Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Real Expelled

Several years ago, it was claimed in the "documentary" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that those in science departments were persecuted by their academic counterparts because they held creationist/intelligent design views. Those arguments failed on the merits that they were not true. Nonetheless, the movie showed a common view among creationists: scientific heretical views are purged from universities and research institutes.

However, it is starting to look more and more like psychological projection. This year there are two interesting stories on this point from the evangelical community. First, we have John R. Schneider, a theologian who earned his degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and had taught at Calvin College in Michigan since the 1980s. He had published an article about genetic science and how it relates to the story of Adam and Eve. The gist is that modern genomic research makes the belief that there was ever just two humans untenable, and that a new theological approach is needed compared to the Augustinian view of the Fall of Man. And the result of his attempt to help update evangelical beliefs about this part of the Genesis account? He was effectively kicked out of Calvin College, a forced early retirement (for similar recent cases, see here).

So, here we have a case of origins research, and it is the person taking the mainstream scientific view that is loosing an academic position. Literally, this is the Expelled thesis in reverse. More importantly, as can be seen from Schneider's article, he is not saying that science has proven that the Incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus was in vain because the Genesis story is not literally true, but that the theological position needs to be reconfigured with the new science, not unlike how Christians had to be used to the Earth moving about the sun rather than vice versa. So the question if not about biblical authority but about interpretation, yet that was enough to get Dr. Schneider into how water.

And this isn't the only example this year. Perhaps more egregious, at least to me, has been the recent treatment of Mike Licona, a respected apologist who has written a giant tome defending the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. While I don't come anywhere near agreeing with Licona's position, he certainly proves to have done his scholastic homework, and his work had received praise from other big names in biblical scholarship such as Stanley Porter, Craig Evans, James Charlesworth, and Gerd Theissen, along with big names in apologetics such as William Lang Craig, Gary Habermas, and more. However, apparently among the inerrantist community of Christians, those that believe every single sentence of the Bible is true and authoritative, they found a problem, a T that was not crossed.

In Licona's book, he discusses the odd story of the dead saints rising from their graves at the death of Jesus and coming into Jerusalem to be seen by many as recounted in Matthew 27:52-3. It's a story that many point to as unlikely historical (and even laughable). Since Dr. Licona is part of evangelical Christianity that affirms inerrancy, his treatment of this passage ought to have been to affirm its historicity and move on. Instead, he compares the story to other tales outside of the Gospel, especially in the Greco-Roman literature of the time, and figures that the story more likely was given for its symbolic value rather than its historical value. And that is a view that I can get behind, and his supporting materials are helpful to any academic who wants to look into the issue.

However, inerrancy is not a stable construct, because if any support, any verse is found to be questionable, it is viewed as undermining the entire position and theology collapses. Actually, it is more complex that this, as described by Robert M. Price in Inerrant the Wind. Evangelicals have been arguing what the authority of the Bible really is and what must be taken as literal and what is not.

Nonetheless, Licona stepped on an evangelical landmine, especially with the open letters from Norman Geisler, a well-known apologetic author. After a few open letters and a response by Dr. Licona whose response appears like bet-hedging yet holds to his view that it is reasonable to read the account as metaphorical, he is also now out of his job as reported by Christianity today. Licona had received support from others in another open letter signed by a number of popular apologists (the link includes responses by Geisler and Licona), yet the Christianity Today article quotes Paul Copan saying that others support Dr. Licona but are afraid to do so publicly.

This is quite amazing to me. There is a wide-spread fear in evangelical scholarship of getting the right answers, so much so that it causes them to cower away from supporting a fellow academic. Jeffery Jay Lowder similarly notes that this indicates that such scholars cannot follow the evidence where it goes. The incident also shows that the view of the historicity of the Resurrection is not historically defensible but is instead dogma; Licona was brow-beaten into submission, and when that failed he was forced out of his job and the evangelical society he was in; his talks have been cancelled, and who knows what will happen next. Was a case of the historicity of the dead saints presented to Mike? It certainly wasn't done so by Geisler, who simply made his own Condemnation of 1277 against Dr. Licona. The argument against him was simply he came to the "wrong" conclusion. All this is is a modern witch hunt, as characterized by another evangelical, Craig Blomberg, in the Christianity Today article.

Both Drs. Schneider and Licona proved to be courageous in holding to their views even under the pressures on them, and I wish them both well. Nonetheless, these cases demonstrate all too well that the epistemology employed to the branches of Christianity these men belonged to is a failed one which cannot handle even the slightest re-examination by its own members (let alone from outside of it). And when they kick out great minds, especially relatively young folks such as Licona, they are dooming themselves to nonexistence in a short period of time. In the end, the prosecutors shall themselves be expelled, as the last will become the first, and the first become the last.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Let Go of Your Hate

For some time now, there has been an ongoing "debate" in the skeptical/atheist community about the subject of feminism largely due to a talk by Rebecca Watson about a bad pass made at her in an awkward and creepy situation, and so many could not handle the things she had to say about this, namely, don't do this.

The vile that has been poured out from this has been really nuts, and I fail to understand why it makes so many so angry. The only silver lining I have found is that it means there are lights being shined on the problem of latent sexism in the skeptical community, and I have also become more aware of how women can feel about social interactions. But that lining seems all the thinner when the putrid hatred keeps coming from the haters.

Recently Rebecca showcased how bad the comments directed towards her have been even months after the "incident", and PZ has weighed in as well. It seems worth saying that this sort of stupid, juvenile, and despicable crap needs to be shown for the garbage it is. I'm on Ms. Watson's side, and I hope she continues to talk about feminist issues because it's the only way this stupidity can be left behind.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Going to the Promised Land

Of the many facets of religious observances and traditions, perhaps one of the most universal is that of pilgrimage, the travel to some holy place to better commune with divinity. Our most common images perhaps come from the Christian Middle Ages when pilgrims filled the roads going to cathedrals across Europe because of some saint's remains or other holy incident at that location. Relics and temples are often at the cite of pilgrimages, though a memorial is also common.

However, less commonly thought of are pilgrimages of the Jews before the end of antiquity. How common an activity was this, say in the first century? This discussion came up in part of a review of Earl Doherty's Jesus: Neither God Nor Man by James McGrath. The question was about whether it is plausible that there should have been Christian pilgrims in the first century to sites such as the empty tomb, something absent from earliest records such as Paul's letters. How plausible such pilgrimages would have been and how likely someone would have mentioned such a pilgrimage and then how likely we would have that record won't be discussed here, but instead a fundamental question is worth considering: how common was pilgrimage among Jews at the time of Jesus? James was figuring it was uncommon, but he wasn't certain; in a comment he suggested I look into it. That is what I shall do here.

As noted before, pilgrimages are a near universal in religious cultures around the world. There were numerous holy places in the Greco-Roman world as well, such as the temples of Aesculapius where miracles and cures were often claimed. We also know of medieval and modern Jewish pilgrims, not to mention Christian ones, such even with no evidence one would expect pilgrimages to be part of Judaism just from this general background. With that initial probability favoring Jewish pilgrims, it would force one contending the opposite to justify that position.

However, there are evidences to consider. The most obvious form of pilgrimage in Second-Temple Judaism are the three major festivals that brought Jews from all ends of the Diaspora to Jerusalem. The most obvious festival is Passover, which brought Jesus and his Disciples to the Temple as well. There is no question of the magnitude of these festivals; Josephus wrote of the immense size of the crowds during Passovers, and Philo of Alexandria also wrote of his own pilgrimages to Jerusalem for festivals; we can also supplement rabbinic writings as well to confirm the magnitude of these festivals.

Nonetheless, this is not the sort of pilgrimages that are interest if one wants to compare to later periods or to Christianity. We should be curious if there were other sites that Jews would wish to travel to because of their holiness or other religious importance. For example, did Hebrew pilgrims trek to the tombs of the saints or the location of special events from the Old Testament? What sorts of records do we have? What does archaeology show?

My investigations were helps immensely by Pilgrimage and the Jews by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson. Their book focuses more on later periods, including Jews travelling to Holocaust sites and memorials, but there is also a fair amount concerning antiquity. They look at much of the Old Testament of holy sites that may have attracted crowds. However, one thing that they did not consider but seems much like Christian relic stories from the Middle Ages, concerns the body of the prophet Elisha. According to Sirach 48:14 even the dead prophet brought about numerous miracles; could the author be thinking of something like relic stories? If 2 Kings 13:20-21 is in view, this makes sense. In this story a dead body is through into the tomb of Elisha, and the dead man returns to life. Perhaps we have here an old sort of relic story. Apparently Elisha had a tomb and people told stories about its miraculous powers. We would then expect people to occasionally show up there as so many did at the temples of Aesculapius.

Another important document after biblical texts is a work often figured to date from the early first century CE, the Lives of the Prophets. This work tells of many stories concerning the numerous speakers for God, and in many cases their death and tomb location is mentioned. The importance of their tombs was apparently worth knowing as the fuller title of this work is The Names of the Prophets, and whence they were, where they died, and how and where they were buried. This work may have been known to the authors of the New Testament, but I won't pretend to know if that's true. Nonetheless, it does give insight into the beliefs and activities of the time.

Here are a few examples from this document. Ezekiel is said to have drawn large crowds while preaching, and at one point does a Moses miracle to the river Chebar in Mesopotamia, splitting it to help his people escape the Chaldeans and then drowning the pursuers. Ezekiel's tomb is described as having a stairway and multiple chambers. The tomb of Jeremiah is said to have the sorts of powers medieval relics had, such as the sands taken from his Egyptian resting place were used to cure snakebites. The tomb of Isaiah is also noted as in the vicinity of Jerusalem, so holy sites were located close and far away from the Holy City. The story of Elisha resurrecting a dead man through bone contact is also retold. These tombs seem to be well known as they help make sense of Luke 11:47 with Jesus talking about the tombs of the prophets. Apparently these places were well-known either to Jesus or the Gospel authors.

Archaeology also supports this period as a time when many came to see the places of various righteous figures of Israel's past and mythology. The Cave of the Patriarchs has been shown to have been refurbished during the time of Herod the Great, as wells as the tomb of David according to Josephus (JA 16.182). (Lest we forget, there was also Herod's elaborate tomb, the Herodium, which he must have hoped people to show up to in remembrance considering the place.) The construction at these places further indicates that they were common places for travelers to visit, so their upkeep would have been good for business.

I have focused on locations and documents whose province is better known to show that indeed in the first century there were Jewish pilgrims to holy places other than the Temple. More uncertain we could add Rachel's tomb, the tomb of Daniel, and others. There is also the Mount of Olives; the fact that Jesus was supposed to have gone up there signifies it's importance, and would also suggest why the unnamed Egyptian rebel in the 60s CE also gathered his troops at this place. John the Baptist's placement at the Jordan has significance, and the people who traveled to him can be said to have been on pilgrimage. Later, the tombs of the rabbis were commonly venerated. All of this strongly indicates that in fact pilgrimage was indeed a commonality of Jewish religious practice in the first century, even beyond that going for festival celebrations.

With that established, we may begin to ponder about the resting place of Jesus' body... temporarily, of course. Would it have become a venerated location soon after his death? Would we have expected the Jerusalem pillars to have "set up shop" outside of this most holy place for tourists? This is a discussion that will need to take place at another time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mo Day

A message from Muhammad:

Surah 109
[109.1] Say: O unbelievers!
[109.2] I do not serve that which you serve,
[109.3] Nor do you serve Him Whom I serve:
[109.4] Nor am I going to serve that which you serve,
[109.5] Nor are you going to serve Him Whom I serve:
[109.6] You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.
...[109.7] Keep it real, yo!

Happy Draw Muhammad Day!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The End is Nigh (Again)

For the last several months, there has been an interesting, small Christian group going around preaching the end of the world is coming. Of course, these sorts of claims have been taking place since, well, the earliest years of Christianity. "This generation will not pass," said Jesus in Mark 13, referring to the tribulations before the Kingdom of God came with power into the world. Since it didn't happen in the lifetime of Paul and the apostles, the doomsday prophecy has been reinterpreted so many times it is hard to count. It has been done by the scholarly as well as the grossly incompetent.

For example, in the 15th century, the French cardinal Pierre d'Ailly used biblical verses as well as the top scientific predictor of the day--great-conjunction astrology--to say the end of the world was not in his time but in a few centuries from then (the 17th century or so, if I remember correctly). Obviously, it didn't happen then. D'Ailly's goal was more to alleviate the stress he felt from fearing the end was coming because of the near civil war going on in the Catholic Church when there were at one time three rival popes all declaring themselves the real pope (see the Great Schism). But not everyone else.

Jim West has recounted an interesting story from the early Reformation period concerning the Anabaptists. This particular group from the early 16th century in the town of Munster was incredibly nuts by any standard. Their leaders shunned all worldly knowledge, they were themselves poorly educated, and when they took control of the town they burned all the books in the city library, save the Bible (or course). Instituting polygamy and wife swapping, the main figures declared themselves king, the town the New Jerusalem, and you can bet they saw themselves as making the Kingdom come. Their charismatic leader, Jan Matthijs, thought himself invincible, so when the combined Catholic and Protestant armies came to regain control of the town from the Anabaptists, Matthijs left the city walls to fight and was killed almost instantly. Oops!

One can also mention the Millerites in America. They predicted the end of the world twice in the 1840s, and failed both times. That group has now become the Seventh Day Adventists and don't predict exact days for the end times (though they say it's coming). The Taiping Rebellion in China also has apocalyptic fervor, leading to millions killed in the mid-19th century. And lest we forget, there was good ol' Hal Lindsey whose 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth predicted the end of the world for 1988. Damn that Ronald Reagan! Well, that didn't quite happen, but Hal is still talking about the Apocalypse as coming around the corner. Hey, he may not be wrong this time!

I have hardly covered all the failed predictions of the end of the world by various Christian figures and groups, but it gives a context to place yet another such collection of people. I mention this new group, the Family Radio broadcasting ministry, because they have been putting up billboards all over the country, and recently have come to my university with signs, pamphlets, and all. They even brought the kids. Education? Not when the Rapture is coming in less than a month! Wait, that soon? Well, no wonder their enthusiasm. They predict the end will come on May 21, 2011. And that is the day after Draw Muhammad Day, so God has good planning.

So, how did this group come up with their calculation? First, they figure the Great Flood happened in 4990 BCE (they use BC, but I have to piss them off), and that because a day is a thousand years to God, there is 7000 years between this even and the Second Coming. From another verse concerning the Flood, that event took place in the second month on the 17th day. So, looking at the Hebrew calendar, they find that Iyar 17 is May 21 this year.

How do they figure the Flood happened in 4990 BCE? It's strange considering Archbishop Usher figured that the world was created in 4004 BCE, so I wonder what their calculation is. If there is about a thousand year difference in time between events, that will throw a wrench into the calculating machines. Moreover, why seven thousand years? Why not one thousand years, or ten? Beside, the Bible does not say 1000 years is a day to God, but that 1000 years is like a day to God; making exacting calculations from a simile is a bit silly. And why take the date from the Flood? Why not from the Crucifixion? It looks like a lot of work just to get a date close to modern times.

Oh, and getting an exact day, that rather unbiblical. Again, Jesus said in Mark 13:32 that no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven or the Son. If Jesus' doesn't know, then how does some pastor? Strange that this verse isn't mentioned in the pamphlet. Hal Lindsey at least had an interesting way out. He didn't say what day the end way, just what week! Such logic is so irritating, it makes you think that God would delay the Apocalypse just to mess with Hal.

Nonetheless, the interesting part will be when the day passes and everything is running like it did the day before, just as it happened every single time the end was predicted. I suspect one of two things will happen. First, the group will recalculate the date of the event; that is what the Millerites first did. But when that fails again, the second possibility will take place. The prophecy will be reinterpreted. Perhaps the end did happen, and Jesus actually did come back but no one saw him. That is what preterists believe, that Jesus did come back in 70 CE. Jehovah Witnesses are similar, except Jesus came to rule in 1914. I would bet that this new group will due something along these lines eventually. What they likely won't do is give up their faith. The sociological evidence is compelling that that is the very thing we can expect not to happen if this group has other things to fall back on. Considering that Christian beliefs are far more complex than just hoping for the end times, there is plenty for the group to keep them together and find a way to work about this disconfirming evidence. However, I do have to worry about the kids. I doubt there will be something like Jonestown or Waco, but who knows what sorts of mental issues they may have in such an organization.

So, I'm looking at May 21 as a good date to have a party. It is a Saturday, and if worse comes to worse, at least I had a good last time before all Hell breaks loose. Unless there isn't a Hell anymore...

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Massive Rumor

In the last week or so, a leaked note from CERN has been making its way about the blogosphere, and now can be found in major news outlets. This document seemed to indicate strong evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson as found using the data from the LHC. This particle is important as it is the last prediction of the Standard Model of particle physics, and its purpose is quite significant: it is the product of a quantum field that gives particles mass. Without such a Higgs mechanism, all particles would be massless, travel at the speed of light, and nothing we see would exist. Chemistry would be right out, and life wouldn't be so likely. So it is rather newsworthy when a group claims to have found it.

Firstly, the note claims a rather high level of statistical confidence, over 4σ, which is greater that 99% confidence. In particle physics, the general standard is that 3σ is considered evidence, while 5σ is called a discovery (a probability of the null hypothesis being true of 1 in a million); this means that, if correct, this group had almost enough data to claim to having found the particle.

Secondly, this note should not have been out. At CERN, there are internal notes such as this one that are not published in journals but remain within the confines of CERN researchers. This is in part to prevent bad papers from getting published with the CERN label, and it also means that the machine and experimentalist experts get the first crack at trying to find holes in a given analysis. That this note was leaked broke protocol, and there has been a fair bit of anger amongst the big shots.

Thirdly, the note is probably wrong in its assessment. Most are skeptical of this result and see it as a likely effect from a particle method of analysis. If you try a bunch of different ways to get a result from the data, eventually one will make nice plots, but then you may be simply fishing for anomalies. XKCD nailed that point recently. Moreover, such a high level of confidence when the LHC hasn't being running long and has not produced that much data from collisions strikes me as erroneous. I cannot be certain, but it really does force one to be skeptical.

Fourthly, even with 5σ confidence from one detector, without that being replicated at another detector at CERN it will be hard to truly claim that the Higgs has been found. One renegade group and/or leaker won't be able to take the prize so easily. Of course, some groups may be working much harder to make the discovery and don't want the credit shared with others that may not have done their part as competently, but ego isn't a great way to ensure good results. Enthusiasm is wonderful, zeal is powerful, but boastful pride will more likely cause problems. Fortunately, science is a community effort, so such hiccups in protocol is hardly going to taint future efforts. More likely, everyone else is going to be extra careful so they don't have to stand out in the cold alone.

The LHC is up and running again, and it is taking data faster than ever before. Who knows, we may actually make the discovery of this particle (or perhaps more than one Higgs particle?) in a year or two. No matter the result, it will point to the future of high energy physics. I'm 5σ confident.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (or will be...)

Today is the season premier of Doctor Who, the BBC production started in 1963, continued on TV until 1989, and properly returned in 2005. The show is awesome, and it starts in just a matter of hours. Also, this if the first time an episode has been shot in the USA, and it has something to do with Richard Nixon. Hey, it worked in Watchmen.

Now, if only I had a TARDIS...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Did This Happen?

Mother Jones Magazine, a progressive investigative paper around since the 1970s, had done an interesting, though to me frightening, bit of research about the average household income from 1979 to 2007 in America. The obvious thing was that the rich in the USA had the vast majority of the wealth, something that has been found in previous research for some time. Hardly shocking, and because it has become so commonplace it hardly moves anyone to action except the most liberal.

The graph that really caught my attention though was this:

As can be seen, the growth income for the bottom 80% of the country was non-existent for about three decades, and after taxes it was negative. Conversely, the top 20% made money, even after taxes, and the top 1% more than doubled their income. It is also interesting that there appears to be a correlation between when the rich take a hit and when the lower income levels go up, but without actually analyzing the raw data I can't say if this is statistically significant--that is, a real result or an artifact of my eye.

I can't think of better data that disproves the supply-side economics slogan that rising waters lifts all boats. When 80% of a country can get poorer while the GDP grew on average throughout this same period, that is a model worth setting out to sea.

On the other hand, there are empirical facts that show that income disparities actually hurt economies. This has been shown by researchers Roberto Perotti (“Growth, Income Distribution, and Democracy: What the Data Say”, Journal of Economic Growth 1(2) (1996): 149-187) and some at the World Institute for Development Economics Research. The same research also finds that high equality rates can be damaging as well, which explains by communist systems have been historically problematic.

What this means is that the current model of giving more tax breaks to the top 1% in this country is not going to bring salvation but only exacerbate the problem. Besides, if the poor keep getting poorer, then they cannot afford the products of the super-rich, and having the majority of your potential market kept out due to income disparity is going to hurt in the long run. Also, the way many in the US have been able to increase their standard of living is increasing their debt, and that won't work indefinitely as well.

Unless there is a significant change in policy about taxation, and one that is the exact opposite of libertarians and Tea Party activists, the middle class and poor are only going to get squeezed more and more. But I have great difficulty fathoming how 80% of the nation can get less well off and think tax breaks for those outside above their income bracket will be their salvation. It hasn't worked now from 30 years. What's it going to take?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Miracle-Free God of the Bible

Perhaps I need to pay more attention to the Old Testament prophets, because it looks like there are some interesting gems there.

A blogger, Joel Watts, a theology student has come up with a great passage from the Old Testament that can be quite the dirge against literalist creationists. He noted in Jeremiah 31:35-6 that God says he would not circumvent the regularity of nature lest he end his covenant with his people Israel. Now, he doesn't believe that one should take the whole thing literally, as there are miracles in the Bible, but that's the whole point! If you are a literalist, this passage will contradict a miraculous creation; if you want a miraculous creation, you have to not be a literalist.

Will this convince any Young Earth Creationists? I doubt it, but it is one more example of why students of the Bible are so much more interesting than those that only act like they are Bible lovers.