstances have easily encouraged living a life that fits in line with Christianity, but many are not afforded those circumstances and thus there is no absolute fairness or equality for all humans in “making this choice”.
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Another point worth considering is the fact that the Christian God didn’t just skip creating the physical world altogether in the first place.  Didn’t God have the power to simply have all humans (or all conscious creatures for that matter) exist in heaven without having to live through any possible suffering on Earth first?  Though life is worth living for many, there has been a lot of suffering for many conscious creatures, and regardless of how good one’s life is on Earth, it could never compare to existence in heaven (according to Christians).  There’s no feasible or coherent reason to explain why God didn’t do this if he is truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  It appears that this is either an example of something God didn’t have the power to do, which is an argument against his omnipotence (see next section for more on this attribute), or God was able to do this but didn’t, which is an argument against his omnibenevolence.  Christians can’t have it both ways.
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Christians must employ a number of mental gymnastic tricks in order to reconcile all of these circumstances with the cherished idea that their God is nevertheless all-loving and omnibenevolent.  I used to share this view as well, though now I see things quite differently.  What I see from these texts is exactly what I would expect to find from a religion invented by human beings (a “higher” evolved primate) living in a primitive, patriarchal, and relatively uneducated culture in the middle east.  Most noteworthy however, is the fact that we see their morals evolve along with other aspects of their culture over time.  Just as we see all cultures and their morals evolve and change over time in response to various cultural driving forces, whether they are the interests of those in power or those seeking power, and/or the ratcheting effect of accumulating knowledge of the consequences of our actions accompanied by centuries of ethical and other philosophical discourse and deep contemplation.  Man was not made in God’s image — clearly, God was made in man’s image.  This easily explains why this God often acts sexist, petty, violent, callous, narcissistic, selfish, jealous, and overwhelmingly egotistical, and it also explains why this God changes over time into one that begins to promote at least some of the fruits gained in philosophy as well as some level of altruism and love.  After all, these are all characteristics of human beings, not only as we venture from a morally immature childhood to a more morally mature adulthood, but also as we’ve morally evolved over time, both biologically and culturally.
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Omniscience and Omnipotence
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Next, I mentioned that Christians believe their God to be omniscient and omnipotent.  First of all, these are mutually exclusive properties.  If their God is omniscient, this generally is taken to mean that he knows everything there is to know, including the future.  Not only does he know the future of all time within our universe, this god likely knows the future of all it’s actions and intentions.  If this is the case, then we have several problems posed for Christian theology.  If God knows the future of his own actions, then he is unable to change them, and therefore fails to be omnipotent.  Christians may argue that God only desires to do what he does, and therefore has no need to change his mind.  Nevertheless, he is still entirely unable to do so, even if he never desires to do so.  I’ll also point out that in order for God to know what it feels like to sin, including thinking blasphemous thoughts about himself, he ceases to remain morally pure.  Obviously a Christian can use the same types of arguments that are used to condone God’s heinous actions in the Bible (specifically the Old Testament), namely that whatever God does is good and morally perfect, although we can see the double-standard here quite clearly.
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The second and perhaps more major problem for Christian theology regarding the attribute of omniscience is the problem of free will and the entire biblical narrative.  If God knows exactly what is going to happen before it does, then the biblical narrative is basically just a story made up by God, and all of history has been like a sort of cosmic or divinely created “movie” that is merely being played out and couldn’t have happened any other way.  If God knows everything that is going to happen, then he alone is the only one that could change such a fate.  However, once again, he is unable to do so if he knows what he is going to do before he does it.  God, in this case, must have knowingly created the Devil and all of the evil in the world.  God knows who on Earth is going to heaven and who is going to hell, and thus our belief or disbelief in God or our level of obedience to God is pre-determined before we are even born.  Overall, we can have no free will if God is omniscient and knows what we will do before we do it.
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My worldview, which is consistent with science, already negates free will as free will can’t exist with the laws of physics governing everything as they do (regardless of any quantum randomness).  So my view regarding free will is actually coherent with the idea of a God that knows the future, so this isn’t a problem for me.  It is however, a problem for Christians because they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.  To add to this dilemma, even if God was not omniscient, that still wouldn’t negate the fact that the only two logical possibilities that exist regarding the future are that it is either predetermined or random (even if God doesn’t know that future).  In either logical possibility, humans still couldn’t have free will, and thus the entire biblical narrative and the entire religion for that matter are invalid regardless of the problem of omniscience.  The only way for humans to have free will is if two requirements are met.  First, God couldn’t have omniscience for the logically necessary reasons already mentioned, and second, humans would have to possess the physically and logically impossible property of self-caused actions and behaviors — where our intentional actions and behaviors would have to be free of any prior causes contributing to said intentions (i.e. our intentions couldn’t be caused by our brain chemistry, our genes, our upbringing and environment, the laws of physics which govern all of these processes, etc.).  Thus, unless we concede that God isn’t omniscient, and that humans possess the impossible ability of causa sui intentions, then all of history, beginning with the supposed “Fall of Man” in the Garden of Eden would have either been predetermined or would have resulted from random causes.  This entails that we would all be receiving a punishment due to an original sin that either God himself instantiated with his own deterministic physical laws, or that was instantiated by random physical laws that God instantiated (even if they appear to be random to God as well) which would have likewise been out of our control.
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Omnipresence
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The Christian God is also described as being omnipresent.  What exactly could this mean?  It certainly doesn’t mean that God is physically omnipresent in any natural way that we can detect.  Rather it seems to mean that God’s omnipresence is almost always invisible to us (though not always, e.g., the burning bush), thus transcending the physical realm with an assumption of a supernatural or metaphysical realm outside of the physical universe, yet somehow able to intervene or act within it.  This to me seems like a contradiction of terms as well since the attribute of omnipresence implied by Christians doesn’t seem to include the natural realm (at least not all the time), but only a transcendent type (all the time).  Christians may argue that God is omnipresent in the natural world, however this defense could only work by changing the definition of “natural” to mean something other than the universe that we can universally and unmistakably detect, and therefore the argument falls short.  However, I only see this as a minor problem for the Christian theology, and since it isn’t as central a precept nor as important a precept as the others, I won’t discuss it further.
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Love, Worship, and Fear
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Though Christians may say that they don’t need to be forced to love, or worship God because they do so willingly, let’s examine the situation here.  The bible instructs Christians to fear God within dozens of different verses throughout.  In fact, Deuteronomy 10:12 reads: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
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It’s difficult for me to avoid noticing how this required love, servitude, worship, and fear of God resembles the effective requirements of some kind of celestial dictator, and one that implements a totalitarian ideology with explicit moral codes and a total solution for how one is to conduct themselves throughout their entire lives.  This dictator is similar to that which I’ve heard of in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, even sharing common principles such as “thought crimes” which a person can never hide given an omniscient God (in the Christian view) that gives them no such privacy.  Likewise with the Orwellian dystopia, the totalitarian attempt to mold us as it does largely forces itself against our human nature (in many ways at least), and we can see the consequences of this clash throughout history, whether relating to our innate predisposition for maintaining certain human rights and freedoms (including various forms of individuality and free expression), maintaining our human sexuality, and other powerful aspects of who we are as a species given our evolutionary history.
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If you were to put many of these attributes of God into a person on Earth, we would no doubt see that person as a dictator, and we would no doubt see the total solution implemented as nothing short of totalitarian.  Is there any escape from this totalitarian implementation?  In the Christian view, you can’t ever escape (though they’d never use the word “escape”) from the authority of this God, even after you die.  In fact, it is after a person dies that the fun really begins, with a fate of either eternal torture or eternal paradise (with the latter only attainable if you’ve met the arbitrary obligations of this God).  While Christians’ views of God may differ markedly from the perspective I’ve described here, so would the perspective of a slave that has been brainwashed by their master through the use of fear among other psychological motivations (whether that person is conscious of their efficacy or not).  They would likely not see themselves as a slave at all, even though an outsider looking at them would make no mistake in making such an assertion.
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Vicarious Redemption
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Another controversial concept within Christianity is that of vicarious redemption or “substitutionary atonement”.  There are a number of Christian models that have been formulated over the years to interpret the ultimate meaning of this doctrine, but they all involve some aspect of Jesus Christ undergoing a passion, crucifixion and ultimately death in order to save mankind from their sins.  This was necessary in the Christian view because after the “Fall of Man” beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (after they were deceived and tempted to disobey God by a talking snake), all of humanity was supposedly doomed to both physical and spiritual death.  Thankfully, say the Christians, in his grace and mercy, God provided a way out of this dilemma, specifically, the shedding of blood from his perfect son.  So through a human sacrifice, mankind is saved.  This concept seems to have started with ancient Judaic law, specifically within the Law of Moses, where God’s chosen people (the Jews) could pay for their sins or become “right in God’s eyes” through an atonement accomplished through animal sacrifice.
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Looking in the Old Testament of the Bible at the book of Leviticus (16:1-34) we see where this vicarious redemption or substitutionary atonement began, which I will now paraphrase.  Starting with Moses (another likely mythological being according to many scholars), we read that God told him that his brother Aaron (who recently had two of his own sons die when they “drew too close to the presence of the Lord”) could only enter the shrine if he bathed, wore certain garments, and then brought with him a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.  He was also to take two goats from the Israelite community to make expiation for himself and for his household.  Then Aaron was to take the two goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the “Tent of Meeting” and place lots upon the goats (i.e. to randomly determine each of the goat’s fate in the ritual), one marked for the Lord and the other marked for “Azazel” (i.e. marked as a “scapegoat”).  He was to bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering, while the goat designated by lot for “Azazel” shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness to die.  Then he was to offer his “bull of sin offering” by slaughtering it, followed by taking some of the blood of the bull and sprinkling it with his finger several times.  Then he was to slaughter the “people’s goat of sin offering”, and do the same thing with the goat’s blood as was done with the bull’s.  Then a bit later he was to take some more blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the alter and then sprinkle the rest of the blood with his finger seven times (this was meant to “purge the shrine of uncleanness”).  Afterward, the live goat was to be brought forward and Aaron was to lay his hands upon the head of the goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, which was meant to put those sins on the head of the goat.  Then the goat was to be sent off into the desert to die.  Then Aaron was to offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself as well as for the people.  The fat of the sin offering was to be “turned into smoke” on the altar.  Then the “bull of sin offering” and “goat of sin offering” (whose blood was brought in to purge the shrine) were to be removed from their camp, and their hides, flesh, and dung were to be consumed in a fire.  And this became a law for the Israelites to atone for their sins, by performing this ritual once a year.
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Animal sacrifice has been a long practiced ritual in most religions (at one time or another), where it has been primarily used as a form of blood magic to appease the gods of that particular culture and religion, and has in fact been found in the history of almost all cultures throughout the world.  So it’s not surprising in the sense that this barbaric practice had a precedent and was near ubiquitous in a number of cultures, however it was most prevalent in the primitive cultures of the past.  Not surprisingly, these primitive cultures had far less knowledge about the world available to comprise their worldview.  As a result, they invoked the supernatural and a number of incredibly odd rituals and behaviors.  We can see some obviously questionable ethics involved here with this type of practice: an innocent animal suffers and/or dies in order to compensate for the guilty animal’s transgressions.  Does this sound like the actions of a morally “good” God?  Does this sound like a moral philosophy that involves personal responsibility, altruism, and love?  I’ll leave that to the reader to decide for themselves, but I think the answer is quite clear.
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It didn’t stop there though, unfortunately.  This requirement of God was apparently only temporary and eventually a human sacrifice was needed, and this came into fruition in the New Testament of the Christian Bible with the stories and myths of a Jewish man (a mix between an apocalyptic itinerant rabbi and a demigod) named Jesus Christ (Joshua/Yeshua) — a man who Christians claim was their messiah, the son of God (and “born of a virgin” as most mythic heroes were), and he was a man who most Christians claim was also God (despite the obvious logical contradiction of this all-human/all-divine duality, which is amplified further in the Trinitarian doctrine).  Along with this new vicarious redemption sacrifice was the creation of a “New Covenant” — a new relationship between humans and God mediated by Jesus Christ.  It should be noted that the earliest manuscripts in the New Testament actually suggest that Jesus was likely originally believed to be a sort of cosmic archangel solely communicating to apostles through divine revelation, dreams, visions, and through hidden messages in the scripture.  Then it appears that Jesus was later euhemerized (i.e. placed into stories in history) later on, most notably in the allegorical and other likely fictions found within the Gospels — although most Christians are unaware of this, as the specific brands of Christianity that have survived to this day mutually assume a historical Jesus.  For more information regarding recent scholarship pertaining to this, please read this previous post.
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Generally, Christians claim that this “New Covenant” was instituted at the “Last Supper” as part of the “Eucharist”.  To digress briefly, the Eucharist was a ritual considered by most Christians to be a sacrament.  During this ritual, Jesus is claimed to have given his disciples bread and wine, asking them to “do this in memory of me,” while referring to the bread as his “body” and the wine as his “blood” (many Christians think that this was exclusively symbolic).  Some Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, and members of The Church of the East) however believe in transubstantiation, where the bread and wine that they are about to eat literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  So to add to the aforementioned controversial religious precepts, we have some form of pseudo or quasi-cannibalism of the purported savior of mankind, the Christian god (along with the allegorical content or intentions, e.g., eating Jesus on the 15th day of the month as Jews would normally have done with the Passover lamb).  The practice of the Eucharist had a precedent in other Hellenistic mystery religions where members of those religions would have feasts/ceremonies where they would symbolically eat the flesh and drink the blood of their god(s) as well, to confer to them eternal life from there (oft) “dying-and-rising” savior gods.  So just like the animal sacrifice mentioned earlier, practices that were the same as or incredibly similar to the Eucharist (including the reward of eternal life) arose prior to Christianity and were likely influential during Christianity’s origin and development.  Overall, Christianity is basically just a syncretism between Judaism and Hellenism anyway, which explains the large number of similarities and overlap between the two belief systems, as these cultures were able to share, mix, and modify these religious ideas over time.
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Returning back to the vicarious redemption, this passion — this incredible agony, suffering, and eventual death of Jesus Christ along with the blood he spilled, we hear, was to reverse humanity’s spiritual death (and forgive us for our sins) once and for all with no more yearly atonement needed.  This was after all the “perfect” sacrifice, and according to Christians, this fate of their supposed messiah was prophesied in their scriptural texts, and thus was inevitable to occur.  So what exactly are we to make of this vicarious redemption through human sacrifice, that God required to happen?  Or the pseudo-cannibalism in the Eucharist for that matter?  There are certainly some good symbolic intentions and implications regarding the idea of a person selflessly performing an altruistic act to save others, and I completely recognize that fact as well.  However, it is something else entirely to assume that one’s transgressions can be born onto another person so that the transgressions are “made clean” or nullified or “canceled out” in some way, let alone through the act of torturing and executing a human being.  In the modern world, if we saw such a thing, we would be morally obligated to stop it.  Not only to prevent that human being from suffering needlessly, but to give that person (if they are willingly submitting themselves to the torture and execution) the proper mental health resources to protect themselves and hopefully to repair whatever psychological ailment that caused such a lapse in their sanity in the first place.
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As for the Eucharist, there’s definitely something to be said about the idea of literally or symbolically eating another human being.  While a symbolic version is generally speaking significantly less controversial, the idea altogether seems to be yet another form of barbaric blood magic (just like the crucifixion, and the non-human animal sacrifice that preceded it).  However, the act of remembrance of Jesus via the Eucharist is an admirable intention and allegory for becoming one with Jesus, and if the food and wine were seen to represent his teachings and message only (and explicitly so), then it wouldn’t be nearly as controversial.  However, given that there is a very obvious intention (in the Gospel according to Mark for example, 14:16-24) to eat Jesus in place of the Passover lamb, the Eucharist is at the very least a controversial allegory, and if it isn’t supposed to be allegorical (or entirely allegorical), this would explain why the belief in transubstantiation (held by many Christians) is as important as it is.
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There are two final things I’d like to mention regarding Jesus Christ’s role in this vicarious redemption.  Let’s assume for the moment, that this act isn’t immoral and view it from a Christian perspective (however irrational that may be).  For one, Jesus knew perfectly well that he was going to be resurrected afterward, and so ultimately he didn’t die the same way you or I would die if we had made the same sacrifice, for we would die forever.  He knew that his death would only be temporary and physical (though many Christians think he was physically as opposed to spiritually resurrected).  If I knew that I would not be resurrected, that would be a much more noble sacrifice for I would be giving up my life indefinitely.  Furthermore, with knowledge of the afterlife, and if I accept that heaven and hell exist, then an even greater sacrifice would be for Jesus to die and go to hell for all eternity, as that would be the greatest possible self-sacrifice imaginable.  However, this wasn’t what happened.  Instead, Jesus suffered (horribly no less), and then died, but only for 3 days, and then he basically became invincible and impervious to any further pain or suffering.  Regardless of how Christians would respond to this point, the fact remains that a more noble sacrifice was possible, but didn’t occur.  The second and last point I’ll mention is the promise offered from the action — that true believers are now granted an eternity in heaven.  One little issue here for Christians is the fact that they don’t know for a fact whether or not God would keep his end of the bargain.  God can do whatever he wants, and whatever he does is morally good in the Christian view — even if that means that he changes his mind and reneges on his promise.  If Christians argue that God would never do this, they are making the assumption that they know with 100% certainty what God will (or will not) do, and this is outside of their available knowledge (again according to the Christian view of not knowing what God is thinking or what he will do).  Just as the rest of the religion goes, the truth of the promise of eternal life itself is based on faith, and believers may end up in hell anyway (it would be up to God either way).  Furthermore, even if all believers did go to heaven, could they not rebel just as Lucifer did when he was an angel in heaven?  Once again, Christians may deny this, but there’s nothing in their scriptures to suggest that this is impossible, especially given the precedent of God’s highest angel doing so in the past.
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Final Thoughts
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I will say that there are a lot of good principles found within the Christian religion, including that of forgiveness and altruism, but there are morally reprehensible things as well, and we should expect that a religion designed by men living long ago carries both barbaric and enlightened human ideas, with more enlightened ideas coming later as the religion co-developed with the culture around it.  Many of the elements we admire (such as altruism and forgiveness for example) exist in large part because they are simply some of the aspects of human nature that evolution favored (since cooperation and social relationships help us to survive many environmental pressures), and this fact also explains why they are seen cross-culturally and do not depend on any particular religion.  Having said that, I will add that on top of our human nature, we also learn new and advantageous ideas over time including those pertaining to morals and ethics, and it is philosophical contemplation and discourse that we owe our thanks to, not any particular religion, even if they endorse those independent ideas.  One of the main problems with religion, especially one such as Christianity, is that it carries with it so many absurd assumptions and beliefs about reality and our existence, that the good philosophical fruits that accompany it are often tainted with dangerous dogma and irrational faith in the unfalsifiable, and this is a serious problem that humanity has been battling for millennia.
I found a quote describing Christianity from a particular perspective that, while offensive to Christians, does shed some light on the overall ludicrous nature of their (and my former) belief system.
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Christianity was described as:
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“The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree”
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Honestly, that quote says it all.  Regarding the Adam and Eve myth, most Christians (let alone most people in general) don’t realize that Eve received more of the blame than Adam did (and women supposedly received the punishment of painful childbirth as a result), based on fallacious reasoning from God.  She received more blame than Adam did, as she received a punishment that Adam did not have to endure and not vice versa (since both men and women would have to endure the punishment meant “for Adam”, that is, difficulty farming and producing food).  It seems that Eve was punished more, presumably because she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge first (or because she was a woman rather than a man), however, what is quite clear to me from reading this story is that Eve was deceived by a highly skilled deceiver (the serpent) that was hell-bent on getting her to eat from the tree.  Adam however, was duped by his wife, a woman made from an insignificant part of his body (his rib), and a woman that was not a highly skilled deceiver as the serpent was.  It seems to me that this gives the expression “Fall of Man” a whole new meaning, as in this case, it seems that women would have become the “head of the household” instead.  Yet, what we see is a double standard here, and it appears that the sexist, patriarchal authors illustrated their true colors quite well when they were devising this myth, and their motivations for doing so were obvious considering the way they had God create Eve (from an insignificant part of Adam, and for the purpose of keeping him company as a subservient wife), and the way they portray her is clearly meant to promote patriarchal dominance.  This is even further illustrated by the implication that God is a male, referred to as “He”, etc., despite the fact that all living animals on Earth are born from a “life producing” or “life creating” female.  It’s nothing but icing on the cake I guess.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 3 of 3)

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This is part 3 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 2.

Reactive Devaluation

Studies have shown that if a claim is believed to have come from a friend or ally, the person receiving it will be more likely to think that it has merit and is truthful.  Likewise, if it is believed to have come from an enemy or some member of the opposition, it is significantly devalued.  This bias is known as reactive devaluation.  A few psychologists actually determined that the likeabillity of the source of the message is one of the key factors involved with this effect, and people will actually value information coming from a likeable source more than a source they don’t like, with the same order of magnitude that they would value information coming from an expert versus a non-expert.  This is quite troubling.  We’ve often heard about how political campaigns and certain debates are seen more as popularity contests than anything else, and this bias is likely a primary reason for why this is often the case.

Unfortunately, a large part of society has painted a nasty picture of atheism, skepticism, and the like.  As it turns out, people who do not believe in a god (mainly the Christian god) are the least trusted minority in America, according to a sociological study performed a few years ago (Johanna Olexy and Lee Herring, “Atheists Are Distrusted: Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to Sociological Study,” American Sociological Association News, May 3, 2006).  Regarding the fight against dogmatism, the rational thinker needs to carefully consider how they can improve their likeability to the recipients of their message, if nothing else, by going above and beyond to remain kind, respectful, and maintain a positive and uplifting attitude during their argument presentation.  In any case, the person arguing will always be up against any societal expectations and preferences that may reduce that person’s likeability, so there’s also a need to remind others as well as ourselves about what is most important when discussing an issue — the message rather than the messenger.

The Backfire Effect & Psychological Reactance

There have already been several cognitive biases mentioned that interfere with people’s abilities to accept new evidence that contradicts their beliefs.  To make matters worse, psychologists have discovered that people often react to disconfirming evidence by actually strengthening their beliefs.  This is referred to as the backfire effect.  This can make refutations futile most of the time, but there are some strategies that help to combat this bias.  The bias is largely exacerbated by a person’s emotional involvement and the fact that people don’t want to appear to be unintelligent or incorrect in front of others.  If the debating parties let tempers cool down before resuming the debate, this can be quite helpful regarding the emotional element.  Additionally, if a person can show their opponent how accepting the disconfirming evidence will benefit them, they’ll be more likely to accept it.  There are times when some of the disconfirming evidence mentioned is at least partially absorbed by the person, and they just need some more time in a less tense environment to think things over a bit.  If the situation gets too heated, or if a person risks losing face with peers around them, the ability to persuade that person only decreases.

Another similar cognitive bias is referred to as reactance, which is basically a motivational reaction to instances of perceived infringement of behavioral freedoms.  That is, if a person feels that someone is taking away their choices or limiting the number of them, such as in cases where they are being heavily pressured into accepting a different point of view, they will often respond defensively.  They may feel that freedoms are being taken away from them, and it is only natural for a person to defend whatever freedoms they see themselves having or potentially losing.  Whenever one uses reverse psychology, they are in fact playing on at least an implicit knowledge of this reactance effect.  Does this mean that rational thinkers should use reverse psychology to persuade dogmatists to accept reason and evidence?  I personally don’t think that this is the right approach because this could also backfire and I would prefer to be honest and straightforward, even if this results in less efficacy.  At the very least however, one needs to be aware of this bias and needs to be careful with how they phrase their arguments, how they present the evidence, and to maintain a calm and respectful attitude during these discussions, so that the other person doesn’t feel the need to defend themselves with the cost of ignoring evidence.

Pareidolia & Other Perceptual Illusions

Have you ever seen faces of animals or people while looking at clouds, shadows, or other similar situations?  The brain has many pattern recognition modules and will often respond erroneously to vague or even random stimuli, such that we perceive something familiar, even when it isn’t actually there.  This is called pareidolia, and is a type of apophenia (i.e. seeing patterns in random data).  Not surprisingly, many people have reported instances of seeing various religious imagery and so forth, most notably the faces of prominent religious figures, from ordinary phenomena.  People have also erroneously heard “hidden messages” in records when playing them in reverse, and similar illusory perceptions.  This results from the fact that the brain often fills in gaps and if one expects to see a pattern (even if unconsciously driven by some emotional significance), then the brain’s pattern recognition modules can often “over-detect” or result in false positives by too much sensitivity and by conflating unconscious imagery with one’s actual sensory experiences, leading to a lot of distorted perceptions.  It goes without saying that this cognitive bias is perfect for reinforcing superstitious or supernatural beliefs, because what people tend to see or experience from this effect are those things that are most emotionally significant to them.  After it occurs, people believe that what they saw or heard must have been real and therefore significant.

Most people are aware that hallucinations occur in some people from time to time, under certain neurological conditions (generally caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters).  A bias like pareidolia can effectively produce similar experiences, but without requiring the more specific neurological conditions that a textbook hallucination requires.  That is, the brain doesn’t need to be in any drug-induced state nor does it need to be physically abnormal in any way for this to occur, making it much more common than hallucinations.  Since pareidolia is also compounded with one’s confirmation bias, and since the brain is constantly implementing cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms in the background (as mentioned earlier), this can also result in groups of people having the same illusory experience, specifically if the group shares the same unconscious emotional motivations for “seeing” or experiencing something in particular.  These circumstances along with the power of suggestion from even just one member of the group can lead to what are known as collective hallucinations.  Since collective hallucinations like these inevitably lead to a feeling of corroboration and confirmation between the various people experiencing it (say, seeing a “spirit” or “ghost” of someone significant), they can reinforce one another’s beliefs, despite the fact that the experience was based on a cognitive illusion largely induced by powerful human emotions.  It’s likely no coincidence that this type of group phenomenon seems to only occur with members of a religion or cult, specifically those that are in a highly emotional and synchronized psychological state.  There have been many cases of large groups of people from various religions around the world claiming to see some prominent religious figure or other supernatural being, illustrating just how universal this phenomena is within a highly emotional group context.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

There is a cognitive bias that is somewhat related to the aforementioned perceptual illusion biases which is known as hyperactive agency detection.  This bias refers to our tendency to erroneously assign agency to events that happen without an agent causing them.  Human beings all have a theory of mind that is based in part on detecting agency, where we assume that other people are causal agents in the sense that they have intentions and goals just like we do.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that our ability to recognize that others are intentional agents allows us to better predict another person’s behavior which is extremely beneficial to our survival (notably in cases where we suspect others are intending to harm us).

Unfortunately our brain’s ability to detect agency is hyperactive in that it errs on the side of caution by over-detecting possible agency, as opposed to under-detecting (which could negatively affect our survival prospects).  As a result, people will often ascribe agency to things and events in nature that have no underlying intentional agent.  For example, people often anthropomorphize (or implicitly assume agency to) machines and get angry when they don’t work properly (such as an automobile that breaks down while driving to work), often with the feeling that the machine is “out to get us”, is “evil”, etc.  Most of the time, if we have feelings like this, they are immediately checked and balanced by our rational minds that remind us that “it’s only a car”, or “it’s not conscious”, etc.  Similarly, when natural disasters or other similar events occur, our hyperactive agency detection snaps into gear, trying to find “someone to blame”.  This cognitive bias explains quite well, at least as a contributing factor as to why so many ancient cultures assumed that there were gods that caused earthquakes, lightning, thunder, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.  Quite simply, they needed to ascribe the events as having been caused by someone.

Likewise, if we are walking in a forest and hear some strange sounds in the bushes, we may often assume that some intentional agent is present (whether another person or other animal), even though it may simply be the wind that is causing the noise.  Once again, we can see in this case the evolutionary benefit of this agency detection, even with the occasional “false positive”, the noise in the bushes could very well be a predator or other source of danger, so it is usually better for our brains to assume that the noise is coming from an intentional agent.  It’s also entirely possible that even in cases where the source of sound was determined to be the wind, early cultures may have ascribed an intentional stance to the wind itself (e.g. a “wind” god, etc.).  In all of these cases, we can see how our hyperactive agency detection can lead to irrational, theistic and other supernatural belief systems, and we need to be aware of such a bias when evaluating our intuitions of how the world works.

Risk Compensation

It is only natural that the more a person feels protected from various harms, the less careful they tend to behave, and vice versa.  This apparent tendency, sometimes referred to as risk compensation, is often a harmless approach because generally speaking, if one is well protected from harm, they do have less to worry about than one who is not, and thus they can take greater relative risks as a result of that larger cushion of safety.  Where this tends to cause a problem however, is in cases when the perceived level of protection is far higher than it actually is.  The worst case scenario that comes to mind is if a person that appeals to the supernatural thinks that it doesn’t matter what happens to them or that no harm can come to them because of some belief in a supernatural source of protection, let alone one that they believe provides the most protection possible.  In this scenario, their level of risk compensation is fully biased to a negative extreme, and they will be more likely to behave irresponsibly because they don’t have realistic expectations of the consequences of their actions.  In a post-enlightenment society, we’ve acquired a higher responsibility to heed the knowledge gained from scientific discoveries so that we can behave more rationally as we learn more about the consequences of our actions.

It’s not at all difficult to see how the effects of various religious dogma on one’s level of risk compensation can inhibit that society from making rational, responsible decisions.  We have several serious issues plaguing modern society including those related to environmental sustainability, climate change, pollution, war, etc.  If believers in the supernatural have an attitude that everything is “in God’s hands” or that “everything will be okay” because of their belief in a protective god, they are far less likely to take these kinds of issues seriously because they fail to acknowledge the obvious harm on everyone in society.  What’s worse is that not only are dogmatists reducing their own safety, but they’re also reducing the safety of their children, and of everyone else in society that is trying to behave rationally with realistic expectations.  If we had two planets, one for rational thinkers, and one for dogmatists, this would no longer be a problem for everyone.  The reality is that we share one planet and thus we all suffer the consequences of any one person’s irresponsible actions.  If we want to make more rational decisions, especially those related to the safety of our planet’s environment, society, and posterity, people need to adjust their risk compensation such that it is based on empirical evidence using a rational, proven scientific methodology.  This point clearly illustrates the need to phase out supernatural beliefs since false beliefs that don’t correspond with reality can be quite dangerous to everybody regardless of who carries the beliefs.  In any case, when one is faced with the choice between knowledge versus ignorance, history has demonstrated which choice is best.

Final thoughts

The fact that we are living in an information age with increasing global connectivity, and the fact that we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, will likely help to combat the ill effects of these cognitive biases.  These factors are making it increasingly difficult to hide one’s self from the evidence and the proven efficacy of using the scientific method in order to form accurate beliefs regarding the world around us.  Societal expectations are also changing as a result of these factors, and it is becoming less and less socially acceptable to be irrational, dogmatic, and to not take scientific methodology more seriously.  In all of these cases, having knowledge about these cognitive biases will help people to combat them.  Even if we can’t eliminate the biases, we can safeguard ourselves by preparing for any potential ill effects that those biases may produce.  This is where reason and science come into play, providing us with the means to counter our cognitive biases by applying a rational skepticism to all of our beliefs, and by using a logical and reliable methodology based on empirical evidence to arrive at a belief that we can be justifiably confident (though never certain) in.  As Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”  Science has constantly been ratcheting our way toward a better understanding of the universe we live in, despite the fact that the results we obtain from science are often at odds with our own intuitions about how we think the world is.  Only relatively recently has science started to provide us with information regarding why our intuitions are often at odds with the scientific evidence.

We’ve made huge leaps within neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology, and these discoveries are giving us the antidote that we need in order to reduce or eliminate irrational and dogmatic thinking.  Furthermore, those that study logic have an additional advantage in that they are more likely to spot fallacious arguments that are used to support this or that belief, and thus they are less likely to be tricked or persuaded by arguments that often appear to be sound and strong, but actually aren’t.  People fall prey to fallacious arguments all the time, and it is mostly because they haven’t learned how to spot them (which courses in logic and other reasoning can help to mitigate).  Thus, overall I believe it is imperative that we integrate knowledge concerning our cognitive biases into our children’s educational curriculum, starting at a young age (in a format that is understandable and engaging of course).  My hope is that if we start to integrate cognitive education (and complementary courses in logic and reasoning) as a part of our foundational education curriculum, we will see a cascade effect of positive benefits that will guide our society more safely into the future.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 2 of 3)

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This is part 2 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 1.

The Feeling of Certainty & The Overconfidence Effect

There are a lot of factors that affect how certain we feel that one belief or another is in fact true.  One factor that affects this feeling of certainty is what I like to call the time equals truth fallacy.  With this cognitive bias, we tend to feel more certain about our beliefs as time progresses, despite not gaining any new evidence to support those beliefs. Since the time with a particular belief is the only factor involved here, it will have greater effects on those that are relatively isolated or sheltered from new information.  So if a person has been indoctrinated with a particular set of beliefs (let alone irrational beliefs), and they are effectively “cut off” from any sources of information that could serve to refute those beliefs, it will become increasingly more difficult to persuade them later on.  This situation sounds all too familiar, as it is often the case that dogmatic groups will isolate themselves and shelter their members from outside influences, for this very reason.  If the group can isolate their members for long enough (or the members actively isolate themselves), the dogma effectively gets burned into them, and the brainwashing is far more successful.  That this cognitive bias has been exploited by various dogmatic/religious leaders throughout history is hardly surprising considering how effective it is.

Though I haven’t researched or come across any proposed evolutionary reasons behind the development of this cognitive bias, I do have at least one hypothesis pertaining to its origin.  I’d say that this bias may have resulted from the fact that the beliefs that matter most (from an evolutionary perspective) are those that are related to our survival goals (e.g. finding food sources or evading a predator).  So naturally, any beliefs that didn’t cause noticeable harm to an organism weren’t correlated with harm, and thus were more likely to be correct (i.e. keep using whatever works and don’t fix what ain’t broke).  However, once we started adding many more beliefs to our repertoire, specifically those that didn’t directly affect our survival (including many beliefs in the supernatural), the same cognitive rules and heuristics were still being applied as before, although these new types of beliefs (when false) haven’t been naturally selected against, because they haven’t been detrimental enough to our survival (at least not yet, or not enough to force a significant evolutionary change).  So once again, evolution may have produced this bias for very advantageous reasons, but it is a sub-optimal heuristic (as always) and one that has become a significant liability after we started evolving culturally as well.

Another related cognitive bias, and one that is quite well established, is the overconfidence effect, whereby a person’s subjective confidence level or feeling of confidence in his or her judgements or beliefs are predictably higher than the actual objective accuracy of those judgements and beliefs. In a nutshell, people tend to have far more confidence in their beliefs and decisions than is warranted.  A common example cited to illustrate the intensity of this bias pertains to people taking certain quizzes, claiming to be “99% certain” about their answers to certain questions, and then finding out afterwards that they were wrong about half of the time.  In other cases, this overconfidence effect can be even worse.

In a sense, the feeling of certainty is like an emotion, which, like our other emotions, occur as a natural reflex, regardless of the cause, and independently of reason.  Just like other emotions such as anger, pleasure, or fear, the feeling of certainty can be produced by a seizure, certain drugs, and even electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain.  In all of these cases, even when no particular beliefs are being thought about, the brain can produce a feeling of certainty nevertheless.  Research has shown that the feeling of knowing or certainty can also be induced through various brain washing and trance-inducing techniques such as a high repetition of words, rhythmic music, sleep deprivation (or fasting), and other types of social/emotional manipulation.  It is hardly a coincidence that many religions often employ a number of these techniques within their repertoire.

The most important point to take away from learning about these “confidence/certainty” biases is to understand that the feeling of certainty is not a reliable way of determining the accuracy of one’s beliefs.  Furthermore, one must realize that no matter how certain we may feel about a particular belief, we could be wrong, and often times are.  Dogmatic belief systems such as those found in many religions are often propagated by a misleading and mistaken feeling of certainty, even if that feeling is more potent than any ever experienced before.  Often times when people ascribing to these dogmatic belief systems are questioned about the lack of empirical evidence supporting their beliefs, even if all of their arguments have been refuted, they simply reply by saying “I just know.”  Irrational, and entirely unjustified responses like these illustrate the dire need for people to become aware of just how fallible their feeling of certainty can be.

Escalation of Commitment

If a person has invested their whole lives in some belief system, even if they encounter undeniable evidence that their beliefs were wrong, they are more likely to ignore it or rationalize it away than to modify their beliefs, and thus they will likely continue investing more time and energy in those false beliefs.  This is due to an effect known as escalation of commitment.  Basically, the higher the cumulative investment in a particular course of action, the more likely someone will feel justified in continuing to increase that investment, despite new evidence showing them that they’d be better off abandoning that investment and cutting their losses.  When it comes to trying to “convert” a dogmatic believer into a more rational, free thinker, this irrational tendency severely impedes any chance of success, more so when that person has been investing themselves in the dogma for a longer period of time, since they ultimately have a lot more to lose.  To put it another way, a person’s religion is often a huge part of their personal identity, so regardless of any undeniable evidence presented that refutes their beliefs, in order to accept that evidence they will have to abandon a large part of themselves which is obviously going to make that acceptance and intellectual honesty quite difficult to implement.  Furthermore, if a person’s family or friends have all invested in the same false beliefs as themselves, even if that person discovers that those beliefs are wrong, they risk their entire family and/or friends rejecting them and then forever losing those relationships that are dearest to them.  We can also see how this escalation of commitment is further reinforced by the time equals truth fallacy mentioned earlier.

Negativity Bias

When I’ve heard various Christians proselytizing to myself or others, one tactic that I’ve seen used over and over again is the use of fear-mongering with theologically based threats of eternal punishment and torture.  If we don’t convert, we’re told, we’re doomed to burn in hell for eternity.  Their incessant use of this tactic suggests that it was likely effective on themselves contributing to their own conversion (it was in fact one of the reasons for my former conversion to Christianity).  Similar tactics have been used in some political campaigns in order to persuade voters by deliberately scaring them into taking one position over another.  Though this strategy is more effective on some than others, there is an underlying cognitive bias in all of us that contributes to its efficacy.  This is known as the negativity bias.  With this bias, information or experiences that are of a more negative nature will tend to have a greater effect on our psychological states and resulting behavior when compared to positive information or experiences that are equally intense.

People will remember threats to their well-being a lot more than they remember pleasurable experiences.  This looks like another example of a simple survival strategy implemented in our brains.  Similar to my earlier hypothesis regarding the time equals truth heuristic, it is far more important to remember and avoid dangerous or life-threatening experiences than it is to remember and seek out pleasurable experiences when all else is equal.  It only takes one bad experience to end a person’s life, whereas it is less critical to experience some minimum number of pleasurable experiences.  Therefore, it makes sense as an evolutionary strategy to allocate more cognitive resources and memory for avoiding the dangerous and negative experiences, and a negativity bias helps us to accomplish that.

Unfortunately, just as with the time equals truth bias, since our cultural evolution has involved us adopting certain beliefs that no longer pertain directly to our survival, the heuristic is often being executed improperly or in the wrong context.  This increases the chances that we will fall prey to adopting irrational, dogmatic belief systems when they are presented to us in a way that utilizes fear-mongering and various forms of threats to our well-being.  When it comes to conceiving of an overtly negative threat, can anyone imagine one more significant than the threat of eternal torture?  It is, by definition, supposed to be the worst scenario imaginable, and thus it is the most effective kind of threat to play on our negativity bias, and lead to irrational beliefs.  If the dogmatic believer is also convinced that their god can hear their thoughts, they’re also far less likely to think about their dogmatic beliefs critically, for they have no mental privacy to do so.

This bias in particular reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s famous Wager, which basically asserts that it is better to believe in God than to risk the consequences of not doing so.  If God doesn’t exist, we have “only” a finite loss (according to Pascal).  If God does exist, then one’s belief leads to an eternal reward, and one’s disbelief leads to an eternal punishment.  Therefore, it is only logical (Pascal asserts) that one should believe in God, since it is the safest position to adopt.  Unfortunately, Pascal’s premises are not sound, and therefore the conclusion is invalid.  For one, is belief in God sufficient enough to avoid the supposed eternal punishment, or does it have to be more than that, such as some other religious tenets, declarations, or rituals?  Second, which god should one believe in?  There have been thousands of gods proposed by various believers over several millennia, and there were obviously many more than we currently have records of in history, therefore Pascal’s Wager merely narrows it down to a choice of several thousand known gods.  Third, even if we didn’t have to worry about choosing the correct god, if it turned out that there was no god, would a life with that belief not have carried a significant cost?  If the belief also involved a host of dogmatic moral prescriptions, rituals, and other specific ways to live one’s life, etc., including perhaps the requirement to abstain from many pleasurable human experiences, this cost could be quite great.  Furthermore, if one applies Pascal’s wager to any number of theoretical possibilities that posit a possible infinite loss over a finite loss, one would be inclined to apply the same principle to any of those possibilities, which is obviously irrational.  It is clear that Pascal hadn’t thought this one through very well, and I wouldn’t doubt that his judgement during this apologetic formulation was highly clouded by his own negativity bias (since the fear of punishment seems to be the primary focus of his “wager”).  As was mentioned earlier, we can see how effective this bias has been on a number of religious converts, and we need to be diligent about watching out for information that is presented to us with threatening strings attached, because it can easily cloud our judgement and lead to the adoption of irrational beliefs and dogma.

Belief Bias & Argument Proximity Effects

When we analyze arguments, we often judge the strength of those arguments based on how plausible their conclusion is, rather than how well those arguments support that conclusion.  In other words, people tend to focus their attention on the conclusion of an argument, and if they think that the conclusion is likely to be true (based on their prior beliefs), this affects their perspective of how strong or weak the arguments themselves appear to be.  This is obviously an incorrect way to analyze arguments, as within logic, only the arguments themselves can be used to determine the validity of the conclusion, not the other way around.  This implies that what is intuitive to us is often incorrect, and thus our cognitive biases are constantly at odds with logic and rationality.  This is why it takes a lot of practice to learn how to apply logic effectively in one’s thinking.  It just doesn’t come naturally, even though we often think it does.

Another cognitive deficit regarding how people analyze arguments irrationally is what I like to call the argument proximity effect.  Basically, when strong arguments are presented along with weak arguments that support a particular conclusion, the strong arguments will often appear to be weaker or less persuasive because of their proximity or association with the weaker ones.  This is partly due to the fact that if a person thinks that they can defeat the moderate or weak arguments, they will often believe that they can also defeat the stronger argument, if only they were given enough time to do so.  It is as if the strong arguments become “tainted” by the weaker ones, even though the opposite is true since the arguments are independent of one another.  That is, when a person has a number of arguments to support their position, a combination of strong and weak arguments is always better than only having the strong arguments, because there are simply more arguments that need to be addressed and rebutted in the former than in the latter.  Another reason for this effect is that the presence of weak arguments also weakens the credibility of the person presenting them, and so then the stronger arguments aren’t taken as seriously by the recipient.  Just as with our belief bias, this cognitive deficit is ultimately caused by not employing logic properly, if at all.  Making people aware of this cognitive flaw is only half the battle, as once again we also need to learn about logic and how to apply it effectively in our thinking.

To read part 3 of 3, click here.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 1 of 3)

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It is often surprising to think about the large number of people that still ascribe to dogmatic beliefs, despite our living in a post-enlightenment age of science, reason, and skeptical inquiry.  We have a plethora of scientific evidence and an enormous amount of acquired data illustrating just how fallacious various dogmatic belief systems are, as well as how dogmatism in general is utterly useless for gaining knowledge or making responsible decisions throughout one’s life.  We also have an ample means of distributing this valuable information to the public through academic institutions, educational television programming, online scientific resources, books, etc.  Yet, we still have an incredibly large number of people preferably believing in various dogmatic claims (and with a feeling of “certainty”) over those supported by empirical evidence and reason.  Furthermore, when some of these people are presented with the scientific evidence that refutes their dogmatic belief, they outright deny that the evidence exists or they simply rationalize it away.  This is a very troubling problem in our society as this kind of muddled thinking often prevents many people from making responsible, rational decisions.  Irrational thinking in general has caused many people to vote for political candidates for all the wrong reasons.  It has caused many people to raise their own children in ways that promote intolerance, prejudice, and that undervalue if not entirely abhor invaluable intellectual virtues such as rational skepticism and critical thought.
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Some may reasonably assume that (at least) many of these irrational belief systems and behaviors are simply a result of having low self-esteem, inadequate education and/or low intelligence, and it turns out that several dozen sociological studies have found evidence that supports this line of reasoning.  That is, a person that has lower self-esteem, lower education, and/or lower intelligence is more likely to be religious and dogmatic.  However, there is clearly much more to it than that, especially since there are still a lot of people that obtain these irrational belief systems that are also well educated and intelligent.  Furthermore, every human being is quite often irrational in their thinking.  So what else could be contributing to this irrationality (and dogmatism)?  Well, the answer seems to lie in the realms of cognitive science and psychology.  I’ve decided to split this post into three parts, because there is a lot of information I’d like to cover.  Here’s the link to part 2 of 3, which can also be found at the end of this post.

Cognitive Biases

Human beings are very intelligent relative to most other species on this planet, however, we are still riddled with various flaws in our brains which drastically reduce our ability to think logically or rationally.  This isn’t surprising after one recognizes that our brains are the product of evolution, and thus they weren’t “designed” in any way at all, let alone to operate logically or rationally.  Instead, what we see in human beings is a highly capable and adaptable brain, yet one with a number of cognitive biases and shortcomings.  Though a large number (if not all) of these biases developed as a sub-optimal yet fairly useful survival strategy, specifically within the context of our evolutionary past, most of them have become a liability in our modern civilization, and often impede our intellectual development as individuals and as a society.  A lot of these cognitive biases serve (or once served) as an effective way at making certain decisions rather quickly, that is, the biases have effectively served as heuristics for simplifying the decision making process with many everyday problems.  While heuristics are valuable and often make our decision making faculties more efficient, they are often far less than optimal due to the fact that increased efficiency is often afforded by a reduction in accuracy.  Again, this is exactly what we expect to find with products of evolution — a suboptimal strategy for solving some problem or accomplishing some goal, but one that has worked well enough to give the organism (in this case, human beings) an advantage over the competition within some environmental niche.

So what kinds of cognitive biases do we have exactly, and how many of them have cognitive scientists discovered?  A good list of them can be found here.  I’m going to mention a few of them in this post, specifically those that promote or reinforce dogmatic thinking, those that promote or reinforce an appeal to a supernatural world view, and ultimately those that seem to most hinder overall intellectual development and progress.  To begin, I’d like to briefly discuss Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it pertains to the automated management of our beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The human mind doesn’t tolerate internal conflicts very well, and so when we have beliefs that contradict one another or when we are exposed to new information that conflicts with an existing belief, some degree of cognitive dissonance results and we are effectively pushed out of our comfort zone.  The mind attempts to rid itself of this cognitive dissonance through a few different methods.  A person may alter the importance of the original belief or that of the new information, they may change the original belief, or they may seek evidence that is critical of the new information.  Generally, the easiest path for the mind to take is the first and last method mentioned here, as it is far more difficult for a person to change their existing beliefs, partly due to the fact that a person’s existing set of beliefs is their only frame of reference when encountering new information, and there is an innate drive to maintain a feeling of familiarity and a feeling of certainty of our beliefs.

The primary problem with these automated cognitive dissonance reduction methods is that they tend to cause people to defend their beliefs in one way or another rather than to question them and try to analyze them objectively.  Unfortunately, this means that we often fail to consider new evidence and information using a rational approach, and this in turn can cause people to acquire quite a large number of irrational, false beliefs, despite having a feeling of certainty regarding the truth of those beliefs.  It is also important to note that many of the cognitive biases that I’m about to mention result from these cognitive dissonance reduction methods, and they can become compounded to create severe lapses in judgement.

Confirmation Bias, Semmelweis Reflex, and The Frequency Illusion

One of the most significant cognitive biases we have is what is commonly referred to as confirmation bias.  Basically, this bias refers to our tendency to seek out, interpret, or remember information in a particular way that serves to confirm our beliefs.  To put it more simply, we often will only see what we want to see.  It is a method that our brain uses in order to be able to sift through large amounts of information and piece it together with what we already believe into a meaningful story line or explanation.  Just as we expect, it ultimately optimizes for efficiency over accuracy, and therein lies the problem.  Even though this bias applies to everyone, the dogmatist in particular has a larger cognitive barrier to overcome because they’re also using a fallacious epistemological methodology right from the start (i.e. appealing to some authority rather than to reason and evidence).  So while everyone is affected by this bias to some degree, the dogmatic believer in particular has an epistemological flaw that serves to compound the issue and make matters worse.  They will, to a much higher degree, live their life unconsciously ignoring any evidence encountered that refutes their beliefs (or fallaciously reinterpreting it to be in their favor), and they will rarely if ever attempt to actively seek out such evidence to try and disprove their beliefs.  A more rational thinker on the other hand, has a belief system primarily based on a reliable epistemological methodology (which uses empirical evidence to support it), and one that has been proven to work and provide increasingly accurate knowledge better than any other method (i.e. the scientific method).  Nevertheless, everyone is affected by this bias, and because it is operating outside the conscious mind, we all fail to notice it as it actively modifies our perception of reality.

One prominent example in our modern society, illustrating how this cognitive bias can reinforce dogmatic thinking (and with large groups of people), is the ongoing debate between Young Earth Creationists and the scientific consensus regarding evolutionary theory.  Even though the theory of evolution is a scientific fact (much like many other scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, or the Germ theory of disease), and even though there are several hundred thousand scientists that can attest to its validity, as well as a plethora of evidence within a large number of scientific fields supporting its validity, Creationists seem to be in complete and utter denial of this actuality.  Not only do they ignore the undeniable wealth of evidence that is presented to them, but they also misinterpret evidence (or cherry pick) to suit their position.  This problem is compounded by the fact that their beliefs are only supported by fallacious tautologies [e.g. “It’s true because (my interpretation of) a book called the Bible says so…”], and other irrational arguments based on nothing more than a particular religious dogma and a lot of intellectual dishonesty.

I’ve had numerous debates with these kinds of people (and I used to BE one of them many years ago, so I understand how many of them arrived at these beliefs), and I’ll often quote several scientific sources and various logical arguments to support my claims (or to refute theirs), and it is often mind boggling to witness their response, with the new information seemingly going in one ear and coming out the other without undergoing any mental processing or critical consideration.  It is as if they didn’t hear a single argument that was pointed out to them and merely executed some kind of rehearsed reflex.  The futility of the communication is often confirmed when one finds themselves having to repeat the same arguments and refutations over and over again, seemingly falling on deaf ears, with no logical rebuttal of the points made.  On a side note, this reflex-like response where a person quickly rejects new evidence because it contradicts their established belief system is known as the “Semmelweis reflex/effect”, but it appears to be just another form of confirmation bias.  Some of these cases of denial and irrationality are nothing short of ironic, since these people are living in a society that owes its technological advancements exclusively to rational, scientific methodologies, and these people are indeed patronizing and utilizing many of these benefits of science everyday of their lives (even if they don’t realize it).  Yet we still find many of them hypocritically abhorring or ignoring science and reason whenever it is convenient to do so, such as when they try to defend their dogmatic beliefs.

Another prominent example of confirmation bias reinforcing dogmatic thinking relates to various other beliefs in the supernatural.  People that believe in the efficacy of prayer, for example, will tend to remember prayers that were “answered” and forget or rationalize away any prayers that weren’t “answered”, since their beliefs reinforce such a selective memory.  Similarly, if a plane crash or other disaster occurs, some people with certain religious beliefs will often mention or draw attention to the idea that their god or some supernatural force must have intervened or played a role in preventing the death of any survivors (if there are any), while they seem to downplay or ignore the facts pertaining to the many others that did not survive (if there are any survivors at all).  In the case of prayer, numerous studies have shown that prayer for another person (e.g. to heal them from an illness) is ineffective when that person doesn’t know that they’re being prayed for, thus any efficacy of prayer has been shown to be a result of the placebo effect and nothing more.  It may be the case that prayer is one of the most effective placebos, largely due to the incredibly high level of belief in its efficacy, and the fact that there is no expected time frame for it to “take effect”.  That is, since nobody knows when a prayer will be “answered”, then even if the prayer isn’t “answered” for several months or even several years (and time ranges like this are not unheard of for many people that have claimed to have prayers answered), then confirmation bias will be even more effective than a traditional medical placebo.  After all, a typical placebo pill or treatment is expected to work within a reasonable time frame comparable to other medicine or treatments taken in the past, but there’s no deadline for a prayer to be answered by.  It’s reasonable to assume that even if these people were shown the evidence that prayer is no more effective than a placebo (even if it is the most effective placebo available), they would reject it or rationalize it away, once again, because their beliefs require it to be so.  The same bias applies to numerous other purportedly paranormal phenomena, where people see significance in some event because of how their memory or perception is operating in order to promote or sustain their beliefs.  As mentioned earlier, we often see what we want to see.

There is also a closely related bias known as congruence bias, which occurs because people rely too heavily on directly testing a given hypothesis, and often neglect to indirectly test that hypothesis.  For example, suppose that you were introduced to a new lighting device with two buttons on it, a green button and a red button.  You are told that the device will only light up by pressing the green button.  A direct test of this hypothesis would be to press the green button, and see if it lights up.  An indirect test of this hypothesis would be to press the red button, and see if it doesn’t light up.  Congruence bias illustrates that we tend to avoid the indirect testing of hypotheses, and thus we can start to form irrational beliefs by mistaking correlation with causation, or by forming incomplete explanations of causation.  In the case of the aforementioned lighting device, it could be the case that both buttons cause it to light up.  Think about how this congruence bias affects our general decision making process, where when we combine it with our confirmation bias, we are inclined to not only reaffirm our beliefs, but to avoid trying to disprove them (since we tend to avoid indirect testing of those beliefs).  This attitude and predisposition reinforces dogmatism by assuming the truth of one’s beliefs and not trying to verify them in any rational, critical way.

An interesting cognitive bias that often works in conjunction with a person’s confirmation bias is something referred to as the frequency illusion, whereby some detail of an event or some specific object may enter a person’s thoughts or attention, and then suddenly it seems that they are experiencing the object or event at a higher than normal frequency.  For example, if a person thinks about a certain animal, say a turtle, they may start noticing lots of turtles around them that they would have normally overlooked.  This person may even go to a store and suddenly notice clothing or other gifts with turtle patterns or designs on them that they didn’t seem to notice before.  After all, “turtle” is on their mind, or at least in the back of their mind, so their brain is unconsciously “looking” for turtles, and the person isn’t aware of their own unconscious pattern recognition sensitivity.  As a result, they may think that this perceived higher frequency of “seeing turtles” is abnormal and that it must be more than simply a coincidence.  If this happens to a person that appeals to the supernatural, their confirmation bias may mistake this frequency illusion for a supernatural event, or something significant.  Since this happens unconsciously, people can’t control this illusion or prevent it from happening.  However, once a person is aware of the frequency illusion as a cognitive bias that exists, they can at least reassess their experiences with a larger toolbox of rational explanations, without having to appeal to the supernatural or other irrational belief systems.  So in this particular case, we can see how various cognitive biases can “stack up” with one another and cause serious problems in our reasoning abilities and negatively affect how accurately we perceive reality.

To read part 2 of 3, click here.

On the Historicity of Jesus Christ: The Euhemerization of a Myth

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Not long ago, I finished reading Richard Carrier’s latest book titled: On The Historicity of Jesus, and I must say that I was thoroughly impressed.  For those that are unaware of Carrier’s latest book, here’s a link to a summary as found on the publisher’s website, here’s another link to a great PDF presentation of Carrier’s case, and finally, a link to a YouTube video where Carrier makes his case more clear.  Basically, Carrier re-examines the evidence regarding the historicity of Jesus, after being inclined by some friends and colleagues to read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle, which basically makes the case for mythicism.  For those unaware of the mythicist positions (of which there are many), the most basic contention is that Jesus Christ originated as a myth and thus was never an actual historical person.  While most mythicist theories proposed thus far have been poorly researched and arrive at certain conclusions through fallacious reasoning and poor historical critical methodology, Doherty actually presented a plausible case for it.  After Carrier read Doherty’s book, he was asked (and inspired) to write a book on the topic.  Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus is in fact the first academically peer reviewed book to analyze such a topic, and a brilliant work at that.

Carrier dismissed mythicism for a long time and never took the claim seriously until relatively recently.  One of the main reasons for this was that the scholarly consensus was overwhelmingly in agreement that the man referred to as Jesus Christ did exist historically, even though he is believed to have been quite different from the man we read about in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.  However, when Carrier examined the reasons behind the scholarly consensus, he was surprised to see that there was a lot of fallacious reasoning used including the perpetuation of early Christian scholarly assumptions which were taken for granted to be true by later secular scholars.  Once Carrier confirmed this scholarly background information, he decided that he’d have to start from square one and re-examine the evidence from scratch.

Historicity or Myth?

In this new book, Carrier basically tests two hypotheses against one another; a minimal historicity position against one for minimal mythicism.  The two positions can be described as such:

Minimal Historicity

  1. An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
  2. This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
  3. This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod).

Minimal Mythicism

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.
  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions, and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).
  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on Earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an Earthly depiction of his ordeals.
  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

Religious Trends & Other Background Knowledge

Carrier examined the background knowledge pertaining to the origins of Christianity within the context of the several centuries and cultures surrounding its development, and found that Christianity fit right in to the trend of other Hellenistic mystery religions that had formed prior to Christianity.  Various religions were forming as syncretisms of foreign cult deities and various Hellenistic elements, and in the case of Christianity, it appears to have been a syncretism of Hellenism and Judaism.  There were several other trends as well that were seen with newer religions in the centuries leading up to Christianity, aside from syncretism.  Another trend was the transition from polytheism to monotheism via henotheism, where there could be several gods or demigods (including angels and demons), but that were all subservient to one supreme God.  Yet another trend was that of individualism, where agricultural salvation cults were transformed or retooled into personal salvation cults.  A fourth trend was that of cosmopolitanism, where all races, cultures, and classes were admitted as equals, with fictive kinship (i.e. members were all “brothers”), and where people began to “join” a religion rather than merely being born into it.

Christianity was but one of many other religions that fit in line with these major cultural religious trends of the time.  Additionally, Christianity also shares some fairly specific elements with some earlier as well as contemporary mystery religions.  The concepts of a dying-and-rising Savior god (who is also the son or daughter of a Supreme God) that undergoes a passion or suffering of some kind, often sharing their victory over death by providing an eternal afterlife for their followers, also had a precedent in earlier Hellenistic/Pagan religions and mythologies (e.g. Osiris, Romulus, Zalmoxis, etc.).  Likewise, pseudo-cannibalistic rituals like the Eucharist were practiced by other contemporary and earlier pagan mystery cults whereby the participants would have a communal meal to symbolically eat the flesh and drink the blood of their gods.  Not surprisingly, baptism (whether in water, blood, or other media) was also a practice common to Egyptians, Babylonians, and other pagan cultures (e.g. followers of Mithraism, the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, etc.) for many years before Christianity originated.

So we can see the obvious influence (or at least cultural precedent) that Pagan/Hellenistic religions had on some elements of Christianity during its development.  Obviously there are notable differences between Christianity & other contemporary and prior religions (just as there were many differences between one pagan religion and another) but it goes without saying that the similarities are far more important in analyzing potential influences to Christianity’s origins, and the great number of similarities and evidence of Jewish/Hellenistic/Pagan syncretism is fairly obvious.  So within the cultural and historical context of the geographic regions in mind, Christianity is exactly the kind of religion one would expect to develop.  Likewise, the euhemerization of Jesus Christ, where he was likely taken from myth and only later placed into history, also fits in line with what many cultures did with mythological beings.  In fact, one important element of analysis that Carrier employs is determining where Jesus Christ sits within what is called the Rank-Raglan hero class, which is a selection of hero-type attributes discovered by the scholars Otto Rank and Lord Raglan.  If we make a list of only those that possess at least half of the twenty-two features on the list, there are many mythological beings that meet this criteria (at least fifteen heroes that are well known), but not a single historical person has been shown to make the cut.  Here is the Rank-Raglan hero class to demonstrate the point:

  1. The hero’s mother is a virgin.
  2. His father is a king or the heir of a king.
  3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual.
  4. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
  5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby.
  6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him.
  7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents.
  8. We are told nothing of his childhood.
  9. On reaching manhood, he returns to his future kingdom.
  10. He is crowned, hailed, or becomes king.
  11. He reigns uneventfully (i.e. without wars or national catastrophes.
  12. He prescribes laws.
  13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects.
  14. He is driven from the throne or city.
  15. He meets with a mysterious death.
  16. He dies atop a hill or high place.
  17. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
  18. His body turns up missing.
  19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction)
  20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon, or wild beast).
  21. His parents are related to each other.
  22. He marries a queen  or princess related to his predecessor.

The fifteen people who scored more than half of these twenty-two features (in decreasing order) were:

  1. Oedipus (21 features)
  2. Moses (20 features)
  3. Jesus (20 features)
  4. Theseus (19 features)
  5. Dionysus (19 features)
  6. Romulus (18 features)
  7. Perseus (17 features)
  8. Hercules (17 features)
  9. Zeus (15 features)
  10. Bellerophon (14 features)
  11. Jason (14 features)
  12. Osiris (14 features)
  13. Pelops (13 features)
  14. Asclepius (12 features)
  15. Joseph [i.e. the son of Jacob] (12 feaures)

As we can see, even though the number of real persons in the course of antiquity numbered somewhere in the hundreds of millions, and the number of mythical persons invented within the same time frame only numbered in the thousands at best, every single person on the list is a part of that much smaller group of mythical beings.  Another important point that Carrier makes regarding the people on this list is the fact that “every single one of them was regarded as a historical person and placed in history in narratives written about them.”  That is, they were all eventually euhemerized.  So the probability of Jesus Christ being the only exception on this list, that he alone was a real person in the midst of all others who were mythical, is staggeringly low.  In fact, the gospels of the New Testament look exactly like allegorical fictions, produced to place a Jesus on Earth with mythical tales, miracles, parables and sayings.  Carrier includes this kind of background information, including a literary historical critical examination of the Gospels, in his overall analysis, thus complementing a quite thorough set of background knowledge.

So What are the Odds of an Historical Jesus?

Carrier utilizes a Bayesian probability method for establishing the odds of the two hypotheses mentioned earlier, and this is accomplished by estimating the prior probability of each hypothesis on their own merit, and by noting what the probability of each hypothesis is given the background evidence that exists.  In all cases of probability calculation, an upper and lower range were estimated in order to give a reasonable “best” and “worst” case scenario (with the “best” case being far more generous than is warranted).  After examining both hypotheses against the available evidence, Carrier concluded that the likelihood of the historicity of Jesus Christ (and minimal historicity at that) had the odds of 1 in 3 at best, and around 1 in 13,000 at worst.  In other words, it is very unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed as an actual historical person.  It seems much more likely that Jesus Christ originated as a celestial being and was later euhemerized, that is, placed into history, just as many other mythological beings were in times past.

This analysis in no way proves that Jesus Christ never existed, but it does establish that the burden of proof is now on those trying to defend historicity, as the analysis has indeed shown that historicity (and minimal historicity at that) is overwhelmingly improbable.  What I find most amazing is that so much of history over the last two millennia and so many different cultures across the world have been so greatly affected by the Christian religion, even up to this day.  Not only have these effects likely been based on the false pretenses of a historical Jesus, but almost all followers of the Christian religion throughout that history have been completely unaware of these likely mythical origins.

For those that wonder why we haven’t found large numbers of early Christian texts that support mythicism, one must realize that the early Christian church was looking for dogmatic stability, and this kind of stability is not as likely with a religion based solely on divine revelation (just look at the revelatory origins for Islam and Mormonism).  If the early church didn’t want someone else coming along saying that they also received revelations from Jesus (changing the dogma that was already in place), they would have better success if Jesus was placed in history, because once historicity is established (or assumed), it’s much more difficult to fabricate new and conflicting information.  Just as with the large number of other Christian sects that we know nothing about, the early Christian church that won the battle over these other sects would have chosen to preserve only those texts that supported their views, and in many cases would have destroyed those that did not.

It’s definitely worth marveling over the uncertainty of history, given the potent artificial selection pressures that largely mediated what has survived to this day.  Had we lost just a few more sources of historical information from antiquity, this analysis of Carrier’s wouldn’t have even been a possibility.

Objective Morality & Arguments For God

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Morality is certainly an important facet of the human condition, and as a philosophical topic of such high regard, it clearly deserves critical reflection and a thorough analysis.  It is often the case that when people think of ethics, moral values, and moral duties, religion enters the discussion, specifically in terms of the widely held (although certainly not ubiquitous) belief that religions provide some form of objective foundation for morals and ethics.  The primary concern here regarding morals is determining whether our morals are ontologically objective in some way or another, and even if they are, is it still accurate to describe morality as some kind of an emergent human construct that is malleable and produced by naturalistic socio-biological processes?

One of the most common theistic arguments, commonly referred to as the Divine Command Theory, states that the existence of a God (or many gods for that matter) necessarily provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics.  Furthermore, coinciding with this belief are the necessary supportive beliefs that God exists and that this God is inherently “good”, for if either of these assumptions were not also the case, then the theistic foundation for morals (i.e. what is deemed to be “good”) would be unjustified. The assumption that God exists, and that this God is inherently “good” is based upon yet a few more assumptions, although there is plenty of religious and philosophical contention regarding which assumptions are necessary, let alone which are valid.

Let’s examine some of the arguments that have been used to try and prove the existence of God as well as some arguments used to show that an existent God is necessarily good. After these arguments are examined, I will conclude this post with a brief look at moral objectivity including the most common motivations underlying its proposed existence, the implications of believing in theologically grounded objective morals, and finally, some thoughts about our possible moral future.

Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence basically asserts that every effect has a cause, and thus if the universe began to exist, it too must have had a cause.  It is then proposed that the initial cause is something transcendent from physical reality, something supernatural, or what many would refer to as a God.  We can see that this argument most heavily relies on the initial assumption of causality.  While causality certainly appears to be an attribute of our universe, Hume was correct to point out the problem of induction, whereby, causality itself is not known to exist by a priori reasoning, but rather by a posteriori reasoning, otherwise known as induction.  Because of this, our assumption of causality is not logically grounded, and therefore it is not necessarily true.

Clearly science relies on this assumption of causality as well as on the efficacy of induction, but its predictive power and efficacy only requires that causal relationships hold up most of the time, although perhaps it would be better to say that science only requires that causal relationships hold up with the phenomena it wishes to describe.  It is not a requirement for performing science that everything is causally closed or operating under causal principles.  Even quantum mechanics has shown us acausal properties whereby atomic and subatomic particles exhibit seemingly random behavior with no local hidden variables found.  It may be the case that ontologically speaking, the seemingly random quantum behavior is actually governed by causal processes (albeit with non-local hidden variables), but we’ve found no evidence for such causal processes. So it seems unjustified to assume that causality is necessarily the case, not only because this assumption has been derived from logically uncertain induction alone, but also because within science, specifically within quantum physics, we’ve actually observed what appear to be completely acausal processes.  As such, it is certainly both possible and plausible that the universe arose from acausal processes as well, with this possibility heavily supported by the quantum mechanical principles that underlie it.

To provide a more satisfying explanation for how something could come from nothing (as in some acausal process), one could look at abstract concepts within mathematics for an analogy.  For example, if 0 = (-1) + (1), and “0” is analogous to “nothing”, then couldn’t “nothing” (i.e. “0”) be considered equivalent to the collection of complementary “somethings” (e.g. “-1” and “+1”)?  That is, couldn’t a “0” state have existed prior to the Big Bang, and this produced two universes, say, “-1” and “+1”?  Clearly one could ask how or why the “0” state transformed into anything at all, but if the collection or sum of those things are equivalent to the “0” which one started with, then perhaps the question of how or why is an illogical question to begin with.  Perhaps this ill-formulated question would be analogous to asking how zero can spontaneously give rise to zero.  In any case, quantum mechanical principles certainly defy logic and intuition, and so there’s no reason to suppose that the origins of the universe should be any less illogical or counter-intuitive.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that our conceptions of “nothing” and “something” may not be ontologically accurate or coherent with respect to cosmology and quantum physics, even if we think of those concepts as trivial and seemingly obvious in other domains of knowledge.

Even if the universe was internally causal within its boundaries and thus with every process inside that universe, would that imply that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective, would be bound by the same causal processes?  To give an analogy, imagine that the universe is like a fishbowl, and the outer boundary of the fishbowl is completely opaque and impenetrable.  To all inhabitants inside the fishbowl (e.g. some fish swimming in water), there isn’t anything to suppose except for what exists within the boundary, i.e., the water, the fish, and the laws of physics that govern the motion and physical processes therein (e.g. buoyant or freely floating objects and a certain amount of frictional drag between the fish and the water).  Now it could be that this fishbowl of a universe is itself contained within a much larger environment (e.g. a multi-verse or some meta-space) with physical laws that don’t operate like those within the fishbowl.  For example, the meta-space could be completely dry, where the fishbowl of a universe isn’t itself buoyant or floating in any way, and the universe (when considered as one object) doesn’t experience any frictional drag between itself and the meta-space medium around it.  Due to the opaque surface of the fishbowl, the inhabitants are unaware that the fishbowl itself isn’t floating, just as they are unaware of any of the other foreign physical laws or properties that lay outside of it.  In the same sense, we could be erroneously assuming that the universe itself is a part of some causal process, simply because everything within the universe appears to operate under causal processes.  Thus, it may be the case that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective that we have no access to, is not governed by the laws we see within the universe, be they the laws of time, space, causality, etc.

Even if the universe was caused by something, one can always ask, what caused the cause?  The proposition that a God exists provides no solution to this problem, for we’d then want to know who or what created that God, and this would create an infinite regress.  If one tries to solve the infinite regress by contending that a God has always existed, then we can simplify the explanation further by removing any God from it and simply positing that the universe has always existed.  Even if the Big Bang model within cosmology is correct in some sense, what if the universe has constantly undergone some kind of cycle whereby a Big Bang is preceded by and eventually succeeded by a Big Crunch ad infinitum?  Even if we have an epistemological limitation from ever confirming such a model, for example, if the information of any previous universe is somehow lost with the start of every new cycle, it is certainly a possible model, and one that no longer requires an even more complex entity to explain, such as a God.

Fine-Tuning Argument

It is often claimed by theists that the dimensionless physical constants in our universe appear to be finely tuned such that matter, let alone intelligent life, could exist.  Supposedly, if these physical constants were changed by even a small amount, life as we know it (including the evolution of consciousness) wouldn’t be possible, therefore, the universe was finely tuned by an intelligent designer, or a God.  Furthermore, it is often argued that it has been finely tuned for the eventual evolution of conscious human beings.

One question that can be posed in response to this argument is whether or not the physical constants could be better than they currently are, such that the universe would be even more conducive to matter, life, and eventually intelligent life.  Indeed, it has been determined that the physical constants could be much better than they are, and we can also clearly see that the universe is statistically inhospitable to life, empirically supported by the fact that we have yet to find life elsewhere in the universe.  Statistically, it is still very likely that life exists in many other places throughout the universe, but it certainly doesn’t exist in most places.  Changing the physical constants in just the right way would indeed make life ubiquitous.  So it doesn’t appear that the universe was really finely tuned at all, at least not for any of the reasons that have been supposed.

There have also been other naturalistic theories presented as possible solutions to the fine-tuning argument, such as that of the Multi-verse, whereby we are but one universe living among an extremely large number of other universes (potentially infinite, although not necessarily so), and each universe has slightly different physical constants.  In a way, we could say that a form of natural selection among universes occurs, where the appearance of a finely tuned universe is analogous to the apparent design in biological nature.  We now know that natural selection along with some differentiation mechanisms are all that are necessary to produce the appearance of designed phenotypes.  The same thing could apply to universes, and by the anthropic principle, we can see that those universes that had physical constants within a particular range conducive to life, and eventually intelligent life, would indeed be the type of universe that we are living in such that we can even ask the question.  That is, some universes could be naturally selected to undergo the evolution of consciousness and eventually self-awareness.

There have been other theories presented to account for the appearance of a finely tuned universe such as a quantum superposition of initial conditions during the Big Bang, but they utilize the same basic principles of cosmic differentiation and natural selection, and so need not be mentioned further.  In any case, we can see that there are several possible naturalistic explanations for what appear to be finely tuned physical constants.

An even more important point worth mentioning is the possibility that every combination of physical constants could produce some form of consciousness completely unfathomable to us. We have yet to solve the mind-body problem (if it is indeed solvable), and so without knowing what physical mechanism produces consciousness, are we justified in assuming which processes can not produce consciousness? Even if consciousness as we know it is limited to carbon-based biological organisms with brains, can we justifiably dismiss the possibility of completely different mechanisms and processes that lead to some form of self-regulating “life”, “consciousness”, or “awareness”? Even a form of life or consciousness that does not involve brains, let alone atoms or molecules?  If this is the case, then all universes could have some form of “life” or “consciousness”, even if they would never come close to falling within our limited definition of such concepts.

“God is Good” & The Ontological Argument

The assumption that a God which exists must necessarily be a good God is definitely necessary for one to believe that the existence of that God provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics. So what exactly is the basis for this assumption that a God must necessarily be good?

This assumption has been derived by many from some versions of what is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. This argument, believed to have been first asserted by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the year 1078 CE, basically asserts that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being.  However, if the greatest conceivable being is supposedly limited to the mind, that is, as a mental construct, then an even greater conceivable being is possible, namely one that actually exists outside of the mind as an entity in reality, therefore, God exists in both the mind as well as in reality.  Furthermore, regarding the concept of God being good, some people take this argument further and believe that the greatest conceivable being, that is, a God, also has to be good, since it is believed that the most perfect God, by definition, would deserve to be worshipped, and would only create or command that which is best.  So it follows then by the Ontological Argument, that not only God exists, but also that God must necessarily be good.

One obvious criticism to this argument is the fact that just because one can conceive of something, that act in itself certainly doesn’t make that conception exist in any sense other than as a mental construct.  Even if I can conceive of a perfect object, like a perfect planet that is perfectly spherical for example, this doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to exist.  Even if I limit my conceptions to a perfect God, what if I conceive of two perfect beings, with the assumption that two perfect beings are somehow better than one?  Does this mean that two perfect beings must necessarily exist? How about an infinite number of perfect beings? Isn’t an infinite number of infinitely perfect beings the best conception of all?  If so, why isn’t this conception necessarily existent in reality as well?  Such an assertion would indeed provide proof for polytheism.  One could certainly argue over which conceptions are truly perfect or the best, and thus which should truly produce something necessarily in reality, but regardless, one still hasn’t shown how conceptions alone can lead to realities.  Notice also that the crux of St. Anselm’s argument is dependent on one’s definition of what God is, which leads me to what I believe to be a much more important criticism of the Ontological Argument.

The primary criticism I have with such an argument, or any argument claiming particular attributes of a God for that matter, is the lack of justification for assuming that anyone could actually know anything about a God.  Are we to assume that any attributes at all of a God should necessarily be within the limits of human comprehension?  This assumption of such a potent human attribute of understanding sounds incredibly pretentious, egotistical, and entirely unsubstantiated.  As for the common assumptions about what God is, why would a God necessarily have to be different from, or independent of, the universe itself, as presumably required for an ontologically objective foundation for morality?  Pantheists for example (which can be classified as atheists as far as I’m concerned), assume that the universe itself is God, and thus the universe needed no creator nor anything independent of itself.  Everything in the universe is considered a part of that God and that’s simply all there is to it.

If one takes a leap of faith and assumes that a presumed God not only exists, but is indeed also independent of the universe in some way, aren’t they even less justified in making claims about the attributes of this God?  Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that they’d have an even larger epistemological barrier between themselves and an external, separate, and independent God?  It seems incredibly clear that any claims about what a God would be like are based on the unsubstantiated assumption that humans must necessarily have access to such knowledge, and in order to hold such a view, it seems that one would have to abandon all logic and reasoning.

Euthyphro dilemma

One common challenge to the Divine Command Theory mentioned earlier is the Euthyphro dilemma, whereby one must determine if actions are good simply because a presumed God commands them, or rather that the presumed God commands particular actions because they are good independently of that God.  If the former premise is chosen, this would imply that whatever a God commands, even if humans or others see those commands to be immoral, that they must be moral and good regardless of human criticisms. If the latter premise is chosen, then morality is clearly not dependent on God thus defeating the Divine Command Theory altogether as well as the precept that God is omnipotent (since God in this case wouldn’t ultimately have control over defining what is good and what is not good).  So for those that ascribe to the Divine Command Theory, it appears that they also have to accept that all moral actions (no matter how immoral they may seem to us) are indeed moral simply because a God commands them. One should also contemplate that if a God were theoretically able to modify its commands over time (presumably possible with an omnipotent God), then any theological objective foundation for morals would be malleable and subject to change, thereby reducing, if not defeating, the pragmatic utility of that objective foundation.

There are many people that have absolutely no problem with such Divine Command Theory assumptions, including the many theists that accept and justify the purported acts of their God (or gods), despite there being an enormous number of people outside of those particular religions that see many of those acts as heinous and morally reprehensible (e.g. divinely authorized war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.).  Another problem that exists for the Divine Command Theory is the problem of contradictory divine commands, whereby many different religions each claim to follow divine commands despite the fact that the divine commands of one religion may differ from another.  These differences clearly indicate that even if the Divine Command Theory were true, the fact that people don’t agree on what those divine commands are, and the fact that there is no known method for confirming what the true divine commands are, illustrates that the theory is pragmatically useless as it fails to actually provide any way of knowing what these ontologically objective morals and ethics would be.  In other words, even if morals did have a theologically-based ontologically objective foundation, it appears that we have an epistemological barrier from ever confirming such an objective status.

Argument from Morality for the Existence of God

Some believe in what is often referred to as the “Moral Argument for God” or the “Argument from Morality”, whereby at least one variation asserts that because moral values exist in some sense, it then follows that a God must necessarily exist, since nature on its own appears to be morally neutral, as nature doesn’t appear to have any reason or mechanism for producing moral values from purely physical or materialistic processes. One can also see that by accepting such an assertion, if one wants to believe in the existence of an objective foundation for morals, one need only believe that morals exist, for this supposedly implies that God exists, and it is presumed that an existent God (if one ascribes to the common assumption that “God” must be good as explained earlier) also provides an objective foundation for morals.

Well, what if morals are not actually separate from naturalistic mechanisms and explanations?  While nature may appear to be morally neutral, there is evidence to suggest that what we often call “morality” (at least partially) resulted from natural selection pressures ingraining into humans a tendency for reciprocal altruism among other innate behaviors that have been beneficial to the survival of our highly social species, or at least beneficial in the context of the environment we once lived in prior to our cultural evolution into civilization.  For example, altruism, which can roughly be expressed or represented by the Golden Rule (i.e. do to others what you would have them do to you), is a beneficial behavior for it provides an impulse toward productive cooperation and reciprocal favors between individuals.  Another example of innate morality would be the innate aversion from incest, and this also makes evolutionary sense because incestual reproduction is more likely to produce birth defects due to genetically identical recessive mutations or problematic genes being expressed more often.

These innate tendencies, that is, what we innately feel to be good and bad behaviors are what we often label as “moral” and “immoral” behaviors, respectively.  It is certainly plausible that after our unconscious, pre-conscious, or primitively conscious ancestors evolved into self-aware and more complex conscious beings that were able to culturally transmit information over generations as well as learn new behavior, they also realized that their innate tendencies and feelings were basically fixed attributes of their human nature that couldn’t simply be unlearned or modified culturally.  Without having any idea where these innate tendencies came from, due to a lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology and psychology, humans likely intuitively concluded that moral values (or at least those that are innate) were something supernaturally based or divinely ordained.  It is at least arguable that not all morals that humans ascribe to are necessarily innate, as there also appears to be a malleable moral influence derived from the cultural transmission of certain memes, often aided by our intellectual ability to override certain instincts.  However, I think it would be more accurate to say that our most fundamental goals in life in terms of achieving personal satisfaction (through cultivating virtues and behaving with respect to the known consequences of our actions) constitutes our fundamental morality — and I think that this morality is indeed innate based on evolutionary psychology, biology, etc.

Additionally, a large number of these culturally transmitted behaviors (that we often label as “morals”) often align with our innate moral tendencies anyway, for example, memes promoting racism may be supported by our natural tendency to conveniently lump people into groups and see outsiders as dangerous or threatening.  Or the opposite may occur, for example, when memes promoting racial equality may be supported by our natural tendency for racially-neutral reciprocal altruism.  Clearly what we tend to call “morals” are an amalgam of culturally transmitted ideas as well as innate predispositions, that is, they result from socio-biological or cultural-biological processes — even if there is an innate fundamental morality that serves as an objective foundation for those culturally constructed morals.

Moreover, since other animals (or at least most other animals) do not seem to exhibit what we call moral behavior, it is likely that most humans saw it (and many still continue to see it) as a unique property of humans alone, and thus somehow existing independently of the rest of the nature around them.  One response to this anthropocentric perspective would be to note that if we look at other animals’ behavior, they may just as easily be described as having their own morals based on their own naturally selected innate behavioral tendencies, even if those morals are completely different from our own, and even if those morals are not as intelligently informed due to our more complex brains and self-awareness (most notably in the case of culturally transmitted morals).  Now it may be true that what evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have discovered to be the mechanism or explanation for human morality, as well as how we choose to define that morality naturalistically, is not something that certain people want to accept.  However, that lack of acceptance or lack of comfort doesn’t make it any less true or any less plausible.  It seems that some people simply want morality to have a different kind of ontological status or some level of objectivity, such that they can find more solace in their convictions and also to support their anthropocentric presuppositions.

Objective Morality, Moral Growth, and our Moral Future

While the many arguments for God have been refuted or at least highly challenged, it appears that the actual existence of God isn’t nearly as important as people’s belief in such a God, especially when it comes to concepts such as morality.  Sartre once quoted Dostoyevsky as saying, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.”  I personally feel that this quote illustrates quite eloquently why so many people feel compelled to argue that a God exists (among other reasons), as many seem to feel that without the notion of a God existing, the supposed lack of an objective foundation for morality will lead people to do whatever they want to do, and thus people will no longer ascribe to truly “moral” behavior.  However, as we can clearly see, there are many atheists who behave quite morally relative to the Golden Rule, if we must indeed specify some moral frame of reference.  There are also plenty of people who believe in a God and yet behave in ways that are morally reprehensible relative to the same Golden Rule standard.  The key difference between the atheist and the theist, at least concerning moral objectivity, is that the atheist, by definition, doesn’t believe that any of their behavior has a theologically grounded objective ontological status to justify it, although the atheist may still believe in some type of moral objectivity (likely grounded in a science of morality, which is a view I actually agree with).  On the other hand, the theist does believe in a theological basis for moral objectivity, so if either the atheist or theist behave in ways that you or I would find morally reprehensible, the theist alone would actually feel religiously obligated to do so.

Regarding the concern for a foundation for morals, I think it is fair to say that the innate morality of human beings, that is, those morals that have been ingrained in us for evolutionary reasons (such as altruism), could be described as having a reliable foundation, even if not an ontologically objective one.  On top of this “naturally selected” foundation for morality, we can build upon it by first asking ourselves why we believe moral behavior is important in the first place.  If humans overwhelmingly agree that morality is important for promoting and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (with higher-level conscious creatures prioritized over those with less complex brains and lower-level consciousness), or if they agree with the contra-positive of that proposition, that morality is important for inhibiting and minimizing the suffering of conscious creatures, then one could say that humans at least have a moral axiom that they could ascribe to.  This moral axiom, i.e., that moral behavior is defined as that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures (as proposed by many “Science of Morality” proponents such as Sam Harris), is indeed an axiom that one can further build upon, refine, and implement through the use of epistemologically objective methods in science.  Even if this “moral axiom” doesn’t provide an ontologically objective morality, it has a foundation that is grounded on human intuition, reason, and empirical data.  If one argues that this still isn’t as good as having a theologically grounded ontologically objective morality, then one must realize that the theological assumptions for said moral objectivity have no empirical basis at all.  After all, even if a God does in fact exist, why exactly would a God necessarily provide an objective foundation for morals?  More importantly, as I mentioned earlier, there appears to be no epistemologically objective way to ascertain any ontologically objective morals, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

One can also see that the theist’s position, in terms of which morals to follow, is supposedly fixed, although history has shown us that religions and their morals can change over time, either by modifying the scripture or basic tenets, or by modifying the interpretation of said scripture or basic tenets. Even if moral modifications take place with a religion or its followers, the claim of moral objectivity (and an intentional resistance to change those morals) is often maintained, paradoxically. On the other hand, the atheist’s position on morals is not inherently fixed and thus the atheist is at least possibly amenable to reason in order to modify the morals they ascribe to, with the potential to culturally adapt to a society that increasingly abhors war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.  Whereas the typical theist can not morally adapt to the culturally evolving world around them (at least not consciously or admittedly), even as more evidence and data are obtained pertaining to a better understanding of that world, the typical atheist indeed has these opportunities for moral growth.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, human nature is malleable and will continue to change as our species continues to evolve.  As such, our innate predispositions regarding moral behavior will likely continue to change as it has throughout our evolutionary history.  If we utilize “engineered selection” through the aid of genetic engineering, our moral malleability will be catalyzed and these changes to human nature will precipitate incredibly quickly and with conscious foresight.  Theists are no exception to evolution, and thus they will continue to evolve as well, and as a result their innate morality will also be subject to change.  Any changes that do occur to human nature will also likely affect which memes are culturally transmitted (including memes pertaining to morality) and thus morality will likely continue to be a dynamic amalgam of both biological and cultural influences.  So despite the theistic fight for an objective foundation for morality, it appears that the complex interplay between evolution and culture that led to theism in the first place will continue to change, and the false idea of any ontologically objective foundation for morality existing will likely continue to dissipate.

History has shown us that reason as well as our innate drive for reciprocal altruism is all we need in order to behave in ways that adhere to the Golden Rule (or to some other moral axiom that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures).  Reason and altruism have also given us the capability of adapting our morals as we learn more about our species and the consequences of our actions. These assets, combined with a genetically malleable human nature will likely lead us to new moral heights over time. In the mean time, we have reason and an innate drive for altruism to morally guide us. It should be recognized that some religions which profess the existence of a God and an objective morality also abide by some altruistic principles, but many of them do not (or do so inconsistently), and when they do, they are likely driven by our innate altruism anyway. However, it takes belief in a God and its objective foundation for morality to most effectively justify behaving in any way imaginable, often in ways that negate both reason and our instinctual drive for altruism, and often reinforced by the temptation of eternal reward and the threat of eternal damnation. In any case, the belief in moral objectivity (or more specifically moral absolutes), let alone the belief in theologically grounded moral objectivity or absolutism, appears to be a potentially dangerous one.