Thursday, 25 May 2017

On the side of the angels?

Or, a closer look at Morality

One of the popular arguments for deities (specifically the Abrahamic god) is based on morality.  This has always surprised me.  The argument that our morality is derived from this deity seems absurd.  The idea that we'd get morality from an ancient blood-god that commanded and committed genocide, seems, well, beyond ridiculous.  It's way out there in cloud-cuckoo land.

Nonetheless, it merits a deeper response. Many theists seem fond of it. I'm even accused of borrowing my morals from Christianity (rolls eyes).  One assumes if I was to borrow my morals from some other belief system, it wouldn't be one with a body-count as high as Christianity. Or Islam.

The argument roughly is that humans have objective morals, objective morals can only come from gods that need living creatures killed to deter its retribution, therefore this god exists.

1. Objective or Subjective Morals?

 The first problem is that a false dichotomy is created with morals. Borrowing from axiology (philosophy of values) it is asserted that locus of morality is either the object, or the subject.  If morality is objective, all the subject need do is recognise what is moral in that case. Morality is external to the subject.

If morality is subjective, the subject applies their values to the relevant case. It is thus the subject that determines if something is moral.  Morality is internal to the subject.

The crucial difference is that we would not disagree on what is moral, it it is objective.  It can't change. It's a property of that case.  We can only disagree if morals are subjective.

This however, is not the only way morals could be classed.  We could also distinguish that is authoritarian, and that which is rational.  The challenge for theists is explaining why their morality is objective, rather than authoritarian.

Let's illustrate. The bible contains the edict to kill witches. Exodus 22:18 - "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".  For centuries, thousands and thousands of people were killed by Christians for witchcraft. It continues in some parts of the world.  It is a merciless and cruel act, tragically based on a fictional crime.

It's clearly not an application of a subjective, or rational, moral philosophy.  If the only option is objective, then it must be the objectively moral thing to do.  It is also vile and repugnant. In truth, it is not objective. It is authoritarian. And for most of Christianity's history, it was also the right thing to do.  So, no, I don't borrow my morals from Christianity!

2. Do Objective Morals Exist?

What would it take to show that morals are objective?  This requires finding a moral rule that we agree is moral, but is inexplicable by other means.  I can conceive of a minimum of two tests.

a) The Evolutionary Test

Evolutionary biology provides several mechanisms to account for why humans would adopt rules and behaviours we would class as moral.  These include kin-selection and reciprocal altruism.  In addition, some behaviours can be Evolutionary Stable Strategies.  Their evolutionary advantages make them stable and are selected for in successful societies.

Parental care is easily explained by kin-selection mechanisms.  Charity toward others also appears to be an ESS.  Early human societies would have suffered from a lot of food variance.  Being willing to sharing food acts like an insurance policy for all. An unwillingness to share would be punished by others refusing to share. This would hurt the selfish during times they suffered food shortages.

In short, we expect certain rules and behaviours to be selected for because they are evolutionary stable or advantageous.  They benefited humans, in the communities they lived in.

b) The Rawlsian Contractarian Test

Rawls is not an explicit Contractarian. Rather he is a hypothetical Contractarian.  Whether a rule is moral or not, can be evaluated rationally by all parties. If the parties agree on the rule, it can be considered moral.  To prompt rational consideration, Rawls uses the veil of ignorance.  Nobody knows whether they will be the victim of such a rule, or a benefactor.  This ignorance forces everyone to consider everyone.

Hence, a Contractarian would argue that say, killing people for witchcraft or owning blacks as slaves, is immoral.  The parties would not agree such acts are moral out of concern they could be victimised by the rule.

This makes Contractarian rules, neither purely subjective nor objective. It makes moral rules a rational product of human societies.

c) Do such rules exist?

There are many Christian rules that fail the tests above.  The problem is they're also immoral.  Whether it is the public execution of non-virgin brides, or the killing of Sabbath stick-gatherers, they don't appear moral.

3. Objective Morals Don't Exist

The morality argument fails on its first premise. Objective morals don't appear to exist.  What is considered moral changes.  Our attitude to slavery has changed, in many parts of the world, so has attitudes to divorce, gay marriage, women's suffrage and capital punishment.  Applying the brutal and authoritarian morality of the slave-owners of the biblical era would get you arrested today.

These changes in morality are more consistent with an explicit Contractarian moral philosophy.  We debate what is moral. We try to consider the welfare effects not on us, but others. And what was once moral, like slavery, becomes immoral. What was once immoral, like homosexuality, is no longer.

4. Conclusion

The argument that the Abrahamic god is the source of our moral sense is ridiculous. It relies on a false dichotomy between objective and subjective morals. It confuses authoritarian, or evolutionary stable rules, as objective morals.  And it turns a blind eye to the atrocities undertaken, and commanded by the Abrahamic god.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Index: Brave Christians

I read and debunked SJ Thomason's (aka @lead1225 on twitter) "Brave Christian" argument for god, so you don't have to

Basically, it ignores contemporaneous martyrdom in other Jewish sects, provides a very low body count of early Christians, ignores natural explanations of Paul's vision and conflates an historic Jesus with the gospel Jesus.

The long versions:
Part 1: Not a fan of Carrier

Part 2: Will the brave Christians standup?

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Death and Legend in Judea


Well, Easter has come and gone again.  That seems to be a good time to talk about the resurrection. Because many Christians have been talking about it.  How else can we explain the empty tomb if Jesus wasn't magically resurrected via the power of an ancient bloodgod? It's the only explanation that makes sense! (rolls eyes)

The problem with the question is its loaded nature.  The empty tomb is presented as a fact. This has some major credibility problems.

Problem 1: Timing

The empty tomb isn't used as proof of Jesus' divinity and resurrection until we get to the gospels.  The  (genuine) letters we have from Paul do not mention it. Nor is it present in other early NT letters.  For something that's supposed to convince us all that Jesus was divine and resurrected, its absence for decades in early Christianity literature is astonishing.

The gospels are generally reckoned to be written after Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans (70 CE) because they're not referenced in earlier Christian documents. Paul seems completely unaware of them.  And prophecies of Jerusalem being sacked are always easier to make after the event...

The sequence for the gospels is usually reckoned as Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew, and finally John.  This spans around 30-40 years.  And all are long after the alleged event. The gap between when the empty tomb alleged occurred and when it's first mentioned is extraordinarily large.

Edit: this alone persuades me that the empty tomb was a later contrivance.  

Problem 2: Inconsistencies

Despite the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) patently using the same sources, they can't keep the empty tomb story straight. Throw in John and it gets worse.  The number of women who went to the tomb, when they went, what they saw at the tomb, what they did afterward, whether they were believed or not are all inconsistent across the gospels.

The Apologist gambit is to assert that this is what we expect with eye-witness accounts.  No. It's consistent with a bunch of people who didn't balk at making things up to sell their religion.

Edit: the women are not the only inconsistency of course. E.g. Matthew has guards and a seal that everyone else seems to forget. The accounts are more what we'd expect with oral traditions and attempts to establish the orthodoxy or early doctrines over several decades.

Problem 3: It conflicts with Roman practice

As far as we can tell Romans did not normally allow crucified victims to get buried in tombs. Crassus left thousands of ex-slaves rotting on crosses after the suppression of the Slave revolt.  Normally crucified victims were left aloft to be picked clean by birds and the like.  

To be buried, and buried ceremoniously instead of in a common pit, is a deviation that begs for explanation.   

Edit: this is the weakest objection I have, and one that Richard Carrier has explained to my satisfaction. It is highly likely Romans allowed the locals to maintain their traditional burial practices. 

Problem 4: Joseph of Arimathea

It has always struck me how much of a Deus ex Machina Joseph plays.  In order to get Jesus from the cross, into a tomb and in the time available, requires a very powerful and capable character.  There's nobody in the disciples capable of pulling this off.

Enter Joseph.  He fixes all the problems with the plot.  First, he's politically powerful.  He's part of the council that condemned Jesus.  But like all superhero fiction, he has a secret identity.  He's also a disciple of Jesus.  He's influential enough to persuade Pilate to take the body off the cross.  He's also rich.  This is also necessary for the plot.  They have to buy linen cloth and 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe that evening.  He's also already got a tomb ready.   Every plot-hole (bar one) is immediately fixed.  Evening might be approaching when he asked Pilate for the body, but Jesus is lying in a shroud, in a tomb, with a stone covering the entrance in time for his resurrection. Phew!

The remaining plot hole of course, is there isn't enough time to get this all done in the time available. 

Joseph's appearance in the story is dramatic.  He's not mentioned in the gospels before this.  And he disappears just as dramatically. He's never mentioned again.  He's not mentioned in Acts, he's not mentioned in any of the letters preceding the gospels.  Paul, Peter and James have no recollection of him at all. He's a powerful and connected guy with massive influence, and nobody mentions him?! Amazing.  

Joseph only has one job.  He appears at exactly the right time to fill in a bunch of critical plot-holes, and then disappears.  He has the traits of a literary invention that appears decades later when the empty tomb story gets added to the Jesus legend- not the traits of an historic person. 

Edit: Even the locale of Arimathea appears made up. 

(If you want a much deeper analysis of Joseph of Arimathea, I recommend John Loftus' blog).


I don't feel that I need to explain the empty tomb, because I don't think there was one.  Early Christendom was plagued with doctrinal problems.  Hints of this are preserved in the letters of Paul, James and others.  This also created a range of heretical sects, such as the Arians.  

The gospels weren't written to be histories.  They were written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin.  And by drawing on the authority of Jesus and the early disciples, they could be used to resolve doctrinal disputes.  Was the resurrection a mostly spiritual personal visionary event?  Or was it a physical event?  For anyone who believed in a physical resurrection, the canonical Gospels make a perfect argument. And they get more elaborate the later the gospel is composed. It's the last gospel, John, that introduces Thomas as the clincher for the physical resurrection. 

So either major scientific laws were broken to miraculously bring the offspring of an ancient god and virgin back to life.  Or the belief that the resurrection was a physical event evolved slowly in a community that was willing to add embellishments that showed this, in retelling, over decades.  It's not really difficult deciding what's the least plausible.