Relics

So, I saw this sign outside a church last week.
I thought that had more to do with the Church of Scientology.
I wasn’t familiar with that particular passage, so I decided to look it up. I was more than a little shocked at what I found:

Call him a relic, call him what you will.

Matthew 25:14-15: Just take those old records off the shelf. I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself.

You know, he did hang out with a prostitute...

Matthew 25:16-17: Today’s music ain’t got the same soul. I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll.

Jesus was the original rock 'n' roller!

Matthew 25: 18-21: Don’t try to take me to a disco. You’ll never even get me out on the floor. In ten minutes, I’ll be late for the door. I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll.

Matthew 25: 22-30: Still like that old time rock ‘n’ roll. That kind of music just soothes the soul. I reminisce about the days of old, with that old time rock ‘n’ roll. [Guitar solo].

And, just for kicks:

Prince of Peace

Matthew 10:34: Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword…

…Specifically, a sweet-ass katana.

Salvation on Sale

So, I was walking through Wal-Mart with Jon a month or so ago. As usual, I dragged him through the toy aisles. After looking at various sorts of Transformers, we kind of wandered aimlessly into the clearance section. There usually isn’t anything of note in that den of iniquity, but that day was a special day. That day I found something that called out to me, a purchase that would be more worth the fifteen dollars than most anything I’d bought before or since…

I hope I can convince him to heal my Stretch Armstrong.
TALKING JESUS ACTION FIGURE!
I justified the purchase by saying that it would save some poor kid from getting this instead of Starscream for Christmas from a well-meaning relative, but I was sold the moment I saw that they needed to include the “God’s Son” as a caption. I suppose it was necessary to distinguish this Jesus from “Jesus: Heroic Mechanical Warrior” and “Jesus: A Real American Hero,” which I’m pretty sure is Mormon Jesus.

So, I brought the Jesus figure home and immediately opened him up.
The Lord runs on button cells!
He’s not as well-articulated as I would have liked–just a swivel joint for the head, so he can neither look up to the heavens nor down at the supplicants. Nor does he have individually-poseable fingers and thumbs, just forefinger and the rest of the hand, so Jesus can neither do the “Buddy Christ” pose nor throw up the horns. And I hesitate to think what he might do for Mary Magdalene if he can’t rock her.

He’s a little sparse on the accessories–he comes with pretty much what you see in the picture: robe, sandals, rope-belt, and that stylish brown sash. It’s a good thing that this Jesus is so buff, because he’s not wearing anything under those robes.
Burt Reynolds died for your sins!
That’s right, ladies, this is Commando Jesus. Unlike Chocolate Jesus,” this savior is not anatomically correct. He’s also not made of delicious chocolate. Arguably, I suppose you could say that he’s simply wearing featureless white briefs, but since briefs didn’t exist in the first century C.E., I prefer to think that he’s simply blank below the belt.

As you might guess, Jesus comes packaged with a book. No, not the book you might expect. This book:
Oh, it's My First Jefferson Bible!
It’s a tiny paperback with four pages of really watered-down bits of scripture, which strangely enough happen to be a transcript of what Jesus says. That’s right, kids, when you press the button on his back, Jesus says one of three action phrases! There’s:

John 3:16: God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to pay for sin so that whoever believes in him [sic] may not be punished but have everlasting life.

And:

Mark 12:30: Love God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind and with all of your strength.

And:

Mark 12:31: Love others as much as you love yourself.

And finally:

I am Jesus. I am the Son of God. I want to tell you a very special story about a day that I spent sitting on the side of a mountain teaching and helping many people. There were so many people there that day with me. And, when it started to get late, I knew that the people must be hungry. I wanted to feed everyone, but I didn’t have any money. There was a young boy nearby with five loaves of bread and two fish. It wasn’t enough food to feed so many people. But I took the bread and fish and [sic] I said a blessing over it. Then I handed out the food to all of the people. Everybody ate and ate, and there was plenty of food to go around. Even after everyone ate so much, we still had enough food left over to fill 12 baskets. When all the people saw this miracle, they were very excited! But they did not know I was the Son of God or that I was sent to save them.

Yeah, apparently the folks who made this particular figure didn’t quite understand that the “talking” of talking toys is supposed to be short and to the point, not over a minute long. Moreover, why is Jesus speaking in the third person? And how does he know what the book names and chapter numbers are, when those were decided centuries later? Chalk it up to divine mystery, I suppose. I’m just thankful that pressing the button a second time shuts him up. Incidentally, the booklet also contains some discussion questions, which I think might be fun for a future post.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, this purchase led directly to quite a bit of hilarity and blasphemy, and will continue to do so as long as I keep coming up with ideas. In the meantime, though, Jesus is going to catch up on a little light reading.
Next he's going to read 'There's a Monster at the End of this Book.'

Random thoughts, late at night

One of the most ubiquitous arguments I hear from theists–it pops up at least once or twice a month on The Atheist Experience, for instance, is “How can you look at the trees, flowers, and sunsets, and say there is no God?” It’s phrased in a few different ways, but for some reason “trees” are always mentioned, with sunset being a close second, as though those were the best possible evidence for the existence of the divine. Which is kind of like the people who talk as though sliced bread were the pinnacle of human achievement.

Naturally, the argument–such as it is–is riddled with fallacies. But tonight a parallel argument occurred to me:
How can you look at shoes, cookies, and Christmas toys, and say there are no Elves?

Thoughts?

Creationism in my Classroom

I’m going to take a brief break from politics, morality, and not blogging about GenCon to actually blog about something that happened to me a couple of weeks back. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve started student teaching. At this point, I feel like I ought to step up the anonymity; I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy, nor do I want to make myself a pariah. So excuse me if I’m a bit vague; it’s intentional. Also, if it becomes necessary, I may invoke some pseudonyms. Buffy-related ones, no doubt.

Today, a substitute teacher was filling in for my mentor teacher. We’ll call him Mr. Ted. He’s well-known and well-liked by the students. I knew he was a local pastor of some flavor, and whatever, he’s a nice guy and it’s a small midwestern town. I’m not an idiot; I know what’s to be expected.

I did the bulk of the instruction, which mostly consisted of following my mentor teacher’s plans and corralling the unruly high schoolers, while Mr. Ted read some preachery book and helped out as necessary. Now, I figure this is well within his legal rights; I know teachers are allowed to wear cross or Star of David necklaces and other religious paraphernalia, and I would be surprised if they’d be barred from reading religious materials in the classroom. Still, and maybe it’s just because I don’t want to rock the boat or bring unnecessary complications into my life, I wouldn’t sit down and read The God Delusion or Atheism: The Case Against God or something during free time in the classroom. For me, that’d be at least one step too close to endorsing a religious position while acting in the capacity of an authority figure under the state’s employ. But I’m the kind of person who puts a lot of thought and concern into that sort of thing, and one of the privileges of being in the majority is that you really don’t have to. My views and reading materials are more likely to cause problems and offend my students than Mr. Ted’s. And that’s not where Mr. Ted and I ran into trouble; other than the fact that it caused me to mull over the ethical question of what a teacher ought to be able to read in a public school classroom, I didn’t have any qualms about Mr. Ted’s reading material.

No, the real situation is a little more depressing, and a lot closer to illegal. The bell rang to dismiss my fourth-hour class, which is the one right before my lunch break. One of my students, a quiet girl who we’ll call Faith, stayed behind to chat with Mr. Ted. I was busy picking stuff up and packing up so I could go eat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what they were talking about halfway across the room.

That is, until I caught a snippet of Faith saying “…really believes we came from monkeys.” That gave me some pause, and the next thing I heard was Mr. Ted saying something about how evolution could be “scientifically disproven,” but “they” wouldn’t let it get taught in the classrooms. This, sadly, confirmed that they were having precisely the conversation I feared they were having.

Faith said something along the lines of “he told us” (and by “he,” I assume she meant her Biology teacher) and then launched into a pretty decent explanation of Darwin’s finches. It was slightly muddled, as you might expect from an average high school student, but she definitely had a handle on the concepts. Mr. Ted interrupted her, literally handwaving (as I recall) and gave the standard line–changes, but no they can’t change between species.

At this point, I chime in. “Actually, they’ve observed speciation in the laboratory,” or something to that effect. I’ll be honest here in saying that while I remember broad swaths of the conversation, I have very little idea what was said in what order. That’s not a matter of it being over a week since the event occurred; even immediately after the conversation, I realized that I didn’t know the details. More on the reasons for that in a moment. Anyway, I’m going to do my best to present things as a rough progression, but I guarantee it’s not particularly accurate.

At this point, I think, is when I looked directly at Faith and suggested that she go to TalkOrigins.org, which can answer any and all questions she has about biological evolution.

Here, I think, is where Mr. Ted upped the ante–no longer was it just that some scientists had scientifically disproved evolution, but he has a friend who is a “deep scientist,” who says he can scientifically disprove evolution. I left aside the question about what a “deep scientist” was (he said it like you might say “deep undercover”) and asked instead what field his friend worked in. Mr. Ted replied (after what I recall as a brief hesitation) that he was a biologist. I asked where his disproof has been published; Mr. Ted said that “they” won’t let him.

If I’d had a moment or two more to think, I might have mentioned that the Institute of Creation Research has a journal, the Discovery Institute has publications, why couldn’t his “scientist friend” go to one of them? Certainly they’d be open to his contributions. Instead, I turned up the sarcasm and said “Yes, because science is so rigid and dogmatic,” with emphasis on the last word. Mr. Ted shook his said, and said something that sounded like “I wish…” which I assumed was going toward “I wish it weren’t, but…”

I cut him off at the pass, and said that if someone could disprove evolution, they’d win a Nobel Prize, because it would open up vast new lines of research. If they managed to prove what I’m sure Mr. Ted believes, they’d be up for a certain million dollar prize as well.

I’m not entirely certain where the discussion went right then. Somehow, Mr. Ted started giving his perspective on evolution. “According to evolution [or something like that], with these billions of years that are supposed to have happened, but there’s no proof for–“

I interjected, “which can be shown through multiple lines of evidence.”

He continued, “we should see all kinds of different [species, variations, or something along those lines], and we don’t.” I thought of the vast tapestry of life, the tens (or hundreds) of millions of different known species, with all their subtle differences, tied to one another by the threads of common ancestry and shared genetics, and wondered how anyone could say such a myopically ignorant thing. Unfortunately, my only response was an incredulous “Yes we do!” He then (slightly stammering) reiterated the point about evolution not being able to make new species. If I’d had time to think, or if I’d remembered (or if I’d memorized the Index to Creationist Claims) I might have mentioned the new species of mosquito that evolved in the London Underground, or Helacyton gartleri or something; instead, I said “just recently, in an experiment, bacteria–E. coli bacteria–evolved the ability to digest citrate” (referencing, of course, Richard Lenski’s long-term E. coli experiment). To be quite honest, I think I was wrong that that’s an instance of speciation in the laboratory, but I’m also not entirely sure how they define “species” at the level of unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually.

I want to say that this is where Mr. Ted said “Well, I don’t think that’s the case,” or something along those lines. I know my response to that was along the lines of “you can think whatever you want, but the facts say you’re wrong.” Mr. Ted said “that’s what I’m talking about–scientific facts.” He then said something about DNA, though it wasn’t even a complete thought. If he’d continued on that, I’m not sure where I would have gone. Should I explain that DNA was a fantastic test of evolutionary theory, and could have refuted it when it was discovered, but instead has supported the theory and changed the face of evolutionary science by providing the mechanisms of mutation and evolution, and by giving us a much clearer and more solid picture of how organisms are related to one another? Should I bring up Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current evangelical Christian, who says that the DNA evidence alone proves common descent? Should I talk about specific things, like the broken vitamin-C-producing gene that helps prove common ancestry between humans and other primates?

Thankfully (or not) Mr. Ted spared me the choice, instead saying (something like), “just watch ‘Expelled.'” If I’d had another two seconds to think, I would have said “sorry, I don’t believe everything I see in movies,” or something to that effect. Instead, I was just floored–I honestly couldn’t believe there was anyone who wouldn’t have seen through the blatant tactics and idiocy of that film. So I sputtered “watch ‘Expelled’? Oh, I’ll watch ‘Expelled’.” It was not the highlight of my debate career. I moved on, “‘Expelled’ is full of lies, distortions, and misinformation,” or something to that effect. Mr. Ted just sighed or chuckled or sighckled or something, and I think he said something dismissive. That’s about when he left the room.

Shortly thereafter, Faith came up to me. I think she was there the whole time, and I have no idea how that all played out to her. She asked me “so, are you a science teacher, or…” or something to that effect–a legitimate question, since I’m teaching English. I explained that my undergraduate degree was in English and Physics, and that I’d be certified to teach English and all the high school sciences. I think that was met with a nodding “oh,” and she more or less left the room.

I continued gathering my things in order to go on my now-abbreviated lunch. I shut the door when I left the classroom, and passed Mr. Ted in the hallway. In the spirit of having to work with him for another three hours, I wished him a good lunch, and went to get my things from the teachers’ lounge. When I passed the classroom again, I noticed the door was open. I looked in to see Mr. Ted, eating his sandwich at the desk, alone in the dark.

In terms of education, I’m not sure how successful I was. I certainly don’t think I made Mr. Ted think at all, but at least I gave Faith an alternate perspective and a good resource for her questions. The fact that she asked about my background seemed positive to me, though I don’t think I’d suggest that it was a victory for science and reason. She’s quiet, so I don’t see much difference in her conduct toward me since then, but she also doesn’t seem to think I’m the godless devil incarnate.

What I learned from the experience, though, was why I don’t generally participate in face-to-face arguments of this sort. I was shaking–full-body shaking–from just a few moments into the discussion, and throughout most of my lunch period thereafter. Part of it was nervousness–it was my first week as a teacher in that district; I had no idea (and still have pretty much no idea) what the general consensus was regarding evolution and science and whatnot, nor did I have any idea what Mr. Ted might say to my colleagues while I was out to lunch. I didn’t know what impression this would make on Faith, or what she might thereafter say to her classmates. I don’t know how quickly they would make the equivocation of “evolutionist” and “atheist” in this small town, nor do I know what that would do to my relationship with my mentor teacher and my supervisor, nor do I know how that might affect my evaluation and job prospects. Sure, it’s entirely possible that I could be totally open and honest with my colleagues and suffer no ill effects, but I’d rather do so when I’m operating as an employee rather than a student. I needed to walk the line of science education, to not be dismissive of the beliefs that Mr. Ted and Faith likely shared (since that would no doubt sink my credibility), while also explaining that the evidence disagreed with their faith. I had to present myself as knowledgeable on a subject that is not the focus of my expertise, while also trying not to come off as the stereotypical condescending, arrogant atheist scientist boogieman.

More than that, I was on the spot; normally when I have arguments like this one, I can walk away, get a sandwich, do research, mull over what I’ve written and change it if necessary, link to sources, respond point-by-point, and generally take precisely as much time as I want to draft a response to the average asinine woo or creationist or whatever. I’m used to point-by-point debates without real time constraints, not face-to-face, heat of the moment debates. Debating by text loses a lot of the inflection and emphasis that help convey meaning in normal communication, but I’ll take it any day over the alternative; the parameters, such as they are, ensure a more honest exchange and allow for a much easier presentation of research and evidence. There’s a reason that the Gish Gallop is more useful face-to-face than online: you can’t baffle the audience with bullshit when your opponent has the ability to clean it up as thoroughly as you toss it out. I can’t pull up all the information to respond to creationist claims at a moment’s notice out of my memory with full citations, but I can do it on Google.

The other thing that feeds into that is that I was angry, and desperately trying to hide it (to be honest, I think the nervousness kind of outweighed it anyway). I’ve gotten angry in debates before, but like I said above, I’ve usually got the option of standing up and walking away from the computer. I can cool off for as long as I want, then return to the discussion when my demeanor is more cool and rational. But I couldn’t exactly walk away from Mr. Ted and Faith, any more than I could let him spread his arrogant ignorance without opposition. It upset me to see a schoolteacher flaunting the Constitution and decades of case law in order to promote a worldview that’s as thoroughly debunked as geocentrism or phlogiston. It made me angry that he apparently thought nothing of flatly dismissing and contradicting the teaching of a colleague in the building, when he has no expertise on the subject. It made me angry to think that it’s the twenty-first damn century, and we’re still beating the dessicated corpse of an argument that was settled in the nineteenth. And yet, if I’d lost my cool, I’d have lost the argument.

I’m not sure what to think about the whole event. I certainly don’t think it was a victory for science and reason, but I’m glad I stood up and said my piece. If nothing else, I refused to let misinformation go unchallenged, so that’s something.

Incidentally, Mr. Ted’s subbing for my class again on Wednesday. I’ve taken over the teaching, so he shouldn’t be doing much, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Regardless, I’m going to bone up a bit on speciation.

They found our lack of faith disturbing

Continuing my convention report, I figured I’d briefly mention our encounters with fundies over the course of the weekend. Akusai wrote about it here (and here’s his first convention post), but I’m writing this before I read that, so my perspective isn’t tainted by anything except standard two-weeks-later memory loss.

According to the con-veterans, fundies at GenCon is a new phenonmenon this year. In any case, they were out in Force (pun intended, as you’ll see shortly). Sadly, the first one we encountered was probably the most entertaining, although the second set could have been fun if we’d been able to stick around.

So, I may be a little off on the whole timeline of the situation, but I think the first fundie was on Friday. We were walking out of the convention center toward either the parking garage or Video Games Live, and there was a guy on the corner in a Hard Rock Cafe: Sydney t-shirt handing out what looked like business cards. I took one and glanced at it:Holy Sith!And naturally I assumed it was for some store or new gaming system or something. I mean, it’s a convention, and it was a Star Wars business card; such things are a dime a dozen.

At some point, though, I turned it over. The giant wall of text was the first tip-off that something was wonky. Two sentences in, I made some sacred and profane exclamation, and showed it to the rest of the group. To those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, “every painting needs a painter” is like a foghorn screaming “Ray Comfort”! The unconnected, back-and-forth non sequitur nature of the text, the list of rapid-fire asinine apologetics, and the way it violated copyrights to make its point all confirmed it in my mind. We had just been evangelized by one of Ray Comfort’s cronies. The website confirms (at the very least) that “Redeemed Scoundrels” takes inspiration from Comfort’s Living Waters Ministries.

So, as luck would have it, we had made a wrong turn and had to pass by our evangelist pal (heretofore referred to as “Smiley,” due to his perpetual, implacable, totally blank ear-to-ear grin) again. He tried to hand me a second card, and I just brandished the first and said “Ray Comfort? Really? Really? Is that the best you’ve got?” I shook my head and we walked to the corner.

Smiley followed us after a few moments and asked me “How do you know Ray Comfort?” I replied “Vapidity and insipidity of that magnitude can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the planet.” Note that the phrase I was looking for at the beginning was “arrogant ignorance”–not that what I said and many things besides aren’t equally true. Smiley was silent, his shit-eating grin totally unfazed. I just kind of looked at him, waiting for a response. Eventually Akusai said (something along the lines of) “We’re saying he’s kind of a shithead.”

At about that point, the traffic light changed and we began to cross the street. Akusai shouted back (again, something including but not limited to) “God doesn’t exist, and you can take that to the bank!” About another third of the way through the crosswalk, Smiley shouted a lame “Every painting needs a painter!” And we just laughed.

Somewhere in all that, or it may have even been later that day, Jason (one of our group) was somehow singled out to receive a pamphlet and a Book of Mark from a Jew for Jesus. The pamphlet was pretty funny–it had clearly been made in the very early ’90s, and referenced the Star Wars films, Burton’s Batman movies, Home Alone, and the Alien series, all as sequels that would pale in comparison to the second coming. It’s interesting how pure serendipity masked its total irrelevance, since there have been recent Star Wars, Batman, and Alien sequels. Sadly for our Messianic Semite pal, Home Alone still dates the piece. We didn’t have much contact with the Jew for Jesus, and the pamphlet wasn’t extreme enough to warrant extended blog attention; still, I’m not sure I understand what exactly the Jew for Jesus thing is. Are they just Christians who keep kosher, or what? What makes them not Christians?

We came out of Video Games Live later that night, and we noticed that a bunch of apocalyptic preachers had set up shop on the street corner, complete with a giant cross with a purple loincloth draped over it. I didn’t hear much beyond the usual end times clich├ęs–something about this being the 40th generation or whatever the prophecy is. It would have been nice to stick around and mess with them, but we were all pretty tired by that point.

The remainder of the weekend provided us with only two more examples. First, on the same street corner as Smiley, there was a kid dressed in goth-punk garb, silently handing out the Star Wars cards. I took a second one in passing, just in case, and told him “that’s some real half-assed evangelism there. Congratulations.” He didn’t react much, and we didn’t see him again.

Finally, after the gothtastic White Wolf party, we were all riding home in Akusai’s car. We passed by a theater where signs proclaimed that Bill Maher was performing. And outside the theater? A candlelight vigil. Oh, how I wish we could have participated in that.

Coming in the next day or two, I’ll finish stuff off with a brief recap of the White Wolf party (we saw the Prime Minister!) and a sentence-by-sentence evisceration of the Sith card. Hokey religions and ancient apologetics are no substitute for a good argument at your side.

A Toast to the Happy Couple

A few months back, a friend and co-worker of mine told me about a ceremony she was going to attend, where she (and others) would become metaphorical “brides of Christ.”
I held my tongue at the time (and boy, was that difficult), but here for your reading pleasure is an incomplete list of replies I thought of:

  • Must be a hell of a pre-nup.
  • So if you get divorced, does that mean you get half of his stuff?
  • When you consummate the marriage, is it regular sex or a foursome?
  • Where’s the honeymoon?
  • So will the reception have an open bar, or just shot glasses of water?
  • Allowing ancient zombies to marry is a threat to traditional marriage.
  • Have you started talking about kids yet?
  • I’ll bet that first dinner with the parents was awkward.
  • When you dance at the reception, will you still have to leave room for him?
  • What did he do for his bachelor party?

Feel free to add your own!

Carnival of the Godless #92

The new Carnival of the Godless is up at Jyunri Kankei. It’s not limerick-themed, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this one, and a new CotG is as good an excuse as any. You may have no doubt that it’s hideously offensive.

Confusion wracked Jesus’s soul
He journaled these thoughts on a scroll:
“I don’t think I’m gay
But I came out today
And asked Tom to finger my hole.”

Have you found Jesus?

If only the search for Jesus was accompanied by Rockapella...So, I recently got this comment from Heng on my post about a different stupid Christian film, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

Lee Strobel has been a born again Christian since 1981, so any attempt to masquerade as a skeptic is an obvious farce. But what interests me about your blog Tom, is why you believe Jesus existed. You aren’t the only skeptic or atheist to (Dawkins is another), but on what evidence is this based on? There are no contemporary references to Jesus, and outside of the Bible, which we know to be unreliable anyway, there is very scant record of him at all. This for a guy who was famous (even if you discount all miracles). No one who met him bothered to write anything down at the time? Did they run out of ink or feathers?

I was going to respond to it in the comments, but my response would have been really long, and it’s good post fodder. So, why do I believe in Jesus?

Well, the short answer is that I don’t. That’s also an inaccurate answer. Jesus is a fairly complicated question.

If we’re talking about the Jesus of the Bible–a god-man who traveled around performing miracles, healing people, and killing innocent fig trees, until his death (but he got better)–then I absolutely disbelieve that. That’s an incredibly extraordinary claim, and it would take incredibly extraordinary evidence to justify belief in that.

And then there’s the problem of all the contradictions, both internal and external, in the Biblical account of Jesus. The Gospels can’t seem to agree on even the broad details, including where and when he was born. The massacre of infants under Herod almost certainly didn’t happen; we have fairly detailed biographies of Herod’s life, written by his critics, and yet no one mentions a campaign to slaughter babies. The various actions of Pilate and the Pharisees seem to be at odds with reality, from what I understand, as well.

But a historical Jesus? The idea that there was an itinerant preacher in the first century who got a bunch of Jewish followers to believe that he was the Messiah, well, that’s not such an extraordinary claim. In fact, it’s a downright ordinary claim. We know that such preachers and cults were fairly common at the time. We know from both the past and the present how easy it is for cults to develop, especially as off-shoots of established religions (FLDS, anyone?). It wouldn’t take much evidence for me to believe that there was a Jesus.

And what about that evidence? Well, it’s a good thing that it wouldn’t take much, because there isn’t much. Josephus, as we all know, is garbage. What little there is on Jesus is almost certainly forged. What’s left is more about the Christians and what they believed, not what actually happened. And even that was written at least a century after the events it purportedly chronicles. The Gospels are no better, with their vague, obviously-slanted stories, written decades after the fact. That pretty much leaves some of the Pauline epistles, which really don’t talk much about Jesus at all. In fact, about the best evidence anyone has for the existence of Jesus is that Paul casually mentions meeting James, Jesus’s brother, in Galatians. Here’s the relevant passage, from Galatians 1:16-19:

1:16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
1:17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

This throwaway casual reference of meeting his alleged relative is about as good as it gets for proving that Jesus really existed. The Pauline epistles aren’t quite contemporary–Wikipedia puts the date of authorship somewhere between 49 and 58 C.E.–but that’s about as close as it gets for sources that mention Jesus.

But is that enough to justify believing in the guy? It’s certainly possible that Paul is lying, or had been lied to, and that’s something to consider. It’s also possible that he met up with the brother of Jesus. Which side of that question I tended to believe was the subject of a lot of personal consideration a few months back, after Bart Ehrman was interviewed on Reginald Finley’s “Infidel Guy” podcast.

Up until then, I’d been listening for months to Robert M. Price’s “Bible Geek” shows, which Reggie also had a hand in making. Bob’s a very knowledgeable guy about a great many things, and despite my initial skepticism at the conclusions of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” he had me passively convinced that Jesus was a purely mythical construction. If I’d thought about it hard, or if I’d been asked, I would have expressed my skeptical position; but I pretty much accepted everything Bob said.

I was psyched when I saw that Ehrman was going to be on IG, since I’d absolutely loved “Misquoting Jesus,” enough that I bought two more of his books (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading). Bart’s the one who brought up the quote in Galatians, which I’d never heard about before. I paused the podcast halfway through his argument with Reggie, and didn’t pick it up again for weeks.

My initial inclination was that Ehrman was wrong, and I was disappointed that I’d thought so highly of him. Thinking a little more critically about the situation, however, led me to recall why I thought so highly of him (because he’s clearly the type of person who knows the evidence and follows it), and why I had come to accept Price’s assessment of the situation (he was the only scholar I was exposed to). I think Ehrman was a little casual in dismissing the credibility of the Jesus Myth proponents, but I was equally cavalier in accepting uncritically their position.

At the very least, that bit in Galatians amounts to an anomaly which deserves further examination, and would be explained in any good theory about Jesus’s existence. I think the most parsimonious explanation, in this case, is that Paul wrote accurately, and met James, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of a moderately apocalyptic Jewish messianic cult. That, I think requires the fewest unexplained quantities.

I think, beyond that, the story is wildly exaggerated, that much (if not all) of what is attributed to Jesus was probably not done or said by him, that he clearly wasn’t as important at the time as his followers would have liked to believe (hence his exclusion from the contemporary records–his followers, after all, would have been almost universally illiterate, and who else would have cared to mention him?), and that the whole tale is (clearly) written to conform to a commonplace hero archetype and common messianic prophecies.

That seems to be the most likely chain of events, but I’m certainly willing to entertain other hypotheses and evidence. It’s not so much that I believe he existed, that I actually spend any effort on positive belief, but I accept the “Jesus existed” hypothesis as, from my perspective, the one which best satisfies Occam’s Razor. I accept the claim of Jesus’s existence, based on its utter ordinariness and the (scant, circumstantial) evidence to support it. If better evidence or a better hypothesis rolls along, I’ll accept that instead. And as far as I see, none of this lends any credibility to the Christian account of things.

I really wish there were some decent evidence one way or another; either way, I think it would actually make things less complicated.

Framed

I haven’t before really taken sides in this whole “framing” debate, which crops up occasionally on the ScienceBlogs. On one side, you have folks like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet calling for more competent framing of the science debates, calling for more outreach and softer language so as to get moderate Christians on the side of science and reason, calling for people to stop connecting science with atheism so strongly. On the other side, you have folks like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are very successful at getting their message out to the public, and who do their best to promote science and atheism to the masses.

Up ’til this point, I thought I could see the value in the framers’ side of things, but that they woefully misunderstood what Myers and Dawkins were trying to accomplish. Myers and Dawkins are working not only to promote science, but to (to borrow Dawkins’ phrasing) raise consciousness about religion and promote positive atheism. They’re doing darn good jobs on all fronts, from my perspective, and I think each front is necessary and has its utility.

Science does need better promotion; it seems to me that we’ve been somewhat adrift since Carl Sagan died and Stephen Hawking left the media spotlight. I’m not sure why Neil DeGrasse Tyson hasn’t completely overtaken that role, since he certainly seems suited and qualified, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with the current climate in the United States and prevailing attitudes regarding science and religion. People aren’t as excited about astronomy and NASA as they ought to be, and the only science that seems to make it to the front pages is what’s on the front lines against religion and conservatism: environmental science and biology. The pendulum has swung precisely toward Richard Dawkins, and his recent releases have been expertly timed to take advantage of the current climate.

Religion does need to be booted out of its privileged place in our social discourse. It does absolutely need to be opened up to question and criticism, and that need is underscored by its current role in American politics. We have a President who consults far-right Christian leaders on a weekly basis with regard to national policy, we have a bevy of political programs designed to promote specific religious organizations, and we have a concerted effort on all fronts to legislate conservative religious morals over people who don’t agree. Religious groups are fighting tooth and nail against education, science, and progress in general, and in many places they’re winning. If religion were the personal thing that it ought to be, this wouldn’t be a problem. When it inserts itself into the public sphere, when it tries to create policies that affect the rest of us, then it can no longer enjoy the untouchable place it might retain as a private process. Religionists can’t have it both ways; they can’t have their personal, private, untouchable convictions and also try to impose those convictions over the rest of us. Something has to give, and since it doesn’t look like the religion-genie is going back into its bottle, then it must be opened up to question, critique, and ridicule.

And positive atheism does need to be promoted. How many of us have been or have known the person who says “I didn’t know there was anyone else who thought the same way”? The phrase is becoming less common, and that’s largely due to the easy availability of atheist thought through popular books and blogs. Atheism is moving from a shameful secret to an open movement, and that is a good thing for atheists, and for religious freedom in general.

So, it seemed to me that the framers either neglected to note that Myers’ and Dawkins’ goals were more widespread than their own, or that they did not see the value in the latter two goals, only that they seemed to undermine the first. They were talking past one another, because neither side seemed to realize what the other’s goals were. And so I more or less ignored the debate, having no particular stake in either side.

But things have somewhat exploded following the Expelled-from-Expelled debacle, and it’s become increasingly clear that there’s something wrong on the framing side of things.

First, we have a chorus of people claiming that this controversy helps Expelled‘s exposure, and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” or something. The existence of bad publicity is something of a matter for debate; both sides in this argument have brought up the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” though I think that pretty much proves the old adage wrong. I can see how this increased exposure might be beneficial for Expelled, but I think the overwhelmingly bad reviews might counteract some of that.

And it’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t the first time the film has gotten bad press in the New York Times, though some seem to think it is. For the scientists involved to get a chance to rebut the movie’s claims and call out the producers for obvious dishonesty and hypocrisy even before the film’s limited opening seems like a good thing for our side.

Anyway, Matt Nisbet wrote a screed (quoted here) telling Dawkins and Myers to “Lay low and let others do the talking” as Expelled hits theaters, and to defer any questions or comments to scientists more congenial to religion. He explicitly compares them to Samantha Powers and Geraldine Ferraro, as though either of them has specifically insulted someone on the other side (or worse, made explicitly racist comments) and should step down. He calls for other people to “play the role of communicator” of science, apparently unconscious of why Dawkins and Myers might be considered communicators of science (i.e., because they communicate effectively and people like their message enough to read it widely, not because of any top-down appointment), and apparently ignorant of the fact that Myers and Dawkins are speaking out because Myers and Dawkins specifically appear in the film. What message would it send if Myers and Dawkins sat out the movie’s release and subsequent commentary? I know just how the Creobots would frame it–that PZ and Dawkins were ashamed that they’d been exposed for the Big Science conspirators they were, that the claims in the film hit too close to home, that they were scared to admit that the Creationists were right. Silence from the participants would only help the message of Expelled.

PZ, understandably, replied, saying “fuck you very much.” I thought it was apropos. Short, terse, and dismissive, precisely what such a vapid sentiment warranted.

So the new chorus began, about how PZ was being impolite and uncivil, that he was acting like a spoiled child.

And then there’s this, which is fucking ridiculous. Somehow, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney’s blog partner, can say with a straight face that PZ should “mind his manners” and “That kind of language and reaction is simply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,” and then go on to accuse him of not acting like an adult, of being an adolescent. Mooney echoes the sentiments in the comment thread.

Really? Really? You people are actually going to cry foul at PZ because he used a naughty word? And you call him the adolescent? Last I checked, adults were supposed to be mature enough to handle the use of swear words. I was under the impression that adults recognized that words are words, regardless of how many letters they contain, and that all words were useful in certain contexts. I thought that adults could recognize that whether or not one uses so-called “bad words,” it’s the substance of one’s statement that matters.

That the Framing proponents would attack PZ for breaking some kind of blogosphere no-profanity rule smacks of missing just about every possible point, and it sounds as if they’re blogging in a vacuum (where is this Internet etiquette rulebook?), which seriously calls into question their expertise on how people will react to things.

That’s the heart of framing, right? So far as I understand it, it’s one part tact, one part spin, and one part bending over backwards to win approval.

The first part is the one I can get behind entirely. The very basics of effective communication are knowing your audience, choosing your battles wisely, and using appropriate language for the situation. Here’s a brief example just from my experience tonight: I’m in a discussion-based class, and at one point we were supposed to discuss what some of the key problems are in society. I could have piped up with “religion;” about half the class (teacher included) knows I’m an atheist, so it wouldn’t be unexpected, but I decided to let it be. I didn’t want to have to get into why I was saying it, or into the twisty word games of “well, not all religious people, but certain organizations, and…” that would almost inevitably have to follow. I knew my audience (and moreover, didn’t see any reason to offend most of them unnecessarily) and chose not to fight that particular battle. Later in the class, we were discussing why women were marginalized by society. Now, this was a more worthwhile battle, in part because it was far easier to justify. But while I could have said “religion,” or “the Abrahamic faiths, which have throughout history characterized women in a negative, inferior, subservient light,” I didn’t. In part, this was because I (again) didn’t want to unnecessarily offend my class; in part, it was because I knew the problem went farther than just the Abrahamic religions (Greek mythology does it too, and there are some particularly odious doctrines of this sort in Buddhism). So what I said was “various patriarchal religions” (there may have been slightly more to it, but that’s the bulk of the comment). If I were blogging here about the question, I would’ve been a lot more long-winded and less diplomatic in my assessment.

So I get the call for being tactful, and I’m sure Myers and Dawkins do too. Both are clearly generally aware of their respective audiences; it’s a large part of why they’re so popular.

The spin aspect is something I understand, but I don’t support it quite as readily. It’s important, especially in politics, to be able to present information in a way that supports your position, that works to persuade and present your side of a given debate in a positive light. The problem is that spin doctoring often only works through subtle misrepresentation and lying by omission, neither of which are particularly in the scientific spirit. It’s fine to present scientific findings and the scientific method in a positive light, in order to win supporters, but the spin ought to be minimal, lest it come back to bite us in the collective ass. And there’s certainly a problem with the repeated exhortations that we tell religionists how there’s no conflict between science and religion: it places reality in the subservient role. Granted, there are plenty who would do that anyway, but when we say “no no, you can fit evolution into your religious beliefs!” we’re making a mistake. It’s the religion that needs to fit reality, and not the other way around. The process may be tough on religion (it always is; see also: Galileo), but eventually mainstream religion must adapt to our changing knowledge of reality, not the other way around. It happened with Galileo and heliocentrism, it happened with Ben Franklin and lightning, and it’ll happen with Darwin and evolution as well. Mainstream religion will fit their worldview to the scientific facts, and the conservative fundamentalists will be left behind to deny reality on their own, just like the flat-earthers and geocentrists. But for that to happen, science needs to stand its ground and say “look, here’s the evidence, e pur si evolve,” not “well, if you just look at it from this point of view, reality totally fits into your worldview.” Let the progressive religionists and theologians tell their flocks how religion and science mesh; it just looks like grasping at straws when our side does it.

It’s the “don’t ever offend anyone” attitude of the framers that I can’t stand. It’s at the heart of their calls for someone else (i.e., someone who isn’t an outspoken atheist) to be the “spokesperson” for science, it’s at the heart of their criticism of PZ for using naughty language, and it’s at the heart of their misunderstanding of effective communication, so far as I see it. There is a value in stopping the buck, in being blunt, in calling spades spades and bullshit bullshit. It’s why James Randi has been gainfully employed for the last several decades, it’s why Penn and Teller are getting a sixth season of their award-winning series. There’s a time for being diplomatic, for playing good cop and making friends with the other side and smoothing out the difficulties, and there’s a time for being terse, for playing bad cop and shocking people out of their complacent little bubbles. There’s a reason that “straight talker” is a compliment. The Framers seem to think that people never learn unless you slather the information in honey and sugar to help it go down. They don’t understand that sometimes it works to say “take your damn medicine.”

So until this point I haven’t put much thought into the whole “Framing” debate, but Sheril and Chris’s Puritan “Mommy Mommy, PZ made a swear!” outrage, their holier-than-thou “shame on you” attitude, really made me consider the issue. And it seems to me that the only things they bring to the debate are either common sense (being tactful) or misguided (spin, being totally unoffensive, not seeing the good in promoting atheism and attacking religion).

And the result of all that advice to increase successful science promotion? I can only speak for myself, but I’ve long been planning to pick up Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science,” though I hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Mooney was even at the top of the short list of people I wanted to invite to speak for Darwin Club a couple of years back, though that didn’t pan out. My opinion of him has plummeted; at this point, if I do ever read his book, I’ll just borrow it from a friend.

I can’t help but think that wasn’t the intended effect.