Summary of the modern American landscape

To understand modern America, you have to understand the main players. They no longer break simply into left and right, liberal or conservative.

The three religions of modern America are Old-Stock Christianity (American Boomerism, Constitutionalism, Evangelical Christianity, etc,) Wokeism, and anti-Wokeism (basically the alt-right).

(If the lack of explicit deities in two of these bothers you, replace “religion” with “belief system.” Note that Wokeists and anti-Wokeists can also be members of various religious groups, eg, Universalist Unitarians, but this is not critical for understanding their motivations.)

Wokeism is an explicit argument against Old-Stock Christianity (old conservatism is weak to progressive arguments since prog arguments are specifically designed to respond to old conservatism, which was more culturally powerful in the past). In Wokeism, the greatest of sins is racism (followed by the other ‘isms). Wokeists have converted Christianity’s original sin of illicit fruit consumption into the original sin of racism.

To Wokeists, Christians are pagans who have not yet accepted the new religion. Anti-Wokeists, by contrast, are apostates who have rejected the new religion.

The latter are considered far worse than the former. Pagans can be converted to the True Way, but apostates cannot: they have already explicitly rejected it.

To the Old-Stock Christians, the Wokeists are a confusing extension of their religion–maybe just a youthful, semi-heretical phase (while the anti-wokeists are invisible and inexplicable).

By contrast, Anti-Wokeists (including the alt-right) are making explicit arguments against Wokeism. Thus they are to Wokeism as Wokeism is to Christianity.

Gimme that new-time religion

I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.

But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.

One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.

Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.

Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)

In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.

Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.

But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)

One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.

But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.

Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.

Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:

Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.

When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.

Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.

The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.

Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:

Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.

Waco

There’s a drama on Netflix based on two books about the 1993 standoff between the ATF/FBI and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. I recommend it.

There is something sad about a cult that grows old. Pretty much every new religion starts as a cult–a small group of people following a charismatic leader–but the ones that last become focused on ritual and theology as they mature. Cults that don’t mature end up facing some kind of crisis of faith, which tends to result in people getting very hurt.

The Branch Davidians began in 1929 when Victor Houteff split off from the 7th Day Adventists. They were in California back then, a good place for wacky cults, but Houteff decided to relocate to Waco in 1934, the middle of the Dust Bowl. Either he got a great deal on some extremely cheap land or he was completely insane.

The cult continued along, doing culty things and expecting imminent apocalypse but not really causing trouble, until David Koresh showed up. (David Koresh isn’t his birth name, btw. His mother named him Vernon Howell, but he changed it to better lead the cult.)

As far as I can tell, Koresh had two obsessive interests: the Bible and sex, and the former was his path to the latter. He joined the cult when he was 20 and started sleeping with its then 60 year old female leader. The cult leader’s son, George Roden, sensed that Koresh was trying to mosey into his inheritance and kicked him and his band of followers out of the compound. Koresh and about 25 others went off and were essentially homeless hippies living in tents and buses for a couple years before he set off on some globe-trotting adventures to raise some more members for his side of the cult, then returned to the power struggle with Roden.

At that point, Roden’s advantage over Koresh was that he was heir to the cult and had control of the compound; Koresh’s advantage was that he was slightly less insane. Roden started digging up dead bodies and challenged Koresh to a raise-the-dead contest, which Koresh reported to the authorities on the grounds that digging up corpses is illegal.

The authorities declined to prosecute because they didn’t have any proof, so Koresh and his followers stormed the compound in search of evidence. This ended in a gunfight and Roden was injured; Koresh and his followers were tried for attempted murder, but basically acquitted. According to Wikipedia:

Even with all the effort to bring the casket to court, the standing judge refused to use it as evidence for the case.[17] Judge Herman Fitts ruled that the courtroom is no place for a casket when defense attorney Gary Coker requested it be used as evidence for the case. During questions about said casket, Roden admitted to attempting to resurrect Anne Hughes on three occasions. The Rodenville Eight were forced to carry the casket down the street to a van awaiting the body.[citation needed]  

While waiting for the trial, Roden was put in jail under contempt of court charges because of his use of foul language[18] in some court pleadings. He threatened the Texas court with sexually transmitted diseases if the court ruled in Howell’s favor. Alongside these charges, Roden was jailed for six months for legal motions he filed with explicit language. 

Roden then removed himself from the conflict by putting an axe through another man’s skull for claiming to be the messiah. Roden became one of the few people to be found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent off to the psychiatric hospital, while David Koresh and his followers paid off the compound’s back taxes and cleaned out the meth lab someone had built in there.

Koresh then got back to his primary business: having lots of sex with lots of women and teenage girls and making lots of babies. Koresh fathered at least 16 children, (at least 12 of them died in the fire that took down the compound following the ATF raid, but some children he fathered before he joined the BDs may have survived). The Branch Davidians were also stockpiling tons of weapons, a hobby I have never quite understood but I have been told is not that unusual for rural Texans.

The Branch Davidians actually owned a gun shop where they sold weapons to other folks in Waco, (like everyone else, they had to make money to feed their families,) so there may be a fairly mundane explanation for most of their guns.

This is when the government got interested in what Koresh and his followers were up to.

On February 23, 1993, the ATF rolled up with three helicopters and a 100-man SWAT team to execute a search warrant for illegal guns and drugs. (While the raid was probably also motivated by reports of child abuse/polygamy/rape, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, as its name indicates, doesn’t handle such cases.) No one knows who shot first, but a firefight broke out, people were killed on both sides, tanks were brought in, and both sides hunkered down for a protracted siege.

The standoff ended 51 days later when the FBI decided to ram the compound and fill it with (CS) tear gas. The US government is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention from using CS gas against its enemies in war, but it is perfectly legal for the government to gas American children because they are not foreigners and, crucially, cannot fight back: 

Use of CS in war is prohibited under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by most nations in 1993 with all but five other nations signing between 1994 and 1997. The reasoning behind the prohibition is pragmatic: use of CS by one combatant could easily trigger retaliation with much more toxic chemical weapons such as nerve agents.

At this point, the compound burst into flame. There is much debate about who started the fire (and why). but even in the scenario where the Davidians started it themselves, we have to remember that they were being gassed, tanks were ramming the walls of their compound, people were trapped under the rubble, and they thought that if they left, they would be shot.

According to one of the few survivors: 

When the 51-day siege finally came to a head and the entire compound was on fire, Thibodeau escaped from a hole in the building. He says he could feel his hair crackling from the fire.

“I really thought the FBI was going to kill me [once I left the building], but at that point, I thought it was better to die by a bullet to the head than to die by burning to death. …”

Thibodeau wrote one of the books the Netflix miniseries is based on, along with the memoirs of Gary Noesner, the FBI’s hostage negotiator who manned the other side of Koresh’s telephone line during the siege. Thibodeau disputes the notion that the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves; unless we can listen to the FBI tapes for ourselves (and line them up accurately with events as they went down), we can’t really say, but I’m willing to split the difference and say that even if someone intentionally lit a fire, it doesn’t mean that everyone else in the building agreed with them and wanted to die in a fire. It seems more likely that something resembling Thibodeau’s account (total chaos) is closer to the truth.

76 people died in (or during) the fire, 25 of them children. (10 others died in the initial shoot-out, some ATF and some BDs.)

It is now generally agreed that the Branch Davidians were minding their own business and didn’t pose any meaningful threat to outsiders; they had no intention of going on a shooting rampage nor of committing mass suicide, at least before tanks showed up in their front yard. There may have been child abuse and Koresh was definitely having sex with teenagers, but everyone else in the compound was celibate and not really doing anything objectionable, and the children who burned to death obviously would have been better off had the government left well enough alone.

As far as Noesner’s account is concerned, the ATF/FBI side of the affair was a total clusterfuck of different people with different agendas working at cross-purposes, making it impossible for him to do his job and convince Koresh and his followers that they totally wouldn’t get shot this time if they left the building. I don’t think the government ever officially admitted any culpability, but the case has gone down as “How not to conduct an ATF raid on a heavily armed cult.”

The government’s main case was against Koresh, who could have been easily arrested any time he went to town; other cult members who might have had gun violations also could have been arrested at work or while socializing. There really was no need for the siege at all.

Thibodeau says he expected more people to care about his side of the story. The standoff was televised, but viewers only got the outside view, colored by the ATF/FBI’s allegations against the cult. Liberals tend to appreciate stories of police/state violence against ordinary citizens when they involve obvious minorities like Rodney King or Micheal Brown, but are less concerned when they involve weird cultists from Texas. Mainstream conservatives tend to side with law enforcement; they like stories where the bad guys are criminals.

The Waco siege was interesting enough to make the news, but didn’t cross the right tribal lines for normal people to side with the Branch Davidians. To the mainstream left, religious nuts in Texas were the bad guys, and to the mainstream right, law enforcement were the good guys.

The Branch Davidians themselves were not far-right–

according to the Religious Tolerance website:

A major international recruitment drive was established in 1985; it was aimed at SDA members (in particular those who had been disfellowshipped from the church due to their beliefs). This effort brought in members from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, etc. A number of businesses were created within the compound; guns were purchased wholesale and legally resold at gun shows. There were 130 members living at Waco in the Spring of 1993; they were a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of whom 45 were black.

Does some quick math… That makes the Branch Davidians about 33% black, while the nearby city of Waco is only 23% black. If they’d lived in California instead of Waco, they probably would have been portrayed as a hippie commune. (Aside from the “David Koresh is a prophet so he gets to have sex with everyone” thing, their beliefs don’t seem that unusual for the area, either.)

–but because of the layout of American tribal identities, the only folks who really cared about their side of their story are far-rightists who think that the government intentionally targets white people. Thus the Branch Davidians were not white nationalists, but white nationalists and their relatives on the far-right are the only people (besides their loved ones) who’ve really cared about their story.

On April 19, 1995, on the second anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidians’ compound, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing at least 168 people 19 of them children, and injuring nearly 700 others. The men were motivated, they said, by the events at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the deaths of the Branch Davidians in 1993.

I doubt any of the Branch Davidians would have wanted their deaths avenged in this way.

Politics and the Modern Religion

Today I’m using a speech-to-text app for this post because I want to see if my conversation style is different from my normal writing style. I normally have many interesting conversations here at home which I then try to write down as the posts you read, so let’s see if I get nice flow going here or if the text to speech program is good enough to actually capture what I’m saying.

Today’s topic is religion and politics. I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend–just read last Friday post about religion and politics if you need to catch up–and I think this is an important, overlooked aspect of our electoral system.

Now, EvolutionistX is officially apolitical: we try not to do it much on the day-to-day workings of politics or politicians unless those workings happened to illuminate some broader idea or concept like fear or anger, energy use or demographic change, etc.

Politics are a good way of looking at human structures, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details of “this program has a 2% interest rate of 1% interest rate with a delayed API” and similar such things, so you have to be careful not to let yourself get sucked in.

One of the founding concepts of this blog is that there are some very basic, foundational patterns to life that show up over and over again. They show up in nature, they show up in society, they show up in the cosmos. They are part of the basic structure of the universe because they have to do with the way energy works the way atoms and electrons work and ultimately how math works. Like they say, math is the language God used to write the universe. So, take something like the Fibonacci numbers. The Fibonacci numbers show up over and over in nature. They show up in sunflower seeds, they show up in pine cones, in the reproductive patterns of rabbits and bees, in the spirals of galaxies and in our DNA. Why?

Basically, the Fibonacci sequence (and spiral) show up so often because it’s a very easy way to build numbers, and the ratios between them are very efficient:

Some of the pictures you see claiming to be Fibonacci spirals or Golden Ratios really aren’t, because people like to claim they’re everywhere, but they’re still very common, because they’re a very simple mathematical process that can be used to build complex objects.

When we’re looking at larger scale things, like organisms or societies, the same basic rules apply. Energy is energy, no matter how big you are. Space is space. So when I look at things like politics, I’m looking more for the universal, I’m looking for the mathematical, not the day-to-day. I want see the underlying structure of the thing and what motivates that structure: Is it energy? Is it math? Is it is a geography?

(I didn’t mention geography before, but sometimes there is a river and you’re not going to cross it and that just becomes your border, and sometimes the river is easy to cross so your people live in that River Valley and the whole valley becomes the cradle of your culture.)

When I look at the electoral politics, I don’t care as much about the day-to-day workings this policy or that person. I regard that as kind of gossipy. It has its good parts and is sometimes important, but long term, most of the day-to-day political news turns out to be totally irrelevant.

I think if you really want to understand American politics you need to step back, stop thinking about the policies, and realize that what we’re looking at here in America are two or three main ethno-religious groups.

What do I mean by ethno-religious groups? The ethno-religious group is a group of people that sees itself as a coherent ethnic group that all believes the same religion. Really, religions are ethnic groups because people tend to marry people who have the same belief structures as they do.

Let’s discuss ethno-religions a bit, because some people get really tripped up by the concept (and some people already understand it because they belong to an explicitly structured one. The rest of us, like fish, are often unaware of the water we swim in.) The American perspective traditionally has been freedom of religion: that religion is a matter of conscience. Free people are allowed to freely chose what they believe in, and people use their mental faculties–intelligence, logic, reason, etc–to pick the beliefs they think are most correct. Taken philosophically, this gets into the Free Will versus Determinism debate. People like claim that they use their free will to pick their religion, but do we really believe the entire population of Pakistan chooses every single generation to be 99% Muslim? Certainly Islam is the law of the land, yet if you asked them, I doubt the majority would say that they feel compelled to be Muslim. They would say that they actually believe their religion and that they believe any rational, thoughtful person who considered all of the alternatives would simply come to the conclusion that Islam is correct. And if you asked a Christian in Inquisition-era Spain the same question, they would also tell you that any rational person, using their faculties, would come to the obvious conclusion that Christianity is the correct religion.

And yet, of course, all of these people are really just following the religion they were taught by their parents when they were children. (This was the realization that turned me into an atheist.)

Religion is a funny thing like that, but once you believe a religion, you tend to marry other people from your own religion and you tend not to marry people who have radically different beliefs. Now, you might say “oh I like the Episcopalian Church but I’d be okay with Methodist or Lutheran,” but effectively there’s no difference between a Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans in modern America they. They are the same religion with very minor aesthetic differences. By contrast, if you believe God is a very harsh fellow–he doesn’t like gay people, smites people who disobey him with plagues, and wants women to wear burkas–and I believe God is a hippie guy who loves everyone and wants to hug all of the trees, our relationship might not work out so well.

People tend to marry into their own religion because they marry people with the same belief systems as themselves and because religions functionally define the boundaries of our communities and proper behavior.

If anything, the American experiment in which you can pick any religion you want and it’s assumed that people pick religions rationally is very unusual, historically speaking. Going back, every community used to have their own, tutelary deity. Athens was guarded by Athena. Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite guarded Troy. And of course there are many ancient stories of people trying to score a military victory over their opponents by first stealing the statue of their tutelary deity.

This is why not making sacrifices to the local deity was considered a capital offense in the ancient world. If people turned against the deity would turn against them. Without the deity’s protection, the city (or country) would fall in battle and be destroyed. This is why Socrates was executed by Athens: they thought that Socrates was leading the citizens, the young people, into atheism, and if they became atheists then they wouldn’t make sacrifices to the city’s deities, and then the deities would abandon them and they would get conquered.

We see this sort of idea over and over

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”

When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god hasa]”>[a] come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”

10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

And in the Greek/Roman tale:

In Greek and Roman mythology,[1] the palladium or palladion was a cult image of great antiquity on which the safety of Troy and later Rome was said to depend, the wooden statue (xoanon) of Pallas Athena that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas. The Roman story is related in Virgil‘s Aeneid and other works. Rome possessed an object regarded as the actual Palladium for several centuries; it was in the care of the Vestal Virgins for nearly all this time. …

The arrival at Troy of the Palladium, fashioned by Athena[5] in remorse for the death of Pallas,[6] as part of the city’s founding myth, was variously referred to by Greeks, from the seventh century BC onwards. The Palladium was linked to the Samothrace mysteries through the pre-Olympian figure of Elektra, mother of Dardanus, progenitor of the Trojan royal line, and of Iasion, founder of the Samothrace mysteries.[7] Whether Elektra had come to Athena’s shrine of the Palladium as a pregnant suppliant and a god cast it into the territory of Ilium, because it had been profaned by the hands of a woman who was not a virgin,[8] or whether Elektra carried it herself[9] or whether it was given directly to Dardanus[10] vary in sources and scholia. In Ilion, King Ilus was blinded for touching the image to preserve it from a burning temple.[11]

During the Trojan War, the importance of the Palladium to Troy was said to have been revealed to the Greeks by Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam. … The Greeks learned from Helenus, that Troy would not fall while the Palladium, image or statue of Athena, remained within Troy’s walls. The difficult task of stealing this sacred statue again fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. Since Troy could not be captured while it safeguarded this image, the Greeks Diomedes and Odysseus made their way to the citadel in Troy by a secret passage and carried it off. In this way the Greeks were then able to enter Troy and lay it waste using the deceit of the Trojan Horse. …

According to the Narratives of the Augustan period mythographer Conon as summarised by Photius[12], while the two heroes were on their way to the ships, Odysseus plotted to kill Diomedes and claim the Palladium (or perhaps the credit for gaining it) for himself. He raised his sword to stab Diomedes in the back. Diomedes was alerted to the danger by glimpsing the gleam of the sword in the moonlight. He disarmed Odysseus, tied his hands, and drove him along in front, beating his back with the flat of his sword… Because Odysseus was essential for the destruction of Troy, Diomedes refrained from punishing him. …

According to various versions of this legend the Trojan Palladium found its way to Athens, or Argos, or Sparta (all in Greece), or Rome in Italy. To this last city it was either brought by Aeneas the exiled Trojan (Diomedes, in this version, having only succeeded in stealing an imitation of the statue) or surrendered by Diomedes himself.

An actual object regarded as the Palladium was undoubtedly kept in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum for several centuries. It was regarded as one of the pignora imperii, sacred tokens or pledges of Roman rule (imperium).

And in the tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes arrives at the island of Tauris with the intention of stealing the local deity in order to make the gods like him again:

O Phoebus, by thy oracles again
Why hast thou led me to these toils? E’er since,
In vengeance for my father’s blood, I slew
My mother, ceaseless by the Furies driven,
Vagrant, an outcast, many a bending course
My feet have trod: to thee I came, of the
Inquired this whirling frenzy by what means,
And by what means my labours I might end.
Thy voice commanded me to speed my course
To this wild coast of Tauris, where a shrine
Thy sister hath, Diana; thence to take
The statue of the goddess, which from heaven
(So say the natives) to this temple fell:
This image, or by fraud or fortune won,
The dangerous toil achieved, to place the prize
In the Athenian land: no more was said;
But that, performing this, I should obtain
Rest from my toils.

The tradition continues, though in the more moderate form of college students stealing each other’s mascots before major football games.

Of course, being an ethno-religious group doesn’t mean a group doesn’t have policies. The ancient Athenians had plenty of policies and political debates, many of which have been preserved and can still be read. Ancient Israel had judges and laws and political disputes. So does modern Israel; so do modern Palestinians, but the conflicts between them aren’t over “policies”, they’re over each group’s right to keep living in the area, drinking the water and tilling the land. After all, these are the things people need to survive.

Anyway, Old Stock Americans who believe in the Old Stock American religion are generally whites who arrived before the 1965 Immigration Act and live outside the Northeast/major cities. They are your original colonists, settlers, pioneers, prairie migrants–the Oregon Trail type people. They all started out from different European countries: England and France, Norway and Sweden, but over here they mixed together and quickly lost those original identities they just began calling themselves “whites” in contrast with the other major groups in the US.

American Christianity is not just Christianity that happened to be practiced by Americans. The founding belief of the Puritans and Pilgrims is manifest destiny: that America, the land itself, is a gift from God to the pioneers because they were righteous people.

And the early pioneers had good reason for this belief. When they arrived, yes, there were already people here, but those people seemed to just be fading away before them. People understood that diseases like Smallpox were killing the Indians, but they didn’t understand why Smallpox was so much more deadly for the Indians. All they knew was that it was.

The Pilgrims were essentially religious refugees who crossed the ocean to escape persecution, and when they got here, they found fertile, empty land. They saw in this the hand of Providence. So American Christianity in its basic form is a lot like early Judaism, which was founded on the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the promised land. And American Christians knew that. For example, the town of Salem, Massachusetts (of witch trial fame) was named after Jerusalem.

“Salem” itself means peace, but it’s also the name of the tutelary deity of Jerusalem, Salim, which you might notice is not YHWH. “Jeru” means foundation or founding stone, so the city’s name translates to “foundation of Salim” or “city of Salim” but over the years, people have opted to interpret salim as “peace,” so that it is the “City of Peace.”

But anyway, these American pioneers saw themselves as founding the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, the new Shining City on the Hill that would be a light and a beacon to all nations. And I think the ultimate expression of this American religion is Mormonism, which replays the whole narrative again, with people escaping persecution, trekking across the wilderness all the way to Utah and then building Salt Lake City. And unlike the rest of us, the Mormons have their own prophets, their own book (a new new testament) and came up with theological explanations for the existence of Native Americans. It’s really interesting how they managed to do that, just as we came to the era of mass literacy.

Apotheosis_of_George_Washington2Now for the rest of us, as we were discussing last week in response to World’s Greatest Dad’s interview in Parallax Optics, the era of mass literacy makes iconogenesis–the creation of new deities or cult figures–difficult. If you go back to the 1800 and look at the pictures people used to paint of George Washington, he is near deified: there are beautiful paintings of Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by angels. If you read a modern biography of George Washington, certainly he was an impressive man who lead an impressive life, but you probably wouldn’t conclude that he was on the level of Elijah the prophet. But in the popular imagination–or at least when people needed to paint him for national buildings–he approached the level being taken into heaven in burning chariots.

People had this attitude back in the 1800s that the Founding Father’s were something like the Patriarchs of Israel, that the pilgrims and later Brigham Young and his followers were something like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness.

By the way, we’ve all heard the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, but I think people leave out a little bit that makes him such a miracle from the Pilgrims’ perspective: he spoke English.

Why on Earth would any Native Americans in the area speak English? Sure, Squanto helped the settlers plant corn, but the really important thing he was able to show them how to plant corn because he was able to communicate with them. Squanto knew English because he had been picked up by a previous group of colonists (probably some folks in Virginia,) learned English from them, and then dropped off around Massachusetts. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, this was an absolute miracle that there happened to be a guy who spoke English right where they needed him, who saved their lives after that horrible first winter killed so many of them.

American Christianity started with the Pilgrims, but oddly, their modern descendants don’t follow this religion anymore. Their religious descendants, as I’ve said, are mostly the Mormons, Southern Baptists, and similar groups. It’s very curious how that happened. (And of course I don’t mean that Mormons and Southern Baptists are exactly the same, just that they share this Old Stock American belief in manifest destiny, of going out into the wilderness and conquering the place.)

Any time people move into a place, they need some belief structure to organize their claim to the place. So Judaism makes a good model religion for a belief system based on invading the wilderness, conquering it, and saying “yes, this is the place that I own because God said so.” This is an expansion of your people rather than an expansion of ideas, so all you have to do for the religion to flourish is for your people to flourish.

On the other hand, what happens to a religion that is already established, so that after years of living in an area 400 years and the area is basically filled up? You no longer have a wilderness to expand into, and sometimes you even start talking to the people your ancestors used to fight and discover that they’re pretty decent.

As a model religion, early Christianity took Judaism, and added the concept of original sin to convince an existing population of people to convert to it. Judaism has the story of the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden, but this sin was not hereditary. Christianity introduced the idea that you needed forgiveness for this sin, so its spread at least partly by convincing you that you had this sin and they could cure you of it.

We see this same pattern in modern Progressives, who have introduced the idea of an incurable original sin into the American founding mythos. If American Christianity is manifest destiny, persecuted religious group crossing the Wilderness, crossing the ocean led to their New Zion, the founding myth of Progressivism is slavery and racism. We see this in things like the 1619 Project, and if we had functional iconogenesis, the founding fathers of Progressivism, their new deities would be Saints MLK and Abraham Lincoln.

President Trump and Vice President Pence visit the MLK memorial, Washington, USA - 20 Jan 2020
Photo by ERIN SCOTT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10531417p) US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2020. (It’s hard to tell because the statue is so big, but that is the MLK statue.)

And we are very close to that, in fact. Why else would the President place a wreath at the feet of MLK’s statue? Statues don’t care about wreaths, but deities–and the people who believe in them–do.

(I hope this speech to text experiment is working. It is definitely very different from my perspective. When I write with my fingers, I can pause, sometimes I have to think hard about what I want to say and how to organize it. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I want to say on the fly, and I admit I feel untethered, unmoored. I’m not used to working like this and I hope it works.)

Anyway, when you get a new religion sweeping through the populace, it’s pretty normal for the new religion to go on a crusade of smashing up the idols of the old religion,  a la Abraham and the Taliban smashing up the Bahmian Buddhas. These old deities are often deemed “devils” and “demons” in the new religion. In the US, this process involves tearing down monuments to Confederate Heroes and generally insulting the memory of the old religion’s heroes, like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. It’s a typical process of smashing the old religion’s symbols.

But I want to get back to you the election, because people won’t shut up about it. It was more fun back when we had a dozen or so people on the primary stage. Then everyone could find at least some perspectives they liked. But now we’re just down to the last few candidates: Warren, Biden, and Sanders. People have been trying to analyze why Biden is the front runner from a policy perspective, and I think this is basically the wrong approach. Of course you have policy differences between them, and they have to be personable enough that people want to vote for them–a truly boring candidate would have trouble motivating voters to head to the polls on election day.

But I think Biden’s popularity comes not from his support for particular policies, but because he represents the Democratic establishment. He was VP under Obama, so people who liked Obama and want more of the same aren’t really rejecting Warren or Warren’s policies so much as embracing their party’s core leader. If Warren had been Obama’s VP, then I think she’d be the front runner right now.

Sanders does have different ideas from the others, and as such he is the party’s “outsider” candidate. Even if people like his ideas, he is still, from a tribal perspective, slightly outside. If we look at the most tribal voters in the US–that is, the voters who vote along the strongest ethnic lines, it’s black voters. Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic–something like 90, 95% of them voted for Obama. In elections where there weren’t any black guys running, blacks still vote around 85-90% in favor of the Democratic candidate. Whites are more split, voting about 55/45 or 60/40; Hispanics are in between, at around 60-75% voting for the same party. I’m pulling these numbers from memory, so don’t drag me if they’re slightly off.

Point is, the more tribal your voting pattern is, the less you are voting for “policies” and the more you are just voting for the guy who represents your side, not some outsider trying to swoop in and change things. And that’s how politics works in a multi-ethnic systems. Ethnic groups vote pretty much on party lines and just hope that their guy will enact policies that benefit them.

Just like the substantive claims of our religions, (eg, “Jesus rose from the dead,) we like to think that we actually believe the policies we claim to believe, but people can be convinced to change their opinions if someone they respect tells them otherwise. For example, the year before Trump came onto the electoral scene, my mother was in favor of helping “unaccompanied minors” coming over the border from Mexico. After hearing a few of Trump’s speeches, she decided we should build a wall. People who were telling me that Coronavirus wasn’t a big deal a couple of weeks ago have been changing their minds after seeing some of the information coming out of Italy, and people who thought it was a big deal decided it probably wasn’t after hearing Rush Limbaugh say it’s no more than the common cold.

Much of what people believe comes from the other people around them, so political beliefs get bound together in these weird packages. Like, someone starts out uncomfortable with homosexuality, and from there they go on to decide that the second amendment is really important and yay bump stocks, even though these two issues really have nothing in common except that they are both thought to be important by the same tribe of people. Likewise, someone who is gay will likely come out against racism and Islamophobia, even though there’s not only no connection between the two, but Muslims are actually not terribly friendly to gay people. That’s tribalism for you.

 

And that’s the end of my text. I hope this experiment worked; I’m feeling a bit feverish, so let’s hope it’s not coronavirus and take a break. You all stay safe, stay indoors, don’t hoard the toilet paper, and don’t cough on each other.

Take care.

Thoughts on modern religion

I was thinking about Japan, which from all of the accounts I have heard is a pleasant country that has entered the modern age without losing too much of its traditional charm. How does a country manage that?

Quoting WGD’s interview in Parallax Optics:

If I had to pin down a definition for iconoclasm that works, it is rapid, intentional, intergenerational change. That is, it is any intentional change that creates a discontinuity between a father and his sons. Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

I think the solution is having a countervailing cultural sense that opposes unnecessary changes–that is, a sense that some things are sacred.

If we start from pure animism and progress to today, we have an infinite supply of divine loci reducing down to one (or none). Each successive bout of iconoclasm was a valid coup, whereby the new, less idolatrous elite replaced the previous elite within the same ingroup. … What makes today special is that the postmodern sociopathic status maximiser has no ancient and powerful elite iconography to push off of and looks for anything that resembles divinity.

The difficulty, if you’re an American, is that so much of our “culture” is now created by corporations (were the favorite stories of your childhood the ones your parents made up for you, or did they come from Disney?) that it’s hard to find anything worth declaring sacred.

Within this context, the traditional American religion (Protestantism) has been lost. Church membership is plummeting across the board. Meanwhile, Progressivism has stepped into Protestantism’s shoes, replacing the original sin of fructal disobedience with the original sin of slavery and racism. An like all new religions, Progressivism can no longer stand the icons of its predecessor.

220px-18891109_arsenic_complexion_wafers_-_helena_independentTo be clear, even people who call themselves “Protestant” are, today, mostly Progressives. Progressivism grew out of Protestantism, yes, but its memetic immune system no longer recognizes itself as such, hence its attack on its own ancestral religion.

Just as advertisers will try to convince you that you have a problem you had never noticed before in order to sell the cure, for religions to spread, they also have to convince you that they have the cure to the problem you didn’t realize you had. (By contrast, already established religions only have to convince you to stick around and have children–which wasn’t all that difficult before the invention of birth control.) We are currently in what amounts to a religious frenzy which demands that we interpret even the most mundane events as evidence of man’s continued sinfulness, eg:

One of my kids thinks pasta is disgusting, and she expects her students to be okay with bat soup? This isn’t racism; this is a normal human reaction to unfamiliar foods–and she’s crying over it. God forbid she should ever have a disabled or autistic student with actual food restrictions.

What I’m for is formalising our faith into a more enduring religion. So many people have been so far below replacement for so long that they really do see the end of the world looming (their genes ain’t carrying on into the future), but for the rest of us, we need things to pass to our children – and more importantly their children – and connect them to what came before.

A lot of our problems probably stem from being in this historically unusual state of so many people having so few relatives around.

Underneath this is the level of machine language, completely inaccessible to normal humans, and largely inaccessible to even the most motivated. Humans generally do not belong on this level. Nobody really understands the Matrix as the Matix, but some (like Yarvin, imo) can understand it with some focus. Those who are able to comprehend reality on this level find it difficult, if not impossible to persuade others who cannot see what they see.

This is of course both the “red pill” and Plato’s allegory of the cave.

It is really distressing to look into reality and feel like suddenly you see all of the parts underneath, the things casting the shadows, and to yell at everyone that “hey, look, that’s not a dog, that’s a guy making his hands look like a dog!” and have most people just look at you like you’re crazy. Or to give a real life example, I see people arguing over this or that Democratic candidate’s policies as though they mattered when really, most voters will just vote for whomever gets the nomination, and the nomination will most likely go to whomever seems most establishment. All of this worrying over policies is meaningless drama.

That’s why I’ve got 1,000+ posts on this blog, after all: trying to explain my thoughts so I can communicate with others.

I’d still like to know WGD’s personal mechanism for decrypting the Real, even if necessity forces it to be framed in language that doesn’t sound sane.

On Rituals and Meaning

WGD recently gave an interview on Parallax Optics, On Orthodoxy, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm. It’s a dense piece that could easily stand to be 10x longer, but I think the point is basically about how we understand the world.

WGD talks about the cycle of iconogenesis/iconoclasm, particularly in the context of modern politics:

Iconoclasm is therefore the elimination of local faith loci (I often use the term “intermediaries” when discussing divine loci, because the infinite creator is ineffable, and our minds seem to require a compiler). In Judaism this is largely precluded by preventing the formation of these loci (although the Black Swan is pretty impressive when one does form), but progressivism has no pre-emptive measure, creating an iconogenesis/iconoclasm cycle that moves at the speed of information. …

Progressivism is, in some senses, the willingness to destroy or route around a locus. In our modern times, with any meritorious loci destroyed as quickly as it is discovered, progressivism is forced to turn iconoclasm itself into a locus. …

Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

My basic reaction:

The universe is real, but much vaster than we can really comprehend or deal with in any practical manner, so we have to divide it into useful chunks. The chunks we happen to chose are not arbitrary; they are only useful inasmuch as they are real, and are useless if they are not real.

A dog, for example, is a real thing. It is different from a cat or a wolf. A dog is a real part of the universe.

Words, however, are arbitrary. They’re random collections of sounds we ascribe meaning to. It doesn’t matter that “dog” has the sounds d-o-g in it. It would work just as well if we used the sounds c-a-n-i-s or p-e-r-r-o to denote a domesticated canine. But we use “dog” because we have a common, agreed upon understanding that this collection of sounds signifies something.

Being arbitrary in sound does not make it arbitrary in meaning.

Words are arbitrary, but the things they refer to are not. We have words for the wider dog family, including foxes and wolves: canines. We have a word for general domesticated animals that live with people: pets. We do not have a word for “the set of things that includes only dogs and dinosaurs,” because this is not a useful category: it does not refer back to a real set of things.

Words are the smallest unit of meaning. Cultures build up layer upon layer of meaning through things like a common stock of songs we’ve all heard and literature that we’ve all read and can allude to (“Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well”). This accretion of meaning allowing us to increase the conceptual density of communication. I don’t even like Shakespeare that much, but we have hundreds of years of culture and communication built on him, so we can’t just toss him out in favor of a “non dead white male” without losing something important.

Removing these arbitrary cultural norms (on the grounds that they are “arbitrary”) leaves people unmoored. We end up with idiotic things like corporations referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women” because they are afraid of offending the screeching masses who want disassemble language. These people object to the conceptual density of “woman” and so insist on breaking it into its component parts, but this makes communication much more difficult. Language forms symbols and layers of meaning naturally and attempting to pull that apart is unnatural and damaging: 

Culture goes well beyond language. We have clothes and games, rituals and holidays.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives the best explanation I have seen of the importance of rituals:

It was then that the fox appeared. …

‘Come and play with me,’ suggested the little prince.’I’m terribly sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I am not tame.’

‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the little prince. Then, after a moment’s thought, he added:
‘What does “tame” mean ?’ …

‘Something that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It meam “to create ties” … To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me. To you, I’m just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.’

‘… My life is very monotonous. I run after the chickens; the men run after me. All the chickens are the same, and all the men are the same. Consequently, I get a little bored. but if you tame me, my days will be as if filled with sunlight. I shall know a sound of footstep different from all the rest. Other steps make me run to earth. Yours will call me out of my foxhole like music. And besides, look over there! You see the fields of corn ? Well, I don’t eat bread. Corn is of no use for me. Corn fields remind me of nothing. Which is sad! On the other hand, your hair is the colour of gold. So think how wonderful it will be when you have tamed me. The corn, which is golden, will remind me you. And I shall come to love the sound of the wind in the field of corn…”

The fox fell silent and looked steadily at the little prince for a long time. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘tame me!’

‘I should like to,’ replied the little prince, ‘but I don’t have much time. I have friends to discover and many things to understand.’ …

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.

‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

‘What is a ritual?’ said the little prince.

‘Something else that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox.

It’s what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours. There is a ritual, for example, among my huntsmen. On Thursdays they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a stroll as far as the vineyard. If the huntsmen went dancing at any old time, the days would all be the same, and I should never have a holiday.’
So the little prince tamed the fox.

Not all rituals are good or important. Of course not. We can make a very long list of terrible rituals humans have come up with over the years. But that does not mean that all rituals are bad. Indeed, most rituals humans have come up with are probably good.

The rate of technological change in modern society is such that we have been forced to give up a good many of the rituals that we used to find pleasant or comforting. This is not all bad–we have gained a great deal of nice technology in exchange–but it takes time to build up new, functional rituals to replace the old.

Anyway, it’s an interesting interview, so I encourage you to read it.

Jesus is not Mithras

This is the time of year when posts and article start popping up claiming that Jesus is just a rehash of the old Persion god Mithras (or Mithra, Mitras or some other spelling), lining up all sorts of improbable coincidences like “Mithras was born from a rock, and rocks can’t have sex, so clearly that’s the same as a virgin birth.”

There’s a much simpler and more sensible origin for Jesus: Judaism.

I know this is a bold thesis, but I think Judaism has several things going for it as the ultimate origin of Christianity, so hear me out.

Judaism: Has a tradition that a messiah will come.

Judaism: Has a holiday at the end of December. (It’s called Hanukkah.)

Judaism: Also has a spring holiday that coincides with Easter.

Judaism: is literally the religion that Christianity sprang from.

The early Christian writer Hippolytus of Rome provides the first justification for situating Jesus’s birth on December 25th: because it is nine months after his conception, believed to coincide with the date of his death. This belief probably comes from an actual Jewish belief about prophets, albeit slightly mangled. For example, Moses is believed to have died on his own birthday (at 120 years old).

Furthermore, Hanukkah–also known as the “Feast of Dedication”–is celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. It seems likely that when early Christians started using the Roman calendar, they translated the holiday directly to the 25th of December.

But wait, I hear you saying, doesn’t Christmas coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia?

It turns out that Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, not December 25th. The holiday was later extended to last until December 23rd, which still falls two days short of December 25th.

Since people often denigrate Hanukkah as just “the Jewish Christmas,” let’s go back and review what the holiday is actually about.

In Hebrew, Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah”–it’s a transliteration of a non-Indo European word written in a non-Latin alphabet, so there’s no one proper spelling) means “dedication.” The Feast of Dedication officially marks when the Maccabees reconquered Jerusalem (from the Seleucids, Syrian Greeks) and re-instated traditional Jewish temple services in the Temple, which the invaders had been using for sacrifices to Zeus.

The Feast of Dedication is actually mentioned in the New Testament, in John 10:

22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in [d]doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

800px-menorah_0307
Recreation of the Temple Menorah by the Temple Institute; By ariely 

One of the sacred objects in the Temple was the 7-armed menorah, famously depicted on the Arch of Titus. (The Hanukkah menorahs lit in people’s homes have 9 arms.) According to the Bible (Exodus 25), the plan for the menorah was revealed to Moses as part of the overall plan for the tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant resided:

31Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. 33Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. …

 39talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories. 40See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.[1]

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the menorah was placed inside, and it was this same menorah that the Maccabees were scrambling to find enough oil to light during their (re)dedication celebration. (Candles had yet to be invented.)

The menorah was looted by the Romans in 70 AD, after Titus conquered Jerusalem, and then probably carried off by the Vandals when they sacked Rome in 455. At this point, it disappears from history–and yet the sacred temple light lives on. You’ve probably seen it in a modern church, as altar lamps still hang in Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican churches.

44asl14_7_19_2011_5_08_40_pm
Catholic Sanctuary Lamp

According to the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church:

“In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.”

The “presence of Christ” is in the physical form of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christian churches also have a “menorah,” (though it is shaped rather differently from the Jewish ones):

In Orthodoxy, what other traditions in Christianity call the altar we call the Holy Table, and the space beyond the ikon screen is called the altar. Among items upon an Orthodox Holy Table will be a cloth ikon of Christ containing a relic, the gospels, a special ‘box’ we call a tabernacle which will contain the reserved sacrament for the sick, and candles. In the Russian tradition the number of candles we use reflect the Jewish Menorah, a seven branched candlestick as expressed in Exodus.

The sanctuary lamp is also found in many Protestant denominations:

It is also found in the chancel of Lutheran and Methodist churches to indicate the presence of Christ in the sanctuary, as well as a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.[3][4] … Other Christian denominations burn the lamp to show that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world.

And of course it is still found in synagogues:

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one’s prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid–the eternal light — recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20–21).

In each case, the sacred fire symbolizes the presence of God.

Looking back, deeper into the Bible, we find other instances where fire symbolized God’s presence:

The menorah itself, with multiple “branches” covered in buds and blossoms, is reminiscent of a flowering tree or bush, like the burning bush encountered by Moses.

When the Israelites walked through the desert, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.

When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, God was again likened to fire (Exodus 24):

12 And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. …

15 And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. …

17 And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.

And in the story of Abram who became Abraham (Genesis 15):

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him. …

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: 

oil-canvas-pentecost-el-greco-prado-madrid
El Greco, Pentecost

And in the New Testament, Acts, Ch 2:

1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

“Pentecost” is actually a Jewish holiday. It is partly a harvest festival and partly a celebration of when God gave Moses the books of the Torah (aka the Bible).

I regard the Jewish holiday calendar as cyclical, with many layers of meaning built into each holiday. Pentecost, (aka Shavuot), is both an early harvest festival and a Torah festival. Sukkot is a fall harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving, but it also celebrates the time the Israelites spent wandering in the desert during the Exodus (with overtones of a Jewish wedding). Judaism is an old religion, and meaning has built up over time as people have lived their lives in different ways.

The fact that two different religions celebrate similar holidays on similar dates is not, a priori, sign that they copied each other. I think it very likely that people of all sorts, from all over the world, have placed important holidays on dates like “the solstice” and “the harvest” because these are easy dates to keep track of. You know when the harvest is in; you know when the days are short or long. Other days, well, those are a little trickier to keep track of. Festivals that take place at the same time of year took on similar elements because those elements were common to the times–Sukkot and Thanksgiving both involve lots of food because they are harvest festivals, not because they are copying each other. Winter solstice celebrations involve fire because people light fires to keep themselves warm during cold winter months.

Christmas/Chanukah similarly show many layers of meaning. At the most basic, we have a solstice celebration: the temples and hearths need cleaning and the sacred fires are kindled at the start of winter. We have the historical observance of an actual, historical event–the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, as related in 1 Maccabees:

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year,[b] 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 

Interestingly, the Seleucid Empire’s control of the Temple symbolically dies here on the same day it was born.

Hanukkah is also, according to the account given in 2 Maccabees, a delayed Sukkot festival (Sukkot is normally 8 days long in the diaspora). Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles, was probably delayed either due to the Seleucids banning traditional Jewish holidays, as the Maccabees complained, or due to the war raging in the country at the time. A further fourth reason for Hanukkha is given in 2 Maccabees, the celebration of a similar miracle performed by Nehemiah during the rebuilding of the Temple a few hundred years before.

What does it mean for early Christian authors to assert that Jesus was born on Chanukah, died on Passover, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Shavuot (Pentecost)? Not only does this situate Jesus firmly within the Jewish liturgical year, it is a specific claim about who Jesus is.

For Jews, God’s presence in the world is the Torah, hence why the eternal light burns near the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In churches, this is of course the Eucharist.

The transition from Word to Eucharist is eloquently expressed by John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  …

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For Christians, Jesus is the presence of God in the world symbolized by the menorah’s flame. 

What does it mean for modern authors to assert that Jesus was Mithras? It is a claim that  the New Testament is a bunch of malarkey and Jesus was, rather than an historical personage, a plagiarised pagan deity.

But let’s take a closer look at Mithras and the claimed parallels. According to Wikipedia:

Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. The religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated.[1] The mysteries were popular among the Roman military from about the 1st to the 4th century CE.[2]

Certainly Mithraism was popular in the area and some of its iconography is similar to later Christian paintings and statues. Christians may have borrowed stylistic motifs from Greek and Roman art, since there were no iconographic representations of God in traditional Judaism.

But let’s look at the more substantive claims.

The pro-Mithra camp usually makes a list of attributes Mithra and Jesus supposedly have in common, eg:

Mithra has the following in common with the Jesus character:

  • Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
  • The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He ascended to heaven.
  • Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
  • Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
  • Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
  • Mithraism emphasized baptism.

There are two problems with such lists. First, reducing any religion to a bullet points tends to render it almost unrecognizable, and second, many of these points are just plain wrong.

Here’s a comparison of Judaism and Sikhism, for example:

  • Both religions stress the importance of wearing hats
  • Sikh and Jewish prayers both assert the existence of one God.
  • Both started in Asia.
  • Sikhs have gurus, who are teachers. Judaism has rabbis, who are also teachers.
  • Sikhs and Jews both worship in dedicated religious buildings.
  • Both forbid religious iconography.
  • Both teach that God is formless and omnipotent.
  • Judaism has “10 commandments”. Sikhism has “10 Gurus”.
  • Sikhs have a ritual bathing ceremony called “Amrit Sanchar.” Jews have a ritual bathing ceremony that takes place in a ritual bathing pool, the mikvah.
  • Both have sacred texts

There you have it. Judaism and Sikhism have so much in common, they must be copying each other. I’m sure if you met a Jew and a Sikh in person, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

1. The first claim, that Mithras was born on December 25th, is basically wrong. Zoroastrians celebrate Mithras’s birth on the solstice, or December 21st. In the 4th century AD, in some parts of the Roman Empire, the festival’s date was shifted to December 25th, probably due to issues with the calendar (leap years).

The claims that everyone was celebrating Mithras’s birthday on December 25th are extrapolated from Roman celebrations of the solstice (Sol Invictus). Since some people equated Mithras and the sun, the logic goes, therefore everyone who celebrated the solstice was actually celebrating Mithras.

320px-mithras_petra_genetrix_terme
Mithras born from a rock, marble, 186 AD: just the spitting image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, isn’t he?

2. Second, Mithras is most commonly depicted as born not from a virgin, but from a rock. The statues are very clear on this point. Only in a few isolated traditions is Mithras given a human mother; these were not the dominant traditions in the area. Even if we are generously metaphorical and allow the claim that Mithras was born in a cave, rather than directly from a rock, Jesus was not born in a cave. Jesus was born in a stable, where animals are kept, or possibly even the lower floor of a home where animals were kept during the winter.

3. Pretty much all babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes. I’ve swaddled my own babies. Oh no, I’ve produced gods.

4. I’ve found nothing confirming that Mithras was laid in a manger. He looks too big in most of his “birth from a rock” statues to be laid in anything, anyway, because he emerged fairly grown up.

5. Mithras is generally depicted attended by two torch bearers, Cautes and Cautophates. They symbolize sunrise and sunset, as Mithras is a solar deity. Occasionally, they are depicted holding shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.

The presence of shepherds at the nativity isn’t really an important theological point in Christianity. Neither is Cautes and Cautophates occasionally holding shepherds’ crooks in statues. These symbols are not meaningfully similar.

6. Empty claim: Anyone can walk around and teach things.

7. The claim that Mithras had 12 companions or disciples is taken from depictions of Mithras alongside the Zodiac. I don’t think anyone was claiming that Mithras was literally accompanied by Pisces and Cancer.

8. Empty: Pretty much ever religious leader/saint/prophet has performed “miracles.”

9. Mithras did not sacrifice himself as a bull. He killed a bull. The bull-killing scene is the most common depiction of Mithras, so it’s hard to figure out how someone could get this wrong. Let’s let Wikipedia describe the scene:

In every mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, an act called the tauroctony.[a][33] … The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted[34] bull, holding it by the nostrils[34] with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. … A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull. … The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.[36][37] Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.[38]

A Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia (c. 175 CE; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.[39] Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. At the top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.[40]

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.[40]On the back side was another, more elaborate feasting scene.

If you read that and conclude, “Yup, sounds just like Jesus, shepherds, and apostles,” I’m not sure what to say.

Since Mithras worship was part of a mystery cult, we have very few records of what actually went on in there.. We have archaeological remains, of course, which show mostly feasting. This is the claimed “eucharist.” These were big feasts which left a fair amount of trash behind. Calling any ritual feast a “eucharist” or “last supper” is certainly a stretch–we might as well note that I have a supper every evening. (And besides, there is a much closer parallel to the ceremony with the bread and wine found in Judaism.)

The presence of many cherry pits in the Mithraic garbage indicates that much of that feasting took place in summer, when cherries are ripe–around the time of the summer solstice. If Mithras inspired so much Christian ritual, then why doesn’t Jesus have a summer celebration?

As for what Mithras was called, we have very few actual written texts on the religion–unlike Christians, Mithras’s worshipers did not go around telling people what they believed. There is one inscription on a wall that reads “et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso” which translates to “And you have saved us… in the shed blood.” This is probably a reference to the killing of the bull, which was celebrated with feasting, rather than a Christ-like sacrifice. 

There is one reasonably complete surviving text that might have been part of a “Mithraic liturgy,” and it bears no relation to anything that goes on in a Christian church service:

At this level (lines 537–585), the revelation-seeker is supposed to breathe deeply and feel himself lifted up, as if in midair, hearing and seeing nothing of mortal beings on earth. He is promised to see instead the divine order of the “visible gods” rising and setting. Ritual silence is prescribed, followed by another sequence of hissing, popping, and thirteen magic words: “Then you will see the gods looking graciously upon you and no longer rushing at you, but rather going about in their own order of affairs.” After a shocking crash of thunder, another admonition of silence, and a magic incantation, the disk of the sun is to open and issue five-pointed stars. The eyes are to be closed for the following prayer. …

Next to come forth are the seven Pole-Lords, wearing linen loincloths and with faces of bulls. They have seven gold diadems, and are also to be hailed individually by name. These have powers of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, as well as the capacity to grant physical health, good eyesight and hearing, and calmness (lines 673–692).The two groups of seven, female and male, are both depicted in an Egyptian manner and represent the “region of the fixed stars.”[16]

This might of course be some other mystery cult, there just aren’t any other texts that survived with enough complete sentences to actually read them. We do have a lot of statues similar to these pole-lords, but with the faces of lions instead of bulls.

320px-siria2c_sculture_del_mitreo_di_sidon2c_389_dc2c_krono_mitriaco_con_testa_leonina_e_spire_del_tempo_28serpente29
Lion-Headed figure from the Sidon Mithraeum, circa 500 AD

These statues are wild and we have no idea what they were for or what they meant. They might be related to a particular demon in Zoroastrianism, or they might represent the “lion degree” of initiation into the cult’s rites, or something else entirely. At any rate, we don’t find these statues in modern churches, and their importance within the Mithraic mysteries has not been transferred to anything in Christianity.

Any claim that Mithras was “called this” or “compared to that” or given particular attributes is on shaky ground given the lack of written records. Nothing in the normal Mithraic iconography looks like the peaceful good shepherd of Christianity. His association with Lions and Lambs is part of his general association with the zodiac, which contains both Leo the Lion and Aries the Ram–as well as Cancer the Crab and Scorpio the Scorpion. Why is Jesus not associated with scorpions, if Mithras was?

Mithras did ascend into Heaven, because he is a solar deity associated with the sun, moon, and stars, and heaven is where the stars are. Zeus lives in a kind of “heaven,” too, as do Odin and Thor.

I hope I do not need to keep refuting individual points. I’ve found nothing about baptism or Sundays associated with Mithras, and as for the marks on the foreheads of Mithraic initiates, Christians do not normally go around with marks on their heads, except on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mourning.

And the son/sun pun doesn’t even work in Latin. (Or Greek.)

My personal opinion is that the Mithras Cult operated rather like a modern Masonic Lodge or even a Rotary Club: a men’s club that periodically feasted together. (Mithraic cults didn’t accept female members.)

There are plenty of obvious pagan practice that survives in Christianity–the Christmas tress, for example. And the influence of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato on early Christianity is a subject worth whole volumes. We could even ask how much of Judaism owes its origins to Zoroastrianism, especially parts developed during the Babylonian exile. But at this point, I think it’s safe to say that people promoting the “Jesus was Mithras” story are either completely ignorant of Mithraism or purposefully trying to denigrate Christianity.

Have a merry Christmas, Chanukah, Mithras Day, or whatever you celebrate.

If you like it, had you better put a ring on it?

The diamond engagement ring isn’t “trad” by any means–while rings are ancient, the custom of giving one’s beloved a diamond was invented by the DeBeers corporation a mere 80 years ago.

Indeed, the entire modern wedding is mostly a marketing gimmick–I guarantee your dirt poor farming ancestors in the 1800s didn’t spring for a bachelor party (and shotgun marriages were more common than Camelot weddings)–but an insightful Twitter commentator whose name I have regretfully forgotten brings up an intriguing possibility: have diamond rings become so popular because they are an effective, hard to fake signal of future marital fidelity, thus taking the place of a traditional piece of legislation, the “breach of promise to marry“:

A breach of promise to marry, or simply, “breach of a promise,” occurs when a person promises to marry another, and then backs out of their agreement. In about half of all U.S. states, a promise to marry is considered to be legally enforceable, so long as the promise or agreement fulfills all the basic requirements of a valid contract.

According to this theory, as legal enforcement of punishments for breaking marriage contracts fell by the wayside, people found new ways to insure their relationships: by spending a huge hunk of cash on a non-refundable diamond.

This is a really nice theory. It just has one problem: the amount of money spent on a diamond is a really poor predictor of marital quality. In fact, researchers have found the opposite:

In this paper, we estimate the relationship between wedding spending (including spending on engagement rings and wedding ceremonies) and the duration of marriages. To do so, we carried out an online survey of over 3,000 ever married persons residing in the United States. Overall, we find little evidence that expensive weddings and the duration of marriages are positively related. On the contrary, in multivariate analysis, we find evidence that relatively high spending on the engagement ring is inversely associated with marriage duration among male respondents. Relatively high spending on the wedding is inversely associated with marriage duration among female respondents, and relatively low spending on the wedding is positively associated with duration among male and female respondents.

People who spend more on diamonds (and weddings) get divorced faster, but it appears there is a sweet spot for rings between $500 and $2000. Not having a ring at all might spell trouble, for going below $500 also increases your chance of divorce–but not nearly as much as spending over $2000.

The sweet spot for the overall wedding is… below $1000. This is a little concerning when you consider that, according to PBS, the average couple spends about $30,000 on their wedding.

These finding may have an immediate cause: debt is bad for marriage, and blowing $30,000 on a wedding is not a good way to kick off your life together. There may also be a more fundamental cause: people who are impulsive and bad at financial planning may also be bad at managing other parts of their lives and generally make bad spouses.

There is one bright spot in this study:

Additionally, we find that having high wedding attendance and having a
honeymoon (regardless of how much it cost) are generally positively associated with marriage duration.

This is probably because these are activities you do with people you actually like, and the sorts of people who have lots of relationships and like doing things with their friends are good at relationships.

So skip the wedding and just invite all of your friends to a big party in Tahiti.

(If you’re wondering, we spent about $1500 on our wedding and I hand made the rings, and we are now the most successfully and longest-married couple in my entire extended family.)

How did we all get bamboozled? The process by which diamond rings became the engagement staple is really something:

The concept of an engagement ring had existed since medieval times, but it had never been widely adopted. And before World War II, only 10% of engagement rings contained diamonds. …

Creating the Narrative:

The agency wanted to make it look like diamonds were everywhere, and they started by using celebrities in the media. “The big ones sell the little ones,” said Dorothy Dignam, a publicist for De Beers at N.W. Ayer. N.W. Ayer’s publicists wrote newspaper columns and magazine stories about celebrity proposals with diamond rings and the type, size, and worth of their diamonds. Fashion designers talked about the new diamond trend on radio shows.

N.W. Ayer used traditional marketing tools like newspapers and radio in the first half of the twentieth century in a way that kind of reminds me of inbound marketing today: In addition to overt advertisements, they created entertaining and educational content — ideas, stories, fashion, and trends that supported their brand and product, but wasn’t explicitly about it. According to The AtlanticN.W. Ayer wrote: “There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea — the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.” Their story was about the people who gave diamonds or were given diamonds, and how happy and loved those diamonds made them feel.

People didn’t realize this was marketing. It just felt like “culture,” and to those who grew up with media saturated with “diamonds=love,” it already felt “traditional” by the time they were ready to marry.

Remember this–there’s a lot more “marketing” going on than just the explicit ads on TV.

 

The Dangers of Being Kind

I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.

The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.

Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:

  1. People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
  2. People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
  3. Criminal psychopaths

Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.

Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.

But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.

Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.

My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.

This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)

This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.

The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.

This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”

Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.

The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.

Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.

I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.

To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.

Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.

If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.

There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.

Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.

I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.

Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?

In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.

If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.

More Laws, Please: Jewish Law is Different from Ours

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be discussing Jewish law.

Jewish law may be the best-recorded legal system in the history of the world; there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pages of surviving primary sources covering about twenty-five hundred years.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I had this idea once back in college to do a project on parallel legal systems like Gypsy law, and thankfully someone talked me into switching to Jewish law, mostly out of concern for my physical safety.

But Jewish law is also massively better documented.

One thing I find amusing about Jewish law is that Jews seem to actually like the subject. I can’t tell if that’s something people feel like they’re supposed to say in the same way that people feel like they should claim to like school even if they actually hated it, but they certainly give the impression of being rather enthusiastic on the subject. Where the traditional practice of Chinese law can be summarized as “Please go away and leave us alone,” or “good people don’t need law,” the Jewish approach seems like “More laws, please.”

Problems of Divine Law

Jewish law was, in theory, based on a single unchangeable source–the Torah [first five books of the Bible.]… Basing the law in this way rather than on custom, precedent or legislation raised two problems shared with other legal systems similarly based, including Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and American Constitutional Law.

Note: I wrote a post about this: The Talmud and the Constitution. The trouble comes in when two scholars/judges/etc disagree about what exactly the law should be:

In a system that views law as the creation of a legislature, king, or court of last resort, the same authority that made the law can settle disagreements about it. That does not work for a legal system viewed not as created but as discovered, deduced from divinely inspired sources.

Obviously you need some way to resolve disputes about what exactly the laws should be; you also need some way to change laws should new circumstances arise that necessitate doing so.

The initial solution to the problem of legal uniformity was a simple one. Truth is not determined by majority vote but law can be. … the legal scholars took the position that the interpretation to be followed by judges was determined by the views of the majority of legal scholars.

There follows an amusing story about some rabbis who were arguing about whether an oven could be cleaned. The majority of rabbis held one opinion; the dissenting rabbi’s opinion was closer to the original religious text. God steps in on the dissenting rabbi’s side, at which point the other rabbis basically tell Him to back off, this is a rabbi matter.

His position was summed up by another Rabbi as “The Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We pay not attention to a heavenly voice because You have already written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘Follow the Majority.'”

According to the story, God smiled and said to himself, “My children have bested me.”

Most people I have discussed this story with object to it. They just can’t fathom the idea of telling God to buzz off and let the humans interpret divine law. Yet, as a parent, there have certainly been times when my children, as God put it, bested me. And in those moments I didn’t feel irritated or angry, but proud of them for their growth and maturity.

Anyway, as for the Jews, the authors make a good point that you’re much more likely in normal life to encounter cranks and grifters claiming divine revelations than you are to encounter actual divine revelations, so it’s a good idea to just reject divine revelations.

There is an interesting parallel between the conflict between the two schools of Jewish law, ending in the victory of one of them, and the development of Muslim law almost a thousand years later. In the early centuries of Islam, Sunni legal scholars divided themselves into four schools of law named after, and to some degree based on the teaching of, four of the early legal scholars. The schools differed in details of legal interpretation but regarded each other as mutually orthodox–and still do. …

One solution to the problem of [Jewish] legal diversity was the development of geographical schools Judges in France mostly went by the legal opinion of whoever was currently the most prominent legal scholar among French Jews…

This makes sense, given the difficulties of disseminating legal opinions to a diasporic population spread thinly across thousands of miles before the invention of cheap printing and fast transportation.

One of the other difficulties with Jewish law is that after 2,500 or so years, so much has been written that the whole mass has gotten terribly unwieldy:

Once the Talmud was complete, legal scholarship was built on top of three layers. The first was the Torah. That was followed by rabbinic legislation and commentary and interpretation based on the Torah, culminating in the Mishnah. That was followed by commentary on the Mishnah, culminating in the Talmud. Scholarship thereafter consisted largely of commentary on the Talmud, which had the previous two layers embedded in it, along with additional legislation. Further layers were added as one or another work based on those sources–the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides is one example–itself became the subject of further commentary.

This has generally been resolved via books summarizing previous decisions accompanied by more detailed legal books if one needs them, and the development of the previously mentioned local or communal law. Of course, sometimes this led to conflicts between different levels of interpretation or commentary.

There follows an interesting discussion of how marriage customs and especially the laws around marriage could have been modified to increase parental control over whom their children marry, but it is too long to quote here–you will have to read the chapter yourself.

A theory on kosher rules:

Careful observance of such rules is evidence that the observer believes in the religion, since he is willing to bear substantial costs in order to conform to its requirements. The fact that he believe sin the religion means that he will be reluctant to sear, falsely, for fear of supernatural punishment.

Well, maybe. It’d be nice to have some data on the matter.

Maimonides [a famous Jewish legal scholar] goes on to describe in some detail the rules associated with the avenger of blood,t he heir of a killer’s victim, and the cities of refuge–of which, like kings of Israel, there had been none for more than a thousand years. A killer was supposed to go to one of the cities of refuge, be brought from there to the court of the city where the killing occurred, tried and, if guilty of deliberate murder, put to death by the avenger of blood. If found guilty of unintentional killing he was to be sent back to the city of refuge to remain there until the high priest, also nonexistent in Maimonides’ day, died. En route to or from the city of refuge he could be killed by the avenger of blood without penalty.

That looks rather like the remnant of a pre-existing feud system, untidily integrated into its replacement.

It’s late and I’m pretty tired, so let’s wrap things up. I’m sorry I don’t have more to say, but I’ve already hit the point of exhaustion and I said a lot on the subject back in Why Does my Fridge Have a Sabbath Mode? and The Talmud and the Constitution.