Monthly Archives: September 2012

William Lane Craig is an Anti-Gay Bigot

Yes, that’s right. The most popular Christian apologist of the modern era is a rank homophobe.

For what it’s worth, I got this from reading a review by Chris Hallquist concerning WLC’s book Hard Questions, Real Answers. With that said, and accepting that this might bring charges of quote mining, here is a quote from said book:

For example, would you want a practicing lesbian to be your daughter’s physical education teacher at school? Would you want your son’s coach, who would be in the locker room with the boys, to be a homosexual? I, for one, would not support a law which could force public schools to hire such individuals.

WLC then goes on to say that with “[Christian] counseling”, homosexuals can go on “to enjoy normal, heterosexual relations”.


Posted by on September 27, 2012 in deception


The Tree Of Good And Evil

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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Funny


Yom Kippur

Leviticus 16

5 And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two he-goats for a sin-offering, and one ram for a burnt-offering.
6 And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house.
7 And he shall take the two goats, and set them before Yahweh at the door of the tent of meeting.
8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for Yahweh, and the other lot for Azazel.
9 And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for Yahweh, and offer him for a sin-offering.
10 But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before Yahweh, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.
11 And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and shall make atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin-offering which is for himself.

Mark 10

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 14

1 Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
3 The chief priests accused him of many things.
4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested.
7 A man called [Jesus] Barabbas (i.e. “son of the father”) was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.
8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. 9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate
10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.
11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.
14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

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Posted by on September 26, 2012 in allegory, early Christianity


How To Reverse Someone’s Moral Compass

This article over at Scientific American People Can Be Tricked into Reversing Their Opinions on Morality is pretty interesting, I wonder if it could be applied to other things…

The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

But the surveys also contained a ‘magic trick’. Each contained two sets of statements, one lightly glued on top of the other. Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged.

Two statements in every hidden set had been reworded to mean the opposite of the original statements. For example, if the top statement read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the word ‘forbidden’ was replaced with ‘permitted’ in the hidden statement.

Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.

About half of the participants did not detect the changes, and 69% accepted at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favor of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements, the authors write. Hall and his colleagues have previously reported this effect, called ‘choice blindness’, in other areas, including taste and smell and aesthetic choice.

I wish I could see what the actual questions were.

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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in cognitive science


Jesus the Son of Fish

(Jesus fish)

“[T]he son of him whose name was as the name of a fish would lead them [the Israelites] into the land.” (Genesis Rabba 97:3.)

There’s a big push in astrotheology to place the emergence of Christianity on astrological beliefs. This, at first glance, seems pretty absurd to me since it assumes that Jews were the only ones who placed any value on reading the stars. Passover is quite obviously based on “astrology” (more accurately, the seasons/when to begin harvesting) but there’s no other evidence that Jews were actively seeking answers in looking at the movement of the stars. It actually seems to have been prohibited in some fashion (Deut. 4:19, 17:3) but that seems to only serve to create heretics.

As far as I can tell, the crux (heh) of this sort of Christ Myth hypothesis is that the time period that Christianity began was when the Age of Pisces was beginning, with the Pisces sign making some sort of cross or traveling across the sky or due to precession. Of course, precession occurs over the course of thousands of years and wouldn’t happen over just one century or on a particular day. I’m not even sure the ancients knew about precession.

Again, there’s no evidence that Jews or early Christians were paying attention to any of this stuff. Not even the Gnostics penned anything related to astrotheology. Granted, we don’t have all of their writings, but something as fundamental to the beginnings of Christianity being completely absent from the Gnostic writings that we do have seems highly unlikely. Moreover, somehow “the establishment” had successfully removed all traces of this evidence from the historical record. Again, seems highly unlikely since these traces would or should have been saturating the Gnostics’ craziness.

So why did Christians associate Jesus with the sign of a fish? It’s prima facie obvious that Christians were reading the OT. So that should be the first place we look.

Jesus, as I’ve written here in this blog multiple times, is derived from the Latin Iesus (the letter “J” didn’t exist until around the 8th century CE), which is derived from the Greek Ἰησοῦς (Iesous), which is a transliteration — or Greek pronunciation — of the Aramaic יְשֻׁעַ‎‎ or Yeshua, that is, Joshua. Jesus and Joshua are the same exact name.

The first person in Jewish history to have the name “Joshua” was the successor of Moses, and incidentally, is the person who all messiah claimants attempt to emulate: Joshua the son of Nun.

Numbers 13.16:

And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun “Joshua”

But, Joshua wasn’t the son of an actual nun. He was the son of a guy named Nun, or נוּן (NWN). Since names with no meaning is a relatively modern construction, Nun must mean something. As the quote I posted from the Talmud at the beginning of this post implies, “Nun” is Aramaic for fish. And so it looks like “fish” was associated with the name Jesus for hundreds of years before Christianity came about.

So it doesn’t seem as though we have to look into astrotheology to generate a hypothesis for why Christians would use the fish symbol. The fish was already associated with Jesus.

If I take a quick stab at this using some Bayesianism, what are my three variables? The prior probability, the success rate, and the false positive rate. Or in this case, it’s really four variables: The prior probability of both the hypothesis and the alternative (to keep it simple — i.e. false dichotomy —  fish symbolism is from astrotheology or fish symbolism is due to Numbers 13), how strongly fish symbolism would be present in Christianity assuming the truth of astrotheology, and how strongly fish symbolism would be in Christianity assuming a link with Joshua’s parentage.

The prior probability obviously favors Christians getting their symbolism from the OT since this is the more “mundane” explanation. Assuming astrotheology is true, I would guess that it’s more necessary for Christians to have fish symbolism somewhere than assuming symbolism from the OT but not too much. So a Bayes’ Factor would slightly favor astrotheology but not by much since assuming astrotheology I would expect to have much more fish symbolism in Christianity, especially among the Gnostics or even in Paul’s writings. But this isn’t enough to rest a conclusion on, since that would be a base rate fallacy.

In general, then, I would say that the fish symbol is very weak evidence for astrotheology, while the posterior probability still vastly favors a non-astrotheology reason for the emergence of Christianity. Astrotheological mythicists would have to present much more high success rate/low false positive rate (while being careful to avoid being unfalsifiable) evidence for their hypothesis.

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Bayes, historical jesus


Epileptic Seizures and the Birth of Monotheism

From this New Scientist article:

Ashrafian found that each pharaoh died at a slightly younger age than his predecessor, which suggests an inherited disorder, he says. Historical accounts associated with the individuals hint at what that disorder may have been.

“It’s significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them,” says Ashrafian. People with a form of epilepsy in which seizures begin in the brain’s temporal lobe are known to experience hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight. It’s likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy, he says.

This diagnosis would also account for the feminine features. The temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development. This might explain the development of the pharaohs’ large breasts. A seizure might also be to blame for Tutankhamun’s fractured leg, says Ashrafian (Epilepsy & Behavior,

Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele – an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the “sun-disk”, or Aten, into a supreme god – abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Ashrafian’s theory is correct, Akhenaten’s religious experiment and Tutankhamun’s premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition.

“People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,” says Ashrafian.

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in cognitive science


Bayes Theorem Greatest Hits

(The oft-worn image for posts about Bayes)

My blog was mentioned on Richard Carrier’s blog where he requests blogs that do Bayes. Alright! I have all of my posts about Bayes Theorem tagged as Bayes but a lot of the earlier posts were still me working through learning how to use the theorem properly, so they have some errors. I would correct them, but that would take too much work and I mainly blog through my mobile phone (which can be a pain).

So I thought I would do a roundup of my posts with the most hits that are about Bayes Theorem:

The most popular: Bayes Theorem and the Virgin Birth of Jesus

The prior probability would the number of people in human history that have ever lived who were sired by a god and a mortal woman… Imagine if the entirety of humanity were represented by 1,000,000,000 people standing in a room. How many of those 1,000,000,000 people were born from women and a god? It’s zero, but zero isn’t a probability, so for the sake of this example I’ll just say that ten people in that room of 1,000,000,000 people were born from a virgin (i.e. woman egg + god “sperm”).

The task, then, is to show the probability that Jesus is part of that population of people who are born from virgins, given our evidence. Our evidence is stories of people born from virgins. To find that out, we need the success rate and false positive rates for stories of people being born from virgins […] Out of the 100 people estimated to have stories of them being born from a virgin all throughout both recorded and non-recorded history, how many of those people actually were born from virgins? Remember, this is prior to looking at the evidence for Jesus… So for the sake of argument, let’s say that P(E | H) gets it right once out of the 100 times it asserts that someone is born from a virgin. This, by the way, also affects the compliment of P(E | H) which is P(~E | H). That one is the number of people born from a virgin who don’t have stories about them being born from a virgin. Meaning that 90% of 10 people (out of the 1 billion in the room) born from a virgin don’t have stories about it.

On the other hand, out of this group of 100 people, how many people were not born from a virgin? This in reality seems to be 100 out of 100. Again, this is prior to analyzing Jesus so he’s not included. But we also have to take into account the compliment of P(E | ~H) which is P(~E | ~H). That is, the probability of not having a story about you being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin. P(~E | ~H) is the “true negatives” rate which is 1 billion minus the 100 false positives divided by 1 billion. That is 99.99999%. This, in turn, means that P(E | ~H) is 100% – 99.99999% and that’s 0.00001% […]

1. P(H): What is the prior probability of being born from a virgin? 0.000001%

2. P(~H): What is the prior probability of not being born from a virgin? 99.999999%

3. P(E | H): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin given that you actually were born from a virgin? 10%

4. P(~E | H): What is the probability of not having a story about being born from a virgin given that you actually were born from a virgin? 90%

5. P(E | ~H): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin? 0.00001%

6. P(~E | ~H): What is the probability of not having a story about being born from a virgin given that you in fact were not born from a virgin? 99.99999%

The vast majority of humanity falls into the 6th category. There’s also a 7th variable, which is the Total Probability Theorem, or P(E). This is the probability of having a story about a virgin birth period. This number is actually the denominator of Bayes’: [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)].

7. P(E): What is the probability of having a story about being born from a virgin? 0.0000101%

This makes sense, because stories of virgin births in and of themselves are pretty rare. If we multiply P(E) by the total number of people in this hypothetical room – 1 billion – we get 101. Which is the 100 false virgin birth stories and the one success.


So, due to the evidence at hand, we went from 0.000001% probability of being born from a virgin (i.e. 10 out of 1 billion) to 0.990099019703951% probability of being born from a virgin. This [Matt 1.23] is still not very good evidence for Jesus’ virgin birth; it’s less than 1%. Especially since this still means that P(~H) is 100% – 0.990099019703951%, which is 99.009900990001%. Meaning that there is a 99.009900990001% chance that Jesus was not born from a virgin. We would need more evidence to continually corroborate and update that probability.

Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence (redux)

[T]here’s the common refrain that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” but if that were true, then your probabilities won’t be coherent and you’ll Dutch Book yourself above; your terms won’t equal 1.00…

In formulaic terms, your friend [who says absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence] is saying P(H) = .5. P(H | E) > .5, yet P(H | ~E) = .5. We can model this by throwing in some values in Bayes’ Theorem. P(H) is already .5, so let’s say that P(E) is also .5 and P(E | H) is .6. This becomes:

Evidence is found:
P(H | E) = .6 * .5 / .5
P(H | E) = .6

Let’s try it for the absence of evidence. This would be P(H | ~E) = P(~E | H) * P(H) / P(~E). Again, P(H) is already .5, and to keep it simple let’s again make P(~E) equal .5. In order to make P(H) = P(H | ~E), the conditional probability P(~E | H) should also be .5:

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence: P(H | ~E) = .5 * .5 / .5
P(H | ~E) = .5

But wait, remember that P(E) + P(~E) = 1.00. This means that P(~E) is also necessarily .5. What’s the other axiom? P(E | H) + P(~E | H) should also equal 1.00. But in order to make sure that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, we made P(E | H) = .6, and P(~E | H) = .5. That totals to 1.10: DUTCH BOOKED!!11!!

In reality, if P(E | H) is .6 then P(~E | H) is .4.

Was the Eucharist Historical?

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called good news, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of me, this is my body”. And that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, “This is my blood”; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. – First Apology ch 66

Here Justin intimates that Mithraists had a similar meal with similar incantations to the Eucharist while he was alive…

Mithraism and Christianity both seem to have started around the same time, in the 1st century… Mithraism seems to have been a mystery cult that Roman soldiers followed. Similarly, Christianity also seems to have started out as a sort of mystery cult. So we do not have any idea whether the Christian Eucharist preceded the Mithraist “Eucharist”, or vice versa.


A basic syllogistic argument might look like this:

P1: Christians borrowed many ideas from their wider pagan matrix
P2: The Eucharist ceremony has a parallel in their wider pagan matrix
C: Therefore Christians borrowed the Eucharist ceremony from their wider pagan matrix

Justin Martyr’s argument (cleaned up to look more respectable than how he presents it [i.e. getting rid of an appeal to demons]) might look like this:

P1: Christians practice the Eucharist ceremony
P2: Mithraists practice a similar ceremony
C: Therefore Mithraists borrowed their ceremony from Christians


Which is more likely? I think I might try Bayes theorem to find out… Concerning the Eucharist we have two options that have the highest probability: Christians borrowed the Eucharist from pagans, or pagans borrowed the Eucharist from Christians. Or more generally, Christians borrowed ideas from pagans, or pagans borrowed ideas from Christians. Here is a list of themes and ideas that Christians borrowed from pagans for our prior probability (that is, prior to the Eucharist):

1. Hell
2. the Logos (from the Stoics)
3. Virgin births
4. Idea of a Heavenly Man (i.e. Platonism and Forms, cf 1 Cor 15.44-49)
5. Gods descending in the form of an avian creature (cf Mark 1.10)
6. Healing the blind with spit (Mark 8.22-26; John 9.1-7)

Here is a list of themes and ideas that pagans borrowed from Christians prior to the Eucharist:

Zero or unknown.


Since followers of Mithras were generally Roman soldiers, we might expect other military themes or ideas to find its way into Christian culture if Christians had contact with and syncretized with Mithraists. It just so happens that words like “Gospel” (from euaggelion [evangelion] > good news > god spell > gospel) and “Parousia” (para ousia, literally a presence next to; usually reserved for the arrival of royalty or a military ambassador) were both originally used in military applications in a Greco-Roman context. On the flip side, if Mithraists syncreticized ideas from Christians, I would expect followers of Mithras to adopt some other Christian culture besides the Eucharist if they indeed did adopt it from Christians. Maybe something like refering to Mithras as a christ. We have no evidence that they did so. Granted, there is very little evidence for the inner workings and language of Mithraism in general so it’s not saying much.


Running through Bayes Theorem, this puts the probability that Christians took the Eucharists ceremony in its current incarnation from Mithraists at 73%. Which means, I’m surmising, that there’s a 73% chance that the Last Supper is not historical, at least in the symbolically eating the flesh and blood of Jesus way. There probably was some sort of original ceremonial meal, as in the Didache and the probable original version of 1 Cor 11, but was overlapped by the current Mithras-like thanksgiving.

So maybe a Roman soldier joined Christianity after having been a Mithraist and ported the Mithraist “Eucharist” into Christianity. It might even be that, the first gospel Mark was written by a Roman soldier. It’s certainly possible and explains some other oddities/Latinisms in Mark (like the term Syro-Phoenitian), but is it probable? Who knows. That would take some more involved Bayesian judo.

Bayes Theorem and Falsifiability (redux)

Say your friend has two die. One has six sides numbering 1 – 6 and the other is a trick die that has a 1 on all faces. She rolls one of the die at random and it ends up with a 1. What is the probability that the die that she rolled was the normal 6 sided one or the trick die?

For the normal 6 sided die, our probability distribution is P(One | Normal) + P(Two | Normal) + P(Three | Normal) + P(Four | Normal) + P(Five | Normal) + P(Six | Normal) = 1.00. If it is a fair die, then the probability for P(One | Normal) = 1/6 or .1667.

For the trick die, our probability distribution is P(One | Trick) = 1.00.

We can then go through Bayes’ to see what the probability is for her rolling each:

P(Normal | One) = P(One | Normal) * P(Normal) / [P(One | Normal) * P(Normal)] + [P(One | Trick) * P(Trick)]
= .1667 * .5 / [.1667 * .5] + [1.00 * .5]
= .0834 / [.0834] + [.5]
= .0834 / .5834
= .1429

P(Trick | One) = P(One | Trick) * P(Trick) / [P(One | Trick) * P(Trick)] + [P(One | Normal) * P(Normal)]
= 1.00 * .5 / [1.00 * .5] + [.1667 * .5]
= .5 / [.5] + [.0834]
= .5 / .5834
= .8571

So upon rolling a 1, the probability that she rolled the normal sided die is .1429 and the probability that she rolled the trick die is .8571.


This is the problem with positing hypotheses that can equally explain multiple exclusive outcomes, even if there is a high initial probability of that hypothesis being true. If we had a 100 sided die, and a 90% chance of picking that die, upon rolling a 1 there would only be a .1337 probability that the 100 sided die was picked, in contrast to a .7426 probability that the trick die was picked. A 200 sided die would do worse. 300, even worse. Etc.

Moving Beyond Logical Fallacies

1. Prior beliefs influence whether or not the argument is accepted.

A) I’ve often drunk alcohol, and never gotten drunk. Therefore alcohol doesn’t cause intoxication.

B) I’ve often taken Acme Flu Medicine, and never gotten any side effects. Therefore Acme Flu Medicine doesn’t cause any side effects.

Both of these are examples of the argument from ignorance, and both seem fallacious. But B seems much more compelling than A, since we know that alcohol causes intoxication, while we also know that not all kinds of medicine have side effects.

2. The more evidence found that is compatible with the conclusions of these arguments, the more acceptable they seem to be.

C) Acme Flu Medicine is not toxic because no toxic effects were observed in 50 tests.

D) Acme Flu Medicine is not toxic because no toxic effects were observed in 1 test.

C seems more compelling than D.

3. Negative arguments are acceptable, but they are generally less acceptable than positive arguments.

E) Acme Flu Medicine is toxic because a toxic effect was observed (positive argument)

F) Acme Flu Medicine is not toxic because no toxic effect was observed (negative argument, the argument from ignorance)

Argument E seems more convincing than argument F, but F is somewhat convincing as well.

The Problem With Ad Hoc Hypotheses

For example, in order to flip a coin and get three flips of heads in a row, I would have to first flip two heads in a row. In order to flip two heads in a row I have to flip heads on the first flip. Three heads depends on two heads which depends on one heads. Since the probability of flipping heads once is .5, and each additional heads depends on the previous heads, they all multiply together: .5 * .5 * .5 = .125.


What is the probability that I will flip three heads in a row given that I have flipped heads once?

P(Flipping Three Heads In A Row | Flipping Heads Once) = P(E | H) * P(H) / P(E)
= 1.00 * .125 / .5
= .125 / .5
= .25

Given that I have flipped heads once, my prior has moved from .125 to .25.

The Fine Tuning Argument is an Argument for Atheism (Summerized)

According to this apologetics website the probability of the current arrangement of our universe’s constants is the equivalent of picking one red dime out of a pile of 1037 dimes. Or, P(Current Universal Constants) = 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001.


Back to our Total Probability formula:

0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 = P(Current Universal Constants | Christian God) * .7412 + P(Current Universal Constants | Non Christian God, Atheism) * .2588.

0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 = ???? * .7412 + P(Current Universal Constants | Naturalism, Atheism) * . 2588.

It looks like the equation has to be P(Current Universal Constants | Non Christian God, Atheism) > P(Current Universal Constants | Christian God) in such a manner that makes the Total Probability equal to 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001. Since P(Current Universal Constants | Christian God) is basically zero — the majority of the probability capital goes into P(Other Universal Constants | Christian God) — this means that P(Current Universal Constants | Non Christian God, Atheism) is equal to a miniscule amount more than P(Current Universal Constants). At this point, it might as well be equal to P(Current Universal Constants).

Since P(Current Universal Constants | Christian God) is basically, zero, this means that the probability of the Christian god’s existence given the current universal constants is also basically zero. It’s not actually zero because zero isn’t a probability. I’d like to say that I’m the first one to make that argument, but it already looks like other people have come to a similar conclusion about the fine-tuning argument [being an argument for atheism].

I’ll also keep this post in my Pages on the sidebar for quick reference.

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Posted by on September 18, 2012 in Bayes


Christianity Was Basically Inevitable

The following is a good video by Richard Carrier that explains the sociological trends that would have produced Christianity or a religion much like it in a completely naturalistic way. The part I really liked was at around the 9 minute mark where he points out four big trends in the religious landscape prior to Christianity, and Christianity conforms to all four.

  1. Syncretism: combining a foreign cult deity with Hellenistic elements
  2. Monotheism: transforming polytheism into monotheism (via henotheism; Jews called subordinate gods “angels/demons”)
  3. Individualism: agricultural salvation cults retooled as personal salvation cults
  4. Cosmopolitanism: all races are equals (all are brothers) where people join religions instead of being born into them

This fits with a recent post over at Epiphenom: When Did Moralizing Gods Emerge?

Looking at societies cross the world, you’re stuck by the enormous variety of mystical beliefs out there – to the point where, infamously, even trying to come up with a definition of religion that everyone agrees on is pretty much impossible.

Yet there are common themes. Many societies do believe in some kind of chief god, and many of those believe that this god is some kind of parent or leader figure – one that takes an interest in his people, and punishes bad behaviour.

So the question is, do societies vary in some systematic way? Is it, as some people have claimed, that complex societies lead to the development of moralising gods?


They categorised each society according to whether they believed in an active High God (a single, all-powerful creator active in human affairs and supportive of human morality), a High God that is inactive or remote, or no belief in any High God.

Belief in an active High God was significantly greater in societies that were larger, more stratified (i.e. less equality) and societies engaged in intensive agriculture. Now, all of these things go together – you need intensive agriculture to support a large society, and large agricultural societies have the surpluses and politics that facilitate stratification.

All of this fits nicely with the hypothesis that moralising gods are an invention of large, structured societies.


At first blush, all of this is in line with other research that links the emergence of complex societies to the invention of moralising gods. However, that’s not quite the case.

The previous research showed that ‘world religions’ are linked to altruism towards anonymous strangers. In practice, that means breaking down inter-group barriers.

This new research seems to show that moralising powerful gods are linked to stronger group cohesion.

Now, those two results are actually in conflict. But they do reinforce the fact that religious beliefs do not act in a straightforward way.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about this to me was just how much more syncretic societies in antiquity were. I mean, I knew that the Romans pretty much syncretized their state gods with the local gods of the societies they conquered, but I didn’t really follow through with that thought to Hellenism and actually creating some sort of hybrid religion(s).

So for example, Mormonism is actually one branch (the lone successful one, IIRC) of modern religion that mixed beliefs about the newly discovered Native Americans with Western religion (Judaism; Christianity). The same sort of deal happened with the Greeks mixing with their conquered peoples to create new religions as well:

  • Eleusinian & Dionysian Mysteries: Combined Hellenistic religion/philosophy with Phoenician (west Syrian) religion
  • Mysteries of Attis & Cybele: Combined Hellenistic religion with Phrygian (North Turkey) religion
  • Mysteries of Jupiter Dolichenus: Combined Hellenistic religion with Anatolian (W Turkey) religion
  • Mysteries of Mithras: Combined Hellenistic religion with Persian religion
  • Mysteries of Isis & Osiris: Combined Hellenistic religion with Egyptian religion

Of course, Greek influence also spread to Judea. So if you follow this trend to its logical conclusion, we should predict something like:

  • Mysteries of [insert Jewish hero]: Combined Hellenistic religion with Jewish religion

Is this a successful prediction?

Romans 16.25

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past,

1 Corinthians 2:7

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.

If you do a search for the Greek word “mystery” (μυστήριον :: mysterion) in the LXX and NT you will only get hits for Daniel, Paul, and the author of Revelation. All works composed after Alexander the Great.

The point with this one is that Jews wouldn’t actually have some sort of subordinate god that gets Hellenized who then offers salvation. Since Jews only had one god (due to henotheism) they renamed what their neighboring pagans called “gods” to being angels, archangels, or demons. There is scant evidence of this, but it seems as though some Jews had a belief in the pre-existence of certain Patriarchs, like Jacob, who would necessarily be an archangel in heaven:

Here is the Prayer of Joseph as found in Origen’s commentary on John 2:31:

Should the piece; entitled “The prayer of Joseph,” one of the apocryphal works current among the Hebrews, be thought worthy of credence, this dogma will be found in it clearly expressed. Those at the beginning, it is represented, having some marked distinction beyond men, and being much greater than other souls, because they were angels, they have come down to human nature.

Thus Jacob says: “I, Jacob, who speak to you, am Israel, I am an angel of God, a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were created before every work of God; and I am Jacob, called Jacob by men, but my name is Israel, called Israel by God, a man seeing God, because I am the first-born of every creature which God caused to live.”


I am Israel and archangel of the power of the Lord and a chief captain among the sons of God? Am not I Israel, the first minister in the sight of God, and I invoked my God by the inextinguishable name?”

Another archangel who was once an earthly hero is Melchitsedek (depicted as a normal human in Genesis, but as an archangel in the DSS literature. He was even born from a virgin). Then we have the archangel the Logos. Philo’s Logos was called the firstborn of God, his high priest, his agent through which he created the world, and many other ideas that seem to be “Christian” in nature.

So we have a few candidates for a Jewish archangel to get Hellenized and come down from heaven to offer salvation before Christianity came about.

Now not all of these syncretic (Hellenistic+) religions had dying/rising gods; Romulus, Osiris, Zalmoxis (mixing Hellenistic with the Getae) were dying and rising gods. But these gods did all have certain things in common:

  • Are savior gods
  • Or the “son” of God
  • Undergo a passion
  • Obtain victory over death, which propegates to their followers
  • Euhemerized, but didn’t actually exist

So it looks like that as soon as Alexander the Great conquered Judea, a religion like Chrisitanity would have happened no matter what; regardless of a historical Jesus.


Posted by on September 11, 2012 in historical jesus


Unfalsifiable = Statistical Independence?

Statistical Indepdendence is what happens when the probability of a hypothesis being true is equal to the probability that the hypothesis is true given some evidence. So for example, the probability that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun is equal to the probability that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun given that I’m a male. My being a male has no bearing on whether Mars is the fourth planet from the sun or not.

That is, P(Mars is 4th) = P(Mars is 4th | I’m Male).

Statistical independence is basically what is happening with the Monty Hall problem. Simply put, the probability of you picking the correct door is equal to the probability that you’ve picked the correct door given that the announcer has picked one wrong door; the announcer is going to pick one wrong door whether you picked a successful door or not. It just so happens that the unpicked door is not independent of the announcer’s choice, so that is the probability that changes (you can play around with the Monty Hall problem here to see that changing choices will regress to the mean of being right 2/3 of the time).

On the other side, when a hypothesis is unfalsifiable, this means that there is no observation or evidence that can decrease the probability of that hypothesis. And if there’s no observation or evidence that can decrease the probability of that hypothesis, then there’s no observation or evidence that can increase the probability of that hypothesis (this is why absence of evidence is evidence of absence). Which, in and of itself, means that it is a low probability hypothesis.

But this got me thinking… the two sound a lot alike. It seems to me that independence is just a single instance, as it were, of being unfalsifiable. So, Mars being the fourth planet from the sun isn’t unfalsifiable in and of itself, but my being a male in relation to Mars’ position from the sun regresses in the same way that an unfalsifiable hypothesis does.

What makes a hypothesis unfalsifiable is that the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypothesis is equal to the conditional probability of not having the evidence given the hypothesis (or the conditional probability of some other evidence [of the same reference class] given the hypothesis). So the conditional probability of my being a male given that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun is equal to the conditional probability of my being a female given that Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. This is exactly what happens with an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

The example of unfalsifiability that I give is the probability that god created humans given evolution (basically theistic evolution). This probability is equal to god creating humans given some other means of creation, since there’s no restriction on how an all powerful god would create us; that’s what makes it unfalsifiable (a hypothesis that asserts that humans could only have come about by evolution and no other means, like naturalism [or a non-all powerful god], is a falsifiable hypothesis).

This, then, means that the conditional probability of us coming about by evolution given that god created humans is equal to the conditional probability of us coming about by some other means (e.g. Creationism) given that god created humans.

So are they the same? Thinking more about it, it doesn’t seem so. They are related, definitely, but not the same. What actually drives independence is having Bayes Factor, or the Likelihood Ratio, equal to 1. That is, the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypothesis is equal to the conditional probability of the evidence given some alternative hypothesis. In unfalsifiability, the driving force is the equivalence between the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypothesis and the conditional probability of some other evidence (of the same reference class) given the same hypothesis.

In unfalsifiability, the alternative hypothesis — the hypothesis that is falsifiable — will always gain probability because it is falsifiable. In independence, the alternative hypothesis doesn’t gain or lose probability because the original hypothesis doesn’t gain or lose probability; e.g. the probability that Mars is not the fourth planet from the sun given that I’m male also doesn’t change. Though there can definitely be overlap; if there is some unfalsifiable hypothesis with only two theoretical possibilities (like evolution vs. creationism) and the evidence (the Total Probability) was 50%, this would function just like independence, since in this case P(E | H) = P(E). That would make Bayes’ Factor equal to 1.

So the lesson here is to always take into account alternative hypotheses.

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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Bayes


Japanese Jesus

(Sign explaining legend of grave of Jesus Christ, in Japanese.)

“Leo Quix” has an interesting post today, Parahistory and the Historical Jesus:

In 1935, while researching his family’s library in the prefecture of Ibaraki (about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo), a man named Kyomaro Takeuchi claimed to have unearthed some very ancient documents which turn out to be the source of this peculiar, lesser-known variant of the Jesus legend. [me: does this sound familiar?] These documents included the Legend of Daitenku Taro Jurai (the Japanese name that Jesus would reportedly take on for himself). The legend revealed that Jesus first came to Japan during the reign of the eleventh emperor Suinin, landing at the port of Hashidate (on the western coast of Honshu), and that he eventually settled in the Etchu province, where he studied Japanese language, literature, and philosophy under a Shinto priest.

After this formative period of immersion into pre-classical Japanese culture, it is reported that Jesus returned to Judea. The New Testament tells us what happened next. The part where Jesus less-than-triumphantly marches into Jerusalem one Passover weekend to usher in the new Davidic age, botches it up and then proceeds to get crucified in the process for all his trouble, is ingrained into our collective cultural frontal lobe. There’s no need to revisit the details of the familiar story. But the Takeuchi documents have a different, happier ending than the New Testament does. They inform us that Jesus was in fact spared the undignified death outlined in the gospels. Cancel the passion. Cancel the resurrection. Cancel Pentecost. The ancient texts tell us that Isukiri, Jesus’ baby brother, voluntarily took his place and died instead.[1]  Having thus escaped death by the hand of Rome Jesus hurried eastward, carrying with him his martyred brother’s ear and a lock of hair from their mother. After much hardship along the long way from Judea to Japan (via Siberia and Alaska—!!—, we are told) Jesus eventually made it home to Japan. The legend then holds that during this second visit, Jesus eventually settled down in Herai, married a woman named Miyuko, worked as a simple rice farmer, raised a couple of daughters, and later died there at an extremely advanced age. The Takeuchi documents further reveal the Sawaguchi family to be the direct descendants of Jesus of Nazareth

The tale of Jesus being swapped by a doppelganger is at least as old as the late 1st / early 2nd century. The first person to have promulgated this variant of the myth is a Gnostic named Basilides, who was said to be a disciple of Peter. In Basilides’ version, Jesus switches places with Simon of Cyrene and looks on while Simon is crucified. I’m not sure whether Basilides was a true docetist or not, but docetism might be at play there.

Of course, you may think that the tale ends there, but the same motif seems to have been involved in the foundation of Islam. In Islamic lore, Jesus is switch by Allah himself with a sort of ghost or phantom (i.e. docetism!) on the cross. The phantom is “crucified” while Allah whisks the real Jesus up to heaven. Literally, the Koran says that it only “seemed” that Jesus was crucified but actually wasn’t; and that’s exactly where the word “docetism” comes from: Dokeo (δοκέω), “to seem”.

He also has this footnote at [1] about the strange name of the brother who is crucified in Jesus’ stead:

The phonetic quality of written Japanese katakana highlights a curious relation between the names of the two brothers. The name of Jesus, イエスキリスト (= Iesukirisuto) contains the name of his brother  イスキリ (=Isukiri). It’s really a condensation of the first five characters of the former name to four (just omit the ‘e’=エ). Compositionally, this link between the names sets up a potential doppelganger motif to the tale. Note that the name Isukiri is a far cry from Jacob, Judas, Simon, or Joses, the names of Jesus’ brothers as listed in the Gospel of Mark.

This is interesting because one of Jesus’ disciples is named Judas “Twin Twin”. That is, Judas Didymus Thomas. Didymus (δίδυμος) is Greek for “twin” and Thomas is Aramaic for “twin”.

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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in historiography, post-nicaea Christianity

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