Thursday, December 13

Let Me Count The Ways

I WAS at a funeral last week. Three family members spoke, each expressing a heartfelt conviction that the recently deceased was, at long last, reunited with her dead husband. In heaven, not just below the frostline.

And, scoffer and mocker that I am, I enjoyed the umpteenth occasion in my life when some Official Licensed spokesman for God had to get up and step gingerly around the magical, and un-Scriptural, thinking on display, and add a little actual Christian teaching about Death while hoping no one noticed enough to stiff the collection. I didn't envy him his job. My wicked enjoyment came from the knowledge that he and I, alone in that room, in all likelihood, understood that he routinely spoke to roomsful of fellow believers who do not believe the same thing he does.

At this point I read Gregg Easterbrook just because I'm curious whether the mounting religious mania is going to take him over completely before ESPN cans him for writing five consecutive football columns that fail to mention football.

I may be given to a bit of hyperbole concerning religious mania, but the fact is that this is mostly an artifact of its political uses. I have nothing but respect for real religious maniacs, provided they observe two simple rules: they have to permit everyone else in the world to be his or her own kind of religious maniac, too. And they can't proselytize unbidden. Not even--perhaps especially--their dependent children. That is, just respect the fact that your religious experience is yours alone, and is not to be inflicted on anyone who doesn't seek you out. Admittedly this reduces the exceptions, statistically, to zero.

I don't mean you cannot make your preference known, if you see fit; I just mean that you should recognize that it can't possibly convince anyone, and no one else should be expected to believe you, agree with you, or imagine you to be sane. In exchange you can have whatever flights of religious fancy/insanity you choose, write all the religious books you want, and bore the chi-pants off anyone who asks you about it.

It's no different than sex, is it? We don't let parents do that in front of the children. We think sexual orientation is your business, and you're free to make it known, or keep it hidden.  Your thoughts on felching, or fisting, or stigmata are your own, and should stay there. Just as others should be free to pursue their own thoughts without you shouting your way into them without warning.

And leave it out of your goddam football column.
And on the Seventh Day, God Asked for a Refund: Since Washington politicians want to avoid dealing with the federal deficit, why not use time debating the origin of the universe? Republican bright light and possible 2016 presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently said about the origin of the cosmos: "I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. There are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that." This caused commentators to recall that in 2008, Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, said, "I believe God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it. It may not be 24-hour days, and that's what I believe."
Obviously a politician asked a question like this is trying to come down firmly on both sides, seeming to endorse science and religion both.
Of course, even if by some Divine Miracle, or sudden outbreak of Scriptural observance, every Christian in America took his prayers to his closet, Facile Libertoonianism as a cover for folk cosmogony would be with us always. No one was "reminded" of what Barack Obama said; somebody dug that up in hopes of deflecting the latest model of Can't Miss "Conservative" revealing the wholly mazed worldview behind him. Rubio wasn't tiptoeing a line. He was claiming that Young Earth Creationism is on an equal footing with Sanity. In public science courses. (None of these guys seems to think we should "Teach the controversy" on our coinage.) Rubio hasn't come down on both sides. He's specifically refused to back his own side in explicit terms. The President stated his personal views outright. Maybe he fudged them, but if so he did it in a way which "conforms" to Western scientific thought since Copernicus. Maybe they're full of shit, too; "six days might not mean six twenty-four hour periods" does tend to gloss over, just a tad, the fact that the general run of the Creation tale in Genesis doesn't jibe with the facts, six days, six millennia, six ways from the Sabbith, but that doesn't mean the President can't believe it.

No, Senator Rubio didn't actually come out and say "Science is bunk." What he did say, effectively, is that Science can fairly be treated as bunk. That's not straddling. That's weaseling.
Saying that the six days of Genesis may be a metaphor for a far longer period seems a reaction to a sense that an entire universe could not have been created in just 144 hours.

It's not a "sense". It's a fact. The universe is billions of years old.
But why not? If God is omnipotent, there's no barrier to a very rapid creation.

Why is this so difficult? Only because people wish to make it difficult, because they don't like the simple (and obvious) answer. Yes, an omnipotent God could, at every turn, create a universe precisely as described in Genesis (except for the small problem that the Creation tale of Genesis 1 contradicts that of Genesis 2, but let's leave you a few cherished idiocies). And then, for whatever Mysterious reason, He could create a chain of evidence designed to fool every thinking person since the invention of the telescope. Just as an omniscient God could have written all this vital stuff down 6000 years ago in Ancient Hebrew, the one universally understood and utterly unambiguous human tongue.

And if so there's no fucking way to know anything, including the accuracy of your Book, and certainly not the "best" way to understand it:
The Bible is best understood as an accurate record of actual events -- it may not be, but that's the way the Bible is best understood. Other biblical references to days are to regular 24-hour days. Why shouldn't the six days of the creation also be regular 24-hour days?

It "may not" be? It ain't. The only way that "literally" is the best way to take the Bible is if that's what you've pinned your hopes of being right about Everything on. Look, there was no Exodus. There simply wasn't. There's no archaeological evidence of Egyptian captivity, no archaeological evidence of a million Israelites wandering in the Sinai for forty years, not contemporary record of any of this except in Hebrew writings, despite the fact that the Egyptians kept records of every sheet of toilet paper they used. There was no conquest of Canaan. No Battle of Jericho. The foundational stories of the people who "transmitted" the "word of God" are the same sort of mythological tale-spinning every culture we know about has engaged in. They are pre-science, pre-history, and non-contemporary. They're beautifully written, often, and a world treasure, but the only way they can be understood by a sentient 21st century Westerner is as a collection of folk tales.
Suppose the cosmos came into being entirely via natural forces. This does not necessarily eliminate God from the equation, it only means that the universe began naturally, as we observe many other aspects of existence to be natural.

It does, however, eliminate the Bible as a literal guide, don't it?
The current Big Bang consensus holds that all the material needed for a cosmos of 100 billion galaxies was once within an area much smaller than a baseball, that the triggering event of the universe was a random quantum fluctuation and that in the initial moments, space expanded far faster than the speed of light.

I'm no physicist. Is this the "consensus", or is it the consensus that without faster-than-light expansion the current Big Bang model is mired, maybe hopelessly? That wouldn't reset the default back to "King James Version".
Maybe that is actually what happened. But that description -- a hundred billion galaxies in a tiny place -- in many ways seems more speculative, more freewheeling, than placing God in command of the show. And if a natural-origin universe was able to expand much faster than the speed of light, then creation in six days doesn't sound so out of the question.

The last time "what sounds commonsensical" was a way to understand physics, Einstein was still refusing to learn to talk.
In any event, a supernatural could exist, and natural forces (the Big Bang, evolution) also exist. You wouldn't want to rely on religion for explanations of the natural world. But you wouldn't want to rely on science for morality, either. As William Jennings Bryan said at the Scopes trail -- Bryan believed the Earth to be 4.5 billion years old and often said so, the play "Inherit the Wind" took many liberties with facts of that trial -- "Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals."

However closely Bryan's personal beliefs accorded with the science of the day, he was not a scientist. Marco Rubio may be a secret String Theorist, for all we know. If so he's denying the truth for his own enrichment. Does the Bible have anything to say about that?

And the religious pleading that "morality depends on us" is basically refuted by looking at what religious people do. Or at what non-religious people do. If public morality depends on religion, God help us.


Anonymous said...

Jericho is actually one of my favorite archaeological stories: it turns out there was a wall at Jericho! In fact, there were several of them, none of which can be reconciled with the Biblical timeline.

It's almost as if the walls of Jericho were used by the authors of the book of Joshua as part of an extended kind of metaphor for the power of faith! Contemporary readers certainly would have understood it that way, the same way we understand references to the Maginot Line and Pearl Harbor and, hell, Trojan Horses.

But that would require admitting that maybe there are parts of the Bible that are not, strictly speaking, true, and for a vast swath of American Protestants, that kind of throws a wrench into the whole works.

bob_is_boring said...

Look: I'm not necessarily saying religious people shouldn't be allowed to vote - only that they should be barred from holding elected office.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Yer in big trouble, Doghouse.

Kathy said...

As you write, there is no evidence supporting the magical stories in the bible. But there IS evidence supporting the Big Bang theory, bizarre as it is.

And morality can be learned from common sense and basic observational powers. We don't need chanting Holy Men telling loony contradictory stories, and leaders completely ignoring the "lessons of morality" in the stories, to be Good people.

Victor said...

Science was certainly used in WWII to kill people.
A lot of them.

Having said that, in human history, religion's overall body count is 2nd only to disease, draght, and starvation.

And let's not forget, that sometimes the religious people use science to aid and abet them in killing those who don't worship the same invisible sky guy.
So, you can add those to religion's final score as well.

Weird Dave said...

It's a fact. The universe is billions of years old.
No it's not.*

Wait. This was in a football column?

*Yes, of course it is. The best evidence I can gather indicates to me that the observed universe is approximately 13,700,000,000 earth years old, came from a singularity the size of your thumb, or maybe the size of a few atoms, the entire expansion zone was created in a few 1/1,000,000,000,000 of an earth second, and over 90% of it we either are unable to observe or can observe very poorly through inference.
All of which, as usual when things are really interesting, point to far more questions than answers.

So. Real miracles and mysteries galore.

Why a rather large percentage of the population must cling to their "it's 10,000 years old dagnabbit" story I don't know.
Is the Bible really the alpha and omega of morality? Pardon me while I laugh. Or, to put it another way, depends on exactly which part you're using. As we are all well aware, you can easily justify a wide range of behavior by using the Bible.
Is it that they desire some impossible certainty in an uncertain world? Or is it just their fear of death?

Let me say again: This was in a football column?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to ask Rubio whether Jesus wasn't down on hypocrites, as in the temple scene, just as I wanted to ask if Romney ever heard that lying was one of Jehovah's no-nos.

And the assumption by billions and billions of the faithful, of all stripes, that morality depends solely on religion: this needs work.


grouchomarxist said...

Bryan believed the Earth to be 4.5 billion years old and often said so

Which is a remarkable feat, considering that by the time scientists arrived at that estimate of 4.5 billion years -- in 1956 -- Bryan had been dead for 31 of them. (The first sort-of-in-the-ballpark estimates -- 1.6 to 3.5 billion -- were published in 1927, 2 years after his death.)

I wonder where Easterbrook came up with that factoid. My guess would be the same source as the rest of his column, straight out of his ass.

Brian M said...

Only one correction in this amazing column, Doghouse. The perfect, purest expression of God's Word (tm) is, of course, the King James English. That Hebrew and Aramaic and Ancient Greek and Latin stuff was all just a rough draft!