Struggling with your beliefs? This should help.

Great news!  If you’re struggling with your beliefs, with that voice in the back of your head saying things like, “What if I’m wrong?” or “How do I know if what I’ve been taught is true?” the problem may be you don’t even know how to go about deciding what to believe. I say that from experience, as we are not typically given these tools in school. In fact, not only are we not given the tools that would help us arrive at true beliefs, we are often taught methods that make us less likely to arrive at true beliefs.

For instance, we may be taught “We have a tradition that this is true, going back many generations, and so therefore it must be true,” or “The Rambam (Maimonides) was smarter than you, and he knew all your questions, and yet he still believed this, and so therefore it must be true,” yet we now know that neither of these methods are good ways to determine what is true.

The stupendous news is there are actually really good tools we can use to ensure, or at least make it a lot more likely, that we end up believing what it is true and not believing what is false, whether it be on matters of faith, science, politics, health news, GMOs, or any other area of knowledge.

And the even better news is that you and I will be able to learn these skills for free from two experts in the field in a 12-week online course beginning August 25th. Duke University will present “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” through Coursera. For more information and to sign up, go here.

A few of us freethinking Jews are hoping to get together online after each class to discuss what we learned and talk about how it affects our beliefs. If you want to join, please comment below or email me at freethinkingjew (gmail).

Had I only learned this stuff many years ago, I wouldn’t have had to struggle psychologically for so many years, stressing out over whether the beliefs I was taught in school were reasonable or whether my doubts were valid. Fortunately I’ve been able to learn some critical thinking skills in my adulthood, and I’ve found the feeling quite freeing, because these skills give me so much more confidence that I am making the right decisions about what to believe and what not to believe. But I’m looking forward to learning much more beginning August 25.

Note: I do not work for Coursera, and I gain no financial benefit from recommending this course. I just like to share the gospel.

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. :) But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.

Striking results from survey of American Jews

The Pew Research Center recently published its study of American Jews conducted between February and June of 2013. While their findings confirm some trends a lot of us had already sensed, it’s still interesting to see how striking some of the numbers are.

I recommend taking a look at the report (go here), which presents the findings in a very clear fashion.  But here are some highlights:  (Note: It seems they defined someone as Jewish if s/he had one Jewish parent, father or mother).

  • 22% of Americans who consider themselves Jews also consider themselves as either atheists, agnostics, or having no religion.
    • The younger the “Jew,” the more likely is s/he to be part of this group of non-religious Jews.
    • These non-religious Jews are far less likely to donate to Jewish organizations and to raise their kids with any Jewish culture or identity whatsoever.
    • 30% of Americans who consider themselves Jews do not identify with any denomination of religious Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc).
    • Orthodox Jews have more than twice as many babies as other Jews, and so their share of the Jewish American population is growing.
    • Only about half of those raised Orthodox are still Orthodox; however,
    • 83% of those raised Orthodox who are now between ages 18 and 29 are still Orthodox.
    • Among Jews married in 2000 or later, 58% married non-Jewish spouses.

And so if you raise your kid Orthodox today, there’s a very good chance the kid will remain Orthodox into adulthood.  And the Orthodox population is growing, because Orthodox Jews have a lot more babies than other Jews.

On the other hand, if you raise your kid Reform or Conservative or one of the other flavors of modern religious types, it seems likely your kid will be less religious than you in adulthood.

And so it seems like we’re heading towards a pretty severe dichotomy:  Jews will be split between very religious and very not religious.  As I argued previously, you can teach your kids to be strictly Orthodox, i.e. to believe that the Torah is the inerrant word of the perfect, all-knowing being and ignore the challenges of science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship, and unfortunately that usually works.  Conversely, you can teach your kids that to accept science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship and accept that the Jewish religion is as man-made as every other religion, and that also usually works.  But when you try to mess with Mr. In-Between, as some Reform and even more Conservative Jews, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews, do, you have your work cut out for you trying to get your kids to buy into both modernity and the Jewish religion, as these survey results seem to show.

I will say, though, I think it is sad that more non-religious Jews means much less involvement in and donations to Jewish organizations and more raising of Jewish kids with absolutely no Jewish identity.  There are so many Jewish-led organizations, many if not most of which are non-denominational, that do such wonderful philanthropic work, and it would not do anyone any good if they go out of business.  And while raising kids who are not Orthodox may be a good thing, so that these kids realize they have a choice on how to live their lives and are not taught beliefs that have been disproven, raising kids with no Jewish culture whatsoever would mean no more Jews.  After all the pogroms, exiles, and a Holocaust, I think it would be very unfortunate if all the richness of our ancient Jewish customs, songs, foods, teachings, values, expressions, and sense of community would be no more.  That’s not going to happen, because the Orthodox Jewish community is growing, but I wouldn’t want a Jewish population consisting only of Orthodox Jews either.

And so when I bring in words of Torah or Jewish expressions or talk about Jewish culture, it’s because a) I think it’s fun, and, more importantly, b) if Freethinking Jews don’t make an effort to spread the gospel of “Jewishness Without the Dogma,” we’ll be headed for a Jewish world that none of us wants.

But what do you think!

h/t Chatzkaleh Kofer

Out-of-touch rabbi comment of the day

I still receive weekly E-mails on Jewish law from Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, an American-turned-Israeli Orthodox Jewish scholar and writer.  Rabbi Kaganoff is a very intelligent man, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to Jewish law.  But in this week’s article, which is apparently recycled from one he wrote in 2010 (see here), he writes the following when introducing the laws regarding conversion to Judaism:

DEFINITION OF A JEW

To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos [the commandments] (kabbalas mitzvos).

This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur [conversion] to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.

With all due respect to the rabbi, I think it’s impressive he was able to squeeze so much misguided, retrogressive thought into so few sentences.

Despite the arrogant tone with which he sets us straight about how “We Torah Jews know what the Torah really says about conversion,” the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), in fact, says zip about conversion.  In Jewish day school, we were taught that the word ger (with a hard g) in the Hebrew Bible means “convert;” however, if one sees how the word is used, one immediately notices ger cannot mean “convert.”

For instance, when the Torah says, “You shall love the ger, for you were a ger in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19),” translating this commandment as “You shall the love the convert, for you were a convert in the land of Egypt” would be nonsensical, because the Israelites weren’t converts in the land of Egypt.  Rather, ger refers to a resident alien – i.e. someone who is not ethnically a member of the local people – in this case, the Israelites – but lives in its community, and so his/her status is different.  Typically a resident alien could not own land, for instance, and thus we find the beautiful commandment to make sure that those who don’t own land, such as the Levite, the ger, the orphan, and the widow are as happy as you are when you gather your hard-earned crops you worked so hard to reap from the land you are fortunate to own (Deuteronomy 16:14).

And so the rabbi’s assertion that the Torah view is that conversion requires accepting the commandments is baseless, since the Torah doesn’t say anything at all about conversion.

Secondly, and equally importantly, the idea that becoming a member of the Jewish community requires accepting the commandments with it is like saying writing with a pen requires using a quill.  In Biblical times, being part of a community necessarily included accepting the community’s local god.  If you moved to Moab and wanted to identify with the Moabites (part of modern-day Jordan), you most likely had to accept the Moabite god Chemosh.  If you moved to a Phoenician (modern Lebanon-area) community and wanted to identify with the Phoenicians, you most likely had to accept the religion that centered on worshipping Baal.  And the same was true if you moved to an Israelite community.  Thus, when, in a touching assertion of loyalty, Ruth the Moabite famously refused to forsake her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and told her, “Your people is my people, and your god is my god (Ruth 1:16),” the two (people and the local god) went hand in hand.

Today, however, pens no longer go together with quills and joining a new community no longer goes together with accepting the community religion.  You can become Irish without becoming Catholic, and you can also join a Jewish community, where people celebrate Jewish culture, etc., without accepting any specific religion.

Granted, for many centuries the definition of Jew included following the Jewish religion.  Over the last 300 years or so, however, most Jews have defined themselves as Jewish and yet do not follow the commandments.  And so there’s no reason someone cannot join the community of the vast majority of Jews who define Jewish as one who connects with an extremely rich Jewish heritage and culture, independent of their adherence to the Torah’s commandments.

Finally, is there anything more worthy of throwing an article into the trash than seeing the good old “not-yet-observant?”  It’s a shame that the not-yet-enlightened and not-yet-out-of-the-17th-century Rabbi Kaganoff is not yet observant that calling people “not yet observant” is offensive.

I feel better now.

Thanks for reading.  Please add your thoughts below!

Hand of God found in space!

In case you were wondering where God’s hand was located, it’s been severed from his body and is suspended in space, millions and millions of miles away from us:

Hand of God

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

If you haven’t seen the story, look here.

I’m not sure what the chiddush is; we already saw a clear sign last year that, not only does God exist, but that his name is Osiris (see “Take this, ye stubborn non-believers!”).

Kudos to the author Tanya Lewis for realizing that not everyone has been taught critical thinking skills and taking it upon herself to enlighten those who need it, at the conclusion of the article:

“The Hand of God is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving familiar shapes in random or vague images. Other common forms of pareidolia include seeing animals or faces in clouds, or the man in the moon. Despite its supernatural appearance, the Hand of God was produced by natural astrophysical phenomena.”

Can you think of any other clear signs of God that have been reported?  I don’t know about you, but I find them highly entertaining.

h/t theHighJewess

The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

This Saturday, Jews around the world will be reading about how our ancestors walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, with water on both sides.  Accordingly, I thought you would enjoy this hypothesis given in 2010 by Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

You can find many news articles about this study online (e.g. here).

While we have no way to know for sure the event occurred as Mr. Drews suggests, I happen to love this way of thinking when it comes to explaining miracle stories.  We freethinkers look for the most likely explanation, and since “An invisible being came and messed with the laws of physics” is never the most likely explanation, seems that we’re left with either:

a)      The story was completely fabricated, or

b)      A natural event happened, and the authors of the Bible did what everyone did in the first millennium BCE – they attributed the event to the hand of their god.

Which is the more likely explanation for miracle stories?  a) or b)?

No doubt that for some of the miracle stories in ancient sources such as the Bible, explanation a) may be the most likely explanation.  But, in general, all else being equal, I would think that b) should be the default, at least when it’s a story that is presented as an historical event that happened to an entire people.  In some cases, though, the story may have started as a b), but as it was related many times over many generations, some additional embellishing fabrications crept in.

The Aish HaTorah/Ohr Somayach types (those who try to “prove” the Bible is divine) are known for arguing, “There’s no way you could convince an entire nation that –

- their ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai;

- their ancestors survived in the desert for 40 years on manna;

- their ancestors all saw the sea split;

etc etc.

While their basic argument is wrong – plenty of people have been convinced that miracles happened to their ancestors – just ask students of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach! – I think it is true that the more likely explanation is that something did happen, and the people interpreted that something as an act of God.  For instance, we wouldn’t argue the Miracle of the Sun story never happened at all.

What do you think?  Do you think miracles are usually made up 100%, or are natural phenomena misunderstood, … or Option C!
(h/t Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – one of the things I actually learned from him in that debate with Professor Richard Dawkins for which I criticized Rabbi Sacks in previous posts.)

Why is Christmas in the winter? Not the reason you thought, says New Testament scholar

Since many Christians will be celebrating Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany this Monday, on January 6, I figure it’s not too late to post about this.  I think it’s good for us freethinkers to have an idea of why Christmas is celebrated when it is, and this article suggests a reason you may not have heard.

In this interesting article (here) in Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Andrew McGowan goes through the sources and explores how December 25 or January 6 came to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

I recommend reading the full article, but if you really want a short spoiler, keep reading.  My short summary is:

  • The first mention we have of Jesus’ birth occurring on December 25 is from some 300 years after the time of Jesus.
  • The earliest source we have on Jesus’ birth says it occurred on May 20.
  • Some of the rituals associated with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, are probably borrowed from pagan religions (religions where people worshipped more than one god).
  • No one knows for sure why Christmas is on December 25, but
    1. One possibility, which Professor McGowan does not advocate, is that Christmas was established on December 25 either to coincide with pagan holidays celebrated at that time in order to spread Christianity among the pagans, or to connect the birth of the Messiah to the winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn” (i.e. when the days start getting longer).
    2. Another possibility, which Professor McGowan thinks is more plausible, is that if Jesus died on the Eve of Passover, his death would have occurred on March 25, and early Christians believed he was crucified on the same day he was conceived.  If he was conceived on March 25, add nine months and you get Baby Jesus on December 25.

What do you think?  My Jewish education taught me a boatload about Judaism and zip about Christianity.  So if you have anything to add, please do so.

Why the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails, and why it doesn’t matter anyway

We’ve all heard one or more variation of the following argument:

There’s no way this amazing world could have come into existence by itself.  There must have been some sort of “uncaused cause” that created the universe.

Philosophers have been aware of these sorts of arguments for many centuries, and yet philosophers have, by and large, rejected these arguments.  It’s easy to see why, when even just an average freethinker like me can see where these arguments fall short.

Let’s use the version known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, popularized by theologian and professional debater William Lane Craig, Th.D.:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe must have had a cause (which must be an uncaused being – i.e. God).

The way arguments constructed in this way work is that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.  Conversely, if one or more of the premises may or may not be true, the conclusion also may or may not be true.

If you haven’t seen this argument before, maybe take a second to see how many holes you can find in this argument.  I’m not a trained philosopher, and I haven’t researched all that’s been written on this argument, but here are three simple flaws that I’ve either found or thought of:

I.                    Premise 1 may or may not be true

The argument is bit of a logical trick, because Premise 1 already assumes the conclusion.  You’re trying to prove that the universe must have had a cause, but Premise 1 already declares that EVERYTHING – including the universe – that comes into existence has a cause.  So essentially the argument amounts to “Everything that begins to exist, including the universe, has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause.”

The fact is, however, that we do not know that everything that begins to exist has a cause, because we’ve never seen a universe come into existence.  Therefore we have no track record, no basis for assuming that whenever a universe comes into existence (if, in fact, the universe ever did come into existence and wasn’t always there) that it always has a cause.  And so the assumption in Premise 1 that everything (including the universe) that comes into existence has a cause may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 1 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

II.                  Premise 2 may or may not be true

The argument assumes that the universe began at the big bang and that nothing at all existed before that.  While some cosmologists (scientists who study the early universe for a living) hold that view, others are not so sure.  For instance, it is possible that quantum (i.e. super super tiny) fields caused the big bang and those quantum fields always existed.  It’s also possible the universe has no beginning or end, similar to a sphere, as Stephen Hawking and Jim Hartle suggested (see: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/universes/html/bound.html).  In fact, there are several possibilities as to what happened or did not happen before the big bang, and so no one has any idea whether the world really came into an existence at some point or instead has always existed.  (See: http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Did-the-Cosmos-Begin-Sean-Carroll-/1744.)  And so Premise 2, that the universe came into existence, also may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 2 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

III.                Something has to give

If you think about it, you can make the same sort of argument in reverse:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a purely physical (matter, energy, laws of physics – i.e. can be explained without God) cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe had a purely physical cause (i.e. with no god needed).

The fact that we can flip this argument in such a way so as to draw the exact opposite conclusion shows:

a)      You can’t figure out how science works, including the origins of the universe, by constructing syllogisms (arguments with premises and a conclusion like this one).

b)      As I wrote above, since we’ve never seen universes come into existence before, we have no way to know which is more likely – that it was caused by purely physical causes like everything else; or that it was the one thing caused by some sort of uncaused cause, such as a god; or that it, rather than a god, is the one thing that is the uncaused cause and somehow didn’t need anything to cause it to come into existence.

Why it doesn’t matter anyway

Finally, even if one could prove that the world was caused by some sort of uncaused being, it would be an extremely fascinating piece of knowledge, but it would have absolutely no effect on our lives.  Since modern scholarship has shown that all our religious texts are man-made, we would have no idea whether that uncaused being is a god who listens to people’s prayers and watches over us, an alien from another universe who created this universe for some reason we’ll never know, a dentist who has the whole universe sitting in her fish tank in her waiting room to keep her patients entertained as they’re waiting, etc. etc., and we would have absolutely no reason for thinking one of these possibilities is more likely than the other.

These are just some thoughts that have come to me.  Do you know any other problems with the First Cause-type arguments?  Do you see any holes in my holes? 

Thanks so much for reading and contributing to this blog this past year!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!! :-)

Christmas for freethinkers

One of the benefits of being a freethinker is that now I get to observe and enjoy other cultures and their traditions, setting aside the irrational beliefs woven into their practices.  Last night I attended my first ever Christmas Mass.  I loved it!  I also got invited to my first Christmas dinner set for tonight, and I’m looking forward to that, as well.

But enough about me.  I got this interesting E-mail from the Secular Coalition for America, which sends out highly informative E-mails every week about issues of secular interest, especially those related to separation of church and state.  I wish they would have included sources for each of the tidbits below, since we freethinkers don’t just take people’s word for it.  But maybe some of you could confirm or deny some of them?

Either way, I think it’s a pleasant message, so I want to share it:

Happy Holidays from the SCA!

Shared holiday histories make this a time for all to come together

At this time of year many cultures and religions celebrate different holiday traditions, including Human Light, Hanukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, and of course Christmas, among others. Many of these traditions overlap or have a shared history or origins. And perhaps surprisingly, many of the traditions associated with the holidays have very little or no religious basis at all, such as:

  • It is believed that the modern date of Christmas on December 25 was chosen, to correspond with the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti, celebrated in ancient Rome. It was tradition to bring gifts as offerings to the emperors during these holidays, and the tradition was later expanded to include everyone.
  • Some believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus, who they believed to be the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the winter solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.
  • Until 1931, Santa Claus was generally was depicted as an elf, until Coca-Cola ads portrayed him as human-sized.
  • Rudolph was created by an advertising agency hired by Montgomery Ward department stores, which created him to become became Santa’s ninth reindeer.
  • Christmas was illegal in the early Puritan colonies in the early 1600’s because they believed there was no “scriptural justification” for celebrating Christmas. In fact, those who were caught celebrating were required to pay a fine.
  • In the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” published in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore named Santa’s reindeer first time (sans Rudolph). It’s speculated that the eight reindeer are representative for the eight-legged flying horse that belonged to the Norse god, Odin.
  • Poinsettias came from Mexico in 1828.
  • The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed by many to date back to the sexual freedoms associated with the pagan holiday of Saturnalia.
  • Santa Clause is based on a real person – a Turkish bishop Nicholas born in 270 CE. He was made a saint in the 19th century, and is considered the patron saint of children and the poor. St. Nicholas became associated with Christmas because the days are so close together, although the Roman Catholic church later dropped St. Nicholas’ Feast Day from its calendar because his life is so unreliably documented.

These shared and overlapping histories demonstrate that even the holidays we associate with certain religions are in fact a compilation of our shared cultures and experiences as human beings throughout the modern history of the world.

“The holidays” mean different things to different people and each tradition has its own history and meaning—although many are shared. As Americans we have the unique ability to be able to choose to celebrate all, some or none of the holidays.  No matter what you choose to celebrate –even if that’s nothing at all– the Secular Coalition for America would like to wish you and yours a happy holiday season and all the best for the new year ahead.

Sincerely,
The Secular Coalition Staff