Sunday, October 21, 2018

If funerals are for the living, I shall not attend:
Thoughts, poetry, Schnittke

If funerals are for the living, what then when the living, or one of the living, doesn't want to do to the funeral of a dead relative?

My uncle died a couple of days ago. My dad had the one sister and no brothers, and my mom was an only, so I have just his sister and her husband, the dead uncle as aunts and uncles. The funeral is Tuesday. I could surely get off work, but I am not interested.

I semi-swore to myself after my mom's death, at her funeral, that I would never need to see my oldest brother again, for various reasons. I put the issues of deaths of siblings out of mind as being decades in the future, barring accidents or early cancer or similar.

But, I forgot about aunt and uncle, and now he is dead.

And I don't want to go, and not just because he's is surely going to be there.

I also semi-swore to myself that, other than for possible courtesy visits to church when visiting my sister and her minister husband, that I never would set foot in a church again except to attend a concert or other artistic event.

I have no desire to go there, and, at a minimum, to be a hypocrite, and, at a maximum, be proselytized by my aunt, or her daughter (both former parochial school teachers), or my oldest or second-oldest brothers, with the likelihood from greatest to least being in that order. Years ago, my aunt sent me an Easter card that, in not so few of words, said "You know it's true," about fundamentalist Easter beliefs. A religious funeral among conservative Lutheran Christians is only likely to bring that all to the surface, not to mention that, pre-deconversion, I had been to her church umpteen times and some oldsters there may still know me.

No desire.

If funerals are for the living, I'm not going.

I then, with this adapted from handwritten journaling, thought about a poem. I had been thinking about writing one this afternoon. Hadn't sat down to do that.

Then, just after finishing up these notes, this extended haiku started to work its way out.

Death is for the dead
And life is for the living.
So don't fence me in.

Better yet, I won't
Fence myself by attending;
We're all better off.

Namaste for all —
A word that might well offend
Some others itself.

I touched dad's cold skin,
Satisfied that dead is dead
And shall remain so.

Schnittke's Requiem
Challenges old conventions;
Death is chaotic.

Emotional wounds
I shall not give, nor receive.
They will still result.

We will drift further.
I accept that is the price
Of preservation.

Not the first poem in this general vein. I wrote in the summer of 2017 about a dying secularist friend, and what to say to him, or not.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Does Texas really have that many atheists?

Near the end of its latest poll on the Beto O'Rourke-Ted Cruz Senate Race, Lyceum reports on the background of respondents, as most in-depth polls do.

There's this, on page 11: NINE percent claim to be atheist or agnostic. That's more than twice as many as who reported as Muslim. Throw out the 13 percent who were either "didn't know" (really?) or "refused," and you're at a little over 10 percent.


That said, counting 22 percent as either unaligned or third party, Lyceum claimed respondents were otherwise split, 39 percent each on Doinks and Rethugs.


But, let's get back to those atheists and agnostics.

I'm quite familiar with people misusing these terms to really mean "spiritual but not religious," or "irreligious vis-a-vis organized religion." (I experienced that very personally on That particular conversation ended abruptly when the woman at the other end found out what atheism actually means.)

Let's say half our 10 percent falls there.

That's still 5 percent atheist or agnostic.

Let's say that 8 percentage points of the 13 percent refusniks are "nones," as are all 9 percent, in the original number, of alleged atheists or agnostics. Then, one-sixth of Texans are "nones."

That leads me to a piece by Psy Post. Until Friday, it seemed to me to be a pretty good psychology popularization blog and website. John Horgan is among its Twitter followers.

But then it blared: You live longer if you're religious.

Without saying that all we have on that is statistical correlation, not causal correlation, and without, in the western tradition, comparing today's US to today's Europe on that. (Well, it did kind of say that, but after the "blaring.")

Given that the power of intercessory prayer has been disproven by double blinded studies, in fact, we can say that almost certainly, it is NOT a causal correlation.

Add to that the fact that, especially in small towns, "church" and non-church general religious affiliation adds a degree of "community" to life for many people, especially in a place like red-state Texas. Also note that, especially in smaller communities, for those in need, many food banks and other forms of charitable outreach are church-based, or if not so explicit, at least religiously themed.

The only way to do a halfway scientific version of such a survey would be to look at churched vs unchurched people who are both also members of other organizations, like Rotary, Kiwanis, etc. And, you'd have to use more than obits. You'd have to use longitudinal time management research to confirm how often said people actually attended both churches and their social clubs.

And, there's been plenty of empirical research on the reality of a god already.

Speaking of empirical matters, we do also know that, by percentage of respective ethnic groups, more of those atheists are white than black or hispanic, but we also know that young blacks are consciously starting to catch up on leaving church, in part because African-Americans are finding more "secular" leaders willing to speak on "spiritual" issues. Like LeBron. Or Kaepernick. This is even as Congressional Black Caucus leader Jim Clyburn will suck up to Trump as much as those black ministers, to avoid churches paying new taxes.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Some philosophers are more equally wrong than others

I like Massimo Pigluicci a lot. He makes philosophical issues accessible to the general public, and he covers a variety of issues. We agree on a lot of issues, like ev psych, will, fairly much on volition and more.

That said, I can't let a comment on this post by Dan Kaufman go without a response. And, since Massimo has twice refused to post moderately (but no more than that) snarky comments by me about Dan's comment, I shall go in more depth, and higher or lower snark, here.

Yes, it's Massimo's blog and he has the right to moderate comments as he pleases. And, this is my blog, and I have the right to write posts as I please. And, beyond evolutionary biology's tit for tat of reciprocal altruism, done subconsciously, on a number of social interactions, I practice it conscientiously.

Anyway, here's the comment, rather the first from that post:
Philip, your reply is a dodge. You claimed that mathematics is empirical. I pointed out that this would entail that mathematical statements are probabilistic, which they clearly are not. Simple modus tollens. To which you reply “it’s random.” 
No one ever died from admitting they were wrong about something. Why not give it a try?
Emphasis on the second graf is mine, because that's what this is about.

First of all, other than a British astronomer named Coel and a Canadian confusednik named Garth, not currently commenting on posts, and DM, not a total favorite of Massimo's either. NOBODY among past or current regular commenters has more difficulty admitting they're wrong than Dan. Dan is right a lot more often than them, but, when he's wrong, he doubles down on it as much as them.

And, Massimo knows that. (Or at least, believes something close to that.) I can mention specific issues, the biggest in my mind being that Dan rejects medical science's claim — and has done so on Massimo's blog — as to what constitutes one standard drink of an alcoholic beverage.

Hence my riff on Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Dan as Napoleon. It's part of why I stopped writing for Dan's site after a couple of posts. I disagreed with the editing-for-content and direction on my second piece and knew it wasn't something he's let me win, or even get closer to 50-50.

If Massimo is going to moderate posts over this issue, then why not start by editing Dan's to remove that second paragraph? Or keep it from being posted in the first place?

And, he let Dan and Philip have a 4-5 comment back-and-forth before that. So, my one denied comment really can't be that much worse in lack of contribution than their original back-and-forth.

(For the wonderers, both of my would-be comments did a pull-quote on Dan's second graf. In the first, I then said "posted without further comment." In the second, I said something about this being similar to "electric" comment of a week or two back. (Dan's blog is The Electric Agora.)

For Philip, it's not a matter of whether he was right or wrong on the particular back-and-forth. (I think he was pretty much wrong, myself, per Dan's first graf.) It was Dan's ... well, Dan's tacit hypocrisy. "Pots and kettles" come to mind. And, nobody else challenged him on it — or, at least, Massimo allowed nobody (else) to challenge him.

I tried again, on Massimo's next blog post. Again, no soap.

And, on a third post, where Dan was clearly wrong, and has been wrong in the past — what constitutes alcohol abuse and similar.
Calling people who regularly drink more than 3.5 drinks a day alcoholics is calling them exactly what they are. They are addicts, just as smokers or drug users are.
= = =
What a load of nonsense. Someone who has a beer with lunch and two glasses of wine with dinner is an alcoholic? If so, the term is useless to make any characterization that would be of any interest to any productive purpose.
And, Massimo even knows, via old convo on Google+, my thoughts on this issue. And he hasn't explicitly disagreed with Dan's wrongness.

And, June 27, another blog post where Massimo didn't post a comment about me being critical of Dan.

Also, June 29, where Massimo truncated a comment of mine in editing to omit:
Funny how Dan keeps wanting to “drop it,” and then keeps commenting. I think St. Ludwig of Wittgenstein would have an observation about that use of language.
And, since Dan is "Mr. Wittgenstein" I'll save that for the future. 

So, there you go, Massimo. If you won't let me hoist Dan by his own petard over there, I'll still do it here.

And make this my featured post, now that I have a pic to go with.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


I am the Son of God.

I was born, I saw and I fell;
That last part due to mythmakers
Who rejected my message.
My name was Judas, Son of God.

The lies against my name are many.
Some claim I was demon-seized
And sold the man named Jesus
For 30 pieces of silver.
Others say I was his cosmic twin,
Judas Didymus Thomas
Later denigrated to move the force
To the one and only.
Others yet call me Ormazd
To his Ahriman,
The dark side of a dualistic god.
And others still a ???
Fated to play out a role;
A reasoning pawn in a cosmic play.
All are wrong.

Rather —
I was the one, the Monogenetes,
I was the Son of God, the Word made flesh.

Am I jealous of the Nazarene?
But of course. I am the Word made flesh.
With good motive — emotions no less dark
Than my father Yahweh had against Sodom
And against the Amalekites, then against Saul.

I am the Son of God.

I am.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Socrates moves further down the overrated philosophers list

I've blogged before about overrated philosophers, and why Socrates' earns his place on the list. And I've explained that there's the myth vs. the reality, and my moniker is based on the myth.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, in the latest installment of his Book Club extended blogging series, is tackling Plato's early dialogues in the Penguin Classics series. Well, in this intro to the book initial post in the series, he's sharpened exactly what I think about Socrates and why, therefore, he's overrated.

First, we have the problem of the "historic Socrates." Just like the historic Jesus. I disagree with the likes of Gregory Vlastos as to just how much Socrates can be untangled from Plato, just like it's questionable how much we can untangle a historic Jesus from a New Testament and early Christianity as it evolved down to us today largely based on the weighty shadow of Paul.

To the degree we can disentangle, I think the Socrates of the middle dialogues is already pretty much a Platonic mouthpiece.

Next, what about the other people who sketch him? Throw away Xenophon, but I'm still half convinced or more than Aristophanes was at least half right in depicting him as a semi-Sophist himself. Certainly, in many of his dialogues, Socrates does little more than eristic type arguments designed to refute Sophists – or strawmen versions (remember, other than Gorgias, we have almost no extant writings of them) — without saying "I therefore say virtue is Y," rather than just letting them appear to founder.

I told Massimo about that, too;
I know that in many cases, Socratic answers are implied from Socratic questioning. But, I think Plato doesn’t spell this out so that Socratic reasoning doesn’t get subjected to its own elenchus. 
It’s like a trial, per the parallels, where you don’t have one attorney do a formal closing statement — so that the other one can’t make his or her own closing statement! And, yes, I mean that, too. Because, if Plato as the author gave the ancient equivalent of a semi-formal, stipulative closing argument to Socrates, in some cases, his straw men would look too obvious. While, among the Sophists, we only have writings from Gorgias today, except for scraps, circa 2400 BCE, all the major Sophists had their own books and pamphlets out, of course. In other words, holding a thumb on the scale might work, but three whole fingers would be overkill. Doing it this way? “Made the stronger argument the better,” at least for Plato’s students.
It's very convenient. And, to extend a biblical parallel, that may be part of why Mark, like Philostratus' "Life of Apollonius," doesn't have actual resurrection appearances.

I then realized more about Socrates as an elitist. I do think Izzy Stone projected too much 20th century America into his take on Socrates as an elitist, and didn't look at Athenian, or Hellenic, context.

First, Athens wasn't the only Greek city, or colony, to at least dabble in democracy at this time. Corinth and Syracuse are two other examples. Take note that all three were cities with large revenues from trade.

Note second that Sophists claimed to be able to teach one how to succeed well at "all things polis."

The old, landed gentleman had the time to learn this on his own. The equivalent of "nouveau riche" did not. But, since money can be timelike at times, to reverse a cliche, they would certainly pay for a crash course on operating in the ekklesia, the boule and the court – even if as part of a group rather than one-on-one.

Note that the Sophists weren't teaching in Athens alone. They were visiting other cities. They probably targeted cities like Corinth and Syracuse that were having similar large socio-political shifts.

Sure they were teaching how to make the stronger argument better. Don't tell me that most of Socrates' peers in Athens' "ancien regime" didn't do similar. Socrates' elenchus just has a better press.

Socrates, in this sense, strikes me as a mid-1800s British Tory landed gentleman caviling against Whig merchants seeking more political, and social, power. Remember that Britain passed its first political reform bill in the 1830s AND started shifting toward free trade at that time, both of which benefited these Liberal-leaning merchants. Disraeli's bid to further expand the electorate in the 1860s was a direct bid for more everyday voters to join the Conservatives to offset this.

Finally, there's the broad picture of Socrates that Plato paints. In a different way, he looks like as much a strawman as most of his Sophist (and other) opponents. That's especially true when you factor in what Plato said about how he was Athens and why – and the Oracle of Delphi saying that.

Add in Socrates' claim to have been motivated by his personal daimon since childhood, and you get someone who comes off as smarmy at a minimum and sanctimonious at a max.

Here's my take on that, befitting for an Existential Comics strip, of a boiled-down version of Socratic dialog:

Socrates: Hey, Gorgias, do you know what the oracle at Delphi said about me?
Gorgias: No, what?
Socrates: That I’m the wisest man in Athens.
Gorgias: Really?
Soc: Of course, I’m far to humble to believe that, at least not without testing it.
Gor; Of course not.
Soc: So, I figured I would ask others, people whom I and society deem wise, what they know about things like virtue and goodness.
Gor: I see.
Soc: So, that’s why I’m talking to you now.
Gor: OK, so what would you like to talk about.
Soc: Can you tell me what you understand virtue to be?
Gor: Virtue is A.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is B.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is C.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is D.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: I give up.
Soc: You know, I’ve talked to 14 other philosophers, Sophists and non-Sophists alike. You know what else, Gorgias?
Gor: NO, I don’t know what else, Socrates.
Soc: Glad you asked back. Every conversation has ended this same way.
Soc; You know what that means, Gorgias?
Gor: NO, I DON”T know what that means, Socrates.
Soc: I guess I am the wisest man in Athens. I at least admit what I don’t know.
Soc; And you know why?
Gor: NO, I DON”T know why, Socrates.
Soc; Because, from childhood, I’ve been guided by this wonderous inner daimon, to whom I owe my ultimate authority.

Smary at the least? Sanctimonious? Insufferable even? At least somewhat, and at times?

If the Platonic caricature is halfway close to reality, I don’t understand why Socrates wasn’t hauled up on charges earlier. Perhaps he was tolerated ‘on sufferance,’ to be mocked by an Aristophanes and others, until the loss of the Peloponnesian War and the two coups made people finally admit they were that tired of him.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Ehrman hits foul ball with rise of Christianity book

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an EmpireThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nice try in theory, falls well short in reality

This was a book tough to rate.

I generally like Ehrman. I generally think that mythicists unfairly belittie him, though I disagree with some specifics of his own supporting material offered for a historic Jesus.

The idea of the book isn’t new, but presented in popularizing form from a knowledgable New Testament scholar, promised to be good, possibly very good.

But, it fell short. Short enough in some ways that I took fairly detailed notes at chapter breaks.

Without explicitly saying so, Ehrman seems to indicate that Christian evangelism and Christiam miracle-working both had moderate boosts for the early decades of Christianity, but then it was primarily word-of-mouth, just like you and I buy a car or toothpaste today.

However …

First, the evangelism issue is nowhere near as simple as Ehrman paints.

First, we know that Christianity was NOT the only evangelistic religion of antiquity.

Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries to the West went as far as Macedonia and Cyrenaica. Four hundred years later, Clement of Alexandria and other Christian fathers knew about ongoing Buddhist proselytizing. And, Will Durant even speculated it may have been an element in Christiann missions. See more here.

Either Ehrman is surprisingly uninformed here. Or else, Ehrman’s definition of antiquity is narrow. Neither speaks well for this book.

That said, per reading between the lines in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, and my take on J. Massyngberde Ford’s Anchor Bible volume on who wrote the original core of Revelation, we know that at least a few followers of John the Baptist evangelized.

Paul himself mentions Apollos and Peter, even talking about Peter getting paid to take his wife with him.

So, Ehrman has a foul ball here.

On the miracle working, whether real or not, Ehrman doesn’t mention that this was common outside Christianity. Indeed, Jewish charismatics such as Honi the Circle Drawer come to mind. Or Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician.” Or the name Simon Magus. Ehrman doesn’t go into a lot of depth here. He even mentions Apollonius of Tyana, the contemporary of Jesus, but never goes into detail about his own reported miracle-working.

So, if Christian miracles were more powerful than Jewish, Greek philosophical, or pagan religious ones, why? They were all common.

It’s true that no ancient author writes an unbiased account of this in detail. But Ehrman, while noting that no actual such miracles likely happened, doesn’t explain why Christians were perceived to be (as he would seemingly have us believe) better miracle-workers or magicians.

And, if evangelism were as low as Ehrman thinks it was after Paul, and pagans and philosophers did magic, too, then why was word-of-mouth as successful as Ehrman thinks it was?

Reality is that, with people like Polycarp, or Clement of Rome, their letters to other churches were surely part of an ongoing program not just of church maintenance but church planting and spreading. Look at the pseudo-Pauline letter to “Ephesians.” Originally a circular letter, it probably was written in similar spirit.

And, the third failing, a partial one.

I agree with Ehrman that many of the details of Rodney Stark’s projected growth rates of Christianity don’t withstand scrutiny.

However, even though Decius’ persecution wasn’t specifically against Christianity, Diocletian’s was. In a sort of analogy, American whites will start to flee suburban neighborhoods and even whole communities when an influx of minority population, and above all, African-American population, hits a certain percentage, usually around 10 percent.

Ehrman doesn’t ask if a similar phenomenon were in play here. If it was, his believed population percentage of Christians, empire-wide, was too low at the time of Diocletian to be such a trigger. Now, the persecutions were carried out most commonly in the eastern half of the empire, and we have some fairly good indications Christianity was stronger there.

Nonetheless, Ehrman doesn’t follow up.

A fourth partial failing, in my opinion?

Ehrman seems to believe Christianity was not just majority-gentile, but strongly so, by circa 100 CE.

Yet, he fails to mention the “desynagoging” that happened circa 100 CE, per John. If this really did happen, it undercuts Ehrman’s thesis. If it didn’t, he should have offered a bit of exegesis on John here to explain this.

Despite John speaking bluntly of “the Jews,” I think something did happen.

Finally, Ehrman makes a partial version of the same error Stark does on population growth, and it’s connected to his overlooking or ignoring Buddhist evangelism.

He focuses on growth within the Roman Empire.

Armenia became officially Christian in 301 CE, nearly a century before Theodosius so proclaimed Rome. Various kingdoms that today make up Georgia became officially Christian before that time. Ulfilias proselityzed Goths, presumably with some Goths previously Christian, before Theodosius. Legends of Thomas Christians aside, there were Christians in India before this time. Ditto for ancient Nubia, beyond Rome’s Nile frontier.

In critiquing and criticizing Stark, I have noted all of this and said that at least 10 percent of Christians at the time of Constantine were outside imperial borders.

And, of course, by the period that closes Ehrman’s book, Christianity had not swept “the world.”

Finishing up this last section of the notes as I got ready to post this led me to take Ehrman down from three to two stars. Several three-star readers seemed too kind in their detailed reviews.

Ehrman – and his agent who suggested this – should either have committed to an additional 20-30 pages and more rigor, or else suggested this as a series of magazine essays only, or similar.

The one problem with this review is that, at least on Amazon, where I read through reviewers, it basically left me in the company of mythicists who wrongly attack Ehrman. I gave several them a piece of my mind on their reviews.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A better bio of Luther than Metaxas

It's actually Michael Massing's new parallel biography of Luther and Erasmus.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western MindFatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's not a lot of new stuff here for me, especially on the Luther side, but the dual biography concept, when done well, can stimulate some 'aha' and Massing generally does well.

The two biggies on differences are first, one of personality and temperament. Erasmus' irenic style never could have led a Reformation and Luther never could have calmed his down enough even to be the best of organizers of what a Reformation needed in terms of management.

As a result, Erasmus in general was more kindly disposed to human fraility and at least occasionally meeting people halfway. Had he been in Luther's shoes, he never would have treated Melanchthon as shoddily as Luther sometimes did.

As an aside, Massing also gives a good base-level explanation of how differences between Luther and Zwingli, in terms of how they developed their reformations differently, were sociological as much as theological.

I did learn a few tidbits, one of which I could have learned in Lutheran seminary, had it been taught there. And that is that Luther's polemics against the Jews weren't just a late-life, poor-health issue. They started with his lectures on the Psalms years before the 95 Theses. He later tamped them down, after the Reformation took off, in hopes of converting Jews. Until they didn't.

And, it was Karlstadt, not Zwingli, who first questioned the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist, and he did so on the basis of Greek grammer and not metaphoric speech common to Greek, German and English. Karlstadt pointed out that the "this" in "This is my body," can NOT refer backward to "bread" because it's a different gender in Greek. That, too was never mentioned in Lutheran seminary, probably because, although Luther railed against Karlstadt for this, he never refuted it — because, of course, he couldn't.

There is one notable error here that doesn't affect the flow, and a matter of framing that kind of does.

Given that the second big difference between Luther and Erasmus was on free will, and that BOTH had an Augustinian background, it would have been nice for Massing to include a little bit more about just how "minor" of a saint Augustine is seen as being in the East. He does talk a small bit about Orthodoxy's take on Augustine, but not a lot.

The outright error? Paul never claimed to be a Roman citizen, contra Massing. The unknown author of Acts claimed it for him.

View all my reviews

In case you're not a regular reader here, this is my review of Eric Metaxas' horrible take on Luther.