Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!


Adulterers for Marriage!

June 29, 2008

No wayFrom the “What, Seriously?!” file comes this incredible story of Congressional hubris: ten Republican Senators are co-sponsoring the usual federal “marriage protection” balderdash. That, and the complete lack of explanation of how banning some marriages would in any way help preserve or enhance other marriages, is nothing surprising.

What is surprising is who the Republicans tapped to headline this doomed bill: habitual prostitute client David Vitter (R-LA) and suspected old-school gay cruiser Larry Craig (R-ID).

If this isn’t all just an elaborate joke… then it’s a wonderfully, wonderfully amusing world we live in.


Obama Seal Gone: Nation’s Sanity Still in Question

June 24, 2008

The Obama campaign has rather wisely dropped the use of their latest logo, after much mockery.

Me, I’m left saddened and embarrassed for the media commentators who couldn’t resist piling on this story, and the many many people who took this non-issue seriously.

Political commentator Larry Sabato gets it right on the first try:

“The press corps adopts a subtext for each candidate,” Sabato told The Examiner. “Daddy Bush was ‘a nice guy but out of touch.’ Bill Clinton was ‘smart but randy.’ Bob Dole was ‘heroic but too old.’ Gore was ‘brilliant but a fibber and a bore.’ Dubya was ‘pleasant but dumb.’”

He added: “Obama’s subtext is rapidly becoming ‘charismatic but arrogant.’”

None of these characterizations of any of these politicians was built on honest, accurate, or comprehensive appraisal of any of these men. Few of the claimed traits (except maybe for Clinton being “randy” and Dole being “old”) actually seem more characteristic of the men in question than they are for the others. Instead, they’re built out of an accretion of heavily interpreted, and often factually challenged, fluff pieces. Of which this seal case was the perfect, almost paradigmatic, example.

This is one more reason I’m far more cynical about voters (more in the aggregate than any individual) than I am about politicians, or even the media. It’s ultimately voter behavior that drives how politicians act, react, and how they present themselves. It’s voter demand that favors schoolyard psychoanalyzing for their election coverage instead of actual policy debates.

Voters get legitimately frustrated and cynical about our political system. But the political system has just as much cause to be frustrated with voters right back.


Almost Final Word on Obama Seal Nonsense

June 22, 2008

I honestly haven’t had a lot of interest in doing much election commentary here at the Bad Idea Blog, but there’s always just so much stupid flying around that it’s often hard to help myself.

Bland... but outrageous apparentlyTake this latest manufactroversy: the Obama campaign has been sporting a new logo, which sports elements of the standard U.S. Seal designs.

Can you guess what happens next? Of course: people immediately declare that it’s a bastardization of the Presidential Seal. And that particular Seal, something no one gave any thought to two days ago, has suddenly become one of the most sacred and inviolable images in the national consciousness. Holy Arrogance Batman! cries one anti-Obama website.

Even if it was actually a version of the Presidential Seal, I’d still be at a loss as to exactly how it would be arrogant: campaigns remix all sorts of patriotic iconography for their materials all the time. But, in fact, it’s not even that.

SighFolks, if you want to style yourself the proud defenders of the honor of U.S. icons from the petty purposes of politicians, perhaps you should learn more about them first. The symbolic elements on Obama’s logo are not, in fact, unique to the Presidential Seal. They are, in fact, known as the Great Seal of the United States, and it’s found all over the place. It’s on various Congressional Seals as well, as well as various government agencies. It’s stamped on most official U.S. documents. (And no, desperate defenders, a non-forged non-reproduction of similar elements is not a violation of federal law, as some have claimed)

And it gets even more ridiculous. The Drudgereport has headlined the logo as “Obama Changes U.S. Presidential Seal…” Can you get any more ridiculous than that (yes, you can, for instance: John A. Davison)? Well, sorry to deflate the hew and cry, but the Presidential Seal has not been “changed.” It’s still exactly the same as it was as far as I can tell.

This is just yet another example of political pareidolia: people hyped up on campaign crack who inevitably fit every single news tidbit into the same caricature of already chosen candidate of their ire.

You see, the logo isn’t, can’t possibly be just some of the standard sorts of US iconography used and remixed a million different ways on lots of campaign materials. It couldn’t even just be a seal similar to the Great Seal. No no: it’s THE Presidential seal, and bastardized by Obama’s fabled ego.

From the way these people go on about it, it’s as if they imagined Obama personally stole an official seal a trip to the White House, cut it up with scissors, scrawled all over it, and spray-painted it blue.

Folks, that’s not even remotely how campaigns work. Here’s pretty much the spectrum of where these sorts of things usually come from:

1) Whatever random Democratic design firm Obama’s campaign employs is tasked with coming up with a new logo. They, a bunch of random folks in a boardroom with a whiteboard, sit around brainstorming, pump out a few clunkers, and campaign people eventually reject most of them, liking bits of others. At the end of the process, they end up with the one everyone hates the least. And we’re off.

2) The campaign goes more grassroots: it needs a new logo, and fast, and HQ scrambles. Some random teenager “hey, I’m pretty good with photoshop!” and whips this up. The campaign, or even the candidate pats them on the head, and says “uh, thanks kid!” And we’re off.

But of course, none of that sort of inoffensive everyday nonsense fits easily into the “arrogance” narrative.

I can’t wait until this election is over, and the collective IQ of the country shoots back up to normal.


FDA to Crack Down on Phony Cancer Cures?

June 17, 2008

Apparently the FDA has decided to start targeting internet businesses that have been making bogus medical claims about alt-med cancer cures. If so, it’s about time. I’m not against adults being allowed to imbibe whatever they want to believe will help cure them. I’d counsel strongly, strongly against it, but I don’t think it should be against the law. Companies, however, that prey on desperate folks like this deserve little mercy.

The letters criticized unproven claims made about these products including the ability to “destroy the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells,” and the power to “neutralize” carcinogens. One product’s Web site had a testimonial claiming it had cured a patient’s skin cancer in three days, according to one of the letters.

I’m not even sure what “the enzyme on DNA responsible for cancer cells” is supposed to mean, exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who wrote it has no idea either. And that’s precisely what’s so screwed up about this entire market. While I’m sure some part of these sellers are sincerely convinced that their powders, chemicals, and rubs have some sort of cancer-fighting powers, they don’t actually know that they do. They believe. Alternative medicine is nothing more than medicine that hasn’t been vetted or tested to see if it actually works.

And in this context, that’s no better than handing someone a gun and telling them that it isn’t loaded… when they haven’t actually bothered to check. As good ole’ Abe Lincoln once said:

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.


The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


You Pay, They Pray: National Day of Exploiting the Government to Promote Sectarian Christianity

May 1, 2008

Today is the National Day of Prayer, in which our country seems to assume that religious people are incapable of deciding on their own when and how and with whom to pray without the direction and support of a worldly government.

Via Pz Myers comes word of exactly the sort of thing that happens when secular power gets involved in the promotion of religion: inevitably, only certain religions need apply:

They are also required to only allow Christians to run the show: “I commit that [National Day of Prayer] activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend.”

Auldrich has remained true to her pledge. “It’s a Judeo-Christian observance, and people of other faiths who ask about participating are encouraged to set aside their own day of prayer,” Auldrich told This Week Online in 2006. In other words, if you are not an evangelical, you can go hold your worship somewhere else.

Somehow, religion in our country managed to limp along until President Truman officially declared a National Day of Prayer. Phew! But it seemed that religion was still in such bad shape that it eventually also needed legislative action in the form of Ronald Reagan’s more permanent Day of Prayer solution.

Happily, this must alleviated the problem for most religions. But, apparently, evangelical Christianity is still in such dire straits that it needs some extra-special head-patting attention from Caesar in order to get on with its faith business.

Jews on First says the true meaning of the Day of Prayer has been lost. “What began as President Truman’s declaration of a National Prayer Day for all Americans is now excluding and dividing us on religious lines,” the group said.

Seriously though: why would anyone have ever expected anything different from anything involving the political process? As the founders realized, the practice of government is all about factions fighting for worldly power. It is a process that is both inevitably corrupting and rather obviously unnecessary to the free exercise of religion.

Congressional nonsense on the order of things like National Broccoli Week is silly enough (as the first President Bush rightly realized) without the government presuming to have any role to play in religious matters as well.


Finally: My Own Expelled Review Extravaganza

April 27, 2008

So, I went to see Premise Media’s Expelled. I paid my way (though matinée), sat alone in an empty theater, and took notes. And now it’s finally time to parse things for your pleasure.

Just as a framing device, I’ll pose some questions as a way to setup and organize my thoughts about various aspects of the film.

I should also clarify at the outset that I’m going to be treating figures who speak unopposed throughout the movie, people like Steven Meyer, David Berlinski, and so on, as if they speak for the film. I think, given how the film played out, this is perfectly fair. They are in some ways more the voice of the film than Stein, who basically is there to nod along and agree with them, or prompt them with leading questions. Indeed, aside from the bookend footage of Stein traveling to meet them or speaking at Pepperdine, I could just as easily imagine the film’s credits listing Berlinski, Meyer, Sternberg, and others as the opinionated hosts interviewing Ben Stein and trying to convince him of their position.

Anyhow, off we go:

Read the rest of this entry »


Sternberg Was Not Expelled By Big Science: More on Ben Stein’s Movie Misrepresentations

April 18, 2008

In honor of Expelled’s release, it’s really worth taking another long hard look at one of its key cases: the supposed destruction that rained down upon Dr. Richard Sternberg for publishing an article supporting Intelligent Design in a systematics journal. Since the crux of the film’s case (and the claims that even movie reviewers which hated the film bought into, is the idea that academics are wrongly persecuted merely for being open-minded) is that we’re living in another dogmatic Inquisition where merely questioning the scientific orthodoxy is career suicide, you’d think a little more attention would be given to seeing whether these claims really hold up to scrutiny.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches on the Culture Wars has written a phenomenal article covering the controversy over at eSkeptic. The content covers much of what Expelled Exposed’s section on Sternberg does, but in much more detail.

The Discovery Institute makes a tepid response to the later, and you know what? It’s a good one for what it needs to do: which is simply to sound plausible at first. You read through it, and it sounds like it has some really strong points, and as long as you stop there, maybe you’ll think you’ve done your part, heard from both sides, and maybe split the difference.

Unfortunately, Ed Brayton is still around and kicking, and lays bare just how deceptive this additional defense of Sternberg’s ephemeral martyrdom is as well.


The 4th Wave of Creationism: Guerrillas for God

April 5, 2008

As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.

With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.

Read the rest of this entry »


Creationism is Back Out of the Closet In Expelled! Movie

April 2, 2008

Motive Marketing, the outfit that was so successful at convincing churches around the country to buy up Passion of the Christ paraphernalia like crazy, is going into full gear to promote Ben Stein’s Expelled! movie.

While their breathless emails warn of dastardly “eblasts to their [Darwinists'] people encouraging them to highjack our efforts to promote EXPELLED,” most of our side of things is just sort of watching in amusement at the sheer clumsiness of trying to promote intelligent design as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution… while gesturing wildly at the Bible at nearly every turn.

Here’s what I mean, from one of their “please spread the word and badger lots of people into coming to this movie” emails:

STUDENT EVANGELISM: Thus far science doesn’t specifically identify the CREATOR. Once your students take their friends to see EXPELLED, the question will be “so if ID is true, then WHO is this Intelligent Designer?”. Our friends at EVANGELISM EXPLOSION are offering training to equip your students in sharing their faith.

(Am I the only one who finds evangelism “explosion” a little bit creepy, and/or gross?)

And in case you just so happen to be a pastor at a church looking to preach a sermon on the totally scientific issue of intelligent design: do they have just the powerpoint slides for you! (Yes, seriously)

You have to feel a little sorry for Intelligent Design fans who have spent so much time trying to insist that their movement is all about suppressed science, rather than trying to please Jesus.

But not that sorry.


PZ Myers Finds an Expelled! Party He Can Crash: Gonzo Creationist Call Outs

March 28, 2008

What if you held an on-message conference call to promote your movie, and everybody came?

Well, the producers of Expelled did just that, and amongst everybody was the last person they wanted to hear from: PZ Myers. Myers listened to them go on and on, but when they started claiming that no one had ever “addressed the content of the movie,” he couldn’t let that stand, and he spoke up and jumped all over them.

Now, this sort of thing isn’t quite my MO, but in this case, I’m with Myers all the way. The Expelled producers have been presenting themselves as brave truth-tellers just looking for a debate, but in reality they’ve been hiding in a tightly controlled bubble of evangelical adoration and press releases. They deserve to get called out on this hypocrisy. I’ve been trying to call them out on this cowardice for some time.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or nearly ANY science-friendly blog that’s covered this movie has seen countless posts addressing the claims Stein and his cohorts make in this movie. We’ve covered all of their subjects in FAR far more detail than they have. And we’ve seen almost nothing in return. It’s the standard creationist crackup: they throw out a huge list of plausible sounding but ultimately cynically false claims and then can’t be bothered to stick around and seriously defend them. Instead, they just rush on to the next venue and repeat the same stuff all over again as if no one had ever pointed out their duplicity.

For a concrete example, just compare and contrast something for me. Here’s PZ Myers objecting to the film’s Darwin = Hitler hokum and one of Stein’s rambling anti-Darwin blogs. Here’s the response from the producers.

Who is dodging “substance” here? Myers takes their arguments to pieces, specifically and directly. He’s certainly not nice about it, but he doesn’t dodge their claims, he cuts right into them. Their response? Not to address his points. Not to defend their arguments. Instead they spend thousands of words hinting about the “thought police” and making fun of Myers for actually spending time responding to their harmless little posts!

We’ll see how long they can keep up this little game. We’ll see how long they can keep ignoring the arguments of their critics and hopping from one right-wing think-tank ego-strokefest to another. We’re waiting.

Update: Rebecca over at SkepChick has the audio of the conference call in question.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers