Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sidebar Updated

I cleaned it up and added a few new skeptic blogs:
  • Abandoning Eden - A poignant new blog by the commenter I highlighted here. Be sure to check out the letters to and from her Orthodox father regarding her dating a non-Jew.
  • The Journey Off is a blog by a frum girl who no longer believes.
  • Safkanut is by an arch-skeptic who remains Orthodox in practice and is looking for reasons to believe, albeit without much hope.

(Edited to add a few I forgot. Sorry guys!!)
  • Lubab no more is the blog of an ex-Lubovitcher who is a heretic on the inside and a Modern Orthodox Jew on the outside.
  • Ba'al Tshuvas Anonymous is run by a ba'al teshuva (formerly non-Orthodox Jewish person who became Orthodox) who has become a skeptic.
  • Failed Messiah is guy who brings needed attention to a lot of the problems that are swept under the rug by the Orthodox communities. Here's what he believes and don't miss his story of attempting to get Chabad to help Ethiopian Jews

Frequently Asked Questions

I've decided to consolidate these links in a post, rather than on my sidebar:

  • How I Left Orthodoxy
  • How I Became an Atheist
  • Who Wrote the Bible?
  • How to be a Happy Atheist
  • The Source of my Morality
  • How Can I Be Jewish and an Atheist?
  • A Roundup of my Early Posts
  • Intellectual Cowardice in Orthodox Judaism
  • Intermarriage and Interdating, Part II
  • Evolution and Creationism
  • Monday, August 27, 2007

    Lots o' Links

    • Congrats to super-blogger and columnist Andrew Sullivan and new J-blogger Skeptodox, who are getting married! (Not to each other.)
    • According to the AP, Americans blowing the whistle on corruption in Iraq are vilified, fired, demoted, and jailed.
    • Ted Nugent (video) brandishes machine guns on stage, tells Obama and Hillary to "suck on this." Calls him a "piece of shit," her a "worthless bitch." Crowd goes wild.
    • Chutzpah, n. Teg Haggard, disgraced hypocritical self-hating homophobe, who will receive $138,000 this year from the settlement with his church, who owns a house that's worth over $700,000 dollars, is requesting donations so that he and his wife can go to school full-time and provide counseling at a half-way house.
    • It's been 50 years since one student opened a Quran during his public high school's mandatory Bible study time, leading to the landmark Supreme Court case banning school-sponsored prayer.
    • The Friendly Atheist asks how atheist parents should approach their religious children.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007

    If God Exists, Everything is Permitted Part II

    In If God Exists, Everything is Permitted, I quoted Slavoj Zizek about how Dostoevsky had it backwards. Here's a real-life example:
    Terrorists are turning more and more to crime to fund violence, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service... Oddly enough, religious groups may be more likely than political groups to turn to crime, since their sense of divine mission helps them convince themselves that any means is morally acceptable. (Islamic terrorists also find wiggle room by calling their depredations “economic jihad.”) Authorities suspect that profits from the sale of South American cocaine, Moroccan hashish, and Afghan opium support terror, but terrorist groups have also stooped to counterfeiting, bootlegging Viagra, sticking up jewelry stores, and heisting infant formula.

    “Terrorist Precursor Crimes: Issues and Options for Congress,” Siobhan O’Neil, Congressional Research Service (PDF)

    Emphasis added. Via The Atlantic Monthly.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    The Right-Wing Mythos and Star Trek: The Next Generation

    Here's an interesting and unique essay. I'm not saying it's 100% correct and it certainly doesn't apply to everybody on the right, but I think it strikes a chord. I've taken the liberty of cutting out a lot of extraneous bits, but feel free to read the original yourselves.

    The key to understanding right-wing rhetoric can be found in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    In “Darmok” (originally aired 1991) the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. “We come in peace,” say the Enterprise crew. “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra,” reply the Tamarians. “Temba, his arms wide.” The Next Generationers are baffled.

    But then Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means “Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.” So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, “Bye. It’s been real.”


    The point I want to make here is that when righties talk about history, they are not talking about what actually happened in the past. Instead, they are evoking historical persons and events as archetype and allegory.

    Thus, when they speak of Winston Churchill, they are not speaking of the real Winston Churchill. They are speaking of what Winston Churchill represents in their minds, which is the stubborn refusal to back down from a fight. In fact, the real Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1922 advising him that British troops should abandon Iraq.


    But instead of actually studying the life and words of Churchill for understanding, righties simply evoke the man as an archetype of bulldog, never-give-up tenacity. I’ve read that Bush keeps a bust of Churchill in the oval office, for inspiration. And perhaps there’s something like tantric identity yoga going on here; Bush imagines himself to be the great Churchill, the wrathful dakini of Stubbornness.

    Very likely righties associate Churchill with his great oratory of World War II and know little else about him. They don’t stop to consider that in his “blood, sweat, and tears” speech Churchill was talking about a major military power capable of raining bombs on London (and, in fact, preparing to do so). Hitler’s Germany and today’s Iraq are in no way equivalent — except in the minds of righties, for whom “Hitler” has become the Demon Enemy whose spirit infests the bodies of all enemies, whoever they are and whatever their capabilities and intentions.

    By the same token, Neville Chamberlain is the archetype of cowardly appeasement. Righties may know little else about the man except that he “appeased” Hitler — not an uncommon practice among right wingers of the 1930s, who considered Hitler and Mussolini to be swell guys who hated communism as much as they did.


    In the rightie mind, any attempt to avoid war is “appeasement.” In his new book A Tragic Legacy, Glenn Greenwald writes (p. 177) that when Ronald Reagan signed the INF treaty with the Soviet Union in 1988, rightie editorialists everywhere evoked Neville Chamberlain and accused Reagan of “appeasement.” Earlier, in 1984, Newt Gingrich scorned Reagan’s rapprochement with Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolph Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

    Got that? All “enemies” are Hitler (whatever you think of Gorbachev, he’s hardly Hitler). So much as meeting with “enemies” is Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich. So how do we deal with nations whose interests don’t harmonize with ours? Rightie mythos leaves us with no option but war.

    Speaking of Reagan — this past January, conservative Ron Dreher spoke on NPR about why he became a Republican:

    My first real political memory came in 1979. It was listening to Jimmy Carter tell the nation about the failed hostage rescue mission. I hated him for that. I hated him for the whole Iran mess, shaming America before our enemies with weakness and incompetence.

    When Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year, I stayed up late to hear his victory speech. America was saved. I was 13 years old, and I was a Reaganite from that moment on...

    I call today’s righties the “Reagan generation” because so many of them are Gen-X’ers whose first memories of politics and national events involved Carter and Reagan. They weren’t so much taught politics as imprinted with the Reagan mythos. For them, all Democrats are Jimmy Carter, an archetype of wimpy passivity. Reagan represents confidence, action, sunniness. The two of them together represent opposing forces that tell the entire story of American politics. Nothing more needs to be understood or thought through. Democrats bad, Republicans good, end of argument.

    The actual persons Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are/were far more complicated than the Carter and Reagan archetypes, of course, and they both have/had their virtues and flaws. Today’s righties have forgotten the “Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF treaty” story, and it has passed out of rightie mythos. They also persistently overlook Reagan’s raising of taxes after he lowered them and his quick skedaddle out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks tragedy. What’s important to them is not what Reagan actually did as President, but what he represents emotionally and mythically.

    In fact, the mythical Carter/Reagan dichotomy — Carter as murky, depressed, weak, passive and Reagan as clear, sunny, strong, and active — is exactly the yin/yang dichotomy. I could write a whole ‘nother post on gender politics and the many associations of liberalism with femininity and conservatism with masculinity, never mind reality. In fact, I did write that post awhile back. But for now, I just want to point to this as another layer of the right-wing subconscious and postulate that men with gender insecurity are more likely to lean right than left.

    So yesterday, after years of denying historical comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, President Bush delivered a speech comparing Iraq to Vietnam. To which much of America responded, WTF? Today America’s newspapers are peppered with complaints from historians that Bush’s speech distorted the facts of the Vietnam War. But of course; what actually happened during and after the war was not the point. He was speaking to those still inclined to support the war, and to them, Vietnam represents national disgrace. It also represents allowing the forces of darkness to scamper unhindered over the land. When Bush spoke of “killing fields,” for example, rightie listeners could relate. There was a movie about that, after all, never mind that the killing fields of Cambodia didn’t happen because America withdrew from Vietnam, but because we were bleeping there.

    “It is undoubtedly true that America’s failure in Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia,” said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

    “But there are a couple of further points that need weighing,” he added. “One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”

    Ah, but let us not bother with facts. Facts are for wonks and women. Real men, heroic men, listen to their hearts, or perhaps something else located along the lower part of the brain stem. We need not fear actual consequences of our actions. Our quest is to re-enter the heart of darkness and slay the demon therein, even though he is probably us. And if we fail, the failure will not be ours, but will be the Democratic Party’s. Win/win.

    We lefties sometimes persist in trying to reason with righties. I’ve given up, mind you, but there are those who still try. But I say this is futile. As with the encounter between the Enterprise and the Tamarians, we don’t understand each others words. “We want what’s best for America,” we say. “Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich!” they cry. “Sam Waterson and John Malkovich in Phnom Penh! FDR at Yalta!” Perhaps they would listen to us if we convinced them we were channeling the spirit of John Wayne at Iwo Jima.
    As an aside, I'm particularly optimistic about the Democrats' chances in 2008 because none of the likely nominees fit into the Carter archetype, as Kerry did so perfectly and Gore did if you didn't look too closely. Hillary is a lot of things, but she's no wimp, and there's no way Obama -- he of the baritone voice and incomparable gravitas -- is going to be painted as another liberal wuss. (Edwards is the only candidate with half a chance who could be. If you have any doubt as to the truth of this Reagan/Carter dynamic in the right-wing mythos, just look to the right-wing smears of Edwards as "the Breck girl" and "faggot.")

    Disturbing Quote of the Day: Intermarriage

    Eliahu Levenson at Beyond BT:
    Jewish men must leave their non-Jewish wives. No “gett” (Jewish divorce decree) is required because God does not recognize Jewish intermarriage. AND, because the women were not Jewish, meaning the children were also NOT JEWISH, the children are being left behind as well. If you think that is harsh, understand that God expects His Jewish Covenant to be adhered to in every respect. God says it is life and death…”CHOOSE LIFE!” (Devarim 30:19)

    Devarim is Deuteronomy in Hebrew.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Rational Atheism

    This article by Michael Shermer is making the rounds.
    Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

    He then lists the following 5 reasons, elaborating on each:
    1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.
    2. Positive assertions are necessary.
    3. Rational is as rational does.
    4. The golden rule is symmetrical.
    5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.

    The piece features two great quotes as well:
    Charles Darwin: It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”
    I didn't realize Darwin became as opposed to Christianity and theism as this quote implies. Fascinating.

    Martin Luther King, Jr: The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

    We should be careful not to alienate our religious allies.

    Reader Poll on Global Warming

    Just curious. If you wouldn't mind, please assign what chance (0% - 100%) you think that each of the following is true:

    1) The Earth warmed, on average, around .75 degrees C during the 20th century.

    2) The main influence of this warming was man-made greenhouse emissions.

    3) Variations in solar output have had a significant influence on global warming.

    4) If global warming is happening, it will have serious detrimental effects on humanity.

    5) If global warming is happening, humanity is capable of halting or reversing it.

    6) There was a scientific consensus on "global cooling" in the 70s.

    Saturday, August 18, 2007

    "The truth is that for many orthodox parents, religion is put above their children."

    My first post about Intermarriage and Interdating continues to get comments more than a year after I posted it.

    Here's the latest, from arielle:
    Reading over these comments, i see a bunch of people who don't understand what it is like to grow up in an orthodox family and then intermarry. I found this blog when i was tryign to google people going through the same situation as me...I grew up orthodox, have been an atheist all my life (i remember in 1st grade moving my lips during davening so i could pretend to pray, because I didn't believe in it). I "came out" as non orthodox when I started college and moved out of my parents I am 25, seriously dating another atheist, who was raised catholic. All those people who say that if you are happy your parents will be happy, etc, that's just not true. My parents talk over me when i mention anything having to do with my boyfriend, use every excuse to give me a musser speach, and have flat out told me that if i marry him, they will no longer be able to talk to me. When I tell them I'm happy, they reply that I only "think" i'm happy, and that down the line i'll REALLY be miserable. Last week I attended my grandmother's funeral, and my father used around half the eulogy to talk about how he has to remember his mother by passing on jewish traditions to his children and make sure his children are jewish, etc. Now my dad is a baal tshuva, and his mom never cared who i dated...the only thing she ever asked me is if i was happy.

    while it would be nice to think that parents will be happy if you are happy, the truth is that for many orthodox parents, religion is put above their children. It's sad, and hard to understand if you don't come from that background, but it can come down to a choice between your parents and the person you love- and they set it up that way to put incredible pressure on their kids to marry jewish. Meanwhile, most jewish people i have dated over the years (and it's been a LOT) do not have similar views to me on how to live your life, god, feminism, etc. When I started dating my current boyfriend on the other hand, it was like "wow, i finally understand what people are going on about when they talk about meeting 'the one'"; not only do we agree on most issues and get along great, the fact that we were both raised in very extreme religious conditions (his parents are fanatically catholic, and he was kicked out of his house for a while as a teenager because he did not want to get confirmed) brings us even closer together.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007


    Followup: Gil Student and Censorship

    In the comments section of the very post that claimed his censorship policy was "not out of fear but out of annoyance," Rabbi Student censored a comment in a way that can leave no doubt that it is in fact about fear and not annoyance.

    Commenter Modeh B'Miktsas provided a list of blogs that allow free discussion "for those skeptics who don't know where else to post." The comment could not be construed by any rational individual as rude or annoying, but Rabbi Student censored it with this explanation: they can find these places on their own.

    What is the purpose of making it harder for skeptics to find places where they are welcome to comment? The only possible explanation is that Rabbi Student is, in fact, afraid of open debate, not just for himself but for all the doubters out there. He is afraid that if both sides are allowed to argue their point of view, people who are on the fence will be swayed by the skeptics.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Right, Left, and Censorship

    Rabbi Gil Student now has an official policy banning "comments that attempt to undermine Judaism." In the comments section, he provides an example:
    Do not debate whether the Torah is from Sinai.

    Isn't it interesting that virtually all the frum blogs ban skeptical comments, while all (as far as I know) skeptical blogs allow religious ones?

    He argues:
    I have no doubt that skeptic blogs will take this as an admission that traditional Judaism cannot withstand criticism. Let them. It is nothing but a willful delusion.

    If traditional Judaism can withstand criticism, then why doesn't it? Where can skeptics or even Orthodox people with serious questions go to have their questions answered? We can go to individual rabbis, of course, who will give us idiosyncratic answers which they would never even own up to in public.

    If you're so concerned about people being "at-risk" for going off the derech, Rabbi Student, you should give us skeptics something other than the brush-off that we've been getting from rabbis our whole lives.

    (I see a similar pattern among political blogs, although much less pronounced. DailyKos, for example, allows all kinds of dissent, while Little Green Footballs -- winner of the JIBs for "Best Israel Advocacy blog -- will ban you for saying something the site owners disagree with.)

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Essay Question for the Orthodox

    I thought this would be interesting:

    Imagine that, through no "fault" of your own, you come to believe that God does not exist and that Orthodox Judaism is not factually correct. Furthermore, you are so convinced of your new belief that you can't imagine ever going back to your previous beliefs.

    What do you imagine doing and thinking about over the next few weeks? How does this affect the future you always imagined? How does it change your relationships?

    Answers of "that could never happen to me" will be roundly booed. I'm especially interested in answers from Orthodox people with no serious doubts, but this is open to everybody.

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    Cheney About How Invading Iraq would Cause a Quagmire and a Fissured State

    Wow. Who knew he was an America-hating liberal back in '94?

    Via Radley Balko.

    As Balko wrote, we already knew he said things like this, but to actually hear it... Wow.

    Saturday, August 11, 2007

    Guest Post: Fundamentalists and Sceptics both Misunderstand the Bible

    Today we have a guest post from Stephen of Outside the Box and Emerging from Babel. We've been commenting on each other's blogs for a long time and he's always been thoughtful and open-minded.

    I'll leave my response as the first comment.

    1. Premodern people

    If you want to know what a premodern person looks like, don't suppose that fundamentalists constitute a contemporary case study. Paradoxically, fundamentalists (whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish) are a product of modernity.

    In The Battle For God (there's a good review here), Karen Armstrong argues that fundamentalism arose in reaction to modernity. Two inferences follow:
    1. Fundamentalists of the contemporary sort did not exist when the Bible was written.
    2. Contemporary fundamentalists are thoroughly modernist in their mindset.
    Contemporary fundamentalists are modernists because they attempt to read the scriptures literally, as if they were lab reports or newsreel footage. Sceptics read the scriptures that way, too, and find them an easy target for mockery.

    If you want to know what a premodern person looks like, natives (Indians) provide a better example. I'm sure that Indians have been co-opted by modernity in many respects. But insofar as they have preserved their ancestral way of life, they also preserve elements of a premodern worldview.

    In native communities, we see a mindset starkly different than that of fundamentalism. The difference is, Indians understand the literary genre, myth. Of course "myth" is our label, not theirs; they would perhaps speak of "our traditions" or "the wisdom of the elders". Regardless, Indians "get" myth in a way that fundamentalists manifestly do not.

    For example, each Indian community has its own creation myth, often giving primordial animals a pivotal role. No one seems troubled by the fact that the tale circulated in one region contradicts the tale circulated in another region. No one asks whether Earth was "really" made from foam or mud, or whether the trickster is "really" a coyote or a raven. And no one feels compelled to take up arms to slay the infidel. It's all good seems to be the general attitude: because Indians relate to the stories as myth.

    Even if the stories can't be taken literally, they have value because of the worldview they inculcate. They tell Indians how to relate to their world (e.g., respect Mother Earth; always give something back to her when you take something). They tell Indians what their place in the world is (man is not the focal point of creation, but just one of Mother Earth's inhabitants). And the stories inculcate not only a mindset but also a way of life. The stories look backward, and the way of life involves preserving the practices of the past.

    If you told an Indian that her traditions have no value because they are not science or history, she would tell you that you have a queer value system.

    2. Genesis 1-11 as myth

    Contemporary Indian communities have many traits in common with the ancestral Israelites. The following examples come to mind:
    • communitarian (not individualist) orientation;
    • tribal organization;
    • ruled by elders;
    • focus on ownership of land as crucial to survival and community identity;
    • traditional wisdom and mores expressed in narrative (not propositional) form.
    • traditions passed down orally. (Indian communities still rely on the oral transmission of their most important traditions, even today.)
    • the way of life involved preserving the practices of the past. (In Israel, the prophets introduced a future-oriented perspective. Even then, the prophets continued to point Israel back to its origins in the Exodus.)
    I'm suggesting that the ancient Israelites probably regarded their origin stories approximately the same way as contemporary Indian communities regard theirs. I presume that they didn't take the stories literally. They wouldn't have been troubled by contradictory details. They wouldn't have insisted that this thing or that thing "really happened".

    For example, scholars believe that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
    These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

    When no bush of the field was yet in the land [or "yet in the earth"] and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….

    (Genesis 2:4-7a, English Standard Version)

    Note that there is only one "day" of creation, not seven (per Genesis 1). And human beings were created before there was any vegetation (contra Genesis 1, in which vegetation was created on day three and human beings on day seven).

    Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the above text and Genesis 1. This is a constant temptation: to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication. More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details (was it "really" a coyote, or was it a raven?) was simply immaterial.

    Fundamentalists betray a modernist mindset when they insist that the variant details Can too! be reconciled, and they set out to devise convoluted explanations to prove it.

    The first eleven chapters of Genesis constitute Israel's prehistory. The narratives were told and retold (or re-enacted, as a kind of dramatic performance) in communal settings. Each performance would vary in small details, reflecting the individual storyteller's personality and artistry. This process went on generation after generation, until the stories were crafted into the (stylized) forms they now take. Only then were they compiled and shaped into a continuous narrative by an anonymous editor. (Moses? It's unlikely, since Moses was a man of action, not a man of letters; but in any event it doesn't matter — it's beside the point.)

    Everything in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is myth, pure and simple. The traditions are nonetheless invaluable to people of faith.

    3. Myth and history elsewhere in the Bible

    What of the later chapters of Genesis, plus the rest of the Pentateuch and the later historical books? Here the division between myth and not-myth is not so straightforward.

    The general picture — oral tradition, re-enacted with variant details over countless generations — still applies. Thus even the historical traditions that have come down to us are highly stylized.

    And even when the oral traditions were set down in writing, it was only a sort of first edition. The editorial process continued unabated. Scholars maintain that the traditions were re-edited at critical junctures to keep them current in new historical circumstances. This process continued until the exile in Babylon, during which the Hebrew scriptures evidently took their final form.

    Did Abraham even exist? Did the Exodus happen? Did Elijah defeat the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? The only access we have to these events is through Israel's stylized traditions. We certainly don't have enough data to convince a "scientific" historian, because science always begins from a position of scepticism. Historians do not concede the benefit of the doubt.

    In some cases, the appeal to myth continues to serve us very well, even in ostensibly historical settings. For example, the Akedah — the binding of Isaac. When God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac, Abraham was ready to obey. He didn't even pause to plead for Isaac's life, as he had for Lot's family when God resolved to destroy Sodom.

    If we regard the story as history, it is morally repugnant. But what if we regard it as myth — a kind of morality play? We can then distance ourselves from a literal application: Obedience to God must be absolute, even if God asks you to murder your own child. We can instead focus attention on the moral progress which the story brought about: The descendants of Abraham learned from this narrative that child sacrifice is contrary to God's will.


    I hate to leave the reader hanging at this point. There's at least one crucial question that I haven't addressed: What method shall we use to interpret premodern traditions in a (post)modern era? I could share a series of hermeneutical principles in response to that question, but the post is already too long.

    At least I have made the following points:
    1. Fundamentalists are modernist in their mindset;
    2. Ancient Israel probably regarded its traditions approximately the way that contemporary Indians regard their traditions;
    3. The process of oral transmission has distanced the texts from the actual historical events, and cast them in a highly stylized form;
    4. Therefore the biblical traditions cannot be interpreted literally, like a lab report or newsreel footage;
    5. But the traditions are still invaluable to people of faith: even if they are entirely (Genesis 1-11) or partially (Genesis 12-50) mythological in nature.
    I don't suppose that any of Jewish Atheist's readers will assent to all of the above points. The point of view that I represent (influenced by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur and the Protestant Christian exegete Walter Brueggemann) is alien to sceptics and true believers alike.

    Whether or not people find my perspective persuasive, I wanted to make the point that there is a "third way" on offer. This "third way" avoids the dichotomy that is usually represented in debates over religion: a literal reading of scripture (on the one hand) and a repudiation of scripture (on the other).

    In my view, fundamentalists and sceptics both misunderstand the Bible because they apply a modernist mindset to it.

    Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Cartoon of the Day: Liberty vs. Safety

    Snark of the Day: Bush and Hypocrisy

    President Bush today called on the Iranian people to reject their hard-line government, saying they "can do better" and need not be isolated by a leadership that destabilizes its neighbors and pursues a suspected nuclear weapons program.

    LOL. Yeah, you should have leadership like ours, which destabilizes critical non-neighbors while adding "tactical" nuclear weapons to our thousands of existing nukes.

    (Note: I am NOT in favor of Iran acquiring nukes. I just thought this was funny.)

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007


    1. A thread on Dov Bear about whether frum Jews have hot sex. I'm hoping it gets a lot of comments -- it's something I've been curious about, too.

    2. New blogger Skeptodox has a couple of interesting posts at Safkanut:
      • A review of Off the Derech, in which he complains about how many of the Orthodox pretend that everybody who leaves is practically mentally ill.

    3. Glenn Greenwald demolishes the idea that O'Hanlon and Pollack (of the much-ballyhooed Op-Ed about the surge) have been in any way liberal on the war, critical of Bush, informed, or, you know, right about anything related to Iraq in the past. There are too many posts to link to directly.

    Sunday, August 05, 2007

    Eliezer Yudkowsky on Religion and Separate Magesteria

    Great post. Excerpts:

    The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

    The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it - quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah's bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah - the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar - ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days - to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah's altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout "The Lord is God!" - peer review.

    And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but necessary. You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself. If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

    Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah's Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence - and finding disconfirming evidence in its place - did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, "I believe because I believe."

    Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud and grasshoppers having four legs. (Which is a metaphor for...)

    Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.

    The Roman Empire inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks; imposed law and order within its provinces; kept bureaucratic records; and enforced religious tolerance. The New Testament, created during the time of the Roman Empire, bears some traces of modernity as a result. You couldn't invent a story about God completely obliterating the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), because the Roman historians would call you on it, and you couldn't just stone them.

    In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked. Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Jewish tribes having ever been in Egypt - they weren't expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something. They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination. That's one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.

    The Roman Empire did have libraries. Thus, the New Testament doesn't claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did. Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles which nonetheless fit into the same framework of evidence. A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an unclean spirit; an unclean spirit could reasonably be expected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a charlatan; Jesus casts out the unclean spirit; therefore Jesus is a true prophet and not a charlatan. This is perfectly ordinary Bayesian reasoning, if you grant the basic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epileptic fit proves the demon fled).


    The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie - a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says: "But you can't disprove my innocence by mere evidence - it's a separate magisterium!"

    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    Repost: My Opposite Day Entry: Why Christianity is True

    (Originally posted here. Inspired to repost by XGH.)

    Okay, I guess I'll argue for Christianity. (For an explanation of Opposite Day, see my previous post.)

    First, there seems to be no plausible explanation for true free will without the supernatural. Although it's therefore tempting to argue that there is no free will, it's obvious from everyday experience that there is. (Studies which purport to show that our decisions are made before we consciously make them only demonstrate an interesting point about how our consciousness works, not about whether we are ultimately free to make decisions. The experiments prove nothing about whatever began the build-up to the decision.)

    If there is a supernatural being behind every human, it stands to reason that there is an even greater supernatural being of which the smaller beings are a part, or are split off of somehow. This is exactly what Christianity teaches. What is Christ if not part of the Greater Spirit (God) combined with a human one? In fact, the very notion of the Trinity reflects the metaphysics which makes most sense based on simple observation. God, or the Spirit, is united but at the same time has different manifestations. God is God the Father, the Creator, while at the same time the Son, the human. There is also the pervasive Holy Spirit which fills all of Creation.

    It's clear that the Old Testament began with a people who were prepared only for a tribal Deity, not the real Monotheism of later Christianity. In the Old testament, God acts like a polytheistic God - angry, jealous, loving, vengeful... in other words, human, but bigger. He is a nations's God, rather than the only God. He says, "worship no other Gods before me," not "I am the only God who exists."

    Judaism paved the way for Christ's message. Jesus was himself both God and Jew, and so formed a new covenant, this time not with one nation, but with anyone willing to accept Him. At this point, the people had been weaned off of primitive, pagan-like sacrifices and ritual laws of kashrut and the like were no longer necessary. Christ showed people how to interact directly with God without needing such primitive intermediaries.

    Some claim that Jesus did not exist. This is almost certainly untrue. He is a recent enough figure and he shows up not just in the four gospels, but in extra-Biblical documents like Josephus and the Talmud. Some point out that the gospels contradict each other in places, for example with the details in the story of His resurrection. I agree that there are contradictions, but that this is to be expected when hearing a story from four different sources. I don't believe that the NT (or the OT) were dictated from God, but it's clear they were inspired from the comfort they give to millions.

    The OT paved the way for Jesus Christ. There are many prophets before Jesus, but the OT also speaks of the Messiah. If the Old Testament has any truth to it, there's no way the Second Temple could have been destroyed with no Messiah coming for over two thousand years. Even when the nation of Israel was being punished, it was only for four hundred years! It's clear from the OT that the Messiah would be coming sooner rather than later.

    Arguments against the Old Testament from science are irrelevant. The Old Testament was never supposed to be a literal history of the Universe. It was an introduction to God for a people who did not yet know Him. He spoke in their language, according to what they could accept at that time. Later, in Jesus's time, he updated the teachings to include the rest of humanity.

    Did evolution happen? Of course it did. Is the universe billions of years old and unimaginably vast? Of course. These things only prove God's existence all the more so! Evolution is far too intricate to lead to a being as astounding as the human without being guided somehow. A 4-billion year old Earth with a long, winding path towards the human reveals an incomprehensibly powerful God.

    And what of Christ's teachings? Can anyone deny that his words carry immense wisdom?
    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children
    of God... Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also... I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite-fully use you, and persecute you; --Matthew 5
    If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her. --John 8:7
    Do not judge, lest you too be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. --Matthew 7:1-2

    Were not these teachings shown to be wise by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who among modern figures are more revered than those two who so closely followed Jesus's teachings.

    Oh, you will say, so much harm has been done in Jesus's name. This is true, I agree, but those so-called followers of Christ aren't doing any following. Christ predicted such hypocrisy and gave us the only test we need for discovering who the real Christians are. He said, "By their fruits you shall know them." In other words, if one praises Jesus but steals from the poor, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but agitates for war, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but bilks the faithful out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he's not a Christian.

    Mankind is flawed, and Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves. His sacrifice mirrors the primitive use of the (literal) scapegoat in the old testament, but reinvents it for a more enlightened humanity. Even to the gravest suffering, stand up for what's right, is his message. In the OT, the faithful kill the scapegoat. In the NT, the most faithful one IS the scapegoat. Don't strike, but turn the other cheek. When we all follow Jesus, there will be no war.

    And what of our sins? What does it mean to say Jesus died to save us? By his death he teaches that living isn't the most important thing, how you live is. He modeled for us even as he was dying the perfect behavior. "Forgive them Father," he says, referring to his murderers, "they know not what they do." Christ died teaches us the alternative to hatred.

    Correction: Feldman Photo Was Not Altered

    An anonymous commenter pointed me to this article in The Jewish Week:
    Noah Feldman, who ignited a firestorm of criticism last week with his pointed attack on Modern Orthodoxy in The New York Times Magazine, admitted this week that he learned before publication of his article that he in fact was not intentionally cropped out of his reunion photograph.


    The photographer, Lenny Eisenberg, told The Jewish Week Monday that he had difficulty capturing as many as 60 reunion participants within a single frame. Eisenberg ended up taking several shots from one side, then the other, and several people on the far side — not just Feldman and his fiancĂ©e — happened to be out of the picture when it finally appeared in the newsletter.


    However, Wolff acknowledged that the school’s alumni updates had indeed rejected Feldman’s subsequent submission of his lifecycle events once it became known that Feldman eventually married his girlfriend, who did not convert, making his children non-Jewish according to traditional Jewish law.


    The photographer, also a Maimonides alumnus, said that after the 1998 reunion he ran into Feldman at a “Conservadox temple” when the conversation took place that Feldman recounts in the Times: Eisenberg told Feldman, “don’t blame me,” with Feldman assuming he was referring to the yeshiva’s cropping because of his girlfriend.

    Eisenberg now says he wasn’t thinking of Feldman’s girlfriend, only the photo’s unwieldy circumstance. “I would have said the same thing” to any one of “16 other people” who didn’t appear in the final picture.

    “Maybe we didn’t understand each other correctly,” Feldman now says. “I thought he knew what I was talking about.”

    The original article (now locked behind the Times's stupid pay wall) did not state that the photo was cropped or altered, but I erroneously assumed that it was. I don't know whether to believe that the choice of a photo that excluded Feldman and his girlfriend, among others, was intentional or not.

    Regardless of the specifics of this case, from my personal experience and from the comments of the Orthodox bloggers that I read, most of whom also assumed the photo was altered but thought it was largely acceptable, I continue to think that Orthodox Judaism has a denial problem about those of us who leave or marry out and that they are unfairly cruel to us, albeit unintentionally.

    (My original post on the subject and a follow-up.)