Defining Yourself By What You’re Not


One of the anti-atheist gems that started popping up around the early 2000s (at least, when I started noticing it) was the claim that atheism has no merit because atheist define themselves by what they’re not. It’s such a negative self-identification. Why not have a positive identification?

This post is going to attempt to be the one-stop potshot to end the whole “defining-yourself-by-what-you’re-not-because-of-Greek-etymology-and-is-therefore-bad” line of reasoning. Ready?

John 14.6

λέγει αὐτῷ Ἰησοῦς Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή: οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι᾽ ἐμοῦ.

Oh that wily Jesus, defining himself by what he’s not!

I suppose you didn’t notice it. Jesus, in John 14.6, calls himself the truth. How do you say truth in Greek? ἀλήθεια or aletheia. Well, there’s an alpha at the beginning of that word, just like there is for the word “atheist”. And it has the same function, too. Aletheia literally means something like “un-concealment” or “not-oblivion”.

It might not be too farfetched that the highly educated Greek-writing author of the gospel of John was aware of this etymology and purposefully had Jesus — who is supposed to be offering eternal life — declare himself to be “un-oblivion” or “un-concealment” in this gospel; the only gospel to do so. It may also be one of the reasons why this gospel had so many ties with Gnostics.

So. Defining yourself by what you’re not doesn’t seem very vacuous now, now does it?

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Posted by on October 10, 2014 in greek


How Politics Breaks Our Brains

How Politics Breaks Our Brains

The NYU team is trying to show that our brains are hardwired for partisanship and how that skews our perceptions in public life. Research at NYU and elsewhere is underscoring just how blind the “us-versus-them” mind-set can make people when they try to process new political information. Once this partisanship mentality kicks in, the brain almost automatically pre-filters facts—even noncontroversial ones—that offend our political sensibilities…

Read more at The Atlantic

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Posted by on October 8, 2014 in cognitive science


A Spirit of Justice


For a while I’ve wondered if women being more religious than men has to do with something inherent to religion or more to do with religion being the dominant social signal for supporting your “in-group”; in the latter case it might also be responsible for the different moral intuitions men and women have. Though both morality and religion seem to have equal parts genetic and social basis.

With that said, here are a few of the both social and biological reasons why women are more religious than men:



This last point brings us to the latest hoopla in the atheistosphere. Recently, Sam Harris was called a sexist for suggesting that the reason that there are less women than men involved at atheist/skeptic events was due to biological reasons; an “estrogen vibe”. The problem, of course, and as I’ve just posted a multitude of links about, is that Harris was both right and wrong. Mostly wrong, but not entirely wrong. And this brings me back to the question I pondered at the beginning of this post.

Take a look at this data from the Pew survey of religion in the USA:

Notice anything weird? Yes, as usual, women are more religious than men. But not across all religions. Mainstream religions have more women than men, but minority religions (including “unaffiliated”, which would include atheists/skeptics) have more men than women. This is evidence that supports my idea of religion being used as a popular social signal of prosociality.

Another thing to note is at the intersection of biological and social — meaning, where the two effects compound — there is the largest disparity between men and women in regards to religiosity. Can you spot it?

Of course, there can be any number of other hypotheses that explain this data as well so I’m not resting any sort of firm conclusions on this (e.g., the Pew survey also notes that “Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall.“. Education level is negatively correlated with religiosity). I would need to see religiosity data parsed by gender in countries where those minority religions are the majority.

But what prompted me to even consider that hypothesis was an anecdote that I’ve notice almost everywhere: In both secular and religious gatherings, women seem to volunteer much more than men do. Some research confirms this, and further implies that women volunteer more in these groups due to implicit romantic primes. In other words, just like men show off by taking risks when they think there are attractive women around, women “show off” by volunteering when they think there are attractive men around (or more accurately, when they are primed to think of mate selection). So my guess about women’s relationship with religion might not have anything to do with religion per se, but with support groups or being prosocial. And I guess that if there were some country where atheism had better and more ostentatious support structures than the religious, we would see that more women would be less religious than men. For the both biological and social reasons I listed above.

But no country like this exists.

Back to Harris’ mostly wrong guess. It seems like it’s not estrogen that makes women more religious than men, but instead — if we are only looking at biological reasons — it’s testosterone that makes men less religious than women. The female template is the default of humanity, the male is a derivative (nipple check!). Of course, women have testosterone as well, but not nearly at the levels that men have. It should go without saying that hormones have a noticeable effect on human behavior. I also wonder if the sociological reasons above actually prompt underlying hormonal changes and it’s those underlying hormonal changes that are changing a person’s level of religiosity/prosociality. E.g., there’s evidence that stress increases, among other hormones, oxytocin levels, and of course, men being shown pictures of sexy women — as well as other behavior — increases their levels of testosterone. The social can affect the biological and vice versa.

So is Sam Harris a sexist? Well… this question actually beggars another question, one related to my previous post on truth vs. morality. What Sam Harris said is somewhat true: There are biological reasons why women are more religious (read: more prosocial) than men. But what he said is also immoral. Thus the eternal battle between truth and morality. Harris suggesting an “immoral” hypothesis completely depends on the time and place he says it. It would be equally “immoral” to suggest as a hypothesis 1,000 years ago that god didn’t exist. The ontological status of god’s existence 1,000 years ago or hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century are orthogonal to the ethical status of questioning god’s existence 1,000 years ago or suggesting hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century.

Truth vs. Morality.

A little backstory about the image I chose for this post. In the video game Dragon Age II, a mage named Anders has fused with a spirit that personifies the concept of justice. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are subjugated due to their potential to become what in the game is referred to as Abominations. In this world, there are various spirits that personify different human vices and virtues like rage, sloth, greed, justice, etc. but it is usually the vice-related spirits that are drawn to mages and try to fuse and take over their magic-gifted bodies becoming much more powerful than a normal mage. After the fusion they then begin carrying out their vice (sloth, greed, etc.). The virtue related spirits don’t seem to care about humans at all. Due to this subjugation, Anders — being born a mage — harbors a lot of resentment towards the current world order where mages are second-class citizens without their own freedom or autonomy, held in check by Templars.

Anders encounters the spirit of Justice and they agree to merge; they are technically an “Abomination” but with a “good” spirit instead of the vastly more common “bad” spirit. Usually the benevolent spirits have no concern over human affairs, but circumstances trapped Justice outside of the spirit world and in the normal world. The spirit of Justice, after fusing with Anders, recognizes the injustice that mages are subject to and they both work together in a sort of underground railroad sort of situation helping other mages escape. However, in time, Anders’ rage against his lifetime of injustice corrupts Justice and the spirit then becomes a spirit of Vengeance, taking over Anders at inopportune times and wreaking havoc almost indiscriminately among both the guilty and the innocent.

Internet social justice warriors remind me of Anders/Justice. The smallest whiff of perceived blasphemy (and yes, I’m using the word “blasphemy” on purpose) is met with unbridled aggression. What’s true doesn’t matter, lies are moral as long as they’re in the name of justice (or being done by Justice). Besides Harris, Richard Dawkins has also recently been put through the fires of Justice. As I wrote in a prior post:

Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.

The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the [moral] truth… Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality

Indeed, identifying strongly with any group, tribe, or movement is a surefire way to bias yourself. Whether it’s your gender, religion, or even favorite football team. Try not to do it!

Spoiler alert: At the end of Dragon Age II, the tension between mages and templars is coming to a head. Anders shows up and blows up an entire (in game version of) a church because any compromise between mages and templars is, to Anders/Justice, no justice. Cooler, more rational heads do not prevail. Anders/Justice’s act creates an all out war between mages and templars, and sets the stage for the next iteration of the Dragon Age saga, which comes out in November.

I almost always execute Anders due to his crime.


What If?


A while ago I wrote a post called Truth vs. Morality where I pointed out a question I sometimes asked Christians: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should people still believe in god? Receptions to that question (the few times I’ve asked) had been somewhat predictable; some say yes, most say no.

I’m thinking that the “yes” answers are maybe not answering the question I’m asking, but subconsciously substituting it with an easier question and then answering that. Who knows.

I thought of a way to take it further. Instead of asking a truth vs. morality question, I might start asking a morality vs. morality question; that is, a consequentialist vs. deontological question. This would be something like What if being a Christian leads to a net unhappiness in the world? Should one still be a Christian? Not sure what the answers to that question might be, but I predict that they would say “yes” in the majority of cases. Probably because in this instance, they might substitute the implicit consequential point of the question with, not only the deontological question (i.e., what one’s duty is), but with the “is Christianity true” question. I.e., Christianity could only be a net negative in the world if Christianity is false; Christianity is true, therefore it is not a net negative in the world.

Of course, maybe if Christianity is true we should believe it. Even if belief in Christianity ultimately makes humanity unhappy.

But then again, this question could be equally applied to beliefs I hold dear. Just like I applied the same truth vs. morality question to beliefs I hold dear in the original post. What if secularism or atheism ultimately makes the world unhappy? What if sexism is a net benefit for the world, and feminism makes people unhappy? What if slavery is good for the world over at the expense of black people?

In these cases, I’m pretty sure I would answer exactly how a Christian might answer, and my thought process might mirror theirs (hopefully that isn’t too much of a typical mind fallacy). My first response is selfishness; I like my personal freedom/secularism/feminism/etc. thank you very much, and the rest of the world can fuck off. Why should I be a slave if that benefits the world? It seems pretty jacked up to think about it. Or, just like the hypothetical theist, I wouldn’t even countenance the question asked. Meaning that I would rebuke the question with “well that can’t be because racism/sexism/theocracy are obviously false and demonstrably make people unhappy so the question is a non-starter”.

This is one of the huge drawbacks for any sort of upcoming technological singularity. Whose morals do we program into the AI before it goes FOOM? People are all too eager to defer to a supernatural god whose whims are just, if not more so, as arbitrary as a future AI. What if this AI has the same conclusion about sex/gender roles or slavery that patriarchal religions have had? That divisions of labor among sexes and/or slavery makes people happier because they have less choices? There are probably an uncountable number of personal creeds, beliefs, and morals that make you as an individual happy, but if studied by anyone/thing with enough processing power can be demonstrated to be harmful if practiced on a wide scale. And any budding rationalist should always be aware of alternatives to their pet hypothesis.

So it seems like I wouldn’t be able to answer the very question that I would pose to a hypothetical Christian. I would think their answer “wrong” while hypocritically accepting my own answer to my sacred values as “right”.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in apologetics, morality, rationality


What can evolutionary biology learn from creationists?

J. Quinton:

Human exceptionalism.

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

Irreducible-complexity-E-coli_472_308_80by Joanna Masel

You might expect a professional evolutionary biologist like myself to claim that my discipline has nothing to learn from creationists. And I certainly do find all flavors of evolution-denialism sadly misguided. But I also find it reasonable to assume that any serious and dedicated critic should uncover something interesting about the object of their obsession. I’m not talking about passing trolls here. I’m talking about earnest and sometimes talented people whose sincerely held anti-evolution convictions do not preclude engagement, and who invest a lot of time thinking about evolution from an unconventional perspective.

I draw three main lessons from such critics. First, there is plenty to learn about human psychology from the rejection of evolution. Why do so many people not accept scientific conclusions that seem to an expert like me to be irrefutably supported by the evidence? Dismissing the cause of their rejection as religious ideology…

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Posted by on September 16, 2014 in religion


Which Is More Absurd?

The right side of this window is unbounded

The right side of this window is unbounded

Over at Vridar, Tim Widowfield made an observation about the Overton Window as applied to NT scholarship, which all came about as a result of James McGrath comparing Jesus Mythicism to Creationism. Here, I’ll let Tim speak for himself:

The band of acceptable thought in the areas of social studies, politics, history, etc. can be quite narrow. If you stray too far from the norm, you may find yourself labeled as a nutjob. The Overton Window in politics, for example, may drift to the left or right, but its width remains essentially the same, which explains why certain policies in the U.S. that used to be considered within the bounds of normal, polite discussion are now considered “too radical,” and vice versa.

However, the boundaries in biblical studies are unique. In fact, we would be mistaken if we used the word “boundaries,” since the boundary on the right does not exist. Within the guild a scholar can still be considered competent and highly respected even though he or she believes all the books in the NT are authentic and the inspired Word of God. You can watch a debate between a mainline scholar and an evangelical scholar about whether half of Paul’s epistles or all of Paul’s epistles are authentic. But you’ll never hear from a scholar who thinks they’re all late and spurious.

McGrath and his crew would explain that an electrified fence that seals off all “unsafe” ideas on the left simply doesn’t exist. They would argue, simply, that no scholars in academia believe in those extreme, radical, silly ideas. In a way, they’re correct. Self-censorship and self-selection are much more effective (and cheaper) than relying on thought police. The advantage of unwritten rules is that scholars, aspiring scholars, and students internalize them. Of course, nobody argues for those “crazy” things, because anybody who would have done so has already opted out, and anyone remaining who privately thinks that way is smart enough to keep her dangerous thoughts to herself.

So we arrive at the question proposed as the title of this post. Which is more absurd: That a personal god exists, incarnated (one third of) himself in the form of Jesus the Nazarene, and that the NT is at least 90% accurate in recounting the origins of Christianity; is literally the (inspired) word of god? Or that a pretty pedestrian nobody who more secular scholars claim to be the founder of Christianity didn’t actually exist?

A better way of framing it: Which is more mundane? More boring? More “every day” ho-hum? A nobody was such a nobody that he didn’t actually exist, or the NT is basically a CNN-like report of the beginnings of Christianity?

Which should require more evidence to convince you of: A normal, boring, everyday event? Or something extraordinary like god himself walking among us mortals in the flesh for a few years?

As one should know by now from reading this blog, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; that’s not just some pithy saying or thought-terminating aphorism. It is an inexorable mathematical conclusion. I personally waver around 45% – 55% likelihood that Jesus existed (I have yet to read Richard Carrier’s and Rafael Lataster’s books on the subject; I’ll probably get to them once I finish this semester of grad school). But the entire orthodox Christian interpretation of Christianity’s genesis? That is exceedingly extraordinary, and would require much more evidence to convince me of than the evidence necessary to show that Jesus didn’t exist.

The fact of the matter is that conservative/literalist biblical NT scholars (who are also much more likely to be actual Creationists!) are welcome in the guild while scholars who go about questioning the existence of Jesus are beyond the pale. This is evidence, to me, that something too far removed from just scholarship is going on to explain the disparity. Indeed, it seems more like basic tribalism. To the more liberal NT scholars, biblical literalist NT scholars are fellow Christians. While Jesus Mythicism is overflowing with atheists and agnostics.

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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth


Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

The parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field.

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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in early Christianity, historical jesus

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