Cannibalism, Abortion, and R/K Selection.

Reindeer herder, from "Quarter of a Million Reindeers to be Butched... after Anthrax Outbreak" : "Serbian officials have demanded a huge cull of a 250,000 reindeers by Christmas over the risk of an anthrax outbreak. Currently 730,000 animals are being kept in the Yamal Peninsula and the rest of the Yamalo-Nenets region."
Reindeer herder, from Quarter of a Million Reindeers to be Butched… after Anthrax Outbreak: “Currently 730,000 animals are being kept in the Yamal Peninsula and the rest of the Yamalo-Nenets region.”

In Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and their Transformations [PDF,] Ingold describes the social distribution of food among hunter-gatherers. In normal times, when food is neither super-abundant nor scarce, each family basically consumes what it brings in, without feeling any particular compulsion to share with their neighbors. In times of super-abundance, food is distributed throughout the tribe, often quite freely:

Since harvested animals, unlike a plant crop, will not reproduce, the multiplicative accumulation of material wealth is not possible within the framework of hunting relations of production. Indeed, what is most characteristic of hunting societies everywhere is the emphasis not on accumulation but on its obverse: the sharing of the kill, to varying degrees, amongst all those associated with the hunter. …

The fortunate hunter, when he returns to camp with his kill, is expected to play host to the rest of the community, in bouts of extravagant consumption.

The other two ethnographies I have read of hunter-gatherers (The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Kabloona, about the Eskimo aka Inuit) both support this: large kills are communal feasts. Hunter gatherers often have quite strict rules about how exactly a kill is to be divided, but the most important thing is that everyone gets some.

And this is eminently sensible–you try eating an entire giraffe by yourself, in the desert, before it rots.

Even in the arctic, where men can (in part of the year) freeze food for the future, your neighbor’s belly is as good as a freezer, because the neighbor you feed today will feed you tomorrow. Hunting is an activity that can be wildly successful one day and fail completely the next, so if hunters did not share with each other, soon each one would starve.

Whilst the successful hunter is required to distribute his spoils freely amongst his camp fellows, he does so with the assurance that in any future eventuality, when through bad luck he fails to find game, or through illness or old age he can no longer provide for himself and his family, he will receive in his turn. Were each hunter to produce only for his own domestic needs, everyone would eventually perish from hunger (Jochelson 1926:124). Thus, through its contribution to the survival and reproduction of potential producers, sharing ensures the perpetuation of society as a whole. …

Yet he is also concerned to set aside stocks of food to see his household through at least a part of the coming winter. The meat that remains after the obligatory festive redistribution is therefore placed in the household’s cache, on which the housewife can draw specifically for the provision of her own domestic group (Spencer 1959:149). After the herds have passed by, domestic autonomy is re-establisheddraws on its own reserves of stored food.

But what happens at the opposite extreme, not under conditions of abundance, but when everyone‘s stocks run out? Ingold claims that in times of famine, the obligation to share what little food one has with one’s neighbors is also invoked:

We find, therefore, that the incidence of generalized reciprocity tends to peak towards the two extremes of scarcity and abundance… The communal feast that follows a successful hunting drive involves the same heightening of band solidarity, and calls into play the same functions of leadership in the apportionment of food, as does the consumption of famine rations.

I am reminded here of a scene in The Harmless People in which there was not enough food to go around, but the rules of distribution were still followed, each person just cutting their piece smaller. Thomas described one of the small children, hungry, trying to grab the food bowl–not the food itself–to stop their mother from giving away their food to the next person in the chain of obligation.

Here Ingold pauses to discuss a claim by Sahlins that such social order will (or should) break down under conditions of extreme hunger:

Probably every primitive organization has its breaking-point, or at least its turning-point. Every one might see the time when co-operation is overwhelmed by the scale of disaster and chicanery becomes the order of the day. The range of assistance contracts progressively to the family level; perhaps even these bonds dissolve and, washed away, reveal an inhuman, yet most human, self-interest. Moreover, by the same measure that the circle of charity is
compressed that of ‘negative reciprocity* is potentially expanded. People who helped each other in normal times and through the first stages of disaster display now an indifference to each others’ plight, if they do not exacerbate a mutual downfall by guile, haggle and theft.

Ingold responds:

I can find no evidence, either in my reading of circumpolar ethnography, or in the material cited by Sahlins, for the existence of such a ‘turning-point’ in hunting societies. On the contrary, as the crisis deepens, generalized reciprocity proceeds to the point of dissolution of domestic group boundaries. ‘Negative reciprocity’, rather than closing in from beyond the frontiers of the household, will be expelled altogether from the wider social field, only to make its appearance within the heart of the domestic group itself.

Thus the women of the household, who are allowed to eat only after the appetites of their menfolk have been satisfied, may be left in times of want with the merest scraps of food. Among the Chipewyan, ‘when real distress approaches, many of them are permitted to starve, when the males are amply provided for’…

In situations of economic collapse, negative reciprocity afflicts not only the domestic relations between husband and wife, but those between mother and child, and between parent and grandparent. If the suckling of children is the purest expression of generalized reciprocity, in the form of a sustained one-way flow, then infanticide must surely represent the negative extreme. Likewise, old or sick members of the household will be the first to be abandoned when provisions run short. Even in normal times, individuals who are past labour have to scavenge the left-overs of food and skins (Hearne 1911:326). In the most dire circumstances of all, men will consume their starving wives and children before turning upon one another.

Drawing on Eskimo material, Hoebel derives the following precepts of cannibal conduct: Not unusually . . . parents kill their own children to be eaten. This act is no different from infanticide. A man may kill and eat his wife; it is his privilege. Killing and eating a relative will produce no legal consequences. It is to be presumed, however, that killing a non-relative for food is murder. (1941:672, cited in Eidlitz 1969:132)

In short, the ‘circle of charity’ is not compressed but inverted: as the threat of starvation becomes a reality, the legitimacy of killing increases towards the centre. The act is ‘inhuman’ since it strips the humanity of the victim to its organic, corporeal substance. If altruism is an index of sociability, then its absolute negation annuls the sodality of the recipient: persons, be they human or animal, become things.

297px-world_population_v3-svgThis is gruesome, but let us assume it is true (I have not read the accounts Ingold cites, so I must trust him, and I do not always trust him but for now we will.)

The cold, hard logic of infanticide is that a mother can produce more children if she loses one, but a child who has lost its mother will likely die as well, along with all of its siblings. One of my great-great grandmothers suffered the loss of half her children in infancy and still managed to raise 5+ to adulthood. Look around: even with abortion and birth control widely available, humanity is not suffering a lack of children, but an over-abundance.


c08pnclw8aapot6Furthermore, children starve faster and are easier to kill than parents; women are easier to kill than men; people who live with you are easier to kill than people who don’t.

No one said GNON has a heart.

Before we condemn these people, let us remember that famine is a truly awful, torturous way to die, and that people who are on the brink of starving to death are not right in their minds. As “They’re not human”: How 19th-century Inuit coped with a real-life invasion of the Walking Dead recounts:

“Finally, as the footsteps stopped just outside the igloo, it was the old man who went out to investigate.

“He emerged to see a disoriented figure seemingly unaware of his presence. The being was touching the outside of the igloo with curiosity, and raised no protest when the old man reached his hand out to touch its cheek.

“His skin was cold. …

The figures, of course, were the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition. They had buried their captain. They had seen their ship entombed by ice. They had eaten the dead to survive. …

Inuit nomads had come across streams of men that “didn’t seem to be right.” Maddened by scurvy, botulism or desperation, they were raving in a language the Inuit couldn’t understand. In one case, hunters came across two Franklin Expedition survivors who had been sleeping for days in the hollowed-out corpses of seals. …

The figures were too weak to be dangerous, so Inuit women tried to comfort the strangers by inviting them into their igloo. …

The men spit out pieces of cooked seal offered to them. They rejected offers of soup. They grabbed jealous hold of their belongings when the Inuit offered to trade.

When the Inuit men returned to the camp from their hunt, they constructed an igloo for the strangers, built them a fire and even outfitted the shelter with three whole seals. …

When a small party went back to the camp to retrieve [some items], they found an igloo filled with corpses.

The seals were untouched. Instead, the men had eaten each other. …

In 1854, Rae had just come back from a return trip to the Arctic, where he had been horrified to discover that many of his original Inuit sources had fallen to the same fates they had witnessed in the Franklin Expedition.

An outbreak of influenza had swept the area, likely sparked by the wave of Franklin searchers combing the Arctic. As social mores broke down, food ran short.

Inuit men that Rae had known personally had chosen suicide over watching the slow death of their children. Families had starved for days before eating their dog teams. Some women, who had seen their families die around them, had needed to turn to the “last resource” to survive the winter.

Infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice were far more common prior to 1980 or so than we like to think; God forbid we should ever know such fates.

According to Wikipedia:

“Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide … Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births,[10] while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.[6]:66 Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era.[12] Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism.[13]

400px-Magliabchanopage_73r“Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage “[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.”[11]:324  …

“According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods.[25] Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns.[25]

Picture 4Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (from the Hebrew taph or toph, to burn) by the Canaanites. Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Kleitarchos, one of the historians of Alexander the Great, described that the infants rolled into the flaming pit. Diodorus Siculus wrote that babies were roasted to death inside the burning pit of the god Baal Hamon, a bronze statue.

“… the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”[30]

“The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. … A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband,[35] dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:

“I am still in Alexandria. … I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.” [36][37]

CgxAZrOUYAEeANF“In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure.[39] The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. …

“According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages “was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference”.[47]:355–356 At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river in daylight.[48]” …

400px-Kodeks_tudela_21“Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BC, who developed a school of law, wrote: “As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death.”[63]

“Buddhist belief in transmigration allowed poor residents of the country to kill their newborn children if they felt unable to care for them, hoping that they would be reborn in better circumstances. Furthermore, some Chinese did not consider newborn children fully “human”, and saw “life” beginning at some point after the sixth month after birth.[65]

“Contemporary writers from the Song dynasty note that, in Hubei and Fujian provinces, residents would only keep three sons and two daughters (among poor farmers, two sons and one daughter), and kill all babies beyond that number at birth.[66]”

Sex Ratio at birth in the People's Republic of China
Sex Ratio at birth in the People’s Republic of China

“It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.[82]:78

“According to social activists, female infanticide has remained a problem in India into the 21st century, with both NGOs and the government conducting awareness campaigns to combat it.[83] …

“In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide.[100] For the Maidu Native Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well.[101] In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.[102]

Meanwhile in the Americas:

In 2005 a mass grave of one- to two-year-old sacrificed children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. The sacrifices were apparently performed for consecration purposes when building temples at the Comalcalco acropolis.[2] …

Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.[7]

And don’t get me started on cannibalism.

James Cook witnessing human sacrifice in Tahiti
James Cook witnessing human sacrifice in Tahiti

It is perhaps more profitable to ask which cultures didn’t practice some form of infanticide/infant sacrifice/cannibalism than which ones did. The major cases Wikipedia notes are Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we may note that Judaism in many ways derived from ancient Egypt, and Christianity and Islam from Judaism.) Ancient Egypt stands out as unique among major the pre-modern, pre-monotheistic societies to show no signs of regular infanticide–and even in the most infamous case where the Egyptian pharaoh went so far as to order the shocking act, we find direct disobedience in his own household:

3 And when she [Jochebed] could not longer hide him [the baby], she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.

pharaohs_daughter-15 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.

6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”

7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”

8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” And the maid went and called the child’s mother.

9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, “Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.” And the women took the child, and nursed it.

10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”

–Exodus 2:3-10

I don’t know the actual infanticide numbers in modern Muslim countries (le wik notes that poverty in places like Pakistan still drives infanticide) but it is officially forbidden by Islam.

According to Abortions in America: • Black women are five times more likely to abort than white women. • 69% of pregnancies among Blacks are unintended, while that number is 54% among Hispanics and 40% of pregnancies among Whites. • Planned Parenthood, ... has located 80% of its abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods
According to Abortions in America:
• Black women are five times more likely to abort than white women.
• 69% of pregnancies among Blacks are unintended, while that number is 54% among Hispanics and 40% of pregnancies among Whites.
• Planned Parenthood, … has located 80% of its abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods

Today, between the spread of Abrahamic religions, Western Values, and general prosperity, the infanticide rate has been cut and human sacrifice and cannibalism have been all but eliminated. Abortion, though, is legal–if highly controversial–throughout the West and Israel.

According to the CDC, the abortion rate for 2013 was 200 abortions per 1,000 live births, or about 15% of pregnancies. (The CDC also notes that the abortion rate has been falling since at least 2004.) Of these, “91.6% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; … In 2013, 22.2% of all abortions were early medical abortions.”

To what can we attribute this anti-infanticide sentiment of modern monotheistic societies? Is it just a cultural accident, a result of inheritance from ancient Egypt, or perhaps the lucky effects of some random early theologian? Or as the religious would suggest, due to God’s divine decree? Or is it an effect of the efforts parents must expend on their few children in societies where children must attend years of school in order to succeed?

According to Wikipedia:

In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of combinations of traits in an organism that trade off between quantity and quality of offspring. The focus upon either increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment of r-strategists, or reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment of K-strategists, varies widely, seemingly to promote success in particular environments. …

In r/K selection theory, selective pressures are hypothesised to drive evolution in one of two generalized directions: r– or K-selection.[1] These terms, r and K, are drawn from standard ecological algebra as illustrated in the simplified Verhulst model of population dynamics:[7]

d N d t = r N ( 1 − N K ) {\frac {dN}{dt}}=rN\left(1-{\frac {N}{K}}\right)

where r is the maximum growth rate of the population (N), K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting, and the notation dN/dt stands for the derivative of N with respect to t (time). Thus, the equation relates the rate of change of the population N to the current population size and expresses the effect of the two parameters. …

As the name implies, r-selected species are those that place an emphasis on a high growth rate, and, typically exploit less-crowded ecological niches, and produce many offspring, each of which has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., high r, low K).[8] A typical r species is the dandelion Taraxacum genus.

In unstable or unpredictable environments, r-selection predominates due to the ability to reproduce quickly. There is little advantage in adaptations that permit successful competition with other organisms, because the environment is likely to change again. Among the traits that are thought to characterize r-selection are high fecundity, small body size, early maturity onset, short generation time, and the ability to disperse offspring widely. …

By contrast, K-selected species display traits associated with living at densities close to carrying capacity, and typically are strong competitors in such crowded niches that invest more heavily in fewer offspring, each of which has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., low r, high K). In scientific literature, r-selected species are occasionally referred to as “opportunistic” whereas K-selected species are described as “equilibrium”.[8]

In stable or predictable environments, K-selection predominates as the ability to compete successfully for limited resources is crucial and populations of K-selected organisms typically are very constant in number and close to the maximum that the environment can bear (unlike r-selected populations, where population sizes can change much more rapidly).

Traits that are thought to be characteristic of K-selection include large body size, long life expectancy, and the production of fewer offspring, which often require extensive parental care until they mature.

Of course you are probably already aware of Rushton’s R/K theory of human cultures:

Rushton’s book Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) uses r/K selection theory to explain how East Asians consistently average high, blacks low, and whites in the middle on an evolutionary scale of characteristics indicative of nurturing behavior. He first published this theory in 1984. Rushton argues that East Asians and their descendants average a larger brain size, greater intelligence, more sexual restraint, slower rates of maturation, and greater law abidingness and social organization than do Europeans and their descendants, who average higher scores on these dimensions than Africans and their descendants. He theorizes that r/K selection theory explains these differences.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the article states, “Rushton’s application of r/K selection theory to explain differences among racial groups has been widely criticised. One of his many critics is the evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves, who has done extensive testing of the r/K selection theory with species of Drosophila flies. …”

Genetics or culture, in dense human societies, people must devote a great deal of energy to a small number of children they can successfully raise, leading to the notion that parents are morally required to put this effort into their children. But this system is at odds with the fact that without some form of intervention, the average married couple will produce far more than two offspring.

Ultimately, I don’t have answers, only theories.

Source: CDC data, I believe
Source: CDC data, I believe

Democracy is America’s Religion

So I was thinking the other day–Why are Westerners (particularly Americans) so introverted about their religious beliefs? I have on occasion posted “Convert Me” open threads in which I invite people to give me their best arguments for following their religion, and gotten very few enthusiastic responses. Even the Jehovah’s Witness who visited my thread only made a half-effort just to humor me, not because she actually wanted to convert me.

(I can already hear you asking: Why would I post such a thread? To which I reply, Why not? I enjoy discussing religion. If the religious are correct and I am convinced to join them, then I gain something good. If I am not convinced, then I lose nothing, for I am already an atheist. I have no reason to fear discussion with a theist.)

Mormon missionaries occasionally ring my bell. I always make an effort to be polite and listen, and even they really just want to hand me a pamphlet and hurry on to the next house.

The only people who have ever really, seriously tried to convert me are Muslims (and I must note that they did so in an entirely friendly manner.) Where the Christians ask, “Why would you want us to convert you?” and the Mormons say, “Well, I think there are lots of religions because God gave each group of people their own religion best suited to themselves,” (actual quote from a Mormon missionary, I am serious) the Muslims will happily pester you with a whole slew of websites about why Islam is correct, how the Qu’ran is full of good science, how lovely the Qu’ranic poetry is, etc.

(Of course, you’re not going to get a Jew to try to convert you unless you tell him your mother was a Jew and you really wan to return to your Jewish roots.)

Frankly, I think Americans find the whole idea of being devoutly religious–much less discussing religion with the non-devout–vaguely embarrassing. Sure, maybe that elderly lady down the block who hands out Chick Tracts instead of Halloween candy would like to talk about Jesus with you, but can’t the rest of us please just talk about football?

This blog was practically kicked off with the observation that devout Christianity is low class, while a kind of vague, multi-faith “spirituality” is the religion–if you must have one–of the upper class. A quick look at some demographic data makes the picture:

From Pew Research Center,
From Pew Research Center

Not a whole lot of surprises, though I will note that it does matter how you break down the groups, and I think I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere for Muslim-Americans.

Of course the flipside of Muslims being really keen on spreading their religion is that sometimes things go quite badly and violently.

And if you’re an American (or French, or Swedish, or German, or whatever,) this feels awfully unfair, because after all, when have we ever blown anything up in Mecca in the name of Jesus?

But then I got to thinking: obviously we have bombed Muslim countries. We dropped quite a few on Iraq–and for what? For Freedom? For Democracy?

We didn’t want to convert Iraq to Christianity (not the vast majority of us, anyway.) We wanted to convert Iraq to democracy.

You know, we destroyed a perfectly innocent country–killed thousands of people–and we barely feel a pang of remorse. Why? Because we did it to help them? We though they’d be happier if they just lived in a democracy, just like your office mate with the Chick Tracts thinks you’ll be happier if you just accept Jesus as your savior and Muslims think you’ll be happier if you become a Muslim.

Christianity and Islam (or certain branches of Islam) are not at war. They can’t be at war because Christianity isn’t fighting. Not in the West, anyway. Maybe in the Philippines or South America or somewhere, but certainly not in the West.

Now here I should stop to note that several Islamic countries are democracies, more or less, and many Muslims also believe in Democracy. So this is a conflict within Islam as well as without. But this post isn’t about Islam–I am not an Islamic expert and don’t feel comfortable writing about Islamic issues.

However, this is a post about the West, and how Democracy has become our chief religion, taking the place Christianity once occupied.

(I am sure my readers are split between “Well that is nothing new; Moldbug said that ages ago,” and “What a stupid idea. Democracy can’t be a religion.”)

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyful Christmukkah?

merry_menorah(Well, Christmas and Chanukkah actually are falling on the same day this year, so those of you who like mashing up your holidays have the perfect opportunity.)

Having searched and failed to find a good map of the expansion of Christianity (most maps focus on only Christianity’s westward expansion, completely neglecting the fact that early Christianity was tri-continental,) I wanted to gift you with one. But Photoshop is not my friend today, so this may take a while.

T-O style Medieval map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, showing Christ's dominance in the "four corners" of the world.
T-O style Medieval map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, showing Christ’s triumph in the “four corners” of the world.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to writeup my research notes on the spread of Christianity:

One of the things people tend to forget (or else never realize,) is that Christianity was once common throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. These regions are now heavily Muslim, but of course Islam didn’t exist prior to the early 600s. So for about 500 years–half a millennium–Christianity was the hot new monotheism in town.

(Indeed, while we moderns tend to think of “religions” as well-defined, distinct belief systems, I have no reason to think that 7th century Middle Eastern peasants saw it that way. Islam built and expanded upon existing Jewish and Christian beliefs/rituals/texts, and could be reasonably thought, like Mormonism, as an offshoot of them. But for better or worse, Islam has left the Christian family tree, and so will not be considered here.)

spread-of-christianity33 or so AD: Crucifixion, resurrection

Christianity began, of course, among Jewish people of Judah–modern Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It spread easily among Semitic-speaking peoples, across major trade routes and through local empires, such as Assyria, Rome, and Phoenicia. It spread quickly to Iraq, Turkey, Persia, Malta, Greece, Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, the Caucasus, Balkans, India, North Africa, Italy, Ethiopia, Sudan, Arabia, etc.

christianity_html_29c0e5dcWithin the 1st century:

In 44 AD, legend has it that St. James was preaching in Spain.

45 AD, mission of Barnabas and Paul to Cyprus and modern Turkey

47 AD, The Church of the East, aka the Nestorian Church, is created by Saint Thomas. It spreads throughout the Sasanian (aka Iranian) empire, eventually reaching Mongolia. Genghis Khan’s own family were Nestorian Christians.

50-53 AD, Paul’s mission to Greece, Macedonia, etc.

In 52 AD, legend states that St. Thomas reached India.

59, Paul in Malta

60 Paul in Rome

72 Martyrdom of St. Thomas in Mylapore, India

christianity_html_2dc762f1By the end of the first century, we have the beginnings of the Western (Roman) church; the Orthodox Church (I think); the Syrian church with its offshoot the Nestorians, who spread through the Middle East and central Asia; the Coptic church in Egypt; the Ethiopian church; and the St. Thomas Christians in India. Some notes:

Coptic history is part of history of Egypt that begins with the introduction of Christianity in Egypt in the 1st century AD during the Roman period, and covers the history of the Copts to the present day.

The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the Church of Alexandria was founded by Saint Mark [2] during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.

Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.

The Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in 639. Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a mainly Christian land, although the gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries changed Egypt from a mainly Christian to a mainly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century.[9]

Ethiopia and Armenia apparently compete for the title of “first nation to accept Christianity.” Wikipedia notes:

Pinpointing a date as to when Christianity emerged in Ethiopia is uncertain. The earliest and best known reference to the introduction of Christianity is in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-38[5]) when Philip the Evangelist converted an Ethiopian court official in the 1st Century AD. … Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia long before Christianity arrived and the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible contains numerous Jewish Aramaic words. The Old Testament in Ethiopia may be a translation of the Hebrew with possible assistance from Jews. …

Although Christianity existed long before the rule of King Ezana the Great of the Kingdom of Axum, the religion took a strong foothold when it was declared a state religion in 330 AD. …

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, Ethiopia’s Christians became isolated from the rest of the Christian world. The head of the Ethiopian church has been appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks had certain rights in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Ethiopia was the only region of Africa to survive the expansion of Islam as a Christian state.[10]

Christianity may have reached India in 52 AD. Wikipedia states:

The Saint Thomas Christians or Thomas Christians, also called Syrian Christians or Nasrani, are a community of Christians from Kerala, India, who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century.[4][5]

According to tradition, St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, came to Muziris on the Kerala coast in AD 52[4] which is in the present day Pattanam, Kerala.[14] … The Cochin Jews are known to have existed in Kerala in the 1st century AD,[17][18][19] and it was possible for an Aramaic-speaking Jew such as St. Thomas from Galilee to make a trip to Kerala in the 1st century; however, there is no contemporary evidence for this incident. The earliest known source connecting the apostle to India is the Acts of Thomas, likely written in the early 3rd century, perhaps in Edessa.[20][21][22]

An organised Christian presence in India dates to the arrival of East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of what would become the Church of the East, in around the 3rd century.[37]

Some contact and transmission of knowledge of the Saint Thomas Christians managed to reach the Christian West, even after the rise of the Islamic empires.[43] During the Crusades, distorted accounts of the Saint Thomas Christians and the Nestorian Church gave rise to the European legend of Prester John.[45]

1273px-syriac_christianity-svg-1Anyway, you’ve probably heard of the Copts and maybe the Ethiopians, but the Nestorians are really the big story.

The Church of the East… also known as the Nestorian Church,[note 1] is a Christian church within the Syriac tradition of Eastern Christianity. It was the Christian church of the Sasanian Empire, and quickly spread widely through Asia. …

Christians were already forming communities in Assyria (Athura) as early as the first century, when it was part of the Parthian Empire. By the third century, the area had been conquered by the Persian Sasanian Empire (becoming the province of Assuristan), and there were significant Christian communities in northern Mesopotamia, Elam, and Fars.[14]

By the end of the 5th century and the middle of the 6th, the area occupied by Nestorians included “all the countries to the east and those immediately to the west of the Euphrates”, including Persia, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Socotra, Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia), Media, Bactria, Hyrcania, and India; and possibly also to places called Calliana, Male, and Sielediva (Ceylon).[18] Beneath the Patriarch in the hierarchy were nine metropolitans, and clergy were recorded among the Huns, in Persarmenia, Media, and the island of Dioscoris in the Indian Ocean.[18] …

In the 13th and 14th centuries the church experienced a final period of expansion under the Mongol Empire, where influential Nestorian Christians sat in the Mongol court….

Several Mongol tribes had already been converted by Nestorian missionaries in the 7th century, and Christianity was therefore a major influence in the Mongol Empire.[31]Genghis Khan was a shamanist, but his sons took Christian wives from the powerful Kerait clan, as did their sons in turn. During the rule of Genghis’s grandson, the Great Khan Mongke, Nestorian Christianity was the primary religious influence in the Empire, and this also carried over to Mongol-conquered China, during the Yuan Dynasty. It was at this point, in the late 13th century, that the Church of the East reached its greatest geographical extent. But Mongol power was already waning, as the Empire dissolved into civil war, and it reached a turning point in 1295, when Ghazan, the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate, made a formal conversion to Islam when he took the throne. …

From its peak of geographical extent, the church experienced a rapid period of decline starting in the 14th century, due in large part to outside influences. The Mongol Empire dissolved into civil war, the Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols (1368) and ejected Christians and other foreign influences from China, and many Mongols in Central Asia converted to Islam. The Muslim Mongol leader Timur (1336–1405) nearly eradicated the remaining Christians in Persia; thereafter, Nestorian Christianity remained largely confined to Upper Mesopotamia and to the Malabar Coast of India.


2nd Century:

177 AD: Persecution in Lyon, France

detailed-timeline-of-monotheism33rd Century:

Manichaeism is an interesting digression in this tale. It was a religious movement founded by the Iranian prophet Mani, who lived c. 216-276. Like Islam, Manichaeism argued that earlier religions (ie, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism) were incomplete. Wikipedia states:

Manichaeism was quickly successful and spread far through the AramaicSyriac speaking regions.[6] It thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire.[7] It was briefly the main rival to Christianity in the competition to replace classical paganism. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in southern China[8] contemporary to the decline in China of the Church of the East during the Ming Dynasty. While most of Manichaeism’s original writings have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived. …

Mani began preaching at an early age and was possibly influenced by contemporary Babylonian-Aramaic movements such as Mandaeanism, and Aramaic translations of Jewish apocalyptic writings similar to those found at Qumran (such as the book of Enoch literature), and by the Syriac dualist-gnostic writer Bardaisan (who lived a generation before Mani). With the discovery of the Mani-Codex, it also became clear that he was raised in a Jewish-Christian baptism sect, the Elcesaites, and was influenced by their writings as well. …

Manichaeism spread with extraordinary speed through both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by a.d. 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. It was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades.

In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In 296, Diocletian decreed against the Manichaeans: “We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures”, resulting in martyrdom for many in Egypt and North Africa (see Diocletian Persecution). By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern Gaul. In 381 Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, in the year 387. This was shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree of death for all Manichaean monks in 382 and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire in 391. Due to the heavy persecution, the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the 5th century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the 6th century.[27] According to his Confessions, after nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of “hearers”, Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism …

Some modern scholars have suggested that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine’s ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.[29]

tumblr_n1bwsx4tkr1t0u74to1_12804th Century:

301 AD, Christianity becomes state religion of Armenia

319: State religion of Georgia

325: State religion of Aksumite Empire

330: State religion of Axum, (Ethiopia)

354 – 430 AD, life of St. Augustine of Hippo, modern day Algeria (Augustine was ethnically Berber, but spoke Latin and of course a member of the Roman empire.)

380: official religion of Rome


596 AD: Gregorian Mission to Britain

7th-9th centuries: Conversion of the Germanic tribes

(Ethiopia seems to be missing from this map)
(Ethiopia seems to be missing from this map)

In the 7th century the Nestorians reached China, but in 9th century, the Tang Emperor persecuted all foreign religions, including Buddhists, Manichaens, and Nestorians.

740 AD: Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism;

927: Conversion of Bulgaria to Christianity

965: Conversion of the Khazars to Islam

988: Conversion of the Kievan Rus (Russia) to Christianity


Well, I hope you have a lovely Christmas/ Channukkah / whatever you celebrate.

Cathedral Round-Up #16: Infiltration of the Church?

Disclaimer: I am an atheist, so I am in no position to tell Christians how to run their religion.

That said, it seems pretty obvious even to me that mainstream Christianity has launched itself off the deep end and bears little resemblance to “Christianity” as it has been practiced for most of its 2000 or so years.

The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian
The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian

The thing we have now is Niceianity. Let me emphasize that “nice.” Most of the folks involved are, as far as I can tell, very kind-hearted people. Take Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. Oliveto lead Glide Memorial, which I am familiar with because they serve nearly a million free meals to the homeless every year. (SF has a lot of homeless people.) That’s really nice.

Thing is, I’m not convinced that God is “nice.” The God of the Old Testament routinely acts in ways that the average modern person would probably describe as “not nice,” like killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians or pretty much the entire Book of Job.

As a parent, I always have my kids’ best interests at heart, but I am often not “nice” from their perspective: I make them go to bed when they want to play; I make them do their homework when they want to play; I even make them go to the grocery store when they want to play, because I’m an evil person who wants to get food so I can cook dinner.

Parenting cannot be understood through a child’s understanding of “nice.”

And if there is such a thing as God, I don’t think it (he, whatever) can be understood via our particular current concept of “nice.” (Obviously I am not saying you should go out and be mean. Obey your notions of good behavior.)

One of the interesting things about Christianity is its history of schisms. For example, back in the late 1700s, the Shakers split off from the Quakers:

[Shakers] looked to women for leadership, believing that the second coming of Christ would be through a woman. In 1770, [Shaker leader] Ann Lee was revealed in “manifestation of Divine light” to be the second coming of Christ and was called Mother Ann.[6]

(More about the Shakers.)

Shakers, what with their communal lifestyle, female equality, female preachers, female incarnation of god, and near zero fertility obviously bear much in common with today’s feminists. The difference is that Shakers did not pretend to be Anglicans or Catholics or Methodists: they were just fine with being their own thing.

Let’s talk about infiltration.

Podesta email 6293, calling for a "Catholic Spring"
Podesta email 6293, calling for a “Catholic Spring”

According to Wikipedia:

Dr. Bella Visono Dodd (1904[1] – 29 April 1969[2]) was a member of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) in the 1930s and 1940s who later became a vocal anti-communist. After her defection from the Communist Party in 1949, she testified that one of her jobs, as a Communist agent, was to encourage young radicals to enter Roman Catholic Seminaries.[3] …

Dodd testified before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She said: “In the 1930s we put eleven hundred men into the priesthood in order to destroy the Church from within. The idea was for these men to be ordained, and then climb the ladder of influence and authority as Monsignors and Bishops”

Dodd told Alice von Hildebrand that:

“When she was an active party member, she had dealt with no fewer than four cardinals within the Vatican who were working for us, [i.e. the Communist Party]”(Christian Order magazine, “The Church in Crisis”, reprinted from The Latin Mass magazine).[7]

Dodd made a public affidavit which was witnessed by a number of people, including Paul and Johnine Leininger.

In her public affidavit, among other things, Dodd stated:
“In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, directives were sent from Moscow to all Communist Party organizations. In order to destroy the [Roman] Catholic Church from within, party members were to be planted in seminaries and within diocesan organizations… I, myself, put some 1,200 men in [Roman] Catholic seminaries”.

von Hildebrand confirmed that Dodd had publicly stated the same things to which she attested in her public affidavit.

(I don’t know anything about this lady. Maybe she was just a crazy person trying to get attention by crying “Communist ploooot!” But see also Operation Spectrum, Singapore.)

"The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers." (Swedes.)
“The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers.” (Swedes.)

About a year and a half ago, I posted excerpts from an article about Stanford University’s new Dean of Religious life, Jane Shaw, who is notable for being both the first woman and the first gay person to hold the position:

“Q. At Grace Cathedral and at Oxford, you led programs far afield from what might be considered religious: Hosting forums with politicians, activists and authors; bringing in atheists and believers; and commissioning artists-in-residence to create plays and installations. What’s your guiding light?

A. I don’t think I am a very churchy person, if that makes sense. I have always been interested in how you engage people in discussing questions of ultimate meaning, really—values, ethics, spirituality, all that stuff. …

Q. What new directions will you bring to Stanford?

A. …It is certainly my desire to make sure that Memorial Church is a place for extremely lively intellectual engagement, a place where possibly difficult issues can be discussed, a place where ethical and spiritual issues can be discussed. I am hoping we’ll have different sorts of people preaching here as guest preachers, not just clergy.”

That same issue of Stanford Magazine had another article focused on insulting people who believe in Hell. As I concluded back then:

According to Stanford, a gay woman who isn’t very “churchy” but likes discussing ethics is one of the country’s best religious leaders, and the 60% of Americans who believe in Hell are literally insane and make trouble for everyone else. …

Now, let’s try to imagine a contemporary article from any sort of respectable college or university… that conveys the inverse: respect for people who believe in hell; disrespect for gays, women, and people whose faith isn’t based on Biblical inerrancy.

Can you? Maybe Harvard? Yale? Oberlin? CalTech? Reed? Fine, how about BYU? No, probably not even them.

I can’t imagine it. A hundred years ago, maybe. Today, no. Such notions are completely incompatible with the beliefs of modern, upper-class people.

I know many perfectly decent folks who believe in hell, and think they should be respected, but “be decent to people who hold denigrated religious beliefs” is not actually my point. My point is that the American upper class, academia, and the people with a great deal of power and influence over the beliefs of others clearly agrees with Pastor Shaw’s religious beliefs (when it is not outright atheist). Upper-class liberals in America are their own ethnic group with their own religion, culture, morality, and endogamous breeding habits. Conservatives are the out-group, their religious views openly mocked by the upper class and banned from the halls of academic thought.

Wikipedia has an article on R. Guy Erwin:

R. Guy Erwin is a U.S. Lutheran clergyman. … He is also the first openly-gay bishop in the ELCA, and has lived in a committed same-sex relationship for 20 years. He and Rob Flynn were married in August, 2013.[2]

Bishop Erwin received the from Harvard College in 1980. He holds the M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University. From 1993–1999 he was Lecturer in Church History in the Yale Divinity School (YDS) where he taught History of Western Christianity as well as courses on Martin Luther, the Pietists and other specialities. During the 2006–2007 academic year he was Visiting Professor at YDS while on sabbatical from California Lutheran University where he has taught since 2000.[3]

And then there's this...
And then there’s this.

Note: I don’t actually think there is anything “wrong” with being gay–there might be, there might not be, I am agnostic on the issue. I favor letting gay people get married and am pissed that we’ve spent so many decades fighting over the issue when we could be dealing with real problems, like the heroin epidemic.

But I also respect the rights of religious people to think homosexuality is a sin to believe what they believe without me interfering or telling them not to.

500 Clergy support gay United Methodist Clergy who Came Out:

A letter from 500 openly LGBTQ clergy, future pastors and faith leader in a number of different denominations offered “much love and light” to the 111 United Methodist clergy and candidates who came out as gay on May 9.

“Though we come from different traditions, you are our family in Christ and our siblings in the common struggle to live fully and authentically into our God-given identities and callings,” states the letter posted on the website Believe Out Loud, an online community that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) equality. …

“We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised,” the 111 United Methodists write in what they call “A Love Letter to Our Church.” The signers come from across the United States, and one signer is from the Philippines. They identify themselves as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex” in the letter. …

[Matt Berryman] is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for the church to be more inclusive. The network has coordinated publicity of this and other challenges to church law as part of the group’s “It’s Time” campaign.

“Since 2012, we’ve decided we would be the church no matter what,” Berryman told United Methodist News Service. The majority of delegates at the 2012 General Conference voted against a proposal to say United Methodists disagree whether homosexuality is against God’s will.

“Jesus came preaching a way that is narrow, and the way we live out that narrow way is to disrupt systemic injustice.”

Basically, official Methodist doctrine teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Disagree? Join a church that doesn’t tech that. For goodness’s sake, there are about 2,000 different Christian denominations. Surely you can find one that agrees with you. Or start your own church, and invite all of the gay people to come and worship with you.

But don’t go infiltrating a church whose doctrines you explicitly disagree with.

As Justin Martyr wrote in his First Apology: “No one is allowed to partake (of the Eucharist) but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

Meanwhile the United Church of Canada is actually struggling to remove a pastor who has outright declared herself an atheist:

One Sunday in 2001, she stood up in front of her congregation, as usual. But instead of a normal sermon, she declared that she no longer believed in God. …

Much to her surprise, neither the congregation nor the church board were bothered by this. Many even confessed that they, too, had their doubts. And so they carried on, without God.

But now, the church’s top brass say they’ve received too many complaints about Vosper and have launched an unprecedented investigation to determine whether she’s fit to keep her job. …

“I won’t bow out. Because if I leave, that ruling stands and my colleagues are at risk. It’s like I’d be running to safety, and everyone else gets blown up,” she said.

Vosper’s saga couldn’t have come at a worse time for the United Church, which is already hemorrhaging devotees. Its membership has shrunk more than 60 percent since 1965, when it included more than one million. 

Maybe there’s some kind of connection here between your church being run by atheists and hemorrhaging members?

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

More liberal Christian groups are hemorrhaging faster than the more conservative groups. Mainline Protestants, like Methodists, have lost half their members from the Silent Generation to Millenials.

Why exactly so many people are becoming atheists remains a mystery to me–I tend to blame it on electricity, but maybe I’m reaching. At any rate, I think that if you’re going to be religious, there has to be something that you actually believe. A doctrine. A theology. Just saying something like, “I believe in my heart in believiness and love and unicorns,” doesn’t seem to work.

In my personal experience, a lot of churches over the past few decades have been trying to take the Kumbaya approach, by which I mean stripping out all of the unpleasant-seeming parts of religion in order to attract new members. Latin mass? Gone! Fasting? Not necessary! Penitence? Hey, let’s sing about Jesus instead!

Ironically, I loved Sunday School as a kid, but was pretty meh on Youth Group. Sunday School was appropriately geared to a 5 yr old kid who found “Jesus Loves Me” comforting. Youth Group was an intellectual, moral, and religious wasteland. I wanted to read the Bible and discuss theology. Instead, we listened to “Christian rock” and ate pizza. There’s nothing wrong with pizza or Christian rock, but they alone don’t lead to god.

Had I received something resembling an intellectual religious guidance, I might have kept believing.

Anyway, back to schisming vs. combining, according to Wikipedia, the following groups of churches have arrangements for:

  • mutual recognition of members
  • joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist (these churches practice open communion)
  • mutual recognition of ordained ministers
  • mutual recognition of sacraments
  • a common commitment to mission.
  1. The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India, and the Philippine Independent Church.[23]
  2. The Churches of the Porvoo Communion.[25]
  3. The Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada[23]
  4. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and each of the following: the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,[23] the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church[26] and the Moravian Church in America.
  5. The Leuenberg Agreement, concluded in 1973 and adopted by 105 European Protestant churches, since renamed the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.[27]
  6. The Moravian Church and each of the following: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church USA.[23]
  7. The United Methodist Church with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.
  8. The United Church of Christ and each of the following: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America.
  9. The United Episcopal Church of North America and each of the following: the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of Christ the King, and the Diocese of the Great Lakes.
  10. The Anglican Province of America has intercommunion with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Church of Nigeria.
  11. The Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland have established full communion and are working toward interchangeability of ministry.[28]

Meanwhile most American Christians are, by their own admission, heretics:

Seven out of ten respondents in LifeWay’s survey affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons but one God, and six in ten agreed that Jesus is both human and divine. Their orthodoxy—and consistency—ended there. More than half went on to indicate that Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God,” a heresy known as Arianism, which the Council of Nicaea condemned in 325 A.D. …

Rather, bizarre contradictions like this illustrate how many Americans don’t understand or even care what the Trinity means (although they say they believe in it, likely out of habits learned growing up in church).

The responses to other questions were no less heterodox or headache-inducing. Seventy percent of participants—who ranged across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—agreed there’s only one true God. Yet sixty-four percent also thought this God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods. …

Over half said it’s fair for God to exercise his wrath against sin, but seemed to waffle about which sins deserved wrath (not theirs!). Seventy-four percent said the “smallest sins” don’t warrant eternal damnation, in contrast to Jesus’ brother, who when writing at the Holy Spirit’s inspiration taught that even one infraction of God’s law is enough to sink someone. But really, what did he know?

A full 60 percent agreed that “everyone eventually goes to heaven,” but half of those surveyed also checked the box saying that “only those who believe in Jesus will be saved.” So either these folks are saying everyone will eventually believe in Jesus, or they hired a monkey to take the survey for them.

13 Religious Women to watch in 2012 –most of these women are notable only for their secular endeavors (some of which are significant,) not for their theological, religious, or otherwise doctrinal work.

In many ways, I think Niceanity has been a central part of Christianity from the beginning. It is a reasonable interpretation of Christian theology (I am not really in a position to declare any Christian a heretic–that’s God’s job.) But I can’t escape the sense that mainstream Christianity is trying to shed entirely the notion of a Biblical God, of any kind of doctrine or belief beyond a vague belief that belief is good. And even if they’re right, I just don’t think religion works that way.


Sticky Brains and Forgiveness

(Warning: this post is based on personal, entirely anecdotal observations of other humans.)

I interact, on a fairly regular basis, with people from a wide range of backgounds: folks who’ve spent decades living on the streets; emotionally disabled folks and folks who were emotionally traumatized but recovered; working, middle, and upper class folks.

“Functionality” may not be the easiest term to define, but you know it when you see it: people who manage to pick up the pieces when bad shit happens and continue on with their lives. Non-functionality does not automatically make you poor, (nor does functionality make you rich,) but it is often a major contributing factor.

I’m not going to claim that we all go through equal amounts of trauma; certainly some of us, like infants who were dropped on their heads, have truly shitty lives. Still, almost all of us endure at least some trauma, and there is great variation in our responses to the tragedies we endure.

Among the people I know personally, I’ve noticed that the less-functional tend to have “sticky brains.” When trauma happens, they gloom onto it and get stuck. Years, sometimes decades later, you hear these people still talking about things other people did to them.

For example: two people I know (we’ll call them Foxtrot and Golf, following my alias convention,) had rough childhoods.  Foxtrot is still quite bitter over things that happened over 50 years ago, committed by relatives who are long dead. He’s is also bitter about things that happened recently; I often hear about very minor conflicts that normal people would just be angry about for a day or two that Foxtrot is still losing sleep over a month later. Unsurprisingly, he is an unstable emotional wreck with no job, a string of divorces, and virtually no contact with his family.

Golf’s childhood was, by all objective measures, far worse than Foxtrot’s. But Golf doesn’t talk much about his childhood and is today a functional person. When bad things happen to Golf, he deals with them, he might get angry, and then he finishes with them and puts them aside. He has his bad spells–times when things are going badly and he gets really depressed. He also has his good times. But he has managed to keep himself together well enough, even through these bad times, to stay married and employed (to the same person and at the same job, for decades,) is in contact with most of his family, and enjoys a decent reputation in the community.

The homeless people I interact with also have “sticky brains.” When bad things happen to them (and, yes, being homeless is like a permanent bad thing happening to you,) they get really focused on that bad thing. For example, one homeless woman I know has worried for decades about a possible indiscretion she might have committed back in highschool–it is a very minor thing of less importance than copying a few answers on a math test, but she is still worried that she is a cheater and dishonest member of society. Another is fixated on a bad interaction with an aid worker that happened over a year ago. Most people would say, “yeah, that guy was a jerk,” and then stop worrying about it after a week or so; in this case, the hurt is reviewed and re-felt almost every day.

And, of course, I have many personal friends who’ve endured or dealt with traumas in their own more or less useful ways. (Not to mention the various ups and downs of my own life.)

Because trauma is common–some, like the death of a loved one, strike almost everyone who makes it to adulthood–societies tend to adopt guidelines for trauma response, such as a funeral for the dead followed by a six-month mourning period for widows, official days of mourning or remembrance for people who died in wars, therapy and anti-depressants, confession and forgiveness, head-hunting (among head-hunters), or sympathy cards among the less violently inclined. My own family has a tradition of visiting the graveyard where many of our older relatives are buried once a year and cleaning the gravestones. (The children have a tradition of pretending to be zombies.)

Anthropologists like to call these things “rituals” and “customs.” Different societies have different customs, but all of the ones listed exist for the purpose of helping people cope with trauma and grief. (Or at least, that’s what the head-hunters claimed.)

Watching people attempt to cope with life has made me appreciate (most of) these customs. “Six months of mourning,” may seem arbitrary, but it is also pretty useful: it dictates that yes, it is very normal to feel terrible for a while and everyone will be understanding of that, but now the time has passed and it is time to get on with life.

Christianity and Judaism (and probably other religions) command forgiveness:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19: 18

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” — Matthew 18: 21-22

This is ostensibly for practical reasons:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15

On Yom Kippur, Jews observe a tradition of forgiving others and asking forgiveness for themselves. (It is not surprising that forgiveness should be handled similarly in two religions that share much of their scriptures; Christianity seems to differ primarily in making the institution of forgiveness a more personal matter rather than an annual ritual.)

I’m pretty sure forgiveness is a big deal in Buddhism, as well, but I don’t know much about Hinduism and other belief systems, so I can’t comment on them.

But why should God require forgiveness? It seems rather unfair to say to someone who was raped as a child and has done nothing worse than tell a few lies in their life, “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you for lying.”

But this assumes that forgiveness exists for the forgiven. In some cases, of course, it does. But forgiveness also serves a function for the forgiver. I shall leave the concept of spiritual purity to the spiritual; as a practical matter, forgiveness allows the hurt party to stop focusing on their pain and resume life. Most people do this fairly naturally, but some of us need a bit of encouragement–and perhaps ritual focus and faith–to heal.

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5: 3-12

I don’t think the point of this is that it is morally superior to be insulted or hurt or poor, but reassure and comfort those who have been.

Do atheist objections to homosexuality exist?

One of the more amusing responses to my post on the recent Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair was Orthosphere‘s objection that conservatives cannot make an anti-homosexuality argument that appeals to atheists because, “if God doesn’t oppose homosexuality then there’s ultimately nothing wrong with it.” In other words, the only argument against homosexuality is religious, ergo, atheists will always be pro (or at least neutral) on the subject.

Yes, I recognize that this does not actually have anything directly to do with the Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair. Don’t worry; it doesn’t matter. My relevant bit was:

Take the most common argument against homosexuality: “God says it is a sin.” Young people are fairly atheist, believe in separation of church and state, and think a god who doesn’t like gay people is a jerk. This argument doesn’t just fail at convincing young people that gay marriage is bad; it also convinces them that God is bad.

By contrast, a simple graph showing STD rates among gay people makes a pretty persuasive argument that the “gay lifestyle” isn’t terribly healthy.

A further argument (made elsewhere, I believe, but on the same subject,) is that atheists simply do not believe in moral absolutes, because only god can command belief in moral absolutes, and since the argument against homosexuality is a moral absolute, therefore, atheists cannot be convinced.

So I thought this would make for an interesting bit of rumination: do there exist any arguments that can convince atheists that homosexuality is bad? And if not, why have Republicans harped on a guaranteed losing issue?

(Since my original post was only using the arguments for and against homosexuality as a means of illustrating a broader point germane to the Moldbug/Lambdaconf topic, I attempted to treat the matter quickly and without much depth. The version of those paragraphs I hashed out originally went on for much longer, but little of that could fit in the post without overtaking it and distracting from the actual point.)

First, can atheists hold absolute moral values?

As a practical matter, we do. We might not be able to justify why we believe something, but that doesn’t stop us from believing it.

For example, I believe that child abuse/neglect/rape/murder is absolutely, 100% morally wrong. I am normally a peaceful, tree-hugging person who feels guilty about eating animals, but harm a child, and I want to see you drawn and quartered.

I feel no compelling need to justify to myself why I believe that. It is obviously true, in the same sense that scraping my knee on the sidewalk is obviously painful.

I also believe other things in a fairly absolutest way, like “don’t torture puppies” and “don’t poop on the sidewalk.”

But to use a source with possibly a little more authority than me, the Spring 2006 volume of Religious Humanism, published by the Unitarian Universalists contains an article titled, “Theistic Moral Intuitions in a Secular Context: A Plea for Ficionalism in Moral Philosophy,” by Loobuyck, which essentially proposes that atheists should “fake it till they make it”:

Some essential ideas about the nature of morality are survivals of Judaic-Christian ideas, and function now outside the framework of thought that made them intelligible. Our ideas of the moral self, human dignity, and the Kantian summum bonum also survive from an earlier conception of theistic ethics. All these ideas became “self-evident” and essential elements of our secular moral discourse, but they belong to theistic metaphysics and do not easily fit into secular metaphysical naturalism.

Secular moral philosophers are confronted with the following dilemma: since the moral discourse is useful and confirms our deepest moral intuitions, doing away with it incurs a cost; a price is also paid for keeping a flawed discourse, for “truth” is a very valuable commodity. … the stance of moral fictionalism makes it possible to keep a discourse while knowing it is inherently flawed. …

Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that the acceptance of the death of God will involve the ending of all our accepted standards of morality, but if we look around, this has not proved correct. As for losing our European morality, the opposite is true. We still think about morality as theists did: as a system of objective prescriptive laws with special authority, and many of the so-called universal secular values are values we can find in the Judaic-Christian tradition. We did not reject the slave-morality, and most people will not see the Nietzschean superman as a paragon of moral excellence. We still believe in the intrinsic and equal value of human being, and moreover, we build a whole construction of human rights on these fundamental but religious ideas. …

some intuitions can be so successful that they can persist as self-evident even when the philosophical context that gives meaning to those intuitions vanished. … Secular ethics is modeled upon theological ethics and talks abut a moral agent in such terms that it structurally parallels the  notion of God… someone who argues that morality is a “myth” is seen frequently as maintaining not merely a counter-intuitive position, but also a pernicious or dangerous position. …

we can suggest the stance of “fictionalism”: the possibility of maintaining the discourse but taking an attitude other than belief towards it (disbelieving acceptance.) … atheistic Darwinists live as if their life has and ultimate meaning, we look at our child as if it is the most wonderful baby in the wold, and we think as if there is a real difference instead of a gradual difference between animals and human beings. … We could say that we must live and think as if there are absolute prohibitions, intrinsic values, human dignity and act as if morality is not a Sartrian passion inutile. … fictionalism… helps to save morality in our age of secularization, science, and deconstruction.

Now, I understand that religious folks might not be comfortable with the philosophy of “If we’re all going to act like we have a coherent theoretical basis for our moral intuitions, then let’s just go ahead and pretend we have one,” but as a practical matter, I think that’s what most atheists are basically doing.

Consider that about 20% of Americans are pretty openly atheists, (and about half of the “religious” people seem like they’re just going through the motions.) And yet, these 20-50% of Americans don’t have higher than average rates of murder, theft, abuse, or public defecation than the rest of the country. We also don’t have higher than average rates of sins like gluttony, premarital sex, drug use, or divorce.*

When you encounter an atheist, do you feel a sudden surge of fear that here is someone who might randomly stab you in a fit of Nietzschean ubermenschen glory? Or are you generally pretty confident that this person will act a lot like a normal person who believes in the principles laid down in the Ten Commandments?

To turn this around, to many atheists, the Christian reliance on an outside source for their morality makes their morality seem less absolute. Atheists see, “Do not sacrifice your children to Moloch,” as obvious, not something that needs to be spelled out multiple times. Suppose those verses had not made it into the Bible: would it then be acceptable to sacrifice one’s children to Moloch?

Consider the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham obeyed. God stopped him, not Abraham’s own moral conscience.

To an atheist, this story is horrifying. You do not murder your children. It does not matter if human sacrifice is common in your neighborhood; it does not matter if god told you to. Murdering your children is always immoral.

I can hear your objection: I’ve misunderstood the story; the point is not that sacrificing your kid is good, but human sacrifice was common in Abraham’s time and God changed this by showing Abraham a new, better way. Yahweh was not like those other gods; Yahweh’s morality is superior to those other gods’.

But this is at odds with the text, in which “the Angel of the Lord” praises Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son:

Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. … I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22)

Further, there is that whole affair with Jephthah sacrificing his daughter and not even getting smited for it, but becoming a Judge of Israel.

To be fair, the Bible is pretty anti-human sacrifice overall–there are just exceptions.

I don’t think moral absolutes are supposed to have exceptions.

Nevertheless, every religious person I’ve ever met treats “don’t sacrifice children” as a moral absolute; I certainly don’t feel any fear upon meeting a Christian that they might sacrifice me as a result of an awkwardly worded and poorly thought-out vow.

As far as daily life interactions are concerned, Christians and atheists perform remarkably similar moral actions.

We ascribe, however, different origins to our beliefs. Atheists attribute theirs to “common sense,” Christians to “God.” Perhaps common sense is actually God or was created by God, allowing atheists and theists alike to act like moral beings, or perhaps religious people have just as much common sense as everyone else.

Personally, I think morality is basically instinctual.

First, most people–atheist or theist–tend not to think too much about philosophical issues like, “What if we had a 2-ton Hitler on rollerskates to push in front of the trolley? Then would it be moral?” We all use mental shortcuts that make dealing with 99.99% of everyday life easier rather than spend time thinking about the 0.01% exceptions. Likewise, I am content to proclaim that it absolutely morally wrong to torture babies without wasting my time trying to think up extremely rare exceptions.

Second, people who murder their own children have historically probably been evolutionary failures, while people who have a strong urge to nurture and protect their children have had better luck at actually passing on their genes to the next generation. As a result, any genes that lead to murdering one’s own children probably get selected against, while genes that lead to caring for one’s children are selected for.

The result is an instinctive desire to protect and care for your children. This desire to care for your children is so strong that it can even be triggered by baby animals, cute toys, and other people’s unborn fetuses.

Can I hug it? (source)
Can I hug it? (source)

Obviously there is some cultural variation on this; some groups today still practice ritual child sacrifice, though typically apparently not of their own children, but of other people’s children whom they’ve kidnapped. But I don’t live in one of these societies; I live in a society where human (and animal) sacrifice has never been practiced. So for me, at least, child sacrifice is a giant NO.

We can extend this argument to all sorts of behaviors, like not stealing from your neighbors, that have lead to evolutionary success over the generations. In short: if your morals lead to you dying out without descendants, then your morals die with you. If your morals lead to you leaving lots of descendants, then lots of people end up believing in your morals. We don’t even need a genetic mechanism to cause this, but there is plenty of evidence in favor of one.

“Evolutionary morality” (and “game theoretic morality”) are the keys Loobuyck needs to unlock why atheists still have moral intuitions.

Second: Having established that atheists do basically act like they believe in moral absolutes, do there exist any arguments against homosexuality that would actually work on atheists?

Now, obviously, the argument, “God says so,” does not work with atheists. (It doesn’t always work on Christians, either, given that the New Testament forbids women from braiding their hair or wearing pearls, and commands them to keep their hair covered.) When atheists do engage in moral reasoning, they tend toward utilitarian arguments–X makes people happy, Y makes people sad, therefore X is good and Y is bad.

There are many critiques of utilitarianism, especially when it comes to experiences outside of people’s normal, everyday lives, but it’s not a bad way of articulating why you shouldn’t hit your brother. Therefore:

Potential Argument A: “Homosexual Happiness” 

If you can demonstrate that homosexuality causes harm/suffering and that somehow convincing people not to be gay prevents this harm/suffering, then you have a good chance of convincing the atheists.

So far, people have not convincingly made this argument. Yes, gay folks have high suicide rates, but no one has convincingly argued that being gay causes this and that, say, outlawing gay marriage or convincing gay people that homosexuality is wrong lowers their suicide rate. By contrast, the other side argues pretty loudly that gay people are less happy when you tell them they’re immoral, and more happy when you say they aren’t.

Of course, you do not actually have to prove a point so much as argue it loudly and effectively. Most people are not strict utilitarians who check the statistical validity of other people’s arguments–they just react to the funny pictures they see on TV and process things in a fairly instinctual way. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are happy being gay and that only meanie pantses who make them sad are opposed to them, then they will be fine with gay people. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are miserable, rape children, and die of AIDS or suicide unless convinced to reject homosexuality, then they will (probably) view homosexuality as a weird aberration.

Outside of San Francisco and a few scattered neighborhoods across the US, most people encounter very few gay people in real life, just because gay people are a relatively small % of the population that is highly concentrated in a few places. (The 10% statistic turns out to be false.) Perhaps you know 2 or 3 gay people–of those, maybe one reasonably well. What do you know, genuinely, about them? How happy are they? How productive? How much do they give back to their community or civic organizations? By contrast, how many gay people have you encountered in books, TV shows, movies, or newspapers?

I’ll go ahead and admit it: far more of my “knowledge” of gay people comes from fiction of various sorts than from real life. The random vagaries of life simply have not led to me knowing that many gay people.

(Which means that that my entire conception of “what gay people are like” could be wrong.)

You will point out that there are practical issues with influencing the media narrative. So there are. No one ever said convincing people was easy. But conservatives do get enough opportunities to share their point of view that people are amply familiar with their arguments on the subject of homosexuality–so I don’t see this as a good reason to use arguments that don’t work.

Potential Argument B: “Disease Rates”

Whether you are concerned for gay people themselves or just concerned about diseases, gay people do catch STDS at a higher rate than straight people. Personally, I happen to really dislike being sick, so anti-disease arguments work pretty well on me.

An anti-disease argument doesn’t have to be rational. My fear of Ebola may not be rational, because I worry about it even though no one in my entire continent, to my knowledge, has the disease. I just think Ebola is really scary. Likewise, put some disease statistics and quotes from “bug chasing” forums on TV or in the papers every so often, and you’ll completely disgust and horrify people. Even atheists will want to hear about “gay rights” about as much as the average person wants to hear about poop.

Yes, a libertarian would argue that it’s gay people’s business if they want to engage in high-risk activities, but it does not follow that lots of people would therefore go out of their way to advocate in favor of gay peoples’ rights to do risky things. I believe that people have the right to bathe in pudding if they feel like it, but I don’t spend much time advocating it.

Further, most people are not libertarians, which is why the libertarian candidate never gets to be president.

Someone partial to gay people would point out that bug chasers are not representative of the gay population as a whole and that non-promiscuous gay people who use condoms don’t get a bunch of diseases, but since this is an argument based on triggering peoples’ instinctual disgust mechanisms, they’re probably not going to hear anything over their brains going “EW EW EW.”

Most people act on instinct, and one important instinct that’s pretty solidly embedded in most people is to avoid disease vectors. This is why poop and rotting corpses are icky–so icky, you might actually throw up from being near them.

So, even though someone could make all kinds of reasonable counter-arguments about personal liberty, medical advances, safe sex, monogamy, etc., you can may be able to hijack people’s instinctual fear of disease to make them completely unwilling to even listen to counter-arguments.

Potential Argument C: “So Few Homosexuals”

Americans vastly overestimate the number of gay people–when Gallop asked people to estimate the % of people who are gay, 33% of responders estimated that more than 25% of people are gay; 20% of responders estimated that 20-25% of people are gay. Only 9% of people got the correct answer, “Less than 5%.” (Actually, about 3.8% of people are gay.) Of these, about 60% say they would like to get married–or 2.3% of Americans.

Let’s step back for a moment and wonder at the fact that liberals and conservatives alike have devoted untold hours and dollars to fighting over the legal marriage status of 2.3% of Americans while 8% of people are unemployed; in 2013, 2.5 million American children were homeless, and 15% of Americans live in poverty and face “food insecurity.” 52% of Americans will be victims of multiple violent crimes in their lives; 1 in 30 black men will be murdered. About 50% of marriages end in divorce; the Iraq war cost between 2 and 6 trillion dollars (not to mention the continuing cost of fighting ISIS). And if you are the kind of person who cares about people in other countries, there are a few billion poor people in the third world who would appreciate some help.

In other words, there are a lot of problems in this world that a reasonable person might consider higher priority than whether or not gay people should be allowed to “get married” or have “civil unions.”

Why let the other side take the moral high ground? Whenever the subject comes up, just divert to something else that affects far more people and claim that your opponent is trying to use an obscure, tiny issue to distract from the real problems facing America.

Potential Argument D: “Functional Purpose”

This is very close to an argument that conservatives do make, which is that the purpose of marriage is to produce children. This, of course, sounds like total nonsense to young people, who don’t think marriage has a function other than to serve as a means of saying “we like each other.”

Skipping over the potential misunderstanding, let’s talk about things like insurance benefits. Why does one spouse working entitle the other spouse to health insurance?

So that one spouse can work while the other takes care of the children. “Taking care of children” and “making socks” are both activities that someone has to do for society to keep functioning, but we recognize that factories produce better socks and parents produce better children, so we try to keep sock-making in factories and child-rearing at home.

Sometimes people get confused on this point, so I’m going to spell it out in more detail: not all valuable work is paid. You could pay someone to wash your dishes, sweep your floors, cook your meals, and take care of your children, or you could do all of these jobs yourself and get the exact same benefits. These are all things that have to get done; sweeping the floor does not become “legitimate work” just because you pay someone to do it and stop being “legitimate work” the moment you do it yourself.

100 years ago, most people lived on farms and did almost all of their work themselves–they planted their own crops, built their own houses, installed their own plumbing (or outhouses), sewed their own clothes, cooked their own food, and raised their own children. Few people were formally employed. The vast majority of economic production occurred–and was consumed–within families or small communities.

But this does not mean the economic production did not occur.

Today, the locus of employment has shifted outside the home–to factories, offices, shops, etc.–and we have decided to route many valuable social functions–like health insurance–through paid employers.

This runs into a problem, because some people (mainly women) are still engaged in the valuable economic work of raising children and running households. Moms get sick, too, so the health insurance men get through work extends to cover their non-working spouses.

The same is true of various other legal/inheritance benefits accorded by marriage–they basically exist to protect the non-working spouse who is raising children instead of engaging in paid employment.

Health insurance is not some special perk society decided to give people just because they’re in love. You’re not supposed to marry someone just to get health insurance benefits. That is an abuse of the system. If you have no intention of having children (or cannot have children,) then there is no reason for you to stay home while your spouse works: you can get your own job and qualify for your own health insurance.

Of course, some gay people do have children, whether biologically or through adoption, and I see no reason to deny these children health insurance, inheritance, etc. But even fewer gay people want children than want to get married–only about 16% of gay people have children.


The point of this post has not been give any of my own, personal opinions on the morality of homosexuality or gay marriage, but to explore potential arguments on the subject besides “God doesn’t like it.”

Some of these arguments are appeals to emotion or otherwise dishonest, but they still exist; people could have used them. Instead, Republicans have chosen for the past 20 years to focus primarily on an argument that comes across to young people as violating the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights, which I suspect has done more to alienate young people than convince them.



Why is Star Wars more popular than God?

I’m not a Star Wars fan.

I don’t hate it; I don’t love it. I’m normally quite agnostic on the subject.

I don’t begrudge people having favorite movies; I have favorite movies. I don’t begrudge them sharing their favorites with their kids (though it will be quite a few years before my kids appreciate any of the movies that I like,) nor do I look askance at movie-themed products (those Frozen-middle grade novels strike me as a cute idea.)

But when I see moms dressing their infants in Darth Vader onesies, I think society has gotten really, really weird.

Target is filled with mountain of Star Wars crap, much of it regular products with a Star Wars logo slapped on. Fuzzy infant socks with a tiny picture of Yoda’s head on the side; beer holders and bouncy balls and ugly sweaters.

I’m not judging the sweaters; they’re advertised as “ugly sweaters.” (Why would anyone purposefully spend money on an “ugly sweater”?)

I can’t get to the diaper section without feeling like my soul is being crushed beneath the mountains of useless crap produced solely so we can buy it, wrap it up, and exchange it for someone else’s box of worthless crap in imitation of ritual.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

At least you can eat lentils. How much have we sacrificed for this pile of crap?

70% of American adults claim to be “Christians;” that drops to only 56% among “Young Millenials” (folks 19-25 years old.) But parents are disproportionately religious, which probably explains why, according to le Wik, “62 percent of children say religion is important to them, 26 percent say it’s somewhat important, and 13 percent say it’s not important.”

Interestingly, on a related note:

From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

According to Vern Bengston’s research, Jews and Mormons are particularly good at passing on their religious beliefs to their children. He credits this to these religions’ intergenerational focus and household rituals. Part of it is probably also the fact that these religions are still focused on having children, and religion is pointless without children. If you’re looking for a religion to raise your kids in and have no particular preference of your own, Mormonism or Judaism might be the ticket.

Bengston also finds that a major influence on a child’s likelihood of adopting their parents’ religion is how good the relationship is between them and their parents, particularly their father:

From Faith and the Family: How religious belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith and the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

If your dad’s a jerk, you’re likely to reject his beliefs. (Does this mean divorce is driving the increase in atheism?)

At any rate, no matter how you slice it, over half of parents–and children–claim to be Christian.

What percent of people are Star Wars fans?

One amusing study found that 4.8% of Alaskans “liked” Star Wars on Facebook. Alaskans appear to be the biggest Star Wars fans, followed by WA, OR, and Utah. Star Wars has the lowest % of likes down in the Deep South. In other words, English and German-descended folks like Star Wars.

I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it.
(I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it:

The "Americans" are mostly Scottish/Irish
Note the very high quantity of English in Utah and Maine, vs their relative absence in the Deep South [highly black] and MA/RI/Conn/NJ [Irish, Italians.])
A Facebook Poll asked people to list their favorite books; while Harry Potter came in first, 7.2% of people listed the Bible.

Obviously this is not a good way of comparing affection for Star Wars to affection to the Bible, but having interacted with people, 7% feels rather close to the actual percentage of real Christians.

There’s always a chicken and egg dynamic to marketing and advertising. How much of the crush of Star Wars merchandise is driven by actual demand, and how much is everyone just buying Star Wars crap because there happens to be an enormous pile of it?

There’s another thing that makes me uncomfortable: this notion that Star Wars somehow reflects my culture. Or as an acquaintance claimed this morning, “The Big Bang Theory.” For the sake of this post, dear readers, I have ventured into the nether reaches of YouTube and watched The Big Bang Theory highlight reels (I can’t seem to find any full episodes; probably a copyright thing.)

The Big Bang Theory is not my culture. (You may have noticed a distinct lack of Batman jokes on this blog.) Neither is Star Wars. Yes, some nerds like Star Wars, but we are not the people who motivated Target to stock enormous piles of Star Wars merchandise. I have nothing personal against these franchises, but I recoil against the claim that they have anything to do with my culture.

At any rate, no one is stopping you from buying a Veggie Tales DVD (Amazon has a ton of Veggie Tales free for instant streaming if you have Prime membership; there are also a bunch on Netflix,) or Queen Esther action figure, Bible Heroes trading cards or Anarchy in the Monarchy card game–no, wait, the last one is just funny, not religious.

I’ve never understood why, but the average “Christian” parent won’t buy any of that. Perhaps their kids just don’t want religious toys (though I would have loved ’em.) Perhaps my Christian friend was telling the honest truth when they said, “No one likes a Jesus freak.” Maybe most “Christians” are less devout than I am (which is really saying something, since I’m an atheist.) Maybe the folks who decide which products will be carried at major stores aren’t interested in religiously-oriented items, and everyone else just goes along, sheep-like, with whatever they see. I don’t really know.

But if you care about passing on your faith, consider abandoning the materialistic deluge and spend some quality time with your kids instead. Even if you don’t care about faith, I still recommend that. If you don’t have kids, substitute the loved ones you have. They’re worth a lot more than a Yoda-shaped mug.

Did Electricity kill Religion?

Let it go...

They say electricity drove away the fairies. Does it kill all belief?

I find it a lot easier to be absolutely terrified when it’s pitch black out. The last time that happened, I was in a national forest in the mountains, trying to find my way back to my car. My imagination, being mine, was convinced that the woods were full of thieves and I was about to be dead.

As a kid, prayer had a wonderfully soothing effect on my fear or the dark, but my devout spirituality cratered mid-highschool.

Every angry, nostalgic nerd claims that things were better back when he was a kid. Original Star Trek was better; the latest movie in an unholy abomination. Han Solo shot first; the new movie is an unholy abomination. The video games were awesomer, the school curriculae were smarter, the Christmas lights were merrier.

Even Santa Claus was way better when I was 5.

Does everything go to shit with time? Or do we just look at the world through different glasses when we’re little kids? Do we just believe more? Are there monsters under the bed, or just in our imaginations?

We adults don’t fear the dark–and why should we? Look at all of our lights. It’s 2 AM, and I can see my hands! I could write this post on notebook paper without even straining my eyes.

But when the electricity is gone and I’m left in the real, true, dark, suddenly the all of the emotions–not just the fear–come back. They’re stronger in the dark. In the childhood of dawn, we still believe there are things that go thump in the night, but in adulthood and the noonday sun, we’re atheists.

What was life like before electricity? When candles were a luxury?

It is pretty easy to massively over-estimate the amount of light people had at night. I see it frequently in fiction–characters easily reading or noticing each other’s expressions by candlelight.

Candles and fires don’t give off all that much light. And they are costly. Nights were dark. And long.


As much as I enjoyed Christmas as a child, I never felt like it had much to do with winter. When I grew up, I moved to a latitude where the winter sun had set by 4 pm, the rivers froze, and I walked home each night through this icy darkness. When the town strung up Christmas lights and handed out hot cocoa, what a welcome relief they were! So that’s why we lit candles in the winter, took comfort in their light.

When I visit my relatives in the country, I am suddenly confronted with the Milky Way; uncountable thousands of stars thrown like jewels into the darkness. Who has not beheld it and felt the majesty and awe of the universe?

When I look at the stars, I feel as if I am about to fall off the Earth and tumble headlong into the universe, the infinite void.

And from this unutterable blackness, this void, this trembling fear at the universe, do we draw our belief all things mystical. Is this where the idea of gods and ghosts and demons came from? (Angels, I suspect, could only have come at dawn.) When you grandmother tells you a ghost story in a pitch-black house while winter rages outside, what choice do you have but to believe her?

But then the lights came on… and belief flickered off.

The Attempt to Convert the Indians to Memetic Puritanism (part 3/3 ruminations on Indians and Puritans)

(Part 1: Oppression is in the Eye of the Beholder; part 2: Species of Exit: Memes, Genes, and Puritans.)

Before I got distracted by pre-Civil War election data, we were discussing the Puritans.

Where, exactly, ideas and behaviors come from is always a matter of debate in conversations like these; were the Puritans Puritans because of their conversion to a particularly strict version of Calvinism, or was it just something genetic? (Or could it be both?)

Interestingly, the Puritans decided to do an experiment on the subject, in their attempt to convert the local Indians to memetic Puritanism.

Once the Massachusetts colonies got off the ground (that is, once they stopped losing half their population to starvation and disease every winter and had enough food to start thinking about the future,) they began taking seriously the Biblical injunction to preach the Gospel to all four corners of the Earth. In 1651, the Puritans established Natic as the first “Praying Town” for Indian converts. Soon many more popped up across Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut.

The Jesuit missionaries up in Canada had attempted to convert the Indians without significantly changing their lifestyles–to create Christian Indians, if you will. By contrast, the denizens of the new Praying Towns were expected to become Puritans.

A Puritan, I suspect, could see it no other way. Divine election was manifest in one’s behavior, after all, and Puritans took behavior seriously. And being Puritans, they outlined the Rules of Conduct for the “Praying Indians” of the Praying Towns:

I. If any man shall be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall be fined five shillings.
II. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall be fined five shillings.
III. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him, and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be punished severely.
IV. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
V. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang lose, or be cut as a man’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
VI. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
VII. All men that shall wear long locks, shall pay five shillings.
VIII. If any shall crack lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.

Aside from the lice cracking, which seems more of a petty hygiene concern (crack lice with nails, not teeth,) the list likely preserves for us the behaviors Puritans valued most, and those at most at variance between the Puritans and Indians.

Idleness tops our list, coming in both at number 1 and again at number 4. The Puritans definitely believed in hard work; that is how they managed to build a civilization in the wilderness.

The low-key hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist lifestyle of the Indians, (without draft animals, they had little ability to plow or pull wagons,) did not require the kind of constant effort and energy inputs as the more intensive Puritan agricultural and technological systems, so this may have been a matter of contention between the groups.

Rules 2 and 3 protected women, 2 from the predations of unmarried men and 3 from domestic violence. (Of course, prominent historians like Howard Zinn would have you believe that such rules show how much the Puritans oppressed women.)

And 5-7 details Puritan clothing norms–they still thought it morally imperative to dress like they were in blustery England, even during the wretched Massachusetts summers.

The existence of the Praying Towns is credited largely to Reverend John Elliot, who devoted his life to converting the Indians and printed America’s first Bible, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, translated into the Massachusett-Natick language. Elliot received funding from “A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England,” created by the British Parliament, which raised about £12,000 pounds sterling. (How exactly this corporation was supposed to make money, I’m not sure.)

How successful were the Praying Towns?

Unfortunately, the websites I’ve found on the subject, (Wikipedia etc.,) don’t give many details about life in the Praying Towns or what the Puritans–and other Indians–thought of them. There are indications that things were not going as well as Elliot would have liked–the Wikipedia claims, broadly:

“While the idea of praying towns was somewhat a success, they did not reach the level John Eliot had hoped for. While the Puritans were pleased with the conversions, Praying Indians were still seen as second rate citizens and never gained the degree of trust or respect that they had hoped the conversion would grant them. It has also been argued that the Natives had a difficult time adjusting to the impersonal English society, since theirs had been built upon relationships and reciprocity, while the English were more structured and institutionalized. According to this view, this difference made it hard for Natives to see the institutionalized structures as a whole, and John Eliot had failed to see the need for adaptations appropriate for smoother transitions.[4]

In other words, the Indians were more tribal than the Puritans. They probably didn’t have the same ideas about compulsive working, too. If you want compulsive workers, hire Germans or Japanese. They have been selected for the past 1,000 years or so for their ability to work hard in feudal agricultural systems. If you want someone who’ll ignore the hungry cattle lowing to be let into the pastures, hire a hunter-gatherer. Horticulturalists lie between these two extremes; if you want to convert horticulturalists to intensive farmers, then it’ll take at least a few generations.

Chances are good that few people on Earth could ever quite live up to the Puritans’ standards of behavior, including the Puritans themselves.

The experiment came to an abrupt and terminal end as war broke out in 1675 between the colonists and some of the local Indians. The Puritan population had grown from 0 to 50,000-80,000 people in 55 years, bringing them into competition with the Indians for land and other resources. Estimates of the Indian population vary; a colonial census in 1680 came up with 1,000 Indians; others estimate 20,000. Given the tech levels and disease (epidemics caused by exposure to European germs had wiped out potentially 90% of the local population before the Pilgrims arrived,) I suspect the number was about 5,000 to 10,000 Indians.

Conflicts intensified until the Indians decided to kick out the colonists, attacking and massacring a bunch of towns. The colonists fought back and, obviously, won–the time to go slaughtering the colonists was back when a few smallpox-ridden fishermen showed up on the beach, not once the Indians were massively outnumbered in their own land. Like most wars, it was brutal and nasty; thousands of people died, most of them Indians.

The colonists weren’t sure what to do with the Praying Indians, who weren’t quite Puritans, but also weren’t the guys massacring Puritans.

So the Puritans moved the Praying Indians to an island off the coast, where winter + no food promptly killed most of them.

As I’ve said before, once you are a demographic minority, there is absolutely nothing to stop the majority from herding you into concentration camps and murdering you and your children, except for how much they pity you.

John Elliot seems to have been truly concerned about the fate of his Indian friends, but his attempts to help him were thwarted by other, more militaristic colonists. In this the colonists sinned; they showed themselves bad allies to their brothers in faith. If they felt they could not be certain about the Indians’ loyalty, then they should not have been moving them into little towns in the first place.

It’s not clear what happened to the few Praying Indians after the war, or how long some of the towns lasted, but the Indians are still around and still Christian, unlike the Puritans.

(Part 1 in this series: Oppression is in the Eye of the Beholder; part 2: Species of Exit: Memes, Genes, and Puritans.)

Movie Reviews: Noah (2/5 stars) and God’s Not Dead (5/5)

Noah (warning, spoilers)

I’d heard Noah was bad, but wanted to see for myself. (It’s on Netflix if you’re similarly curious about this trainwreck, but there are many, many better uses for your time.)

Noah was apparently made by people who completely forgot, halfway through, who their target market actually is. The vast majority of people interested in a movie about a Biblical patriarch are religious folks, and religious folks don’t want to watch Noah go crazy and run around trying to murder babies. According to IMDB, the director is an atheist, so that may explain why he failed completely to understand his target demographic (though this really is no excuse, since I’m an atheist, and I can figure this shit out.)

Perhaps there exists some non-American market where this combination goes over fine.

The movie started out fairly strong, aside from the annoying blue-lighting effect they use that makes everything look, well, blue. The landscape was also problematic; I think of Noah as living somewhere in the Middle East, and I think they filmed it in Iceland. But anyway, they managed to take something that is usually regarded as a children’s story (which entails its own irony,) and give it an apocalyptic, epic feel, somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien and other such recent fantasies, as we watch our heroes trying to survive on their own in a world where humans are still pretty rare and the ones who are out there have gone evil and are using their advanced tech to hunt down the heroes.

The part about the angels and their redemption was also enjoyable.

A major sub-plot revolved around Noah’s adopted daughter, Hermione Granger, who was afraid to have sex because she thought she was infertile, a hangup no woman in the entire history of the world has ever had.

Eventually Methuselah convinces her that she’s not infertile, so, confident that she can now get pregnant, she runs off to have sex with one of Noah’s sons. And gets pregnant.

Noah, meanwhile, has decided for some reason that god wants humanity to end with him, and so decides to murder Herminone’s babies so they won’t grow up to reproduce like she did.

Hermione has a ridiculously short pregnancy while on the ark (all of the timelines seem to be mashed up on the ark in an attempt to keep you from noticing that they don’t work,) never looks at all like she’s pregnant (seriously, they could afford all that CGI to make fake angels and giant army battle scenes, but they couldn’t figure out what a pregnant woman looks like?) and then five minutes after giving birth is up and running around the ship.

All this technical knowledge of CGI and special effects went into the movie, and the creators don’t even know how long it takes women to recover from childbirth? It might seem like a minor point to you, but watching a character run around when she should be barely able to move and lying in a pool of blood just breaks all suspension of disbelief.

Eventually Noah decides not to kill the babies, because babies, and so the next generation is allowed to exist, and Noah’s other two grown sons can get married to their nieces when the babies grow up, in 14 or 15 years. Then their kids, whose parents were double-siblings, can get married and produce a bunch of cross-eyed babies.

All of this bullshit is completely unnecessary, because in the Biblical account, Noah’s sons are all married and bring their wives aboard the ark. Obviously you can’t really get around the inbreeding in this case, either, but 3 brothers married to 3 different women is still a better case than 3 brothers married to 1 woman and her subsequent daughters.

The finale of the movie, as I recall it, was pretty decent, but didn’t make up for all of the crap in between.


God’s Not Dead (Warning, minor spoilers)

God’s Not Dead is the story of a college freshman who stands up to a philosophy 101 teacher who tries to get the entire class to write down that “God is dead” on their first day of class, and goes on to prove to the class, instead, that god is not dead.

I saw this on Netflix and thought, “Someone actually made a movie out of an internet email forward?”

It turned out to be quite good, for what it is. Sadly, there were no weeping bald eagles, but it plays its concept thoroughly without losing sight of its target market, (people who forward stories about Christian students standing up to their professors,) and hits all of its narrative notes exactly as it should.

Personally, I enjoyed this movie because it did a solid job of depicting the characters and their motivations/personalities from the Conservative Christian-American (CCA) perspective. That is, I don’t actually think this is how atheist professors act or think, but I think this is how CCA’s think atheist professors act and think–this is, more or less, how they think liberals and the rest of the world work.

It’s important to understand what other people think and how they perceive the world.

I have nothing to complain about in this movie, but if you don’t like seeing Muslims depicted negatively, you won’t like the Muslim characters in this movie.

The ending could have been stronger if the disparate characters had reached out to each other, because some of them were going through some seriously difficult times; a Christianity that only reaches people individually and does not bring them together into a close-knit community seems unlikely to last. But this is a minor point.

If you are not interested in learning about the CCA perspective, nor the sort of person who’d find the story of a Christian student trying to prove the existence of Christ compelling, then you probably won’t like this movie. If these are the sorts of things that interest you, you might enjoy this movie.