Sunday, December 16, 2012

Recycling Testaments

To the flu, add food poisoning.  It's been a lovely winter so far, but I'm starting to be able to put words together coherently again.  Well, as coherent as I get anyway.  ;-)

So I thought I'd take the time to recycle a series of posts I spent some effort on last Christmas:  The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.  Follow that link for full intro details, but basically the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are a series of Apocryphal writings which were likely created a century or two before Jesus, and likely "touched up" by some anonymous Christian(s) a century or two after Jesus.

They are interesting on many levels; blending of Jewish and Christian eschatology, encapsulation of the beliefs of at least some early Christians, and a clear demonstration of the lack of scruples some pious people had in creating works of fiction which were meant to be taken as truth to support their beliefs.  At least that is how it appears today.  It is also possible that these documents were known to be the equivalent of "fan fiction" in those days.

Anyway, check them out if you have a geeky interest in that sort of thing.  If you are pressed for time, I recommend checking out Asher, because I like its dualistic philosophical content.  :-)  And maybe check out Levi after that, because of its visions of Heaven.  Zebulun is also a favorite, because he was the inventor of the sail boat!

Below is a little bit about each patriarch, and three of my favorite quotes from each Testament.  Clicking the name will take you to the post where I summarized the Testament, discussed Christian parallels, and collected more of my favorite quotes.

Reuben - the woman hater, and rapist of his father's concubine
"And I tell you that [God] smote me with a sore plague in my loins for seven months; and had not my father Jamb prayed for me to the Lord, the Lord would have destroyed me." - Reuben 1:7

"For evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves." - Reuben 2:13

"For moreover, concerning them, the angel of the Lord told me, and taught me, that women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men, and in their heart they plot against men; and by means of their adornment they deceive first their minds, and by the glance of the eye instil the poison, and then through the accomplished act they take them captive." - Reuben 2:15

Simeon - envy, spawned by the "prince of deceit," drove him to plot the death of Joseph
"And I set my mind against [Joseph] to destroy him because the prince of deceit sent forth the spirit of jealousy and blinded my mind, so that I regarded him not as a brother, nor did I spare even Jacob my father." - Simeon 1:8

"And henceforward he sympathiseth with him whom he envied and forgiveth those who are hostile to him, and so ceaseth from his envy." - Simeon 1:20

"And my father asked concerning me, because he saw that I was sad; and I said unto him, I am pained in my liver." - Simeon 2:1 (showing belief of organ-related emotions)

Levi - the Priest, full of visions of Heaven and Judgement Day
"In the heaven next to it are the archangels, who minister and make propitiation to the Lord for all the sins of ignorance of the righteous;" - Levi 1:22 (interesting that sin offerings are made in parallel in Heaven)

"Work righteousness, therefore, my children, upon the earth, that ye may have it as a treasure in heaven." - Levi 4:5

"And He shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam, and He shall give to the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them." - Levi 5:26 (ref. Genesis 3:22-24 where God puts up a flaming sword to keep man away from the Tree of Life.)

Judah - a mighty man brought down by drunkenness, lust, and greed
"For it was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate." - Judah 2:23 (That is one of the strangest laws ever!)

"Such is the inebriated man, my children; for he who is drunken reverenceth no man." - Judah 3:13
"But if he go beyond this limit the spirit of deceit attacketh his mind, and it maketh the drunkard to talk filthily, and to transgress and not to be ashamed, but even to glory in his shame, and to account himself honourable." - Judah 3:17 (Judah's theology appears to be that Beliar, the spirit of deceit, instigates all wickedness.)

Issachar - a pious man who avoided temptation and put God and others first, the ideal Christian before Chrsitianity
"Therefore, when I was thirty-five years old, I took to myself a wife, for my labour wore away my strength, and I never thought upon pleasure with women; but owing to my toil, sleep overcame me." - Issachar 1:28 (I'm guessing that he had a very mechanical marriage)

"[A single-minded man] doth not desire to live a long life, but only waiteth for the will of God." - Issachar 1:34

"And the spirits of deceit have no power against him, for he looketh not on the beauty of women, lest he should pollute his mind with corruption." - Issachar1:35 (the beauty of women corrupts the mind)

Zebulun - a compassionate inventor
"And now children, I you (sic) to keep the commands of the Lord, and to show mercy to your neighbours, and to have compassion towards all, not towards men only, but also towards beasts." - Zebulun 2:1 (a reference to God's Law centuries before it was Biblically given, also, PETA would approve of Zebulun)

"I was the first to make a boat to sail upon the sea, for the Lord gave me understanding and wisdom therein." - Zebulun 2:6 (Zebulun made the very first sailboat ever!)

"And if a man were a stranger, or sick, or aged, I boiled the fish, and dressed them well, and offered them to all men, as every man had need, grieving with and having compassion upon them." - Zebulun 2:10

Dan - learned that anger and lying, the fruits of Beliar's spirit, cause much evil
"I have proved in my heart, and in my whole life, that truth with just dealing is good and well pleasing to God, and that lying and anger are evil, because they teach man all wickedness." - Dan 1:3

"And one of the spirits of Beliar stirred me up, saying: Take this sword, and with it slay Joseph: so shall thy father love thee when he is dead." - Dan 1:7 (Beliar plants the seeds of sin)

"If ye fall into any loss or ruin, my children, be not afflicted; for this very spirit maketh a man desire that which is perishable, in order that he may be enraged through the affliction." - Dan 1:25 (you might hear similar words from a Buddhist)

Naphtali - a pious prophet, wise in outdated science
"And as the potter knoweth the use of each vessel, what it is meet for, so also doth the Lord know the body, how far it will persist in goodness, and when it beginneth in evil." - Naphtali 1:16 (I was born designed this way...)

"For there is no inclination or thought which the Lord knoweth not, for He created every man after His own image." - Naphtali 1: 17 (God knows our evil thoughts, because He has them too.)

"For God made all things good in their order, the five senses in the head, and He joined on the neck to the head, adding to it the hair also for comeliness and glory, then the heart for understanding, the belly for excrement, and the stomach for grinding, the windpipe for taking in the breath, the liver for wrath, the gall for bitterness, the spleen for laughter, the reins for prudence, the muscles of the loins for power, the lungs for drawing in, the loins for strength, and so forth." - Naphtali 1:20 (written in a time when organs were thought to control emotions)

Gad - a strong man, once full of hate, now prophessor of love
"Accordingly I guarded at night the flock; and whenever the lion came, or the wolf, or any wild beast against the fold, I pursued it, and overtaking it I seized its foot with my hand and hurled it about a stone's throw, and so killed it." - Gad 1:3

"For God brought upon me a disease of the liver; and had not the prayers of Jacob my father succoured me, it had hardly failed but my spirit had departed.  For by what things a man transgresseth by the same also is he punished.  Since, therefore, my liver was set mercilessly against Joseph, in my liver too I suffered mercilessly, and was judged for eleven months, for so long a time as I had been angry against Joseph." - Gad 1:34-36 (Gad's liver caused his wrath, so God afflicted it!)

"And now, my children, I exhort you, love ye each one his brother, and put away hatred from your hearts, love one another in deed, and in word, and in the inclination of the soul." - Gad 2:1

Asher - a philosopher of dualism, and, while I don't agree with much of what is written, this is my favorite Testament because it is the deepest in thought.
"Two ways hath God given to the sons of men, and two inclinations, and two kinds of action, and two modes of action, and two issues." - Asher 1:3

"For many in killing the wicked do two works, of good and evil; but the whole is good, because he hath uprooted and destroyed that which is evil." - Asher 1:23 (a seed of "righteous" violence)

"Ye see, my children, how that there are two in all things, one against the other, and the one is hidden by the other: in wealth is hidden covetousness, in conviviality drunkenness, in laughter grief, in wedlock profligacy." - Asher 1:27

Joseph - the chaste and pious brother who was sold into slavery, yet saved many people from famine because of it
"For the Lord doth not forsake them that fear Him, neither in darkness, nor in bonds, nor in tribulations, nor in necessities." - Joseph 1:21

"And wheresoever the Most High dwelleth, even though envy, or slavery, or slander befalleth a man, the Lord who dwelleth in him, for the sake of his chastity not only delivereth him from evil, but also exalteth him even as me." - Joseph 2:3
"Do ye also, therefore, love one another, and with long-suffering hide ye one another's faults." - Joseph 2:59

Benjamin - a blatant reciter of Christian tenets
"For he that feareth God and loveth his neighbour cannot be smitten by the spirit of Beliar, being shielded by the fear of God." - Benjamin 1:16

"[A good man] delighteth not in pleasure, he grieveth not his neighbour, he sateth not himself with luxuries, he erreth not in the uplifting of the eyes, for the Lord is his portion." - Benjamin 1:35

"The good mind hath not two tongues, of blessing and of cursing, of contumely and of honour, of sorrow and of joy, of quietness and of confusion, of hypocrisy and of truth, of poverty and of wealth; but it hath one disposition, uncorrupt and pure, concerning all men." - Benjamin 1:37

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tis the Season

Tis the season, for spreading germs.  :-/  I've been sick, and so posting has suffered.

Tis the season for hypocrisy as well, which is almost as nasty as boogers oozing out of your nose uncontrollably, and even more ubiquitous.  I know I'm a hypocrite in my own ways, despite struggling to not be one.  And while it doesn't always "take one to know one," that may be why I see the hypocrisy in simultaneously holding both of these standpoints:

We don't want any of our tax dollars to support Planned Parenthood because what they do is expressly against our religious beliefs.There's nothing wrong with a Jesus nativity scene at the city hall.

Maybe through gently highlighting hypocrisies like these, we can help people become a little more accommodating of the beliefs of their fellow citizens.  Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A New Heart - Holy Mackerel!

Ezekiel 36:26
"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." NIV

One of the biggest problems with Salvation is the potential for sin associated with the persistence of the self into the afterlife.  As many, if not most Christians will fess up to, they still make mistakes and they still sin from time to time in one way or another.  But in the afterlife, supposedly no one will sin in the Kingdom of God.

Clearly, something has to change.

God will give the Saved a new heart, and a new spirit, such that they will never stray again.  But at that point, will they really be themselves anymore?  Or will they simply be puppets resembling their former selves?  And why not just start out that way, instead of condemning billions to the eternal junk pile as ultimate failures?

While our mistakes, errors, and failings do not, or at least should not, define us, the potential for imperfection is what helps us identify and value the best qualities and achievements within ourselves and others, what drives us toward continual improvement and mastery, and what reveals to us the true nature and need of grace and love.

As much as I hate to be wrong, I know it makes me a better person.  It would be a shame to lose that facet of existence for all eternity.  To err is human.  :-)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Divorce Limbo

Let's face it: marriage is a mixed bag.  We don't really know what we are getting into.  At least most people don't.

Me?  I was different.  I, sure as Hell, knew what I was doing.  Given that I don't believe in Hell, you know that means I didn't really know what the Hell I was doing either! ;-)  (As I've mentioned, my first marriage didn't last.)

Many marriages, especially in the Christian world, appear to be an act of free will.  I live in the U.S.A., and, as much as anyone does, I chose my first wife.  And I chose poorly.  (Of course, it does take two to tango, so she was quite foolish to choose me as well!)

But wait a minute.  Did I choose my wife?  Matthew 19:6/Mark 10:9 both say:

"Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Oh, so it wasn't me who chose my spouse poorly, but rather God.  But wait again!  God can't choose poorly.  Duh!  And that's why God forbade divorce.  And that's why Jesus forbade divorce.

Now if you are foolish enough to get divorced from God's chosen companion for you, like me, you may find yourself thinking: 

Hey, God made one marriage happen.  Why not let God make another one!  After all, per 1 John 4:8, "[w]hoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."  So what could be wrong with more love?

Wrong!  If you have divorced, you should consider yourself in divorce limbo for the rest of your life, where the only person you can marry would be your ex-wife, unless she has been with another man.  Even if you feel the urge to marry someone else, you will be committing adultery if you do so (Matthew 19:9).

Of course, there is nothing different in the desire to marry another spouse after a divorce, other than (hopefully) a little more wisdom.  Yet given that God Jesus disapproves of subsequent marriages, then it certainly won't be God guiding you to your next love.

Well, I married again.  And not only did I marry again, but I married a divorced woman, which is explicitly forbidden by Jesus (Matthew 5:32/Luke 16:18).  Oh, the shame.

Anyway, I've got to tell you, I think I did a much better job picking out my second wife than God did with the first one.  ;-)  This is true love.  Yup!  We atheists have found God!  At least if you buy into the whole love = God thing...

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Point of Vectors

You know what you are by what you were.  Usually that works to your advantage; providing stability, a sense of purpose, and a sense of direction heading forward.

In the grand scheme, we learn the history of our respective counties to know our identities and directions as citizens.

In the same vein, our personal history defines our own identity and individual direction.  But sometimes, if not usually, our histories contain some "blemishes," for lack of a better word.  These blemishes can, and often do, affect the relationships we have and the choices we make, ultimately affecting the direction we take in life.

These blemishes affect the direction we take because emotionally, and/or logically, they point to the next steps of our behavior.  And those next steps lead to others, and those lead to others, etc.  But they don't have to.

Not to trivialize it, but after a blemish has happened, it is just a story, and you find yourself at a point where you choose to continue that story, or to break away on a new path.

You choose the narrative going forward at each moment in your life:  Either you are offended, an orphan, a victim of abuse, a liar, a thief, etc., or you were offended, an orphan, a victim of abuse, a liar, a thief, etc.  What is history truly is history.  Whether or not it lives on in our minds is our own choice.  Depending on the type blemish, it can be hard to let it go and leave behind, but that's where history is; behind us.  None of us claims "I am five" when we're actually twenty-seven years old, yet we all were five.

I challenge you to know yourself, not by who you were, but by who you actually are now, and who you seek to become.  A new vector can start at any point.

I'll leave you with a classic Buddhist tale to ponder:
Buddhist monks were forbidden to touch women, but one day a particular monk noticed a woman in distress who needed to cross a river to get to her family.  The monk picked up the woman and carried her across the raging river torrent.  Other monks had seen this activity, and they became indignant of the helpful monk.  They scorned him fiercely for breaking his vows by touching a woman.  The helpful monk replied in his defense:

"Friends, I set the woman down at the river bank.  Why do you still carry her?"

What are you still carrying?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Waxing Political

In case you don't live in Ohio, you may not be aware that it's time for another presidential election in the U.S.  As usual, the religious talk shows and some churches are giving their non-specific, but blatantly obvious political plugs for candidates whose names end with the letter "R."

I heard one radio show (Family Talk) that was playing a recording from a church service, where a former American Family Radio exec was speaking about the fundamentals of (political) economics.  It went something like this:
"If you make $100, and you go into a restaurant where everything costs less than $100, then you have complete freedom to get anything you want there.  But if someone takes money away from you, then they take some freedom away from you.  Because if you only have $80 left, you can no longer buy something that costs $90.  When somebody comes up to you with a gun and takes money from you, they take freedom from you and it's called theft.  When the government takes money from you, and they can do so with men with guns, they take freedom from you and that's called taxes."
I was thinking to myself, hmmm....
"If I have $100, but I can't drive anywhere to spend it because there are no roads, then I don't have freedom.  If I have $100, but my house has been destroyed due to a hurricane and there is no one to aid me in rebuilding my life, then I don't have freedom.  Etc.  On the other hand, if I chip in $30 for the collective good, to get roads and disaster relief, to protect the nation, to help ensure quality medication, to make sure that the water is safe to drink, to provide primary education, etc., then I'll have much greater freedom than I would ever have with just $100, and an entire nations of millions will share in that enhanced freedom with me."
Are the economic principles really that difficult to understand here?  Our government isn't perfect.  In fact, in a lot of ways, it really sucks.  And I am all for reform and responsible spending.  But to come at the problem from the perspective that keeping all of your money ensures you the most freedom, let alone that it is best for the nation, is fundamentally wrong.

Vote with your head.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Feel Good

"I feel good."
It's such a simple statement; three little words.  Surely, you know what I mean.  But do you really?

You probably think that I mean that I feel content or happy, or perhaps even joyous or ecstatic.  But let's take a closer look.

The "I" is pretty self-explanatory, unless you want to fly off into the never-never land of difficulties in philosophically and psychologically defining the "self."

But from there, all bets are off.  Both "feel" and "good" have plethora of meanings to choose from, such that that simple three word statement could mean:
  • I am happy/content.
  • I am joyous/ecstatic.
  • I am ethical.
  • I am beneficial.
  • I am functional.
  • I am healthy.
  • I am confident in my present abilities.
  • I have the ability to sense benevolent forces.
  • I do sense benevolent forces.
  • My ability to receive tactile sensations is functioning.
  • I am better in my ability to receive tactile sensations than other people.
  • I am pleasing to touch.  (My personal favorite!)
And that's just a sample!  You could probably come up with at least another 5-10 definitions for that statement.  The obvious truth is that you need context to gain understanding.

In the world of text, context becomes super-critical, because you can't rely on spoken tones, body language, gestures, etc. to enhance the meaning of the message.  All you have are words.  And, if you're lucky, you have some framing circumstances described in the text.

For example, if I told you that I was at the doctor's office when I said "I feel good," then you are more likely to be correct in thinking that I was referring to my health in general.  Unless, of course, that doctor had performed a reconstructive surgery of the nerves in my hand after an accident, because in that case "I feel good" may have more to do with tactile sensation.

Yet when we are devoid of context, we all bring our own contexts to the table to parse out meaning.  What is usual?  What fits our paradigm?  Based on those assumptions, we find a meaning.  Our confidence in that meaning will typically be directly proportional to how well it aligns with our world view.

That brings us to a subject near and dear to my heart:  Biblical prophesy.  As a rough number, I would estimate that 95% of Old Testament prophesy is actually very easy to understand because there is a ton of supporting context, including many prophesies that overlap in scope and thereby confirm their meanings with different verbiage.

What makes Old Testament prophesy difficult to accurately discern is coming to it from the mindset of Christianity.  If you cast off or ignore the Jewish historical roots, then confirmation bias sets in and (even worse) the original meanings of the words are plucked from their context and realigned with the Christian vision of the world.  I know this from personally reading the Bible without an assumption that Christianity was its end goal.  That's why I had the confidence to issue the open challenge regarding Christian Prophesy.

Context is meaning, and I feel good about saying so.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Evolution as Myth

"It takes more faith to believe in Evolution than it does to believe in God [, as in the God of the Bible]."
I've heard this argument raised from Ken Ham and many other Christians, citing issues with the fossil records, their alleged evidence of a young Earth, the inherent complexity of DNA, etc.  You've probably heard this before, right?

So I started thinking; "Wait, does it actually require such a great faith to believe in Evolution?  What if Evolution was just another myth available for us to believe, a religion competing on the global pious market?  Would it really be hard to believe?"

Let's step aside from the fossil records, DNA, and all of the other data which supports the technical details of Evolution and just look at the big picture; the Evolution Myth, if you will.

The Myth
Life on earth was not created, but rather it was the result of raw materials, chemical reactions, chance, and time.  Once life came to be, deviations developed through self-replication errors and time.  Deviations which helped the life form to survive and/or propagate, and other deviations which had little to do with survivability or propagation, accumulated over time and branched out into multiple paths, eventually resulting in all of the biodiversity we know today, including humans.

The Solutions
As we consider this Myth, we have to look around and see if it fits into the picture of reality as we know it.  Avoiding the finite technicalities of Evolution, are there other extraneous evidences to support this Myth such that it would be easier to believe than, say, a God partially/fully becoming man, in order to be slain, in order to make propitiation for our sins, in order for that God to forgive our sins, in order that we may live forever with Him in an environment in which that God will prevent us from sinning?  Furthermore, are there any other answers are provided by this Myth?  Below are some of the implications, agreements, and answers I thought of.

(Note that I do recognize that there are many Christians who also believe in evolution, either in its pure format or in a God-enhanced version, but what follows will be from a perspective of the Evolution Myth standing on its own.)
  1. The Earth is old, and the Universe is older.   As we gaze into the heavens at night, we look back in time, seeing light rays which left their respective stars billions upon billions of years ago.  Evolution is well in tune with this fact.
  2. We are insignificant in the universal picture.  As astronomy tells us, the sun is the center of our solar system, but our solar system is in one arm of our galaxy and our sun is one of billions of stars in the galaxy, which is just one galaxy of billions of galaxies, each with billions of their own stars.  Our planet is just one of likely trillions in the universe.  Evolution is well in tune with this fact.
  3. Evolution doesn't answer if there is or is not a god, but if there is one, it suggests that such a god is probably in line with deist theology.  The time it took to yield humans and the reliance on chance to form us suggests that no special attention was paid by any deity in our creation process.  Evolution is well in tune with this concept.
  4. Genetic deviations occur without divine cause.  It is not a test, a punishment, or a learning experience given by a god if your child is born with Down Syndrome, or if you are genetically predisposed to colon cancer, or if you are born infertile.  Evolution is well in tune with this fact.
  5. There is no divine cause for disasters.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.  They are acts of nature, not, as insurance companies like to define them, acts of god.  Disasters do not take sides, nor are they doled out as personal or communal punishment.  Evolution is in line with the science here.
  6. There is no supernatural justice.  As we know all too well, good things can happen to bad people, and visa-versa, without any reckoning or reason.  People can commit great evils and go unpunished.  People can do great good and go unrewarded.  Using a poker reference, sometimes the cards are in your favor, but sometimes they're not, and it often has  nothing to do with your worthiness.  Evolution does not suggest anything different.
  7. Being weaker, smaller, or poorer physically equipped than many other animals, finding traits which promote cooperation would not be surprising, and yet these same cooperative traits would still contend with drives to compete for limited resources.  This is perhaps one of the most interesting angles, as it explains a lot of our social behaviors as a whole, such as tribalism, nationalism, genocide, etc.  While I would not say that Evolution could predict our present condition or that our condition was somehow inevitable, Evolution has no conflict with our present condition.
  8. If there is a god, divine intervention is unlikely, so we must take responsibility to change the world if we feel it needs changing.  It is up to us to right the wrongs and guide our species towards a better way to live.  We all know this, but Point 7 above helps to explain why we fall short of achieving such a goal.  Evolution does not suggest anything different.
  9. There is no "good" or "bad" in the world except by what we define these concepts to be.  However, that does not mean that these concepts are entirely arbitrary either. Given that we have drives for cooperation, we live communally.  Out of this, the basic concepts of good and bad are readily born, as "good" are actions which promote harmony and the preservation of the community.  This is why the basic moral codes are ubiquitous across nearly all cultures (do not murder, do not steal - at least from those inside your group, etc.) and why the more abstract codes vary significantly (what is acceptable to eat, how you treat livestock, what kind of clothes you can wear, etc.).  Evolution has no difficulties with this concept.
  10. Similarities between humans and animals would be expected.  The Myth suggests common lines of development.  Surely our similar skeletal structures in men and animals are in line with this idea.  Furthermore, our "human" actions of caring for and protecting the young, playing, fighting, teamwork, hierarchies, sacrifice, and compensation are all seen in the animal world as well, in varying degrees with different animals.  This matches the implications of Evolution.
  11. This life is all there is.  There is no afterlife, other than your bodily materials being recycled by other life forms.  It's up to you to make the best of your life with the given circumstances.  Chance plays a large role in where you begin and what your limitations will be, but your success in life will also be largely driven by your chosen actions.  Evolution would not suggest anything else.

The Problems
Evolution, as a Myth, fits very well with the empirical, sterile evidence.  I don't know if you've checked lately, but we are anything but sterile creatures.
  1. People have religious experiences with different faiths.  As mentioned above, the Evolution Myth doesn't say that there is or isn't a god, so having a religious experience would not contradict the Myth per se, but the doctrine of different brands of religions claim alternate reasons behind the creation of humans, their significance, and the age of the earth.
  2. People want meaning.  The Myth offers no meaning to life.  Of course, the Myth offers no meaning of "meaning" either.  Songbirds sing and dogs wag their tails without having an apparent, well-defined sense meaning.  We, too, can be incredibly happy without having to define the meaning in each moment of our lives. But for those who want it, the responsibility on each individual to define for themselves what is meaningful, and to seek out that meaning in their own lives.  The easiest way to find that meaning is to draw to our "Mythical" evolutionary traits of cooperation and interdependence, as mentioned in point 7 above.  However, many people would prefer to have something outside themselves define that meaning for them.
  3. People want to live forever.  The Myth itself offers no hope of continuing on forever, or or reuniting with lost loved ones.  That makes life bittersweet, as we should appreciate and make the most of each moment and each relationship, because they will not last.  (Although, there are some rather promising discoveries on the horizon in the field of life extension.)
  4. People want justice.  Life isn't fair, and the Myth suggests nothing more.  People don't always get what they deserve, in both the good and the bad senses.  Usually it is beyond our power to right these wrongs in our society, so we would like to take some comfort in knowing that there will be a time of reckoning when people get what they deserve.  Instead, with the Myth, that responsibility falls squarely on us.
  5. There is no explanation of why humans are so apparently superior.  Of course, there are many ways in which it seems that animals are superior to us!  Actually, the Myth does provide for this possibility, but depending on your perspective of how much better humans are than the other animals, by whatever arbitrary scales of measurement you'd like to use, this can make the Myth seem weak.
  6. There is no explanation of why the universe exists.  Indeed, this is true with regard to the Myth itself.  Evolution's Myth doesn't explain its own raw materials, or how the earth was formed, or how the universe came to be.  These origins require other explanations.

The Aftermath
To me, the problems with an Evolution Myth are not problems with the Myth itself.  They are problems beyond the Myth.  Other than the conflicts of doctrinal issues of various faiths, the issue with Evolution as Myth is that it does not do more.  It does not provide answers that we might want.

But not liking a myth doesn't mean that it takes a lot of faith to believe it.  There are many things I don't like, but I still believe, just because those beliefs match up with reality, like the belief that religion is not completely harmless.

Similarly, the Evolution Myth, regardless of whether or not you like it, harmonizes with many apparent facts of life.  Because of its apparent correlation, it does not take much faith at all to believe.  According to Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  NIV
But, as noted in the many points above, we see various correlating evidences of Evolution even beyond fossil records, DNA, etc.  Plus, there is nothing we hope for (in a doctrinal sense) out of Evolution.  So by this definition, it actually takes very little faith at all to believe in the Myth of Evolution.

What Else?
When I read a list like this that someone has put together, I typically come up with things I would add, or things that I thought were not quite right.  So feel free to lay it on me.  Tell me what I've missed, and what I've messed up in this little thought adventure.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Spam Makes Me Smile

There's been an uptick in the comment spam lately, but I don't mind.  Some of it's pretty funny.  Not intentionally, but that's what happens when they use some literal translation from their native language into English.  I bet a master linguist could figure out exactly what language they originate from.  Anyway, I hope you get a giggle from this gibberish:
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Friday, October 5, 2012

The Christian Prophesy Challenge!

It's time to put my money where my (virtual) mouth is, so I officially issue this...

Christian Prophesy Challenge!

And here it is:
Find any one prophesy in the Old Testament of the Bible in which the entire prophesy, considered in its own context, is an accurate depiction of Jesus and/or Christianity.

To the first person to find such a prophesy, I will send a $200 Walmart Gift Card!  How can you be sure that I will?  Well, I know you'll have difficulties trusting an atheist on this, but, believe me, $200 isn't going to break my bank and I'll be glad to send it to you.  I've just become so very disheartened that every prophesy I read seems to be "wrong" for Jesus that I'll be happy to be wrong in this case!

Besides, what have you got to lose by studying the Bible more closely?  ;-)  It should be really easy!  Right?  There are so many prophesies directly referenced in the Gospels.  You just have to play by these rules:
  1. No verse cherry-picking allowed.  You have to use the entire prophesy.  For example, if you reference Psalm 22:18 because the soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothes (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:23-24), then you have to consider all of Psalm 22.  For example, in verses Psalm 22:19-25 if we consider this to be about Jesus, then Jesus was trying to bargain with God, saying that in exchange for God saving Jesus' life (not resurrecting it), he vowed to tell everyone about how great God is.  But Jesus' life was not spared.  Furthermore, Jesus knew it was essential for himself to die and knew that he would be resurrected, so pleading for God to save his life was unrealistic (John 12:27).  So this does not exactly match up with Jesus.  (There are other oddities about this particular Psalm as an entire prophesy, but we'll save that for another time.)
  2. There can't be any contradictory material.  In other words, even if 95% of the prophesy seems to match, but one verse is not accurate, then the whole thing is considered to not match Jesus and/or Christianity.  God should be perfect in His omniscient prophesies, right?
  3. Metaphorical language is subject to the context.  If a literal interpretation of a verse or phrase works within the context of the prophesy, then it is unlikely to have been meant as a metaphor.  This will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but such metaphors will probably not be accepted.
  4. The entire prophesy may be subject to the context of associated prophesies and contemporaneous events.  Often, some language in prophesies is a little ambiguous, so we may need to turn elsewhere in Scripture to resolve its meaning; concentrating on other prophesies and events of the time for the appropriate context.
  5. The prophesy must be already fulfilled.  [This is a late addition to the rules.]  It is a bit difficult to say if a prophesy for the future is accurate, excepting when one prophesy for the future contradicts another prophesy for the future.  So, in most cases we will have to limit ourselves to what was fulfilled through Jesus and what is fulfilled by subsequent Christianity in this great wait for the Second Coming.
  6. I will be the final judge for the contest, but...  I recognize that I have biases.  So if I don't feel as though my case is strong, or if I do feel like yours is, I'll try to bring in some extra council to help me come to a fair judgement.  And if you feel I haven't fully considered your points of view, feel free to prod me into a second opinion.
To enter, simply post a comment citing the prophesy and explain why you think it matches perfectly.  If necessary, go ahead and provide a link or address to another page describing it in detail.  Or, if you need to send me a document, you can do so at

Good luck!

By the way, here is a list of prophesies already addressed as inaccurate in my studies:

Isaiah 7:14Matthew 1:18-25The Messiah would be born of a virgin and called Immanuel (God-With-Us).
Hosea 11:1Matthew 2:14-15God would call His son out of Egypt.
Jeremiah 31:15Matthew 2:17-18Rachel weeping for her children / the Massacre of the Innocents
N/A (Not in the Bible)Matthew 2:23The Messiah would be called a "Nazarene."
Malachi 3:1Mark 1:2, Luke 7:26-27God would send a messenger ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way.  (See also this post about preparing the way.)
Isaiah 40:3-5Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23A voice crying in the desert, making the path straight for God.
Exodus 12Jesus' SacrificeThe Passover was a foreshadowing of the atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus.
Isaiah 9:1-2Matthew 4:15-1Gentiles have seen a great light.
Isaiah 53:4Matthew 8:17The Messiah would take up infirmities and diseases.  (See this detailed study on Isaiah 53.)
Isaiah's Suffering ServantJesus being mistreated, beaten, rejected, etc.God has a Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42, Isaiah 49, Isaiah 50, and Isaiah 53.
Malachi 4:5Matthew 11:13-14The messenger to prepare the way for God would be Elijah, and John the Baptist was Elijah.
Isaiah 42:1-4Matthew 12:18-21Part of Isaiah's Servant prophesies. The Messiah will have God's spirit, will not shout or quarrel, nations will put their hope in him bringing justice, etc.
Isaiah 6:9-10Mark 4:11-12, Luke 8:9-10The Messiah would speak in parables.
JonahMatthew 12:39-40The sign of Jonah.
Psalm 78:2Matthew 13:34-35The Messiah would speak in parables.
Isaiah 61:1-2Luke 4:18-19The Messiah would preach good news to the poor, free prisoners and the oppressed, proclaim the year of God's favor.
Isaiah 29:13Matthew 15:7-9, Mark 7:6-8Pharisees worshiping God only with their mouths, and following the rules of men instead of God's Law.
Daniel 9:24-26Luke 12:54-56The signs and times of God's Kingdom, the timing of the Messiah, and the Messiah's death.
Zechariah 9:9Matthew 21:5, John 12:15Israel's King would humbly ride to them on a donkey's colt.
Isaiah 56:7Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46The Temple will be a house of prayer for all nations.
Psalm 69:9John 2:17Zeal for God would consume the Messiah.
Psalm 110:1Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10-11, Luke 20:17A rejected Jesus would become the cornerstone in God's Kingdom.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Human Sacrifice and the Gods That Call for It

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

"Human sacrifices are one of the principal characteristic traits of Devil-worship..." HOD, P13, Paul Carus
When Carus says this, he means not the worship of the Biblical Devil, but rather a Devil; a type of god who is worshiped and appeased out of fear.  For, as Carus proposes, from fear is the origin of all religions.

Even though Carus is not talking specifically about the Biblical Devil, he doesn't hesitate to bring up how frequently human sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible.  Usually that is in association with worship of other gods, such as Molek in Leviticus 20:2-5.

The most notable Biblical pagan human sacrifice was in 2 Kings 3:  Moab rebelled against the Israelites, but the battle went very poorly for them.  Through Elisha, God had prophesied that the Moabites would be utterly destroyed.  Just as the destruction of the Moabites was nearly guaranteed, the Moabite king sacrificed his firstborn son on the city wall.  It does not mention to which god the son was sacrificed, but it was probably Chemosh (1 Kings 11:33).  Anyway, this sacrificed worked, because afterward the "fury against Israel was great," causing the Israelites to retreat back home!

The Biblical God considered human sacrifice detestable, at least by fire (Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-12).  However, that didn't stop Him from commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, or Jephthah from sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to Him as a way of saying thank you for a battle victory.  And, of course, Jesus was the ultimate human sacrifice.

Carus suggests that:

"Progress in civilisation(sic) led to a modification but not to a direct abolition of human sacrifices." HOD, P12, Paul Carus
I am not so sure.

In this model, human sacrifices come first, and then get changed as the developing society becomes more sensitive to the loss of human life.  He suggests that the modifications come in various forms, such as allowing a chance for the person to escape sacrifice (like in the "sacrifice" of the Native Americans in the previous post) and sometimes:

"... human victims were supplanted by animals, as is indicated by various religious legends. Thus a hind was substituted for Iphigenia and a ram for Isaac." HOD, P13, Paul Carus

However, I am more inclined to believe that human sacrifice was a later invention.  At least, if you don't include killing captured enemies part of human sacrifice.  It seems that sacrifice is fundamentally about, well, sacrifice.  It is giving up something you would desire for yourself: the fruits of the orchard, a ram, etc.  The more you desire it, the more powerful the sacrifice, which is why firstfruits (Exodus 23:19) and perfect livestock (Leviticus 1:3) are preferred.  Following that line of thought, sacrificing of your children would be the pinnacle of reverence for your god; an echelon of piety which would take time to recognize.

In one of the more comically overreaching statements Carus makes, he discusses how cannibalism is the "height of abomination" of Devil-worship, where the partakers gain the attributes of the slain, and then he follows that with:

"The last remnants of the idea that the wrath of the Deity must be appeased by blood, and that we acquire spiritual powers by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the victim still linger with us to-day in the medieval interpretations of certain church dogmas, and will only disappear before the searching light of a fearless and consistent religious reformation." HOD, P13-14, Paul Carus
This is aimed right at Christianity and Jesus saying that you have to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-56).  While there is a hint of truth in it, to tie in ritual cannibalism with Christianity, from where there is no established cannibalistic history, is too much of a reach, even for me.

So I think that Carus goes astray a little in his assessment, but he still has still a lot of good content within his book, so I hope you'll join me as we dig into the historical details of the Devil-worship within different cultures in the coming chapters.

In closing, out this chapter, I'll leave you with Carus' summary view on the evolution of religions.  Note that by evil, he is referring more to adverting natural disaster, defeat in battle, or the wrath of the deity, and may best be thought of in contrast to the good, such as love, peace, tolerance, understanding, generosity, etc.
"We must remember, however, that certain superstitions, at early stages of the religious development of mankind, are as unavoidable as the various errors which science and philosophy pass through in their natural evolution.

"Religion always begins with fear, and the religion of savages may directly be defined as "the fear of evil and the various efforts made to escape evil." Though the fear of evil in the religions of civilised(sic) nations plays no longer so prominent a part, we yet learn through historical investigations that at an early stage of their development almost all worship was paid to the powers of evil, who were regarded with special awe and reverence." HOD, P14, Paul Carus

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Functional Gods of the Natives

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

Savages.  That's what the early European explorers and settlers thought they had found in the native peoples of the Americas.  Their dress and their customs were so far removed their European counterparts that they seemed primitive and uncivilized to the white men.

Paul Carus begins his historical evaluation with cases of relatively recent, community-wide Devil-worship, working on the thesis (as discussed in the prior post) that all religions have their origin in Devil-worship.  That leads to the Devil-worship of the Native Americans.

But what exactly does Carus mean by "Devil?"  That gets tricky.  Most minds familiar with Christianity will envision the Devil as an "evil" being which actively fights against the good.  Sometimes, that is what Carus means as well, but what he is referring to here is just a demon or deity which does not claim to be perfectly moral or good.  At least, that's what I think he meant, or should have meant.

Another part of Carus' thesis is that Devil-worship is just the first stage of religion.  Given enough time, he implies that religions will eventually evolve to God-worship when "the positive power of good is recognised(sic) and man finds out by experience that the good, although its progress may be ever so slow, is always victorious in the end." HOD, P14, Paul Carus  While I can see how propitiation of "devils" could instigate all religions, I have some problems with this part of his thesis.  I don't think that, given enough time, Devil-worship absolutely will progress to God-worship, if we are defining "God" as a perfectly moral and Good.  Instead, I think that these "Devils" may instead get more complex.

Anyway, on to the natives...

In most of the chapter on "Devil Worship," Carus briefly relays accounts of the religious practices of the Native Americans from various historians.  The sum of these accounts is that, while many of the Native Americans did have a belief in a good deity, it was the devilish deity which garnered the most respect and worship.  This builds on his platform that all religions start with Devil-worship.  However, I got a slightly different vibe when I read Carus' longest quoted reference; one from Captain John Smith, one of the primary leaders in the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.

Below is Carus' quoted text from Smith's "A map of Virginia. With a description of the covntrey, etc., written by Captaine Smith, etc. Oxford. Printed by Joseph Barnes. 1612."  I have changed the text only to match up with modern English for easier reading:
"There is yet in Virginia no place discovered to bee so Savage in which the savages have not a religion, Deer, and Bow and Arrows. All things that were able to do them hurt beyond their prevention they adore with their kind of divine worship; as the fire, water, lightning, thunder, our ordinance pieces (guns), horses, etc. But their chief God they worship is the Devil. Him they call Oke, and serve him more of fear than love. They say they have conference with him and fashion themselves as near to his shape as they can imagine. In their Temples they have his image evil favoredly carved and then painted and adorned with chains, copper, and beads, and covered with a skin in such manner as the deformity may well suit with such a God." (Original ed., p. 29.)
Carus had many great insights and explorations in his book (as time will show as my series continues), but here I think he is taking Smith's words a little too literally, not accounting for Smith's limited perspective.  Smith's take on the Native American's "divine worship" of powerful items like the white mans' guns and horses should have been tempered with their appreciation for fire and water, both of which they had long known before the white man.  In all likelihood, the Native American's regarded them as gifts from the gods due to their great strength and utility.

Also, we can see that Smith's view was directly tainted by his Christianity, saying not that the natives worship some strange god, or even a demon, but rather nothing less than the Devil (in the Christian sense of the word).  Smith notes that the natives worship more out of fear than love.  Like most modern Christians, Smith seems unaware of the God of the Old Testament, and even some of the content of the New Testament, where God commanded His followers to fear Him over twice as often as He told them to love Him.

As the account continues, we find the "human sacrifice" which provides the direct association with Devil-worship.  I've added the bold emphasis...
"In some part of the Country, they have yearly a sacrifice of children. Such a one was at Quiyoughcohanock, some 10 miles from James Town, and thus performed.

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between 10 and 15 years of age, they painted white. Having brought them forth, the people spent the [morning] in dancing and singing about them with rattles.

"In the afternoon, they put those children to the root of a tree. By them, all the men stood in a guard, every one having a Bastinado (a stick or club)  in his hand, made of reeds bound together. [These men] made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed 5 young men to fetch these children. So every one of the five went through the guard, to fetch a child, each after other by turns: the guard fearlessly beating them with their Bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all; defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows they pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while,the women weep and cry out very passionately; providing mats, skins, moss, and dry wood, as things fitting their children's funerals.

"After the children were thus passed the guard, the guard tore down the tree, branches and boughs, with such violence, that they rent the body and made wreathes for their heads, or bedecked their hair with the leaves. What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley, as dead: where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance (the chief) being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered that the children were not all dead, but [only] that the Oke or Devil did suck the blood from their left breast [of those], who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead. But the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any: and of these, were made their Priests and Conjurers.

"This sacrifice they held to be so necessary, that if they should omit it, their Oke or Devil and all their other Quiyoughcosughes (which are their other Gods) would let them have no Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, he would make great slaughter amongst them.

"To divert them from this blind idolatry, many used their best endeavors, chiefly with the Werowances of Quiyoughcohanock; whose devotion, apprehension, and good disposition much exceeded any in those Countries: who though we could not as yet prevail with them to forsake [their] false Gods, yet this he did believe, that our God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows; and many times did send to the President, at James Town, men with presents, entreating them to pray to his God for rain, for his Gods would not send him any.

"And in this lamentable ignorance do these poor souls sacrifice themselves to the Devil, not knowing their Creator." (Original ed., pp. 32, 33, 34.)
Now, I'm no anthropologist, but I play one on the internet.  What I see here in Smith's account looks to me more like a type of coming-of-age transformation ceremony than a human sacrifice.  Young boys (not yet men)...painted white (like bones)...young men protect the boys (building bonding and group cohesion, but also symbolizing a transitional agent from the underworld of death)...women weeping as though the boys have died (morning the loss of the child' childhood)...boys thrown on a heap (symbolizing death)...nine months later, the come back to the tribe (the symbolic deaths followed by symbolic rebirth via nine months).

As for the "sacrifice," it doesn't appear that the ceremony is really a sacrificial ceremony.  The Werowance explained that the children were not actually killed, although sometimes ("by lot") some boy or boys did die.  He explained that this was Oke's doing, but such a perspective on the loss is similar to what we find in Job 1:21 "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." NIV

As for the sentiment that this ceremony was necessary to satisfy their gods, or else they risk having no "Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, [Oke] would make great slaughter amongst them," this is also in line with the type of worship we find in the Old Testament, where God would curse the Israelites with much worse than Oke's threat if they failed to obey all of His Law, which included ceremonies.

Of  course, maybe these similarities are just evidence that Jehovah at one time in distant history was more of a "Devil" than a God.  Carus would later make that case with other verses...

On a final note, we see more of Smith's tainted perspective in calling the native religion "blind idolatry."  Clearly he is unable to see the parallels between their religion and his own.  But even beyond that, he does not understand their religion.  It is more complex and more functional than the monotheism he is used to.  This can be seen as he observes that the natives thought that "[the Biblical] God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows."

What Smith didn't realize was that they were speaking functionally.  The natives had different gods with different spheres of influence.  They would have thought the white man's God superior only because the God of the Bible allegedly created and controls everything.  So Smith and company didn't make many converts of the natives because their gods already fulfilled the necessary functional roles.  The Biblical God, while more grand in scope, was superfluous to the natives.

When you have a functioning system, there is little impetus for change, and so I think that it is unlikely that all religions would ultimately yield a purely "good" God on a long enough timeline.  A capricious, human-like god, showing both good and bad qualities, could persist on indefinitely, especially given that such behavior mimics the realities of life often all too well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Like an Ape Out of Water

Thinking back to the 2012 Summer Olympics, two things stand out in my mind:  One, it was amazing to me to see just how specialized the body forms were in order to excel at certain sports.  I've seen that in other Olympic games, but for some reason in this year's competition it seemed even more prevalent.  Two, in the majority of the swimming competitions, the participants have mastered what I would call a "dolphin body kick" where, from the mid-to-lower back and on out to the toes, the athletes would propel themselves with a rhythmic waving motion in their latter half.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have always been curious about why we look so different from our evolutionary close relatives.  Why are we bipedal when they are not?  Why are we naked when they have fur?

Back when evolution's implications were being explored, scientists of the time came up with an answer to those questions:  We moved from the jungles to the savannah.  We needed to stand to see prey and watch for predators in the tall grasses.  The heat of the savannah and other factors helped to make our fur coats unnecessary, so they were shed in an evolutionary process.  Etc.

As archeologist dug into our past, they discovered a big problem with that theory:  The fossilized plants found with the ancient hominid skeletons were not from the savannah!  However, academia has become a little too attached to the previous theory. It has become a faith.  Even though there is this glaring problem with the theory, they still cling to it.   They use it as a foundation for teaching and as a springboard for their questions in interpreting archeological findings rather than embracing the void of no theory, or exploring other possible options...

NetFlix has recently incorporated "TED Talks" into their library, and one particular series of talks called "Ancient Clues" discussed this little big issue.  A delightful elderly lady scientist, named Elaine Morgan, discussed a theory which offered to fill in the gaps and step past the savannah issue.  It's a theory from back in the early 1960's which never got any traction, nor apparently was it ever properly refuted.  It goes like this:

What if we had aquatic ancestors in our evolutionary family tree?  Aquatic chimps?  Strange, yes, but there are several factors which we seem to share with other mammals of aquatic ancestry.  I'll list a few to entice you to check out the talk for yourself:

  1. Except for one subterranean mole in South America, all "naked" mammals have an evolutionary aquatic ancestor.
  2. Only mammals with aquatic ancestors can consciously control their breathing.  (This is critical for our ability to speak.)
  3. Only mammals with aquatic ancestors have a layer of fat under the skin, like we have but chimps do not.

If you have an interest in evolution science, you should definitely watch this.  Also, if you can appreciate how the beliefs of even scientists can morph into a system resembling religion, you should definitely watch this.

This may not be the correct answer to the question of why we are so different than other primates, but we owe it to ourselves to honestly explore this theory as a possibility.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Seeing the Light on Vacation

My best friend Wasam (a Thai name) and I just got back from an epic road trip: two weeks, six states, two countries, six national parks.  It was a truly excellent experience, and something we'll both be cherishing in our memories for years to come.

At one point, Wasam said:
"Dude, everything we need is in this car right now."
He was referring to more than just what we needed for the trip.  He meant that we had the necessities for life, and a good one at that...  No fancy house.  No widescreen TV.  No junk.  Just a little clothing, some shelter (tent), some food, and a way to see the world.

The simple life really is a good life, but I don't want to bore you with a trite platitude.  Like many things in life, it is the process, the journey, the story which makes matters more interesting and enriching.  This story starts about fifteen years ago, with roots centuries deep.

One stereotype of mainstream Asian culture is an interest in displaying social status.  That's far from being unique to Asia, I know, but it has taken a special prevalence there, and has been made manifest through an infatuation with product brands in our modern era...

Nike.  Gucci.  Even McDonalds.  Wasam has often remarked how expensive it was in Thailand to buy Baskin Robbins; even a single scoop of their ice cream in Thailand would cost the Thai equivalent of a full meal for up to two people from a street vendor.  (In fact, Wasam has said that it is so cheap and easy to get food from the various street vendors that often families to choose that option over making dinner themselves.  But the quality is relatively high.  Imagine flipping the perspective to where a standard restaurant meal is served at Western fast food speed and cost, while McDonalds is a meal that people might save for a special occasion, and you'll get the gist.)

So fifteen years ago, when Wasam and I first met, he was very brand focused, but there was a small, quiet part of him that didn't want to be.  Perhaps it was from the example set by his parents coming through poverty to a position of financial comfort while maintaining some humility.  Perhaps it was just a growing repugnance with superficial cultural contexts.  I can't help but wonder if that's part of what attracted him to me as a friend.

As I look back on my closest friendships, I realize that there is usually one or more strengths that they have in areas where I am weak.  It seems that I want friends who will challenge me to grow and think in different perspectives more than I want friends who are just fun to hang around with.  And it seems like there is reciprocation.  My strengths are often weaknesses in my friends, so through the years we have grown stronger together.

Fifteen years ago, almost to a fault, I had practically no brand affinity, especially when compared to Wasam.

In the time that has passed, I've gained an appreciation for design and craftsmanship which had been sorely lacking.  I am willing to pay more when it makes sense to pay more, up to a practical limit.  Meanwhile, Wasam has nearly conquered the materialist-elitism instilled in him by his cultural upbringing in Thailand; perhaps ironically doing so in a country which is widely considered the most materialistic on earth; the United States.

Watching your friends and loved ones grow through the years is truly one of life's great rewards.  Challenging yourself to grow is one of life's most worthwhile endeavors.  If you need to gain perspective on where things are, what is important, and what needs to change, may I suggest a long drive with a good friend?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Origin of Religion

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

How did religions get started?  That's a challenging question to answer.  I've had thoughts of its answer along the lines of this:

  1. Errant pattern recognition led to superstition.  (When I do X, then Y occurs sometime thereafter.)
  2. Superstition led to errant agent detection.  (Some controlling force or some invisible being makes Y happen when I do X.)
  3. Agent detection led to empathetic reasoning.  (If Y is a good result, the controlling power likes it when I do X.  If Y is a bad result, the controlling power doesn't like it when I do X.)
  4. Empathetic reasoning led to attempts to manipulate or influence the controlling power.  (The controlling power likes when I do X, so I will do it again.  Or, the controlling power doesn't like when I do X, so I will try doing Z instead.)
  5. The techniques used to influence the controlling power get formalized/systematized, and a new religion is born.

This is a simplistic model, and there are many other factors to consider in order to broaden the religion from being that of just one person or one family to being the common practice of an entire community, but it seems like the basic mechanics are sound.  I could see religion going either positive (a "good" controlling power) or negative (a "evil" controlling power), or both.

Carus presented a different theory, one which was challenging for me to accept:

"Demonolatry, or Devil-worship, is the first stage in the evolution of religion, for we fear the bad, not the good.... 
....Devil-worship naturally precedes the worship of a benign and morally good Deity. There are at least many instances in which we can observe a transition from the lower stage of Devil-worship to the higher stage of God-worship, and there seems to be no exception to the rule that fear is always the first incentive to religious worship." HOD, P6, Paul Carus

Does religion always begin with fear?  We'll take a closer look at that theory as we dive into the History of the Devil.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

M - Reprogramming Stoplights

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

So, you may remember that in my second Hear In session, I had started to use a mental picture of a stoplight as opposed to mentally saying the notations of Hear In (green), Gone (yellow), and Hear Rest (red).  This helped alleviate the issue of my mental noting interfering with listening to the other voices in my head.  Well, apparently this has a side effect:

Today, on my way out of town, I hit several actual traffic red lights.  Usually, I am anxious when this happens, because I thrive in efficiency, and red lights are about as inefficient as you can get!  This time, as I was sitting at the red lights, a feeling of rest washed over me as I tied that red light to a mental calmness and rest.  Shinzen did mention that meditation reprograms your brain...  :-)

By the way, from now on, my meditation posts will be more sporadic, and in much larger increments of sessions.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesus or Billy Mays?

Well, it's happened again.  Some lucky bloke has found their very own manifestation of Jesus, this time in a tree stump.  Naturally I am skeptical, but this time I think I have even more reason to be so.  I think the image looks a lot more like Billy Mays to me...

Unless...  no... it couldn't be... was Billy Mays the reincarnation of Jesus?  :-)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

M - Focus on Hear - Drill Class

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

All of the meditation on my own that I have been doing was in preparation for the class I took today, and, boy, was I glad I did!  Today's class had very, very little instruction.  It was guided meditation, but that guidance was minimal.  There was little methodology learning, but it was still somewhat valuable.  It was roughly the equivalent of taking an exercise class where the instructor assumes that you know how to do each exercise.  Shinzen was just the motivational teacher keeping you focused and moving you on to the next exercise at the appropriate time.

This class definitely kept me meditating in longer sessions than I had done before; an hour and half session followed by another hour-long session.  In between that was a break/self-practice time which, like yesterday, Shinzen encouraged you to meditate in motion, like when walking around or doing simple tasks, in order to take baby steps in extending Mindfulness into the rest of your life.

Anyway, for me, I impressed myself with how well I held the meditative, straight-back posture this time.  While I was in the posture groove, I experienced an odd sensation that I have sometimes when I am drifting off to sleep.  That sensation is the unreal perception of the body shrinking into nothingness while only the head remains.  It was pretty fun to have that experience while I was fully awake and aware!

I think this odd sensation has to do with continuous, unchanging stimulation of the nerves.  I think that they get so used to the feeling the same impulses that the brain starts to accept it as normal, like the ambient temperature.  My guess is that this same tweak of perception could be useful in pain management.

As for hearing-focused meditation, I have been getting better at it, definitely.  I can turn on accentuated hearing very easily, and that elevated sensitivity lasts well after the meditation session.  Although, I think I could still use a lot more work in hearing the voices in my head.  :-)

In the break, I tried meditating while washing dishes, and I actually had some moderate success.

M - Focus on Feel - Beginner's Class

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

Yesterday afternoon I had my first guided meditation session ever.  Shinzen led the session via conference call with at least thirty other participants, including some from as far away as India.

It was... interesting.  The session was all about bodily sensations.  Just like with the hearing-based meditation I've been doing on my own, this was broken out into Feel Rest, Feel In, Feel Out, and Feel Flow in similar, but slightly tweaked definitions.

Feel Rest was (obviously) feeling bodily rest.  This was very natural to me, and not just because I'm lazy.  :-)

Feel In was trying to sense bodily response which had emotional origins.  For example, if you think of a joke, you may feel yourself smile, or if you think of a conflict you are having, you may feel yourself clenching your fists.  I didn't have much of this type of sensation going on, except that there was a little discomfort in my knee at different times in the session, which caused me to tense up the muscles in my leg.

Feel Out was defined as pretty much any other bodily sensation; temperature of your skin, clothing against your skin, aches, itches, etc.  Just like in the Hear Out session, concentrating on Feel Out definitely increased awareness of a bevy of sensations which usually get ignored or pre-processed by your brain as being unimportant.

Feel Flow involved focusing on the dynamic changes in any of the above three sensation categories.  This was the most interesting one to me.  It's rare, at least for me, to drill down into a particular bodily feeling with that level of detail.  When I started focusing on the sensations, I could definitely sense a "rhythm" of dynamic flow in many of them.  For example, one of the most interesting things I noticed while studying Flow is that those annoying little itchy sensations that do not usually stop until you scratch them are so seductive to scratching because the sensation oscillates.  It is less like someone sticking a pin in you and holding it there, but instead more like someone repeatedly sticking a pin in you in the same location.  The nerves didn't seem to fire continuously, but rather cyclically, so that it was a new annoying sensation each time!

I was surprised that during a self-directed part of the session, Shinzen encouraged people to walk around and meditate at the same time, or to trigger and monitor Feel In response by reading or watching TV.  This seems to be at least one of the end-goals of the Mindfulness meditation methodology; that you can get to the point of living life with full awareness.  I knew that, but I was pleasantly surprised that he initiate the process of daily-life-integration on the first session.

M - Hear Flow - 2

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

Last night I did an abbreviated session of Hear Flow to get one more practice in before class.  It was a beautiful evening, so I had the windows open, and I could hear the lovely cricket songs ebbing and, well, flowing.  That's primarily what I focused on, drawn into the oscillatory nature of their chirps.  That is definitely much better than focusing on the nuances of the refrigerator motor noise!  It was time well spent.

I think I've got a firm handle on the fundamentals now, and I am ready for the Focus on Hear class later today.

Friday, August 10, 2012

M - Hear Rest - 2

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

I tried Hear Rest for the second time today with decent success.  It's funny, but in the Hear In sessions where I try to listen for mental chat, the thoughts seem poised on springs with hair triggers, ready to spring into my inner auditorium at the slightest provocation.  However, in the Hear Rest sessions so far, where you are focusing on both mental and physical silences, it seems my thoughts are more rested and secure in being tucked away in quiet places.  Obviously there is a psychological aspect of expectation affecting my experience; as if listen for chatter make chatter, while listening for silence creates silence.

Another interesting factor is, according to the Five Ways manual, the physical silence you listen for here is not necessarily true silence, but rather auditory rest, and even suggests that some people purposefully listen to some kind of white noise to achieve the physical sound rest.  So I wonder if it may be more appropriate to say that, in the physical realm, you are really just trying to focus on when you loose focus and attachment to sounds.  I don't know...

I tried envisioning the stoplight-style visual noting again.  It went much better this time, as I did far less impulsive mental-color-naming than I had on the first try.  This seems to really work for me.  Also, I forgot to mention regarding the first stoplight experiment that, besides mentally calling out colors, my eyes also impulsively moved to the correct virtual location as if looking at an actual giant stoplight.  I did a lot less of that this time around too.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow, when there will be a guided beginners session by Shinzen focusing on the "Feel" methods of meditation.  I suspect that a lot of my questions about the Hear options will be answered with parallel guidance on the Feel methods.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

M - Hear In - 2

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

In my second attempt at Hear In, I again started to have a little trouble with the mental noting perpetuating mental noting ("Hear rest, hear rest, hear rest, ..."), so I altered the instructions to work with a different domain: I tried imagining a stoplight.  Noting "Hear In" was a green light.  "Gone" was a yellow light.  "Hear Rest" was a red light.  This partially worked.  I say partially because I would often mentally say the light color instinctively as I was imaging the light.  However, I did not string these colors into chains of noting.

Just as before, my thoughts seemed "anxious" to be born, as if I was trying to walk on "idea eggs" without breaking their fragile shells and releasing them into my mental space.

Overall, I did not notice any improvement from the last time, and it seemed like several more thoughts ran through my head than before.  I was also having some difficulty with my posture this time.  I'm not expecting to be able to levitate after just a few sessions.  This is a longer learning process for sure.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

M - Hear Out - 2

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

I read through Shinzen's "POSTURE-PEDIA" paper yesterday.  Actually, it was created by one of his staff members, so it's not technically Shinzen's, but close enough.

Anyway, it discussed some of the various postures which are used for meditation, and hinted at monks performing meditation while standing, and even while walking.  I'm no monk, but I decided to up my difficulty on my second attempt at the Hear Out method.

This time I sat in a place where there was guaranteed to be some random house noise.  I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew for this second attempt.  My house is a lot more noisy than I realized!  Clocks, refrigerators, DH units, AC, etc.

There were so many noises that it was difficult to really focus on any particular sound to hear when it stopped.  However, I am not sure if that is really a problem or not at this stage.  I've gotten the impression in the literature that Shinzen stresses equanimity, so I don't think I should worry too much about not being able to sharply focus on all sounds simultaneously.

Despite all of the noise, I could still hear some of the more faint sounds, a sure sign of an increased acuity.  I could hear one of my cats breathing from about seven feet away.  (She was sleeping, and, not quite snoring, but certainly breathing heavy.)  Even more significant was that I could hear the "noise" in my ears that I normally only hear when the world is silent around me.

This time I had a bit more chatter in my head than before.  I think it was because I had read something which stimulated my mind right before the session. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

M - Hear Flow - First Try

This is part of my meditation journal. See the first post for additional details.

Hear Flow combines aspects of Hear Out, Hear In, and possibly Hear Rest depending on the circumstances.  Only instead of focusing on the presence of physical or mental sound, instead you focus on the dynamic nature of that sound; how it changes.  That change is the "flow."  This is the last new technique which falls under the umbrella of the Focus on Hear super-method which I hope to take a class in this coming weekend.

I chose a spot in the house where I was sure to hear dynamic sound, but I may have overloaded myself on the first try.  I could hear my laptop fan, the refrigerator, and dehumidifiers in the basement, plus any other random noise that would occur.  So there were times when I it seemed that the real "flow" was my drift of focus from one sound to the other when my brain got too used to the subtle rhythm of whatever motor I was hearing.

The time did seem to pass quickly, yet I felt more anxious in getting the meditation done on this method.

During the mediation, I did have one moment where my brain conjured up a part of one of my favorite "ethereal" songs.  It's funny, but not surprising, how that connection was made.

I hope to get another practice in on these four methods before the class.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Belly of the Beast

Have you ever wondered what's inside the belly of the Beast?  Apparently, it's a mix of coffee, chocolate, and ice cream...  ;-)