Category Archives: Christianity

Frank Tipler {TECH}s up the Bible

When I was in high school, a physicist named Frank Tipler published a book called The Physics of Immortality. The book purported to show that modern cosmology was not only compatible with Christianity, but predicted something like Christian theology including the concept of an afterlife. At the time I was still a believer, and was becoming interested in physics, so I was curious to see what the book had to say.
It was bad—really bad. So much so that even with only a high school knowledge of physics, and a predisposition to accept its conclusions, I found it ridiculously implausible. It wouldn’t even have made it as bad science fiction (although Charlie Stross borrowed the concept in a more interesting way in Iron Sunrise). Years later, taking Caltech’s intro astronomy course, I had the pleasure of hearing the professor deliver a very unflattering digression on Frank Tipler.
I was reminded of all this when I found out (via Sean Carroll) that Tipler has a new book out: The Physics of Christianity. And it sounds even sillier, if possible. It seems that Tipler is now interested in explaining various Biblical miracles though physics, for example: (from Victor Stenger’s review)

In the case of Jesus walking on water, protons and electrons in the normal matter in a layer of water under his feet are annihilated. The neutrinos produced go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.

This is actually similar to what you see in other The Physics of… books, such as in The Physics of Harry Potter‘s explanation of how the Sorting Hat could be implemented with SQUID sensors. But those books are, as Sean Carroll points out, just fun exercises in comparing fictional worlds to the real world. On the other hand, Frank Tipler is trying to explain supposed actual historical events, and it’s hard to see what the point is of making up some story about a hypothetical decay process underpinning various miracles. Does it really change anyone’s understanding, believer or not, to go from “Jesus could walk on water because he’s omnipotent” to “Jesus could walk on water because he could annihilate protons with electrons on demand, because he’s omnipotent”? It doesn’t do any explanatory work.
And so what all this suggests to me is that Frank Tipler thinks the Bible should be more like Star Trek. A while back I found this post on an RPG-related blog, which explains how technical language gets inserted into Star Trek scripts:

I am told that the writers of Star Trek scripts do not usually come up with all of the jargon that the characters use. Instead, they just make the notation {TECH} wherever the characters should say something technical, and someone else will come along to fill in each such instance with some chunk of technobabble. This has an important story consequence: since the science is completely arbitrary, it’s necessarily the case that the plot can’t really hinge, in a compelling way, on the technical and scientific choices the characters face. It’s all just {TECH}, and at best technobabble can provides sci-fi color, and at worst it’s an excuse for a deus ex machina resolution.

So I imagine that Frank Tipler reads the Bible and sees a bunch of {TECH} notations that he feels compelled to fill in himself. And the last sentence of that quote describes the effect pretty well, which is why even as a believer I found Tipler’s book unsatisfying.

Religion at its most disturbing

Could Christian fundamentalism get any more creepy? (Without whispering?)
Exhibit A: “Purity Balls”. Kind of like proms, except your date is your dad, and you pledge to be sexually abstinent until your dad gives you away in marriage. There’s no equivalent for boys, of course. You can watch a squicky promo video, but you might wish you hadn’t. Subtexts: misogyny, incest.
Exhibit B: “Quiverfull”. As detailed here, the Quiverfull movement is based on the idea that women should reject all forms of birth control and become baby factories building an army for Jesus. Quiverfull devotees often have upwards of ten children, and the number of kids even becomes a status symbol. What’s really sad about this is that many of these families can’t afford to raise so many children, and get stuck in crushing poverty. Much of this movement is driven by paranoia about higher birth rates among Muslims or minorities in general. Subtexts: misogyny, racism.
Exhibit C: Ted Haggard’s “Spiritual Restoration”. This article quotes a Focus on the Family spokesman explaining what this might involve. One gets a certain mental picture from quotes like this:

“I see success approximately 50 percent of the time,” said H.B. London, vice president for church and clergy at Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian ministry in Colorado Springs. “Guys just wear out and they can no longer subject themselves to the process.”

“It will have to become almost a confrontational relationship,” he said. “You’ve got to confess your sins and you’ve got to have a group of people around you who will not let you whitewash the issue.”

And this:

“From the Christian perspective, we think in terms of prayer, we think in terms of what we call godly counsel, where godly men who are clean themselves insert themselves in the life of the one who is struggling,” London said.
The symbolic laying on of hands may also be a part of the recovery, London said.

…which suggests something other than a “spiritual restoration”. Subtexts: Spanish Inquisition, BDSM.
I recommend reading these articles while listening to The Thermals’ album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a pop-punk indictment of the religious right in America. (I happened to be listening to it when I found the Quiverfull article.)

And I feel fine

I was pretty sure this was going on, but Harper’s actually mined some apocalypse-oriented message boards for quotes from crazy people who are ecstatic about the war in Lebanon, because it is apparently a clear sign that the Rapture is approaching. Not the band, which would be equally fearsome, but that peculiar item in some flavors of Christian eschatology where God kills off spirits away all the believers and children, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to endure the tribulations that follow. To prevent us from making smartass remarks about the potential upsides of all the hardcore conservative Christians vanishing from the Earth, this version of the end-times calls for demons and plagues and rivers of blood for the infidels. So you can see why it’s something to be joyful about.
But wait a minute, exactly what prophecy is being fulfilled here? Basically, the book of Revelation makes the bold statement that there will be violent conflict in the Middle East. So a war breaks out involving Israel, something which has happened approximately every fifteen minutes since the dawn of time—surely this is a sign of the apocalypse! Really, these guys should at least wait for Jesus to appear on a tortilla (or, um, God on an alligator) before they break out the Rapture champagne sparkling cider.

Christian video games, where Jesus is the resurrection, the life, and the 1-up.

Via Pharyngula, here’s a slightly alarmist article about a video game based on the Left Behind novels.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City — 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).
Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, “Praise the Lord,” as they blow infidels away.

The article focuses on the disturbing eliminationist elements in the game, but I think any game that lets you play as the Antichrist can’t be all bad. I can just imagine playing this game as Team Evil, cackling madly as I unleash my demonic horde. Sounds like fun!
More seriously, I’m never quite sure how I feel about games like this (or the similar jihadi video games that show up in the Middle East). The usual worry is that the eliminationist scenario and dehumanized opponents will make the player more inclined to real-world violence. But the counter-argument is that video games provide an outlet for political frustration and revenge fantasies, and hence reduce the amount of real-world violence. I’m not thoroughly convinced by either argument: really this is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric in the conservative Christian subculture that comprises Left Behind‘s target audience, and thus is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

The problem of evil strikes back

We’ve probably had enough discussion of the problem of evil on this blog, but I can’t help pointing out it’s appearance in the news. Apparently one world leader, upon visiting Auschwitz, had the following reaction:

“In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God — Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?
“Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?”

Indeed, these are questions any religious skeptic might ask, but it’s surprising to hear them from Pope Benedict. It seems like the sort of thing a guy in his position should have the answer to. (Via Majikthise.)
In a slightly parallel story, Mark at Cosmic Variance watches as Billy Graham comes very close to endorsing a skeptical outlook on religious claims. I must say this is a promising trend among major religious figures toward inquiry and empiricism, but somehow I don’t see it lasting very long.

Yet more religion blogging: Genocidal gods

I don’t mean to be obsessed with religion lately, but I keep seeing opportunities to blog about it. Blogger Mark Kleiman sometimes posts notes from his Tanakh study group; I usually skip these posts, but the latest was of interest. It discusses one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible, 1 Samuel 15. I’m particularly interested in this passage because it’s the first place I go if I want to argue that the Bible should not be regarded as having any moral authority.
The Samuel of the book’s title is a Hebrew prophet, and this chapter occurs during Saul’s reign as king of Israel. Now, God is pissed off at another tribe, the Amalekites, for how they treated the Israelites during their escape from Egypt, which was hundreds of years prior at this point in the Bible. So he has Samuel instruct Saul to do the only thing consistent with a just, moral God: kill every man, woman, and child in the Amalekite tribe. Also, Saul is to kill all the livestock to show they mean business and aren’t just after spoils. So, Saul takes the Israelite army and commits divinely mandated genocide, wiping out the tribe—except that they spare the Amalekite king and some of the livestock. Naturally God gets angry with Saul and strips him of his kingship, because his genocidal instructions were not followed to the letter. Samuel’s so angry he personally grabs a sword and messily executes the Amalekite king.
So, you see the problem here. No god that orders such an atrocity is worthy of worship; in fact, basic morality requires that one actively oppose such a god, even if this results in being smited into ash. I was curious to see what Kleiman’s notes would say in regards to this passage; he seems disturbed by it and looks for some justification in the text, but finds little:

We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel’s final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn’t say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.

I don’t buy this bit about “HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions”. For one thing, it’s humans that are actually carrying out the genocide on God’s orders. And furthermore, it’s not clear why I should hold God to a lower moral standard than I hold mortals. Now, one approach is to say that God is the one who gets to define morality—after all, he’s the one handing down the stone tablets—so by definition nothing God does can be immoral. If that’s the case, then fuck morality; I am going to adhere to a different system of ethics, which I call “schmorality”, that holds (among other things) that genocide is always wrong. Come on, this one doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Another important point, and this is sort of a Humean argument, is that even if it’s ok to commit genocide when God commands it, one should never obey apparent commands from God to commit genocide. After all, if I hear a voice claiming to be God and instructing me to murder a bunch of people, I am going to consider several possibilities. Maybe it’s actually God, or maybe I’ve gone crazy and am hearing voices in my head, or maybe it’s a malevolent being impersonating God. This goes double if it’s not a voice in my head, but some dude named Samuel. Then I’ll consider how probable it is that it’s really God and not one of the other possibilities, and weigh this against the enormity of the crime I am going to commit. Probably it’s not God, and even if it is, the worst that can happen from disobeying is that he smites me and tries to get someone else to do it. Whereas if I’m wrong about it being God, I’ve just killed a bunch of people for no reason. So basic morality demands that one disobey these sorts of commands.
A different defense one can take regarding 1 Samuel 15 is to say that it’s not an accurate description of events, but is fiction. If one still wants to preserve the rest of the Bible as a moral authority, one then has to decide if it was rightfully included as a kind of metaphorical tale or parable meant to teach a lesson, or if it was mistakenly included and is merely Bronze Age tribal propaganda. If I were religious, I would reject the former possibility out of hand. It would seem to me the foulest of blasphemies to ascribe such behavior to God. Whatever lesson this is supposed to impart, it’s the wrong one, since one should actually disobey these commands from God. On the other hand, if it was wrongfully included, the judgement of the mortal editors compiling the Old Testament or Tanakh is therefore suspect. Clearly these guys had no moral or spiritual authority themselves, or they would have recognized that this passage did not belong with the other books. And this in turn undermines the authority of the rest of the Bible: if you can’t trust the inclusion of this book, why trust any of the others? And so I think this chapter is a huge problem for any religion that claims the Old Testament as a holy text.

The true spirit of Easter

Warning: this post is profane and blasphemous. Well, more so than usual.
I rarely promote a religious message on this blog, but today I would like you all to consider the spirit of Easter. No, not Jesus and brightly colored candy; the true spirit of Easter: fucking. After all, it is commonly thought that the Christian Easter was an assimilation of pagan fertility rites, which undoubtedly entailed lots of wild pagan sex. Now, my exhaustive research based on one or two Wikipedia pages indicates that the fertility goddess Eostre was actually invented by some dudes well after the fact. But this just puts it at the same epistemological status as Jesus coming back from the dead, so I don’t see any problem.
So let’s bring Easter back to its apocryphal orgiastic origins, and put the erection back in resurrection. I’d like to encourage everyone to celebrate the day by grabbing a hot specimen of your preferred gender and screwing like (Easter) bunnies. You’re single? No problem, this isn’t goddamn Valentine’s Day. Just go out and find a willing participant for some casual, no-strings-attached sacred springtime rituals. Lots of people will be hanging around churches today so you might start there.
Just don’t take the “fertility” part too literally—if I end up on a plane with a screaming baby as a result of this post, I won’t be pleased. Besides, you can annoy many sects of Christianity even more by using birth control.
And what will I be doing to celebrate the holiday, you so weren’t going to ask? Well, actually… I’ll probably be in the lab. But in the spirit of Easter, I’ll be measuring a pair of coupled qubits. And you know qubit sex is pretty hot, when they can take on all possible positions simultaneously. Don’t think of me as a physicist, think of me as a quantum porn photographer.

The Gospel of Gazebo

I had a bit of writer’s block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it’s been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it’s interesting to see some of the reactions.
Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:

If you don’t read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.

The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.
But it’s easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that’s not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they’ve addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.
This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he’s all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he’s suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven’t changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I’d convert to this instantly.
So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn’t mean it’ll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it’s all a bunch of made-up stories doesn’t seem to be very popular in this country.

Fasting and Religious Markets

The Catholicism Cafeteria is getting so popular that even Protestants are dining there. Or not dining, rather: as this Slate piece explains, some Protestant churches are taking up fasting for Lent and other traditionally Catholic rituals of the season.

Over the last few years, more Protestant churches have begun daubing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity (March 1 this year). Fasting, long familiar to Catholics as a Lenten fact of life, is increasingly popular with evangelical Christians striving for spiritual awakening. A few mainline Protestant churches even conduct foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday—the traditional commemoration of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples—that takes place on the Thursday before Easter.

It seems sort of silly at first glance—wasn’t the whole point of the Reformation to get rid of all the arbitrary rules and rituals?—but thinking about it, it makes some sense. Most major religions have an element of asceticism, clearly people find it spiritually appealing, so it’s not surprising that fasting would cross denominational lines. Fasting for Lent has the advantage of being a particularly temporary and limited form of asceticism, so it’s not too much of a sacrifice to adopt.
More interesting was the statistic that one-third of believers change churches at least once in their lifetimes. This number is almost certainly much higher than it once was, as historically people have tended to remain in the sect they were born into. One might expect churches to become more market-driven under these circumstances, and then mixing and matching of rituals like this is a natural consequence. (I suspect one can also attribute the rise of megachurches to the increasing importance of market forces in religion, sort of a Wal-Martization of churches. Or is the Catholic Church the Wal-Mart of churches?)
One more thing—John Calvin deserves some kind of unintentional irony award for this:

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance.”

Right. As opposed to the empirical science that is Calvinism.

But I still… haven’t found… a solution to the problem of evil.

Slacktivist has excerpts from U2 frontman Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mostly, it’s good stuff, in which he chastises George W. Bush for not doing more to fight poverty around the world. But there’s one section that I thought was very self-defeating, because while Bono wants to make this a religious mission, he runs right into the problem of evil (which I’ve written about before). I have to wonder if Bono is really thinking about what he’s saying here:

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill … I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff — maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono is describing people who live in abject misery, and if we are to assume that God exists, the obvious question to ask is, why does God permit such suffering at all? It seems to me that one of the following statements has to be true:
1. God doesn’t know about the suffering of the poor.
2. God knows about the poor but does not care.
3. God knows about the poor and cares about their suffering, but is powerless to help them.
Now religious people generally try to obscure the issue rather than admit that one of these things is true. But Bono in the above remarks has just ruled out statements 1 and 2, so we are left with the disturbing fact that Bono believe in a god who has less power to help the poor than George W. Bush, or Bono himself. Why even refer to such a being as a god? Seems more like sort of a concerned spirit, or something.
One could argue that God works his will through the charitable actions of humans. This doesn’t reflect well on God’s character: basically, he’s the lazy manager who gets his subordinates to do all the work, and then takes all the credit at the end.
Or one could argue that the charitable impulse itself comes from God. This, in addition to resembling a common and vicious slander against atheists, argues for a very weak god indeed, as (by Bono’s own admission) there is not nearly enough charity in the world.
So what good is it to the poor if God is with them? If man living in a cardboard box could trade the presence of God for a roof over his head, shouldn’t he do it?