Monthly Archives: September 2011

Lying, and Why I Will Probably Never Be A Christian (Again)

Sam Harris has a new e-book out called “Lying”. He has a nice blurb about why he wrote the book here:
One of the most fascinating things about this course [The Ethical Analyst at Sanford], however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.

I do not remember what I thought about lying before I took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

It would be hard to exaggerate what a relief it was to realize this. It’s not that I had been in the habit of lying before taking Howard’s course—but I now knew that endless forms of suffering and embarrassment could be easily avoided by simply telling the truth. And, as though for the first time, I saw the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle all around me.

Intuitively, we all think it is wrong to lie even though we might tell little “white lies” every now and then. Maybe due to my own myopia I sometimes think lying is a necessity, but for the most part I try to adhere to a mentality of “better ugly truths than pretty lies”. This aversion to lying, even though there are bouts of akrasia (which is different from hypocrisy), is the main reason why I will probably never be a Christian.
I have firmly arrived at the conclusion over the past three years that the Christian religion is fundamentally structured around deception. Which is odd, considering that it is a religion that claims the value “truth”. Now, this isn't a belief that I have simply because I'm “anti-Christian” or whatever. I actually came to this conclusion due to two different lines of evidence: the history of early Christianity, and what I think is the nature of Christian faith.
If you don't know about it, you should check out the most recent book by Bart Ehrman titled Forged. This book sums up my historical argument for why Christianity is based on deception. In short, the majority of the books in the New Testament are written by people who were not who they claimed to be or are attributed to people who didn't write the books attributed to them. Matthew was not written by the apostle/disciple Matthew (same for Mark, Luke, and John), 1 & 2 Peter were not written by the apostle Peter, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus (and Hebrews) were not written by Paul while Ephesians and Colossians were probably not written by Paul, the apostle John is more than likely not the same person who wrote those letters (though the letter writer never claims to be), and James and Jude who wrote their eponymous letters were more than likely not the same as Jesus' brothers (again, these writers never claim to be either).
While NT scholars title these works “pseudonymous”, that's just a fancy way of saying falsely named (i.e. Mark 14.57 has the phrase “they gave false testimony” which in Greek is εψευδομαρτυρουν or epseudo-martyroun). And as Ehrman goes over in the book, forgeries weren't taken any more kindly in antiquity than they are in today's world. Worse yet, even in the authentic letters of Paul there are insertions into the text that have Paul say things he didn't originally say; and Matthew and Luke are basically heavily interpolated versions of Mark. The worst, of course, is that the vast majority of sayings of Jesus were never uttered by Jesus.
As for the nature of Christian faith, philosophically (or epistemically) this seems to be nothing more than the equivalent of self-deception. The thought experiment I go over in that earlier blog post introduces the argument like this: 
Say you are in a steady relationship with a significant other. There have been the usual ups and downs of a relationship, but overall things are going pretty good. Let's say, however, that one day you do the one thing that your significant other would possibly break up with you over. What do you do? Let's say there's no chance of them ever finding out. What now? Do you risk it and tell them, being honest? Or do you keep it from them, so that they remain faithful to you?
I admit this is a pretty tough decision. But what is underlying this is whether you simply want to possess the person, or if you love and respect them.
Actually, don't even answer the question. Your particular character isn't what I'm trying to point out here. What I would like to know is: What would a person who values [your] faith over everything else do in this situation? What will they do necessarily? That's right; they would have no second guesses about lying to you to maintain your faith in them.
Now, what if there is no second party involed. No significant other. What if it is just you confronted with a decision to face something that might make you lose faith in someone/something or to ignore that thing? What would a person who values faith do? That's right. They would have no qualms about lying to themselves to maintain their faith.
So what exactly is the difference between faith and self-deception? I don't think there is any difference. If a person cares more about faith than honesty (or “the truth”) then any other option is necessarily some form of deception. 
So it seems to me that faith, specifically Christian faith, actually positions itself sternly in opposition to “truth”.
As it stands, I actually think that this second observation explains the historical situation that created the NT in the first place. The dogma of the new faith in early Christianity was more important than what “actually happened”, whatever that was. So it was necessary to deceive with these works that eventually formed the bulk of the NT. I also think that this second observation about the nature of Christian faith has completely corrupted the Christian religion making it morally bankrupt; why I become even less and less shocked every time I find out that Christians are lying for Jesus. The most recent example I read was how a Christian group claimed that homosexuality has a positive correlation with pedophilia. That is just despicable… but, I'm guessing, what's a “little white lie” to prevent people from viewing homosexuality in a positive light? I assume that's the mentality of those particular Christians, anyway. Would it be a stretch to say that the claim of Jesus being predicted in Jewish scripture is also a lie? That one is probably a bit more fuzzy. But it probably suffices to say that Christianity was exceedingly unpopular among Jews and only gained traction among non-Jews; non-Jews who were free to read the Jewish holy book in a non-Jewish way.
It was Jewish arguments against Christianity that convinced me that Christianity was false. It is the nature of Christian faith that makes me almost certain that I will never be one again on moral grounds.

Posted by on September 27, 2011 in faith


People Who Make More Decisions With Gut Feelings More Likely To Believe In God

Didn't expect something like this in Yahoo! News:
Shenhav and his colleagues investigated that question in a series of studies. In the first, 882 American adults answered online surveys about their belief in God. Next, the participants took a three-question math test with questions such as, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The intuitive answer to that question is 10 cents, since most people's first impulse is to knock $1 off the total. But people who use “reflective” reasoning to question their first impulse are more likely to get the correct answer: 5 cents.

Sure enough, people who went with their intuition on the math test were found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to believe in God than those who got all the answers right. The results held even when taking factors such as education and income into account.

Makes sense, if you know about the unreliable feeling of certainty.
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in cognitive science


Something That Explains Everything… Explains Nothing

So let’s say that someone makes the argument “The existence of X is proof that god exists”. This is all right and good to do, but using god as an explanation in these cases usually follows this line of reasoning:
For example, Seth [of The Thinking Atheist] talks about a hypothetical American teenage boy who is the victim of a shooting. After being shot, the boy is rushed to the hospital, where one of several possible scenarios plays out.

  1. Imagine first that the boy makes a full recovery – the bullets missed all of his vital organs, thank God. He’ll need time to heal, but he won’t suffer any permanent damage. “It’s a miracle,” the religious will say. God is good.
  2. Second, imagine instead that one of the bullets had hit the boy’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. He’ll have to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair… but he’s alive! “God must have had more work for him to do on this earth. Praise the Lord he’s still with us.” God is good.
  3. The worst-case scenario is that the boy dies. His wounds were too severe; the doctors couldn’t save him. “God must have been done with him here on this earth. He’s in a better place now, with no violence and no pain. He’s been called home.” God is good.

In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all.

Tim’s critique of this type of reasoning is legitimate and cogent. If you admit that the survival of the boy is evidence for the goodness of the Christian god, then you have to admit that the death of the boy would be evidence against the goodness of the Christian god.
Though, to make this argument stronger we might be able to express why it fails in a mathematical fashion; why the post-hoc rationalization of many Christians is the equivalent of dividing by zero.
In probability theory there is something called Independence. If P(H|E) = P(H), or if P(H|~E) = P(H), then E and H are independent. So in the above scenario, we have three lines of evidence: The boy lives, the boy is permanently paralyzed, or the boy dies; So let’s say that E is the boy lives and ~E is that the boy is permanently paralyzed or dies. 
Remember that absence of evidence is evidence of absence? That same formula applies here as well, and is a logical inference from the formula to prove independence above. However, following the logic of the Christian above, we have P(H|E) > P(H) and P(H|~E) > P(H). That is, all three scenarios “prove” the goodness of the Christian god… even though all three scenarios are mutually independent. The boy cannot live free of injury, be paralyzed for life, and die all at the same time.
Now we have that equation for absence of evidence being evidence of absence, and we can arrange it in syllogistic format:
P1: P(H|E) > P(H)
P2: P(H|~E) < P(H)
C: P(H) = P(H) – [P(H|E) – P(H) + P(H|~E) – P(H)]
So in order to logically arrive at that conclusion, we have to have some negative numbers in there. If the difference between P(H|E) and P(H) is positive, then its opposite P(H|~E) and P(H) has to be negative. So if P(H) is 50%, and P(H|E) is 55%, then the difference is 5%; there has to be a comparable difference between P(H|~E) and P(H).
Thus we would have 50% [P(H)] = P(H) + [P(H|E) – P(H) + P(H|~E) – P(H)]
50% = 50% + [55% – 50% + ??? – 50%]
50% = 50% + 5% – 50% + ???
50% = 5% + ???
45% = ???
Basically the terms inside of the brackets [] should cancel each other out (i.e. add up to zero) so that we end up with P(H) = P(H). But what if we attempt to follow the logic of the original Christian, that both E and ~E are evidence for the goodness of the Christian god? We end up with the following scenario:
50% = 50% + [55% – 50% + 55% – 50%]
50% = 50% + 5% + 5%
50% = 60%
When was the other time you saw it argued that something like 1 = 2? That’s right: when you divide by zero.
In order to not end up trying to argue that 50% is equal to 60% you have to admit some evidence or outcome that argues against the goodness of the Christian god in this scenario. If you admit that E is evidence of H, then ~E has to be evidence against H. That, or you have to admit that goodness of the Christian god has no affect on whether the boy lives or dies; that P(H|E) – P(H) is equal to P(H|~E) – P(H). The only way that this can happen is if P(H|E) = P(H).
The Christian in the original scenario believes in the goodness of the Christian god no matter what happens to the boy. This means that the goodness of the Christian god has no relationship to whether the boy lives, is permanently injured, or dies. Just like Mars being the fourth planet from the sun has no relationship to whether the boy lives, is permanently injured, or dies. Thus, the goodness of the Christian god, just like Mars being the fourth planet from the sun, cannot be used as an explanation of why the boy lives, is permanently injured, or dies.
So if something is used to explain every outcome, if P(H|E) = P(H) or P(H|~E) = P(H), then it actually explains nothing.
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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Bayes


Canadians losing faith in religion

This makes a good follow up to my previous post:

Religion seems to be a key player in many of today’s top stories, from  stand-alone events – such as the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris linked to  the French government’s proposed burka ban, and rightwing Christian Anders  Behring Breivik’s shooting rampage in Oslo, Norway – to more drawn-out sagas,  such as child abuse in the Catholic Church, and the perception that Christians  are constantly campaigning against gay marriage and abortion.

Canadians who don’t participate in religion themselves experience it in the  news, which can sensationalize the negatives aspects of religion, said Dr.  Pamela Dickey Young, the principal of the School of Religion at Queen’s  University, in Kingston, Ont.

Can it be said that Canadians are actually starting to think that belief in belief is a negative trait? Or are they just thinking that belief is a negative trait? This part is telling:
Dickey Young said when she asks most of her firstyear students if they're religious, they say no. When she asks if they are spiritual, they say yes. She said this follows a general trend among Canadians who are turning away from organized religion – which is seen as a concrete set of pre-ordained rules – in favour of a more personalized spiritual journey.
It seems like they still think tha belief in belief is a positive trait.
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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in atheism


Monotheism Is Inherently Intolerant And Breeds Discord

I was listening to this song while driving to work a couple of days ago and one line from the song stuck out a lot more than it usually does for some reason: “No more war for your god…“. It struck me because a line further along in that song says “live and let live, true freedom“. Is it really possible to live and let live while people believe in god(s)? No man is an island; every single thing that you do – that you are – affects a multitude of people. Do you have a job? That means that someone else does not. Are you in an exclusive relationship with someone? That means that everyone else who is interested in your significant other is excluded from their intimacy. And so on and so forth for every finite thing.

The concept of live and let live is an impossibility due to scarce resources. But were we always fighting about the wrong gods? Is “god” a resource?

In an earlier post I quoted something from Hector Avalos that he argues at further length in one of his books:

Is religion inherently violent? If not, what provokes violence in the name of religion? Do we mischaracterize religion by focusing too much on its violent side? In this intriguing, original study of religious violence, Professor Hector Avalos offers a new theory for the role of religion in violent conflicts. Starting with the premise that most violence is the result of real or perceived scarce resources, Avalos persuasively argues that religion creates new scarcities on the basis of unverifiable or illusory criteria. Through a careful analysis of the fundamental texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Dr Avalos explains how four 'scarce' resources have figured repeatedly in creating religious violence: sacred space (churches, temples, holy cities); the creation of holy scriptures (exclusive revelations); group privilege (chosen people, the predestined select few); and salvation (only some are saved). Thus, Avalos shows, religious violence is often the most unnecessary violence of all since the scarce resources over which religious conflicts ensue are not actually scarce or need not be scarce. Comparing violence in religious and non-religious contexts, Avalos makes the compelling argument that if we condemn violence caused by scarce resources as morally objectionable, then we must consider even more objectionable violence provoked by alleged scarcities that cannot be proven to exist. Moreover, he shows how many modern academic biblical scholars and scholars of religion maintain the value of sacred texts despite their violence. This serious philosophical examination of the roots of religious violence adds much to our understanding of a perennial source of widespread human suffering.

( product review)

The four things that he lists – sacred space, sacred scriptures, group privilege, and salvation – actually are not inherent to all religion all at once. These four things are specifically related to, and are the logical result of, monotheism (which is what he actually argues in the book). Furthermore, these four things might be present in one form or another in polytheistic religions, but due to the “poly” in polytheism, there is no sense of scarcity. That scarcity is a necessary precursor to division and strife, and ultimately, violence.

Before the fall of Judah and the elites' exile c. 597 BCE, the “Judaism” of the common person (not the literate elite) was a polytheistic religion. When the Judahite elites returned from the exile, they brought with them a more concrete, idealized version of their history which included an inflated version of henotheism (the precursor to monotheism); probably borrowed from their Persian Zoroastrian benefactors who allowed them to return. This inflated henotheism is the backbone of all of the conquest narratives in the “Primary History” of Israel/Judah (Genesis – 2 Kings) created and edited by the literate elite c. 500 BCE. This began the Jews' elitism and intolerance for other religions: The first true religious holy war was the Maccabean revolt of c. 160 BCE*. This only came about due to a “scarcity” of sacred space and group privilege. This same intolerance is also what lead to the destruction of their temple in 70 CE, one of the reasons being the refusal to worship Roman emperors as gods.

Modern Christianity, of course, inherited Jewish monotheism (there were multitude of early Christianities that were not monotheistic). Even going so far as to declare not only that they were not going to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, but to actively declare that those gods were malevolent spirits. How's that for acceptance and tolerance? The first biggest turning point in the history of religious violence was when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The second biggest turning point in the history of religious violence was when Islam became the official religion of the (now unified) Arab tribes. Prior to the advent of Christianity, no entire empire the span of the Roman Empire would have declared war on another empire just because they had the wrong religion. That would be absurd in a polytheistic framework.

Prior to Christendom, the pagan Roman Empire simply practiced syncretism on conquered peoples. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they did not kill anyone who believed in the “wrong god” or force everyone to follow the Roman pantheon. No, they just said “Oh, the chief god of the Greeks is Zeus? Well, that's just Jupiter.” or “The Greek god of wine is Dionysus? I guess that's what they call Bacchus.” or “The Greeks named their main city after their goddess Athena? But that's just Minerva” and so on and so forth. However, when Christians conquered other peoples, they actively said that the local gods were really demons and needed to be vanquished, or in later centuries (to their credit) they changed local pagan gods to human saints and angels.

But when Islam came around – a second monotheistic religion – then planes hit the towers, so to say. Instead of just one continent-spanning empire being monotheistic, you had two. Syncretism would be impossible. Something the scale of the Crusades, for the reasons that started them, would probably be unthinkable in a pre-Christian or pre-Muslim pagan world.

Similarly, something like this entire post would be almost impossible in pre-Christian Roman society. If the guy in that post's favorite god that he preferred to make sacrifices to was Ares, but his girlfriend called him Mars, there would be no relationship-ending type of conflict between them over their theology. It seems as though that post really is a microcosm of the inherent intolerance of monotheism; the Crusades being a large scale manifestation of that same intolerance.

Monotheism, due to its nature in the big three monotheistic religions, precludes syncretism. This preclusion of syncretism is also a preclusion to open-mindedness. This preclusion to open-mindedness is what creates tension, strife, division, and finally… violence and hatred.

“Monotheism leads to fear. Fear leads to hatred. Hatred is the path to the dark side…”

[*] (mainly because the Levant was sort of out of the way of most inter-empire conflict. After the split of Alexander the Great's empire into two c. 280 BCE, more and more skirmishes between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies started occurring closer and closer to Judea, and Judea became more Hellenized)

Posted by on September 15, 2011 in economics/sociology


The Criteria For Interpolation: Using Bayes To Evidence Authenticity

In a previous post I went over what I think is an application of sliding the probability one way or another in favor of interpolation based on the criteria I listed (manuscript, anachronism, vocabulary/linguistic, contextual, and doxological inconsistency).

Some people might think that it was unfair that I started with the priors that I did. However, I want to show that, using Bayes Theorem, we can use it to demonstrate a very low probability of interpolation in a separate section using the same priors.

Instead of Romans 1.2-6, let’s say I used a random section like Romans 2.2-6, which is this block of text:

2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” (Psalm 62:12; Prov. 24:12 )

Again, because of Marcion, there is a precedent for general interpolation (verse 6 quotes the LXX which Marcion probably would not have tolerated, and the entire context that this section belongs to speaks about the judgement of Paul’s god). Yet again, there is no manuscript evidence that this section is missing.

Now, is there any linguistic evidence for interpolation? As far as I can tell, all of the vocabulary used by Paul here is vocabulary that he has used elsewhere. And we would expect the original author to use the same vocabulary, so as I wrote in that previous post, based on the conditionals that I outlined, this lack of linguistic inconsistency is strong evidence in favor of originality:

Probability of Authenticity P(H) = .6
Probability of Interpolation P(~H) = .4
Probability of the same vocabulary given authenticity: P(E | H) = .7
Probability of the same vocabulary given interpolation: P(E | ~H) = .3
P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
P(H | E) =  .7 * .6 / [(.7 * .6) + (.3 * .4)]
P(H | E) = .7778

This moves the prior probability of 60% to the revised probability of 78%.

I should note that I picked the conditionals that I did because most scholars would agree that Paul using the same vocabulary given a passage’s authenticity is a very persuasive argument. Likewise, the interpolator using the same vocabulary as the original Paul given an interpolation is proportionally unpersuasive. Like I wrote in the previous post, some scholars consider the arguments I listed for interpolation unpersuasive (at Romans 1.2-6), but even given the unpersuasiveness of the evidence presented, it should still be allowed to slide the probability in favor of interpolation. The amount that one allows it to slide is what is meant by persuasive or unpersuasive.

Now what about the second line of evidence I posted, linguistic/contextual? Again, this section seems to fit word use that Paul always uses in similar contexts. We would expect exactly this, so this is more evidence in favor of authenticity:

Probability of Authenticity P(H) = .78
Probability of Interpolation P(~H) = .22
Probability of vocabulary used in a similar context given authenticity: P(E | H) = .7
Probability of vocabulary used in a similar context given interpolation: P(E | ~H) = .3
P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
P(H | E) =  .7 * .78 / [(.7 * .78) + (.3 * .22)]
P(H | E) = .8909

This moves the prior probability of 78% to the revised probability of 89%.

The third line of evidence, this section being larger than what Paul usually writes in an introduction? Since this is not an introduction, it does not seem applicable. Since it is not evidence either way, it gets a 50/50 chance; that is, it is not evidence of anything so the prior does not change.

Probability of Authenticity P(H) = .89
Probability of Interpolation P(~H) = .11
Probability of section size given authenticity: P(E | H) = .5
Probability of section size given interpolation: P(E | ~H) = .5
P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
P(H | E) =  .5 * .5 / [(.5 * .89) + (.5 * .11)]
P(H | E) = .89

Lastly, I posited theological inconsistency as a marker for interpolation. The theology here (the judgement of Paul’s god) seems to fit Paul’s theme of judgement. And again, this is exactly what we would expect, so this is more evidence in favor of authenticity.

Probability of Authenticity P(H) = .89
Probability of Interpolation P(~H) = .11
Probability of theological consistency given authenticity: P(E | H) = .7
Probability of theological consisency given interpolation: P(E | ~H) = .3
P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
P(H | E) =  .7 * .89 / [(.7 * .89) + (.3 * .11)]
P(H | E) = .9501

This moves the prior probability of 89% to the revised of 95%.The thing that I was hoping to demonstrate here is the fact that Bayes Theorem, if graphed as more evidence is gathered, would produce an asymptote. That is, we can keep gathering evidence all day, but it will never reach 100%. More and more evidence continues to slide the probability towards 1, but it will never reach 1.

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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Bayes


The Battle Between Neuroscience and Philosophy Over the Fate of Free Will

So a couple of weeks ago, Luke at Common Sense Atheism posted a pdf that ran through an experiment that showed that people's brain decided to do something up to 10 seconds before the “person” actually did. This same experiment was recently posted in Nature. Jerry Coyne, of Why Evolution Is True fame, posted his own comments about the article:
The experiments show, then, that not only are decisions made before we’re conscious of having made them, but that the brain imagery can predict what decision will be made with substantial [80%] accuracy.  This has obvious implications for the notion of “free will,” at least as most people conceive of that concept.  We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them.  The implication, of course, is that deterministic forces beyond are conscious control are involved in our “decisions”, i.e. that free will isn’t really “free”. Physical and biological determinism rules, and we can’t override those forces simply by some ghost called “will.”  We really don’t make choices—they are made long before we’re conscious of having chosen strawberry versus pistachio ice cream at the store.
So now I'm also posting the same info. I don't really have any comments, except to explain that this sort of experiment most certainly wouldn't be presented as evidence for free will, so it is certainly evidence against free will. Again, it might be strong or weak evidence. But it is evidence either way.
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in cognitive science

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