Archive for December, 2011
In the waning minutes of another year, I highlight the top 20 posts on this site from 2011:
- Jan. 5: Movie review: ‘Agora’ - “Given how beautiful and reasonably-minded Hypatia is thought to have been, I felt intense anger at the end of this film that such a smart and lovely creature had to endure such a hideous death by people who thought they had God on their side. And more than that, the feeling was tinged with the thought that she probably died in real life by a much worse means than suffocation and also that countless women were burned and hung or stoned as witches because of religion and ignorance. That’s not fiction.”
- Jan. 12: Harris on the Ten Commandments - “The need to dismiss religion in polite society still and unrelentingly presses upon us as a species, and this will continue as long as man fails to, in turn, dismiss his fear of death and the dark. “
- Feb. 12: Camus: ‘The point is to live’ - “So, like Sisyphus, in a moment that would shake most anyone to utter despair, Mersault is happy. And here is the consummation for Mersault and for the “Return to Tipasa” quote: Mersault had lived. He had experienced good times and bad, but in both, he found peace.”
- March 6: Why moderate religion is more bankrupt than fundamentalism - “Many, even myself, wholeheartedly agree that “love wins.” Some just don’t feel the need to summon God to make it so. As it turns out, love wins every day without him.”
- March 11: On the genesis of life - “Perhaps every theist agrees that there is an appearance of a design, but when I consider the vast number of failed planets and potential planets in our universe through the eons, the likelihood of a planet like ours eventually arising seems quite high, and in some 12-14 billion years, so high that we should be surprised if such a planet had not eventually formed. We live in that eventuality.”
- April 16: The gospel untruth – “It is, of course, within one’s right to believe something based on scant evidence and from a book steeped in contradictions, faulty science and math, bare bones textual evidence and stunningly primitive ethical codes. Some happily do, and all the better for them. … But even a cursory look at the case for the gospels reminds the rest of us that while Easter eggs, candy, and springtime offer nice pleasantries this time of year, the religious element ever behind the upcoming holiday was built, glorified and crowned on a now teetering house of cards.”
- May 2: 10 basic questions for believers (with sub-questions) – “What kind of loving father demands you love him or face the fire if you don’t? What kind of loving father demands you pass spiritual tests (Job, Abraham) to show your devotion?”
- May 13: Book review: ‘Night’ and the problem of evil – “No book that I have ever read brings these questions to the forefront with such brutal honesty. And I think it may be for that reason that The Times used the words “terrifying power” to describe this short, but seismic cattle car ride through the bowels of man’s darkest hour.”
- June 22: Jefferson’s religion - “To say Jefferson was a Christian in the modern sense of the word, that is, that Jesus was God incarnate, rose from the dead on the third day and will judge mankind on the last day, would be a false statement to make any way you slice it. He was a Christian in this sense only: he argued that to be literally “Christ-like” (the meaning of the word itself) was the highest moral height a person could reach, and that is all. Of everything else modern Christians believe about Jesus, Jefferson rejected without compunction, and this is clear from his letters and correspondence. In the modern sense of the word, Jefferson would not be a Christian and would be bound for eternal fire based on the doctrine of today’s Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Church of Gods and Calvinists.”
- June 30: Book review: ‘Tried by War’ – “Unlike other Lincoln biographies, which typically focus on his stance and political efforts to abolish slavery, his assassination, his humble upbringings and other topics, few, as McPherson points out, have delved specifically into Lincoln’s role as commander in chief.”
- July 3: Response to a recent letter to the editor – “And speaking of snakes, the Bible, with its differing accounts of man’s creation in the Garden, the variant steps by which the universe was made and contradictory details about Noah’s Ark, the Ten Commandments, Christ and, indeed, the very nature of God, the good book does a fine job of disproving itself and provides not even the hint of a “reasonable explanation.”
- Aug. 21: Book review: ‘Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society’ – “The conservative voice, often toeing the religious line, hostile to teaching evolution in the classroom, friendly to interests of corporations and investment bankers, hostile to the interests of minorities and the poor and hostile to change, is too strong in this nation, while the progressive voice, the only voice that demonstrably moves people toward ultimate utilitarianism, is too weak.”
- Sept. 13: Gene therapy to treat cancer - “… it’s hard to overstate how important research into cell modification, gene therapy and stem cell research could be in treating and curing some of the most destruction diseases of our time, from Lou Gehrig’s, to cancer, immune deficiencies, Parkinson’s and others, yet, most of the evangelical people in this nation are worried about protecting the interests of clusters of undifferentiated cells.”
- Sept. 25: Biblical deconstruction I: In exordium – “The Bible, as much and probably more so than the Koran (since the Bible is older), has been the central cause of more human suffering and misery than I care to contemplate. God himself, if he existed, would be on the hook for at least 2.476 million people, not counting the flood, first-born Egyptians killed, etc. Thousands of his followers have millions more on their hands, from the Crusades, to Native Americans, to Africans dying from not having access to condoms (thanks to the Catholic church), to the Salem Witch Trials, to … it goes on.”
- Sept. 29: Biblical deconstruction II: the garden – “Last, how moral is it that the crimes of a person from, say, the 18th century, be used to convict and imprison someone living in 2011? Yet, the errant choice of two people forever impacts the lives (and apparently the afterlifes) of every single person who has or who ever will live simply because a god in an ancient text penned by superstitious society in Palestine deems it so. Yet still, God doesn’t seem very interested in the “sins” of millions of blasphemers and worshipers of other gods that followed Adam and Eve, except of course, in the pages of the Bible. As it happens, the world outside of the Bible, the only world that matters, hasn’t heard a peep from Big Brother.”
- Oct. 5: Biblical deconstruction III: Cain and Abel – “If God, then, is the author of reason, reason itself must be modified to also include murderous, barbarous, cruel and sadistic, scheming, as well as capriciousness, which is actually one of his least offensive attributes.”
- Oct. 8: Real inspiration – “Religious folks talk a lot about spiritual inspiration. Well, how about inspiration, made possible by science, that brings a deaf woman to tears?”
- Nov. 20: No, this is not a spoof - “Has the electorate mindset shifted so much that a former establishment politician like Gingrich has to change is tone and amplify his speech to have a chance in 2012?”
- Nov. 30: On Butler’s ‘Erewhon’ – “All things considered, then, the entire text of the book is basically a business proposal that includes some proselytizing ruminations, and hidden behind the plot is Butler’s own cunning way of dicing up elements of Victorian life with the satirical knife edge.”
- Dec. 23: Josephus and the historical Jesus – “Article 3 is obviously the passage that Christians pull out of context and attempt to claim this is evidence for Jesus outside of scripture. First, an observing Jew would not admit that Jesus was the Christ, much less make laudatory comments about him like: there were “ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.”
Perhaps no figure in American Revolutionary history has been the victim of vilification more than former U.S. vice president and New York senator, Aaron Burr.
And for some, with good reason. He was, after all, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the heralded Federalist who was one of the most outspoken backers of the U.S. Constitution, supported the creation of a national bank and served as secretary of the treasury under George Washington. In his time, no one eclipsed Hamilton in economic and political influence in colonial and post-colonial America. And this brilliant thinker and fellow founder fell to Burr’s bullet in the famous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Even to casual readers of American history, to mention the name of Aaron Burr is to conjure words such as “traitor” and “secessionist.” But is this an adequate picture of the man, or has history done Burr’s legacy a disservice?
Nancy Isenberg in “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr,” brings this enlightened and progressive man’s life back into view, without — this time — the unsubstantiated claims that have marred nearly every account of Burr up until now. Even modern biographies such as 2005′s “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow have largely perpetuated the worst view of Burr, that he held no set of political ideas worth pursuing, that he was an opportunist of the highest degree and that he was sexually frivolous.
While the latter charge is most certainly true, the other two are rather spurious. Tracing the steps of Hamilton’s widow from her life some 45 years after Hamilton’s death, Chernow claims in his prologue that Burr had:
… fired a moral shot at her husband, Alexander Hamilton, in a misbegotten effort to remove the man Burr regarded as the main impediment to the advancement of his career.
This is a dubious claim at best. Sure, Burr possessed his own political ambition, and it’s true that Hamilton and Burr were on different political spectra, but the simple reason behind the duel was Hamilton’s refusal to make an apology stemming from a statement, recorded by Charles Cooper, that Hamilton:
…has come out decidedly against Burr; indeed when he was here he spoke of him as a dangerous man, and who ought not to be trusted.
This was not an isolated statement from Hamilton against Burr’s character, but only one of any many denigrations Hamilton had made about Burr in the lead-up to the duel. This one, for Burr however, necessitated that the two settle their differences under the code duello. Had Hamilton apologized or recanted the statement, admitting that he had gone too far in his criticism of Burr, the duel probably never would have happened. Later in life, Burr admitted that
Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.
In any case, Burr penned an apology dated June 25, 1804 in which he requested Hamilton sign. Hamilton would not, and in a statement written between June 27-July 4, a day before the duel in New Jersey, said:
… it is possible that I may have injured Col Burr, however convinced myself that my opinions and declarations have been well founded, as from my general principles and temper in relation to similar affairs – I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner,and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thought even of reserving my second fire – and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and reflect.
It is not however my intention to enter into any explanations on the ground. Apology, from principle I hope, rather than Pride, is out of the question.
None of this admits that Burr entered upon the duel to protect his own political career. He was doing just fine for himself at that time in his career. He was vice president of the nation and a gifted lawyer, after all. Rather, it was the other way around. Certainly, Hamilton would have liked to have avoided a duel if he could have, but he was outspoken to a fault, as Chernow admits, and would not retract his comments about Burr. More likely is the case that — and Isenberg makes this point concretely — Hamilton, Jefferson and other political adversaries felt threatened by Burr. The only difference is that whereas Chernow links Burr’s challenge of a duel to his ambition, Isenberg does not, and in my opinion, it is the latter that stands on the right side of history in this particular case. Dueling was a common way to settle scores in those days (It was illegal in New York, and that is why the two traveled to New Jersey), and Burr, amid waves upon waves of Hamilton’s slash and burn hack campaign against him, he had had enough. Political ambition had little, if anything, to do with it.
Chernow makes another point about Burr that seems historically dishonest. He attempts to make the case that Burr did not leave behind any substantial documents that relate his political ideas, and Chernow questions why some consider Burr a founder in the first place. He says that while Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and other left behind thick and voluminous volumes, “packed with profound ruminations,” only two volumes exist of Burr’s writings. This is certainly true, but unlike some of the other founders, Burr had few living relatives in which to preserve his writings. His intelligent wife, Theodosia, died young; so did his daughter of the same name. Both were women of the enlightenment and carried their studies as far as their sex would take them at the time. Burr was more progressive than any of the founders, and he instilled, with the help of Theodosia the elder, the forward-thinking and high-minded ideals of Mary Wolstencraft and Jean-Jacques Rousseau into the younger Theodosia’s studies. The younger Theodosia, as it happens, disappeared after setting sail on the Patriot ship from Georgetown, S.C. The most common theory is that the schooner was captured by pirates, but in effect, no one knows what happened to Theodosia Burr Alston. The important point is that Burr outlived all of his immediate relatives and few, if any, were left to collect and carry on his legacy. All we are left with, as for Burr’s first-hand writings, are, unfortunately, the dregs, with a few exceptions, as Isenberg highlights.
Isenberg also makes a full account of Burr’s treason trial and his supposed conspiracy to create a new republic, separate from the United States, along with a portion of what was then called the “Southwest.” In reality, however, Burr’s schemes did not include any sort of separatist movement against the U.S., rather, he made plans to expand U.S. territory into Spanish Florida and Mexico (i.e. Manifest Destiny). Probably because he killed Hamilton and because of the political enemies he had made in Washington and elsewhere, many were suspicious of him, and it was actually Jefferson who had Burr arrested and indicted on a charge of treason. Jefferson was so cocksure of Burr’s guilt, and without any apparent reason, other than what he read in the obviously biased newspapers of the day. For all of Jefferson’s acumen in nearly every other subject that matters, I find it hard to rectify his headstrong determination to destroy Burr despite lack of any concrete evidence. Needless to say, no evidence was forthcoming in the actual treason trial because there was no evidence, and Burr was spared his life. But certainly not his political legacy.
Following the trial and still dogged by his detractors, he fled to Europe, suffered some unsuccessful ventures there and eventually returned to the U.S. in 1812 under the name, “Edwards,” which was probably a nod to his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, and his uncle, Timothy Edwards, the latter of whom helped raise him as a boy.
With Isenberg’s book, readers will get a fuller and more balanced account of Burr’s life than, to my knowledge, has ever been written. Unlike Chernow and many others who have written about Burr, she does not push aside or ignore or fail to investigate the questionable sides of Burr’s character in order to inflate the good. In “Fallen Founder,” readers will be refreshed to read an unfiltered account of the former vice president, with his sexual exploits, filibustering schemes and progressive political ideas about women’s rights and other topics of import intact. One warning here: she is not kind to Hamilton at all. Rightly so? I’m not sure. Of course, we can reward Hamilton with the titles of being a brilliant political thinker and founder. But for whatever reason, he was obsessed with destroying Burr, and seemed to have personal, and more than just political reasons, as his motivation.
In the end and ironically, Burr turned the trump card, not only “winning” the duel against his most fire-penned adversary, but outliving nearly all of his former detractors at the ripe age of 81.
OK, so yeah, this is a little bit gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but here we have Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing and playing a New Year’s Eve tune. Zooey is on the lukulule, while Levitt is on the guitar.
The only thing that fascinates me about this is that movie stars are typically so sheltered from the general public that we rarely get to see what they are like as people. Zooey, on YouTube (user name: hellogiggles), breaks this trend, and that’s one reason why I’m a fan:
MiKaela Frye: If your an atheist, I’m sorry but I have absolutely NO respect for you.
to which I replied:
to which I received these further remarks:
@ourdailytrain I’m simply stating MY opinion on MY Twitter, so if u don’t like it, unfollow me.
Burn in hell, huh? Such kind words from a believer. So much for “turn the other cheek” and “only the meek will inherit the earth.”
Loving the Cosmos: ”Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Mark Twain
unapologist: My family gave me “End of Reason” by Ravi Zacharias in hopes that his arguments could persuade me to embrace Jesus. Didn’t work.
Random Atheist: It’s weird that neither Jesus nor Isaac Newton were born on Dec 25 of the Gregorian calendar yet people celebrate their birthdays today.
Head over to the MySide_YourSide blog and read about how the term “atheist fundamentalism,” which has recently come into use much to the groans of non-believers everywhere, is about as useless a term as, in my own view, radical atheist or militant atheist (I realize that may be a controversial assertion. See my explanation below).
I think the writer gets it right when he says that
The only fundamental interpretation of atheism is the definition of the word “atheism.”
Atheists don’t need a specific set of dogmatic rules simply because there are none. There is no ambiguous holy book within which one might equally draw heretical conclusions by contradicting the accepted, orthodox version. We aren’t afraid of losing members of the atheist flock to a rival organization or a competing orthodoxy. There is no overarching atheist ideology even if there are similarities in how most of us think and what some of us believe aside from our conclusions on the subject of god(s). We do not state, anywhere, that anybody who is atheist must submit to any ideological standard and there is no common belief that anyone in violation of the definition of atheism is inherently immoral, evil, wicked, lower, unsaved, unintelligent, or in any way not involved in the human experience. Frankly, most of us don’t care if you’re atheist or not. We discuss it because we want to learn about what people believe while making sure they aren’t misinterpreting what we believe. We also want to discover other atheists who might like to know there are people like them out there and possibly shed new intellectual light on other things we might have in common. We talk about it because that’s what people do regarding subjects that interest them.
I want to address the two terms mentioned above and one other. First, on “militant atheism” and “radical atheism:” I will surely have some who will disagree with me here, but I think those two terms are redundant and unnecessary, kind of like most exclamation points (
!!!!!) and the words “ very” and “ really.”
Either a person does not believe in a god or gods, he has not made up his mind (agnostic) or he does believe (deist or theist). I realize that there are various degrees on which a person may not believe in a god and that a person can have a strong opinion about it. But within atheism itself, is it useful to have a special word for someone who really, really doesn’t believe in a god or gods, just like we have a term, “fundamentalist” or “evangelical,” for someone who really, really believes, or is it simply enough to say so and so is a fervent believer or a fervent non-believer? I think probably the latter. The definition of atheism doesn’t change no matter how strongly (or not) a person feels about it. Once a person crosses the threshold of unbelief, he or she falls concretely within the banner of atheism. I don’t think the words “militant” or “radical” add anything important to the discussion, since we already have better, less brash words to express how someone “really” feels, “fervent” and “ardent” being two of the better ones.
Second, in addition to the unpleasant “atheist fundamentalism” term, here’s another: atheist apologist. New atheists Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Barker and others have no doubt been labeled by this equally abrasive term from time to time. So have I. A believing friend and former churchgoer once asked me, to paraphrase, if I was an apologist for atheism now? We were debating some topic on Facebook, and his feathers were clearly getting ruffled when I pushed the debate into territory in which he was apparently not comfortable. He then made that remark, to which I replied, again to paraphrase, atheism doesn’t need apologists. It is the default view. It is only the believers who have all the explaining to do.
Personally, I’m not much of a fan of any of these terms, even atheist. I prefer “freethinker” because it is unlimiting and doesn’t come, like it or not, with the baggage of the other words. Freethinker is most closely associated with atheism and skepticism, certainly, but for me, it provides for more freedom to, as the term suggests, think freely. It allows me to, in theory, change my mind in one way or another if some new evidence comes in. Of course, atheists are free to change their minds as well, but the suggestion by the term, or the connotation, is that they are philosophically set in their ways for all time, which may or may not the case.
On the question of gods and the supernatural, I don’t see me changing my mind any time soon or ever, I am just making the case that, in theory, if I profess my views as strongly and with as much cocksure conviction as the fundamentalist believers, then that makes me no better than them, and if I don’t maintain the freedom to change my mind and advertise that freedom, then I’m as much a slave to ideology as anyone else. Thus, for me, free thought is the only kind of thought worth having.
I love Hitchens’ interjection here:
Excuse me, did you say autonomous centers of created life?
Hitchens goes on, in response to the question, “What does he think grounds the values of human dignity, respect, human value and so on if not the kind of theological foundation that I suggested?”
First, I think a fairly unsentimental realism which would consist of the minimum of a recognition that we are not created, That we are evolved and that we are, in fact, identifiable members of a primate species with kinship with other animals. Some people don’t like to believe this or think it would be unpleasant if it was true, but it just is. So, we may as well deal with that. I am generally tolerant. I love to teach arguments. I like to take part in arguments, but in this case, there is no argument (of) creationism versus evolution. It’s over. It’s been over since the debate of the National History Museum in this university in the mid-19th century.
Ok, so I have recently made a Twitter account specifically dedicated to this site (rather than using my personal account). If you wish, please “follow” the blog at this link.
As this site’s Twitter account is “following” many freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and skeptics on Twitter, I thought I would begin this “Freethinker Tweets of the day” series. It’s technically Dec. 27 now, but I will count this first one toward Dec. 26′s FTD.
Without further adieu:
Jesus Christ: You all know my birthday isn’t actually December 25th, right? Either way, you’re not getting your presents back.
Black FreeThinkers: Atheist Charity Giving Has Gone Up Greatly In Recent Yearshttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/atheist-charity-giving_n_1163925.html via
To this day, Christian apologists continue to roll out Josephus as Jesus’ great savior from being lost to history completely. In fact, Josephus is the only thread by which they have to hang.
To put it simply, there are no contemporary references to Jesus outside of the Bible. Not one. The only first century account of him came, oddly enough, from Josephus, an observant Jew. Here is the oft-quoted passage from Josephus in context to show how the paragraph in question is most certainly a later edition to the text:
2. But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews (8) were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition.
3. Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, (9) those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; (10) as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
4. About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome. I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt about the temple of Isis, and will then give an account of the Jewish affairs. … – Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3, Articles 2-4.
Article 3 is obviously the passage that Christians pull out of context and attempt to claim this is evidence for Jesus outside of scripture. First, an observing Jew would not admit that Jesus was the Christ, much less make laudatory comments about him like: there were “ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.”
Second, notice how Article 2 ends and how Article 4 begins. Skipping Article 3, the text reads, “And thus an end was put to this sedition” to “About the same time another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.” There was no hint in Article 3 that the coming of Christ was a “calamity.” However, the events in Article 2 describe a number of Jews getting killed and wounded by Pilate’s overzealous soldiers, and if were to jump to Article 4, we read about “another sad calamity.” Article 3 represents an abrupt shift in both tone and content from the other two articles. Thus, Josephus’ “Antiquities” as an account of the historical Jesus falls. The gospels themselves, of course, fall on their own right, but since I have noted that repeatedly on this site, a suggestion to use the search feature to the right will do for now.
For further reading, see: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Antiquity to the Present by Alice Whealey (Berkeley, Calif.).
Here’s a video that explains more about the lack of external sources, including a fuller explanation of the Josephus text above: