Let’s Talk about Snakes!

Gather ‘round, young creationist True Believers™: time for a little herpetology lesson from the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible!

 

Genesis 3 begins with a description of a talking animal – one of two such wonders found in God’s Word:

 

//Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”//

 

There follows the story of “the Fall.” Later, when the blame game is being played:

 

The woman said, “The serpent tricked me and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,

cursed are you among all animals

and among all wild creatures;

upon your belly you shall go,

and dust you shall eat

all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will strike your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

 

That’s all we hear of this wondrous eloquent reptile in the Bible, unless that “old dragon” reference in Revelation 20:2 is intended to refer back to the creation story.

 

There are many things about “the Fall” that I find puzzling, but as much as I’d like to start listing and raising questions about them – the kinds of impertinent questions that tend to aggravate the hell out of True Believers™ because they aim at getting people to think about the notions they take for granted – I’m going to focus on the snake because that’s the kind of mood I happen to be in at the moment (that copperhead I encountered in the Ozarks last weekend might have something to do with it). Let me address a few serpentine questions to any creationists who happen to reading this:
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An Open Letter to the Whole Christian World

Here is what I wish I could say to the whole Christian world:

 

Christians, the hour of your deliverance is at hand. My paraphrase of St. Paul is quite intentional: it is he and his awful system that I wish to engage on your behalf. Your freedom depends on a single, simple act. Winning it will be almost effortless, and probably painless as well. All you need do is give close and honest consideration to a single proposition.

 

Rather than tell you outright what that proposition is, I’m going to illustrate it with a passage from a book which you consider to be the perfect, divinely-inspired Word of God. In Numbers 15 we find the story of a man who was caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath. He was brought before Moses, who then consulted God in the matter. God’s judgment was unequivocal: he is guilty – stone him to death (just how God’s voice was perceived by Moses, we are not told). The stick-picker-upper received the very same penalty incurred for being homosexual (Leviticus 20:13) or for being a bride found non-virginal on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22) or for being accused of witchcraft (Exodus 22:18) or for being disobedient to one’s parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Note: he received this penalty from the creator of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains a hundred billion stars (I’m rounding for convenience), orbited by uncountable billions of planets. Such a creator levied the death penalty against a man who was “guilty” of picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Does anything seem slightly askew in this picture?

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What Art Might Tell Us, If Only We’d Listen

Each semester, I begin my World Music classes with a brief, general orientation that includes basic concepts and strategies for understanding the unfamiliar-sounding music my students are going to be hearing for the ensuing four months. One of the things I introduce right away is a taxonomic scheme for thinking critically about any artwork in any of the arts (the arts being our most-nearly infallible guide to the worldviews of all cultures – including, of course, our own). For music, the most important categories within that scheme are formalism, expressionism, and instrumentality. Other critiques are of course possible: much art invites and yields very well to a realistic critique for instance, or a feminist critique, or a Marxist one, etc. But for purposes of most of the music one is likely to hear, my proffered three-item taxonomy is sufficient to make headway.
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Archaic Plagiarism: Gilgamesh and Modern Apologia’s Failure

When I tell apologists that many of the stories and concepts in the Bible can be found in pre-Christian/pre-Judaic cultures, the usual mode of defense is something along the lines of: “But my religion has the correct story.”

 

I can rebut such an argument with the following thought experiment:

 

  • Imagine you walk into Library A and find a book called Story A.  Story A was published in 1800 in upper New York. It contains a specific story about a man named Jimmy who is 6 feet tall, has Scoliosis, lives in a blue house on a street named Peach, has 2 dogs and 1 cat, works for a lumber company called Logs Inc., and has a wife named Katherine who is 28 years old.

 

  • You leave Library A and go across town to Library B. You find a book with the title of Story B.  Story B was published in 1900 in lower New York.  It contains a specific story about a man named Jimmy who is 6 feet tall, has Scoliosis, lives in a blue house on a street named Peachy, has 2 dogs and 1 cat, works for a lumber company called Logs Inc., and has a wife named Katherine who is 29 years old.

 

  • The cores of Story A and Story B are almost entirely alike. However, there are small details which do differ. The small details which differ do not override the rest of the similarities (and the local geographical locations of where the two stories were published is also relevant).

 

  • In the real world of publishing, Story B would be a blatant plagiarized copy of Story A.

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Atheism is the New Gay

© The Unassuming Atheist

Generally speaking, humans are slow to accept and embrace change. Let’s talk about some recent social changes in history that were significant. During the civil rights movement in the 60’s, many states fought racial equality kicking and screaming. I think it is safe to say that we have come a very long way with racial equality. Are there still people who believe that “the south will rise again?” (I am a southerner, by the way) Sure, racism still exists, but it has gotten much better.

 

In the 70’s, it was time for women to stand up and demand the respect they deserved. Although we are still in the last gasps of the topic of income equality between men and women (can you believe that is still a “thing???”), women have come a long way. Television shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude starred strong women who refused to accept the rules of living in a man’s world. Gone were the days, generally speaking, of keeping a woman at home “barefoot and pregnant” while the man went work everyday. Women in the workplace may still be marginalized to some extent and not considered equal to their male counterparts by certain Neanderthals, but that has changed over the years. It has come a long way.
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The Truth Shall Set You Free. But First It, Shall Piss You Off.

Bad Faith is the condition we’re in whenever we “lie to ourselves.” It involves a schizoid partitioning of our consciousness. In the process, we become both subject and object: the liar and the lied-to. What makes this state a dangerous one is that while we’re in it, it’s possible to dismiss evidence that (for instance) our behavior is self-destructive: not because we have better evidence to the contrary, but because such evidence is “inconvenient.” Those who grow up in religious households are taught to lie to themselves from a very young age.

 

I couched the preceding paragraph in the first-person plural because it applies to all of us individually and also collectively, as societies. For the individual crack addict, the evidence for his self-destruction is inconvenient and he therefore finds ways to ignore it. Should it rise unbidden into his conscious awareness and begin to nag him and make him uncomfortable, he will beat it down by every means available – including another visit to the crack pipe. If a whole society is addicted to cheap oil, the evidence for that society’s self-destruction is no less inconvenient, and denial becomes a growth industry. Industry shills masquerading as “scientists” assure us that we have nothing to worry about. Politics becomes an exercise in ad hominem and the messenger sometimes takes a volley in the career.

 

Can there be any doubt that we’re in collective denial about things like Peak Oil, aquifer depletion, topsoil loss, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, overpopulation and anthropogenic climate change? The truth – whose consequences will shortly involve societal upheaval and starvation on a scale we’ve never before witnessed – is almost too horrendous to contemplate, so most of us can be counted on to look the other way while catastrophe closes in. (After all, there’s plenty of corporate-funded “science” to assure us that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax and that Peak Oil won’t happen for another two centuries. Maybe California will get a wet El Nino and Sao Paulo… well…. And anyway, why not just go on believing whatever makes us feel a little better since there’s not a damn thing we can do about either of those inconvenient truths?)
Continue reading “The Truth Shall Set You Free. But First It, Shall Piss You Off.”

Moving the Values of Myth: A Reflection on Easter

© David Teachout

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From moment to moment, our lives can embody any of the multiplicity of purposes that we can identify with. The stories we tell, from socially created myths to benign exaggerations expressed to friends and colleagues, project the particular purpose we want to make front and center. This can be due to a desire to express an idea to another or to make sure we’re on the same track we first set out upon. Whatever that purpose is, the values that come along for the ride, both in the telling and the type of story chosen, do so in the form the story takes. Thankfully stories are more than single-use thought-devices, else we would never be able to reuse them or get something new regardless of repetition. Because of a shared human experience, we are able to remember lessons imparted through literature or voice because they continue to resonate with new situations. Importantly, this allows us to determine whether the form the value took before is how we’d like it to continue. Take the example of a father telling a joke, a form of story, about how he’d scare his daughter’s date with shotgun in hand. The value on hand is paternal care, a value most of us hold in some fashion and have no problem promoting. However, the form it takes in the joke makes that value so prominent that it overshadows any other, for instance respect and personal integrity. As time has gone on the joke is no longer the best form to express paternal care, precisely because the values of respect and integrity have increased in significance in association with that situation. Consider it like a movable hierarchy, where the original story form presented paternal care at the top of the pyramid and respect and integrity being derived and below it. It’s not that respect and integrity didn’t exist, it’s just that rather than being equal, they were subservient to the form of paternal care being presented.

 

I know of no situation where a person’s values have utterly disappeared, though certainly they will rise and fall in conscious consideration as time and experience go by. I grew up with stories, my father sending me and my siblings to sleep with short made-up stories that imparted humor or whatever lesson he’d considered that day. I am also a voracious reader and, like the bed-time stories the form they take has changed over the years. There came a point when the bedtime stories stopped and simplistic fiction no longer sufficed. I still held the same values of honesty and valor, dedication to an ideal and perseverance in the face of adversity, but the way those values stood in form had become more complicated. For others the original form no longer made any sense.
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For the Sake of Your Children…

I begin this entry with a metaphor that I recognize as clumsy but that seems to be the best I can muster: sometimes when I’m thinking about my 30-year-old son Jim, my mind does something that I could almost describe as throwing up two projection screens side-by-side before its own gaze. On one of those screens I view vignettes from the years that Jim and I have known each other and spent together. On the other I view snippets of my own childhood and the role my father played in it. Those two sets of vignettes always present themselves in such a way as to suggest complementarity and invite comparison. It’s invariably a cathartic experience, as deeply honest moments almost always are. I never fail to emerge from such experiences sobered by the resulting insights and wrung-out from the effort that the attaining of them cost me.

 

The relationship that Jim and I enjoy is thoroughly good. We have the deepest respect and admiration for each other. We understand each other on a level that I think might be far rarer among parents and their children than one might wish, and our conversations are accordingly deep and meaningful. Despite his having avoided some of my mistakes and charted a more reasonable and promising course in life than I ever did, we’re very much alike in many ways: we’re both possessed of a native curiosity that drives us to distraction and gives us no peace; we’re both musically talented and we both love language (these two traits are often bound up together); we both derive great joy from writing and from reading what others have written; we’re both pretty well aware of the way the big game is played and have equal (although not always openly-expressed) contempt for the “playas” and we both recognize how hopeless the human condition is; we both have a well-developed sense of irony, which is another name for a sense of humor; we’re both adept at sarcasm, but we tend to be restrained in its use by our humane instincts – which we also share. We both have a finely-calibrated ethical sense. We’re both atheists, but he wears his atheism much more lightly and comfortably than I do mine, probably because unlike me, he didn’t have to fight his way to it. And when I look at him I see the man I might have become had my relationship with my father been like Jim’s with me.
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Being Anti-Religious Gets Us Nowhere

© David Teachout

When faced with the question of “Do you believe in God?” the immediate response should be “Which one?” This query goes to the heart of the inherent ego-centrism of the initial question. Let’s face it, the person uttering it is not at all interested in getting into a long and winding philosophical discussion about metaphysics, the nature of knowledge and the degree to which personal experience is relevant to claims about reality. No, they’re asking whether you belong with them, and by them of course is meant those who believe in their particular deity. The quizzical look that passes at the response is an indication of just how myopic their vision of human experience is, that of course when that funny three-letter word is used, particularly when capitalized, it can only mean the god they believe in. Any others are but pale human-made facsimiles.

 

The term “god” has no inherent content, it’s like a Platonic form waiting to be filled in by actual experience. At best, “god” can allude to some transcendent principle or being or experience, but beyond that there’s no details as to what any of those actually entails. As when we hear the term “chair” or “table” or “car,” we have an immediate framework for what such means and our minds supply images. Utilizing the proximity principle of cognitive heuristics, the images that come up are often what we saw last or are most often interacting with. Similar occurs then when we hear the term “god.” The mere ability to come up with an immediate image or idea in no way proves the legitimacy of that image or idea, it just points to the tendency of our minds to fill in the gaps of uncertainty. As such we can utilize god to mean anything from a transcendent principle like love or purpose (“god is love”), to a panoply of deities (Hinduism, pagan traditions, etc.), a monolithic supernatural person (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and as synonymous with the holistic quality of being in the universe (Ernest Holmes, Jerry Goldsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson).
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On the Scientific Revolution and the Journey it Demands of Us

Should any fundamentalist Christians happen to read this post, I hope you’ll find it both illuminating and entertaining.

 

For about five centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church had an absolute lock on information so far as the Western world is concerned. (Emperor Theodosius had unwittingly seen to that by making Christianity the state religion a little over a century earlier. To this day, in secular America, there are Christians who think Theodosius had the right idea and pray for the rise of Mike Huckadosius to set things right.) That’s why we call that era the Dark Ages: it was an age of dogma and the uncritical acceptance thereof, an age of serfdom and tractable compliance therein. The prerogatives of barons and bishops went unchallenged. People’s beliefs weren’t founded on their Bible reading; they were illiterate, and they didn’t own Bibles. They just believed whatever the clergy told them to believe. And they believed in outlandish stuff, like faeries and witches and demon possession and the evil eye, in zombies and unicorns and sea monsters. Almost everyone was ignorant as shit.

 

Then after about 1000 C.E., when a calendric millennium turned without the skies being rent asunder by a rider on a white horse, and it thus became apparent that Christ’s promised return may in fact lie a long time in the future, people slowly but surely began turning outward. The earliest gains were almost exclusively mercenary, but with trade comes exposure to more of the world and a gradual relaxation of strictures, and people’s minds began to churn. But it would still be another half-millennium until the sciences were born, beginning with that first great generation of discoverers from Bacon to Newton, and including the likes of such pioneering luminaries as Galileo, Kepler, and Boyle. Despite a gradual, almost imperceptible, loosening of their shackles, most people remained ignorant as shit, and even the so-called scholars were more deeply versed in the black arts than in observable phenomena.
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