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On the Road

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Name: Jack Neefus
Gender: Male
Hometown: Newark, NJ
Home country: US
Current location: Baltimore, MD
Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 20,564

About Me

Email: jneefus@gmail.com

Journal Archives

Really Good

As a former Psych major, I love seeing these things. RSA seems like a particularly good series.

At one point, however, the talk seems to say that the experimental results contradicted behaviorism, since money is a reinforcement. However, there are many reinforcements and punishments. These results seem consistent with Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance experiments decades ago. Whenever you get beyond simple tasks by simple organisms, there are a lot of things going on, including feedback loops. In my mind, this complexifies behaviorism and makes it more sophisitcated.

I am a Nonbeliever Who Was Raised Christian as Well

and took Christianity very seriously for almost ten years beginning in college.

The Bible is by no means the dominant influence in my life, but I can't think of another book that would come close. I love the Bible, but it takes a while to really understand it in something like its historical context.

It is predictable but troubling that the harshest criticism tends to come from the least hermeneutically aware people. So much of received cultural wisdom and psychology comes through religion that it is a shame to discard it with really nothing to replace it.

Well, the Best Generally Available Source is Probably the Washington Post Article

It showed a program operating legitimately as described with about the level of violations you would expect for an effort that size, such the one analyst who was doing three-step rather than two-step phone searching asa well as data entry errors such as the one with the Egyptian country code. How anyone can square the wealth of detail in that article with Greenwald's articles is beyond me.

As far as private sources go, you would be surprised how many posters here have some idea how government actually works and recognize the earmarks of propaganda when they hear it. Greenwald is an outsider, to put kindly, and appears to take Snowden at his word despite a number of red flags and known exaggerations. For anyone familiar with the intelligence communities, the picture that he portrays of how the US government operates is so at odds with reality that is strains credulity.

Personally, my perspective on the NSA comes from a recently retired NSA Deputy Director with a close family connection I have known for decades -- a lifelong Democrat from a union family in the Northeast with unimpeachable integrity, street smarts, and an Ivy League PhD. I've known a lot of NSA people, and as a group they are decent, smart, middle-class people. It is no more likely for that group to engage in the kind of shenanigans they are accused of than for your mother and father. The whole agency has been going crazy, largely because the rank and file keep hearing things on the news no one can square with anyone's actual experience.

Snowden did break the news of the existence of the phone record database, although the alternative being adopted is really not substantially different from the previous status quo. I guess it's a matter of opinion, but his 'revelations' are so erratic I think people are less well informed now than before. And that's saying a lot.

I Would Welcome Anything to Relieve the Level of Religious Ignorance

The version of Christianity depicted on DU is not only unrecognizable. If corresponding statements were made about Jews it would be, in Rachel Maddow's terms, "hair-raising." Some of the silliest damn charges routinely get laid at the feet of Christianity without anyone batting an eye.

When Oscar Wilde was taking his oral exam in classics, he was asked to translate the portion from near the end of Acts in which Paul is shipwrecked. When the professors told him he had translated enough, Wilde quipped "Oh, I wanted to keep reading and see how it turns out." Everyone laughed -- there was no need to explain that Acts ends inconclusively in media res. It was scarcely a devout group, but religious knowledge was so much more common it was taken for granted.

I Believe Jesus Existed

but pretty much dismiss all of the nativity stories, including the jerry-rigged trip to Judea to bring in the star prophecy.

I pay more attention to the earliest known beliefs of the Ebionites, since that movement descended directly from Jesus' family. Apparently, they did not believe in Jesus' virgin birth, resurrection, or divinity. In the 3rd-4th century, Eusebius joked that they they were referred to as 'the poor' because they had such a 'poor' opinion of Jesus.

All the Christmas stuff we're familiar with, including the manger, wise men, shepards, angels and the rest, was probably written by people much later who were not there. Some people even believe that Paul thought of Jesus more as an eternal heavenly figure rather than a man, and that many gospel stories were written allegorically and never meant to be seen as historical events.

Jesus apparently was from the part of Galilee near Capernaum. However, his brother became a prominent priest in the temple in Jerusalem on the other end of the country. How that happened is not known, but it could be very important for understanding how and where the two of them were born and grew up.

Cohabitation is not Illegal

but faking a marriage certificate is.

Unless you are willing to have no definition of marriage at all, you have to rule that some marriages do not conform to your definition. In those cases, you have to either assign penalties for those that do not or simply allow anything to qualify as a marriage.

Marriage is intended to define a family, but is prone to abuse because of the financial and legal advantages offered, such as benefits, lower taxes, and easier citizenship. Polygamy supercharges the abuses.

Would you allow a man to marry two hundred women and give them all citizenship? Would you allow a brother to marry a sister, a mother, or a daughter so she can get benefits? Would you allow fifty men and fifty women to get married in a group arrangement, so that all hundred are married to each other? How would marital rights be prioritized if there are competing claims?

I knew an African man who argued passionately for polygamy, and was upset that he had to choose one of his four wives as his 'real' wife for legal purposes in the US. I sympathize with him in some ways, but would not want to take his recommendation.

I am not a purist or anything on marriage or sexual mores, but passing legislation that basically says 'anything goes' is asking for trouble.

You Do Realize the Difference Between Leviticus 18:22 and Most of the Other References?

Most of these refer to the Jewish ritual law. For Christians, the New Testament makes clear in a number of passages that dietary and other ritual laws not longer apply to Christians.

Whom to have sex with has always been considered a matter of moral law -- long before anyone might have thought that the Bible might be silent on same-sex relations.

Jesus may have enjoined the Levitical law on his Jewish listeners, while Paul did not. However, in modern terms, both men would be considered extremely conservative in their sexual teachings. Personal sexual identity was not a recognized concept, but condoning any kind of sex outside of marriage was unthinkable, much less between two people of the same sex.

The attempts to reinterpret the Bible in the last few decades make some interesting points. But silly arguments like this only speak to the unaware and roll right off anyone who knows the Bible. It is much easier to convince Christians that the moral restrictions on homosexuality should be a religious matter and not affect legal and social inequalities in benefits, taxes, vistation rights, etc.

The Way That the Romans Spread Religious Pacificism

was by promoting emperor worship along with Roman gods and holidays. A divine savior was a potential competitor.

Jesus seems to have been regarded as a potential revolutionary as shown by his arrest and method of execution. Since revolution was known to run in families, Domitian had Jesus' grandnephews dragged in to see if they were dangerous. They were dismissed as hapless rubes, which seems to be largely how Christians were perceived except when their refusal to sacrifice to the emperor got them sent to the gladitorial ring, as recounted in sources like Perpetua's diary.

Atwill seems to do what a lot of people do who charge others with not reading the Bible -- fail to read it himself. The Gospels are shot through with angry condemnations, calls for divine judgement, and prophecies of destruction which are utterly alien to anything Josephus or the Romans would have wanted to spread. I can't see Mark 13 fitting into this scenario at all along with a lot of other passages.

Personally, I don't think Jesus was violent during his lifetime, but I do not know if he would have become violent in the event of an uprising -- he might have felt called to lead the revolt and been more like a bar Kosibah figure. Or he might have remained more like his brother James, alternating among benevolence, mysticism, and vicious denunciations.

I really do appreciate Atwill's bringing the kind of political perspective that he does. I believe it is more useful, however, to abandon the invented Jesus portion of the theory along with the Josephus speculation and apply those insights to the realm where it would have taken place -- namely the Jewish political and religious hierarchies who were constantly trying to quell the kind of rebellion that eventually led to national ruin. For example, you could take the approach that the Sermon on the Mount was added later as a pacifistic element by Paul's followers. Many of the sayings in Matthew 4-6 are similar to teachings of people like Hillel the Elder, who was an accomodationist with Rome and a favorite of the upper classes. That line of thinking might be worth developing.

Atwill hasn't really done the homework necessary to propose a different authorship for the Gospels. The complex relationship between the four books has been studied for about a century and a half and is well established. You don't just read a list of place names in Josephus and say the Gospels were all made up by the same author. Even if he is seeing a legitimate influence, there are more likely alternatives such as a 2nd-century date for the Gospels which would allow for an influence by Josephus's writings. That is less sensational but more likely.

If Josephus wanted to invent Christianity,

he was a bit late to the game -- Paul beat him by several decades. The core of Paul's letters is universally considered genuine and placed in the 50s and 60s.

I would be interested in seeing how Atwill lines up the events in Josephus which supposedly prove that the Gospels are derivative. A lot of ancient itineraries are determined by the terrain and limited road structure. Galilee-Samaris-Judea was along one north-south axis. Certainly Titus followed the same roads and stopped at the same places that Jesus did going from Galilee to Jerusalem -- because everybody did. (It would be like saying "What an incredible coincidence -- I stopped at Breezewod, Pennsylvania too!")

Now, the motivations Atwill attributes to the Romans were real. They certainly wanted a pacified population and would not stoop to religious manipulation. They deified their emperors. However, a divine Christ was also a potential competitor to the Emperor. If it came from anwhere in the political power structure, it is likely to have originated in the Jewish vassal state.

If Atwill had wanted to develop that theory, he really should have looked in the direction of Paul. Paul was apparently a member of Herod's clan and had a vested interest in the status quo. You could argue that Paul built the Christian church as a Roman-inspired secret society specifically to provide an alternative to zealot groups that posed a real threat. It is certainly no accident that Paul's church took an unthreatening form, although maybe not as the result of the kind of deliberate machinations he imagines.

Not enough scholars IMO look at Biblical history in terms of general historical and political patterns like this. I appreciate Atwill raising the issue in terms of the New Testament. I just think that government attempts to pacify the population through religious belief are universal and continuous, and that there are more likely ways that this might have influenced early Christianity than the unlikely one Atwill has constructed.

It Weakens His Case

because it emphasizes its fallibility when there is no real need to do so. However, I see your point in that Daniel Fincke's goal is rhetorical rather than logical -- he is trying to illuminate the difference between everyday knowledge and faith. And that is instructive in itself.

I guess it stuck out to me because it highlights some weak areas in the new atheist argument. For example, Fincke seems to think that the scientific knowledge is uncertain only to the extent that data samples are unrepresentative (hence his belief in a tiny, tiny chance of error). An infinitely larger source is the human element in applying and interpreting the scientific method. This is easy to see from taking any of the many quaint or wrongheaded scientific consensuses a century ago. However we might correct the reasoning from 1913 today, the point is that at the time the proponents believed they were arriving at a scientifically valid conclusion. New atheism does not appear to recognize the possibility of human error or misapplicaton, although it is highly likely that in a hundred years our beliefs will seem equally quaint.

Another way of approaching this would be to say that valid scientific thought depends on there being a rational agent to apply, interpret, and evaluate it. It is difficult to see how rationality arises from the observable world the new atheists limit themselves to. It is a way of disqualifying yourself from making your own argument, so to speak.

Then there are the issues inherent in logical positivism, which seems to be the closest school of thought to any of the new atheists I have personally read. From the Wikipedia article:

Early critics of logical positivism said that its fundamental tenets could not themselves be formulated consistently. The verifiability criterion of meaning did not seem verifiable; but neither was it simply a logical tautology, since it had implications for the practice of science and the empirical truth of other statements. This presented severe problems for the logical consistency of the theory.

Another problem was that universal claims (e.g. "(all) philosophers are mortal") are problematic in terms of verification. The verifiability criterion was seen as being too strong. In its initial formulation, it made universal statements meaningless, and this was seen as a problem for science. This led to the weakening of the criterion.

And since Finke seems to feel that the consensus of scientists is relevant (“out of over 230,000 participants, roughly 63% of the survey participants have chosen “atheist” as their primary identifier”), there is this:

Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, "dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes". By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer, could say in an interview: "I suppose the most important (defect)...was that nearly all of it was false."

The new atheists seem to maintain a very 19th century sensibility – an unshakeable belief in logic and their ability to create a coherent, perfectible intellectual world. By contrast, 20th century thought was troubled and uncertain precisely because the limitations of those things became obvious. The most astonishing thing to me is that they have waded directly into these waters in a very public way without an apparent awareness of any of these issues. It is as if the whole 20th century never happened.

Now, new atheists may claim that their concern is not philosophy, but the public debate between atheists and evangelicals. That may be true, but by restricting their audience the only prize they might be said to win is “Congratulations – you’re smarter than an unlettered fundamentalist.”
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