We Can’t Control Ourselves but We can Control Others?


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Do we have free will?  I don’t have anything more to offer as far as evidence.  But I do think it is clear that morality and our justice system is a complete flop if we don’t have free will.   Most proponents of determinism agree that, if they are correct, we are not morally responsible/culpable for our actions.  But they still might believe there is a right and wrong way to act.    So, they don’t completely abandon hope of morality or a rational justice system.


In my opinion determinism allows only a crippled view of morality.  It doesn’t matter what direction morality points us we are on a train going wherever we are going and we can’t get off anyway.  Our hope for a rational justice system would also seem to rely on dumb luck.    How might our meta-ethical views concerning determinism impact our criminal justice system?


Traditionally criminal laws were grounded on four different notions, vengeance, retribution, deterrence and/or rehabilitation.   Retribution has replaced vengeance, although sometimes people fail to draw a distinction between the two.   I am not aware of anyone who believes in hard determinism but still maintains we should keep retribution as a grounds for our criminal justice system.  Retribution is the most important aspect of our criminal justice system but that will be the topic of another post.  Here, let’s consider the claim that even if determinism is true we can still pass laws for deterrence or rehabilitation purposes.


For example, Sam Harris says if you are a determinist like him:   “We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)”



He like many determinists agree retribution is out.  But he claims we can still hope to achieve two other goals of our criminal justice system – rehabilitation and deterrence.   Deterrence is the idea that we can prevent people from committing crimes if they think undesirable things will happen to them as a result of those crimes.  So we can pass laws with punishments that are unpleasant and thus we make it less likely people will commit crimes.    Rehabilitation, at base, is the notion we can do things to criminals such that they will act in a way we want in the future.


So, if we accept determinism and still think deterence and rehabilitation are viable, we find ourselves saying we have no influence or control over our own behavior, but we do have influence and control over other people’s behavior.  Traditional wisdom suggests the opposite.  Common sense suggests we have more influence over our own actions than we do over other’s actions.  Is it possible that we can have no influence over our own actions, yet we are still be able to influence other people’s actions?  No, not in any meaningful sense.


I think this is an example of people not fully appreciating the far reaching implications of their position.  If determinism is true then even saying “we could make prison as unpleasant as required” plays on an ambiguity and is not actually accurate.  The ambiguity is in the term “could.”  “Could” can mean: we have the option.  Or “could” might mean: it is possible.

In Harris’s usage he seems to suggest “we have the option to make prison as unpleasant as required.”  But of course, on determinism we have no options.  We must do what we are going to do, and can’t do otherwise.  So that meaning of the word “could” leads to a contradiction in his beliefs.


If he means just that “it is possible that we would make prison as unpleasant as required….”  Then we might ask so what?    It may be possible, but we have no influence over our actions so we have no way to make that possibility a reality.


Our very sense of self is obliterated by determinism.   We are like ping pong balls in a lottery machine.  Yes we “could” bounce into other balls causing them to jostle and become a winning number.  In the sense of “could” that “it is possible” that happens.  But, of course, those ping pong balls have no control over themselves so it is not an option they have.


It makes no sense to take the perspective of the ping pong ball.   If we throw out free will then we throw out our whole notion of self.   It is no longer even sensible or meaningful to think in terms of what we “can” or “could” do.   We are just parts of a system that must act however we are going to act.


For those who are interested in the free will debates I highly recommend this set of lectures:


Two Aspects of Rational “Belief”


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We see everyone claiming to be rational but then we find that they view being “rational” as having a mindset that leads to their conclusions.  My second blog was on what it means to be rational in general terms here.

Those views seem correct now just as they have for decades before I wrote that blog.  But there is still a tension in what it means to “believe” something that I have been thinking about for decades and I have ultimately concluded that the term “belief” has two different meanings that are essential to our understanding of the term but can sometimes conflict.  This blog is intended more as one that explains a problem that I see rather than provide a solution.  Hopefully others will have a decent solution or at least understand the problem so their discussions can be a bit nuanced.    Here are the two essential aspects of belief that I think most philosophers would at least agree are valid considerations as being part of the term “belief”:




  • The second view is that a belief is something you properly hold if you believe the evidence supports the conclusion that the claim is more likely than not true.


Although I agree the second definition is a view that seems to capture an essential part of the term “belief” I also think it has problems that I think never get enough press in professional philosophy.    I want to discuss the problems I see with the second view but then, in the end, will explain why I think it is hard to just do away with it.


I think this second view of belief leads people to think rational people should be constantly weighing the evidence of each individual belief and then trying to banish those where the evidence does not measure up.  Our beliefs are much more complicated than that.  That simplified view does not even give us an idea of what beliefs should be examined and which shouldn’t or the pragmatic considerations.  For example under that view a rational person could be memorizing facts out of a phone book as much as they investigate whether they should believe it is ok to have an abortion.  Obviously being rational means more than just filling our heads with random facts which the evidence suggests are more likely than not true and expunging those beliefs that seem not to have that evidence.


But there is another problem.   A logical problem with this view is that many decisions are not exactly binary.   Either the Christian God exists or he doesn’t.  That’s true.  But that doesn’t mean, unless we think the evidence supports that the Christian God exists is more likely than not true, we are irrational for believing in that God.  We have to consider the alternatives.  And there seem to be many alternatives to believing in the Christian God.  There are Gods as explained by other religions.  There is the possibility to believe in a God that is not explained by a religion.  All of these are possible beyond just either the Christian God exists or no God exists.


So lets analyze a hypothetical situation.  Let’s just say I believe:

  • Christian God is 30%
  • non-Christian God(s) aggregate to 40% but all individually are less than 30%


  • no God is 30%?


Sometimes people say that if we don’t have evidence that supports any of those beliefs are more likely than not true then we should “withhold belief.”   Sometimes people say that means you are “agnostic” and some people would say that an “atheist” might fit that description as well. The arguments about the terminology seem more pedantic than helpful so I won’t address them.


But ultimately I still have to decide things like:

  • Am I going to Church Sunday morning?
  • Am I going to treat human life as though it is a sacred gift from God?
  • Am I going to treat all humans as though they are made in God’s image?
  • Am I going to teach my children these things?

These are a few Christian teachings that you are either going to live your life by or you are not.   You need to act now.

If you can pause life then ok.  But I can’t.   So in the meantime my actions are going to reflect my beliefs.  And it is hard to understand what it would mean to be agnostic here.  Would that mean I sometimes go to church on Sunday?  Should I try to go 30% of the time?  If I never go to church on Sunday or act in accordance with the Christian teachings then am I not adopting the belief that the Christian God does not exist? And other religions are even less likely so I would act as though there is no God.    But in my hypothetical the evidence doesn’t support that belief as being more likely than not true either!  Does the agnostic know how to pause his life?  Can he teach me how to do that?


Notice these issues arise before I even start to get into the fact that this is only dealing with “theoretical rationality” and not “pragmatic rationality.”   It is irrational to ignore pragmatic reasons which can effect what views we should adopt, but these problems arise when we just consider the theoretical model on its own.


But let’s dig a bit deeper.  Some say we can act as though something is true even though we don’t believe it is true.  That sounds a bit like lying to yourself.    But let’s go along with this a bit.   We still need to ask which way should I choose to act when the evidence doesn’t support any relevant belief is more likely than not true?  Should I just act and adopt views however I feel like at the moment?  Ok but are we going to claim that is rational?


I’m sorry but the second view (where we rationally believe something if and only if the evidence supports that it is more likely than not true) is too simplistic and just won’t work in life.  Any approach to being rational in a situation must address all the different probabilities and their pragmatic consequences.    Yes it’s complicated but oversimplifying rationality only masks the problems.


So I think the first view is important.  But the second view does have this going for it.  If I say “I believe O.J. Simpson murdered Ron Goldman”,  then it seems I am saying it is more likely than not true that OJ Simpson murdered Ron Goldman.    It is hard to remove that aspect of the term “belief” without doing an injustice to language.    I don’t have a solution, but I think we should understand these two different meanings of “belief” especially when we talk about whether beliefs are rational or not.

Love of the Gospels and Mark in Particular


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I started to question my faith at least by junior high.  I still vaguely remember arguing with a friend who was a year older – he was in a Catholic high school and I was in a public junior high.   We were basically arguing the free will issue and whether it could exist if God knew everything .  It came up because that was something they were discussing in his freshman high school religion class.   It wasn’t something we did often – and in fact it may have just been that one time with that particular friend.  But I do recall feeling, that I set my friend straight that the Christian perspective couldn’t work and excited to attend the same Catholic High School and take this up with the teacher.


And it all came to pass splendidly.  I did discuss/argue this with the teacher at that Catholic High School. And the thing is I think the teacher enjoyed the argument and discussions as much as I did.  Of course, he was probably very happy to have a student engage the material.  And I was happy to find some school material I wanted to engage.


But I certainly never thought any questions were out of bounds for any of my Catholic teachers.   And I have to say my experience with adults in the Catholic Church tended to be that way.  It could be that I would pick out adults with a interest in the philosophical.  I guess if just blindly picked people my experience wouldn’t be so good.  But as it was, I never had the experiences many seem to have had where the adults in their Church just want to avoid the tough questions.


In my experience Catholics tend to fall in two camps when it comes to these philosophical questions. Camp one:  I will give them a big analysis of how God couldn’t exist and they will shrug and say “yeah maybe.”  Camp two: I give the analysis and they will share their own arguments pro and/or con.  But I don’t recall every getting the Aretha Franklin “Don’t you blaspheme in here, don’t you BLAAAASPHEME in here!”


In my opinion this is good.  But of course it does mean it was easy for me to fall away from the faith.  And I did.  I never decided to declare I was an atheist, but I certainly didn’t go to church on Sunday or particularly care about what the church thought was sin.  But my love of philosophy never faded.   So I majored in it and took classes in epistemology and philosophy of religion, reasoning and logic etc.  I spent quite a bit of time reading, learning and thinking about philosophical issues.


About the time of College I started hearing all sorts of odd views from protestants on Christianity (“Faith alone” “actions don’t matter” etc etc.) and atheists.  And all of them would have bits and pieces of scripture that would seem to support their views.  So I really started to question if I knew what Christianity even was.  Whatever they were talking about seemed foreign.   I knew quite a bit of scripture from the times I went to mass but did the church leave big parts out?


So what to do?  I wasn’t interested enough to read all 73 books of bible.  And I knew Paul’s letters were there to address specific concerns of churches.  I decided to read a Gospel.  After all it is through the gospels that we learn about Jesus and spread the faith.  It is through the Gospels that we learn the most about Jesus.    But which Gospel?


Mark doesn’t have the wonderful “Sermon on the Mount” like Matthew, nor the “Prodigal Son” or “Good Samaritan” like Luke.  And it doesn’t have the adulteress or any of the wonderfully poetic and touching narratives in John.  But it did have one thing that was the most important at the time.  It was short enough to easily be read it in one sitting.   I had no excuse.

I still remember some trepidation at the time not knowing what this gospel would say.  Would it have what I considered some pretty nutty doctrines atheists and protestants were espousing?  Was I really that ignorant?    I had to find out.  So I read it, with the intention of learning about Jesus’s life and what he wanted us to learn according to Christian Scripture.


What did I think?  First, it is beautiful.  The narrative is fantastic for any time but especially when compared to other ancient writings.  Second, it depicted the Jesus I grew up learning about in Catholic Churches and Schools.   I followed up with the other Gospels.  There were no surprises and I definitely felt my Catholic upbringing accurately represented Jesus and his teachings.  I found many protestant and atheist views were very hard to square with what Jesus taught in the Gospels.  I now understand why protestants often appeal to other parts of the new testament (such as Paul’s letters) and atheists appeal to the old testament.


As a Catholic we have scriptural readings that we rotate through every three years.  You can know what scripture Catholics read every day around the world at church by picking up a missal or looking here online.   I believe Catholics read from a Gospel every Sunday, if not every day.  So we tend to cover the Gospels and therefore Jesus pretty thoroughly.


Although I can’t quote chapter and verse by heart, I can often tell what the story is by the name of the gospel general chapter number which is announced, and the first sentence or two as well as the prior readings.  Catholics who try to attend mass on Sundays and pay attention will learn the Gospels and therefore what Jesus taught.


Now that I go to mass every Sunday  I am often amazed how the priest will have a new insight into the same text.  Often it is how passage might relate to our lives, but it also could be based on how the Greek is translated, or its connection with Old Testament scripture, or history, or just a small detail in the text.


Lately I have been introduced to some podcasts from Travis They take a more secular approach to the Scripture and I know at least one is an atheist.  But they all seem to also have a great appreciation for the Gospels and an interest in what deeper meanings the writers may be trying to convey.   I have been blasting through them and really enjoying them.


Of course, I am familiar with the historical Jesus research and especially Dr. Ehrman’s popular work which I recommend to people as well.  But with all due respect to Dr. Ehrman I think he often misses the forest for the trees.  Why are the gospels so important?  I suggest it is not because we can find inconsistencies between the gospels or from copies of the gospels.   All of that is interesting and worth being taught.   But I think if you had a teacher teach you Shakespeare and the majority of his focus was on picking nits of plot inconsistencies and whether the copies accurately reflect what Shakespeare wrote, you would be missing out.   Of course, Dr. Ehrman was a Moody Bible institute graduate and so his background does suggest his approach.  Nevertheless, when I listened to his classes he starts out saying these texts are hugely important to human history.  And I agree they are.  But I don’t think his class really conveyed how that came to be.


What is my point?  Read a Gospel.  But don’t read it with the intent of trying to nit-pick flaws or justify doctrine or politics.  Just read what happened to Jesus and try to understand what Jesus is trying to teach us.  And then, regardless of your religion or lack of religion, you will begin to understand why Jesus has had such an impact in human history.


Anti-theists and Pharisees can Interpret the Old Testament the Way they Want, I will Interpret it the Way God Wants


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This a second post about how Christians should deal with the objections to Christianity based on Old Testament verses.  Often opponents of Christianity will try to tell Christians about the parts of the bible that were not “cherry picked” by their Church or Sunday school teachers.  They will often talk about how they read “the whole bible.” And then start spewing out all these obscure bits and pieces of the Old Testament – and then accusingly ask “do you believe that!?”  If you try to interpret the scripture in a way that complies with the basic gist of your faith, (as opposed to their hyper-literalist reading) they will say you are just making up that interpretation.  If you simply say, well I don’t know what to make of that scripture they will say aha! You don’t even know your own scripture.   If this is troubling you then this blog is for you – and hopefully those opponents of Christianity who engage in this line of argument.

I think the best response to this is to test out how much they actually know about the bible.  Simply ask them: What did Jesus say about the old testament scriptures?  The Gospels are full of Jesus being tested on interpretations of the old testament!  We will get to these in a bit.

Don’t be surprised if the only thing the Christian opponent will remember is the “one jot” passage from Matthew  that I blogged about here. I get that as a response so often that I chose to just blog about it first.  When you get this passage  (and you inevitably will if you do this apologetics schtick long enough)  Ask them if they know when Jesus said that and how he elaborated on what he meant.  The above blog deals with that quote and the context much more extensively, but in sum, the quote was part of his famous the Sermon on the Mount.    He clearly elaborates what he means and likely contradicts the anti-theist’s approach to the old testament – which are usually literalistic and amazingly similar to the Pharisees of Jesus time that often wanted to “test” him.

Ask them if Jesus ever summarizes the old testament.   Does he give us guidance as to how we should understand the old testament as a whole so that we live the lives he calls us to?  People who have actually read the Gospels will know he does, repeatedly.  The Gospels record numerous situations where Jesus repeatedly teaches by his actions and words how we should understand the Old Testament.   It would be good to see if the remember any.   I have gathered up several passages where Jesus himself addresses the Old Testament Scriptures.

But before I begin why just quote Jesus?  Why not Popes or other Scripture?   I certainly could, but, Jesus is the lens through which we should read all Christian writings, not the other way around.    When we interpret scripture we of course should make sure we are interpreting it in a way that God directly tells us we should!     Jesus himself informs us that scripture is not just the word of God – it has dual authorship.  See e.g., Mark 10:1-12.

Regardless of how one might understand scripture the vast majority of Christians will agree that when Jesus says something it is God speaking very directly.  Jesus is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18) not the pope, not the bible, but Jesus.  Christians can disagree with each other about scripture.  Martin Luther even said James contradicted Paul.  But if Jesus himself is telling us how to interpret the old testament, a Christian should listen up.  ( Even scripture says we should take special notice if we are getting this directly from Jesus as opposed to Paul e.g., “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” 1 Corinthians 7:10)

What did Jesus say?   The most important point is that Jesus repeatedly summed up the old testament.  He did not dive in and give us rules for each and every verse of all forty-six books of the old testament.  That would be a continuation of the rules model that he superseded.  Instead he repeatedly tells us we should understand a general bottom line from the old testament and repeatedly rejects precisely the literalist interpretations offered today by certain anti-theists.  (Although, it was religious leaders taking the literalistic view of the old testament in Jesus’s day.)    So what is the bottom line God explicitly tells us we should take from those 46 books?  Let us quote God directly from the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John:


 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12

This is then repeated:

“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.””

Matthew 22:34-40


One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g] There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31


“ On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

[Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan]

Luke 10:25-37

And John:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

John 15:9-17

It isn’t a pope who is saying these things.  It isn’t a protestant reformer or a Sunday School teacher.   It is God himself telling us what the bottom line is.    If you are interpreting any of the old testament in a way that goes against this then are you going against God’s interpretation.  I am not interpreting God, I am quoting him.   Accordingly, churches are not “cherry picking” passages but rather being mindful of what God explicitly told them they should take away from the scripture.   Sure they will focus on the passages that they feel deliver the message God told us we should get from the Old Testament and not dwell on passages where it is hard to see the connection.  But that is not cherry picking that is being obedient to God.

Scripture is God revealing himself to us at very different times and environments.  But God is infinite and our understanding is finite.   It should not be surprising that God will use different tools that work better for some times and places than they do for others.  And it should not be surprising that scripture will never entirely reveal everything about God so we can completely understand God as a whole.  So the fact that we look at some verses of the 73 books and have to shrug our shoulders should not be surprising!  An infinite being revealing himself is not the same as telling the story of Harry Potter.     Does God give us enough direction to live a moral life.  I think any honest reader of the gospels would agree he does.

God took the time to give us a summary of the old testament.   I do think Christians should at least understand this often repeated summary.  Love God and love each other.  So if we read a passage and we don’t see how it yields what God told us it should, then it is fine to say we are not sure what we should make of that passage.    Perhaps the story is conveying a message to people based on understandings we have lost.   Perhaps what seemed loving and forgiving to the ancients no longer seems so.   Jews and Christians have made quite a bit of moral progress over the last several centuries.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth may seem extreme to us but it may have been a very moderate statement if the culture typically asked for the heads a culprit’s whole family in exchange for a tooth.  As we might expect God’s guidance has helped us make moral progress!

Jesus said as much himself.  At times scripture was written as a practical tool to guide people in the state they were in at the time.  See e.g., Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12.  Where Jesus says although the old testament allowed divorce that was not really how we should live.   (I would note Paul points out Jesus said this and that would be very hard to square with the view that Paul did not think Jesus was alive on earth as some Mythicists would claim.  “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” 1 Corinthians 7:10.)

Let’s look at how Jesus himself applies his bottom line summary in response to the Pharisees who often would raise almost the identical issues that Christian opponents raise today.

Stoning People

John 8:2-11 is an obvious and direct answer from Jesus on how we should deal with old testament laws:

“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group  and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

These ancient codes like Lev. 20:10; Deut 22:22 have been so often quoted by Christian opponents you would think Jesus never addressed any of them, let alone addressed them directly and explicitly.

Many atheists will talk about how this passage from John does not appear in existing early texts.  But that is a red herring.  All Christian Churches I am aware of include this passage in their scripture.   Whether it was in early transcripts and taken out of some – or was a story about Jesus that was passed on and later included into John is unimportant.  It is part of our scripture and it tells us what God said.

In any case this is just one of many examples where Jesus’s bottom line that old testament laws must be understood in terms of treating others as you would like to be treated.  That would of course include judging others as we would like to be judged.    See e.g., Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42 and Luke 6:31-36.  Where Jesus tells us to focus on our own shortcomings instead of trying to judge others for theirs.    These teaching not to judge others guts the penal aspects of the old testament across the board.  But let’s move to some other specific examples.

Healing on the sabbath, another rule broken! 

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there.  Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.  Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.  Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Mark 3:1-6.  See also Matthew 12:10-13, Luke 13:10-17

Harvesting Grain on the Sabbath was explicitly forbidden in Exodus 16:23–29 even gathering sticks was not permitted Numbers 15:32–36.  So we should not be surprised by the Pharisees who are so similar to many of today’s literalist rule obsessed Christian opponents.

“At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.  Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?  I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.  For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8

“Unclean” woman and Jesus.

Leviticus 15 talks about how women who are menstruating are unclean.  It is not just that an unclean person should not touch be touched by anyone, but you become unclean even if you touch things they touch! They are not supposed to touch anyone, and they are supposed to yell they are unclean so that others won’t contact them.   Yet she touches Jesus and Jesus does not condemn her for violating the Rules.   Indeed, he even praises her for her faith and heals her!  Matthew 9:18-23 Luke 8:43-48  and Mark 5:21-34.

According to Leviticus 13:45-46 and Numbers 5:2 lepers are also unclean.  So people are not supposed to touch them.   But what does Jesus do?  Yep he “reached out his hand…. but quickly pulled back saying ‘the rules say I can’t touch a leper, sorry dude!’ and walked on by” Anti-theist bible page 752:42.

For those interested in Christianity here is what the Christian Gospels actually say:

“When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Matthew 8:1-4

See also Luke 5:13 “Then He put out His hand and touched him…”

Rules says we are not supposed to touch corpses Numbers 19:11-22 and number 5:2. But he seems to do just that when he takes a dead girl’s hand in Matthew 9:23-25.  Now Jesus said she was just “sleeping” but I do think the author intends us to think she had died in the sense we would mean by it.

Jesus also cuts against the teachings that one might read in the OT that misfortunes are the results of our sin or those of our ancestors.  Exodus 20:5 Deuteronomy 5:9 and Second Samuel 3:29.  No doubt passages like these lead the disciples to ask whether a man blind from birth was suffering due to his own sins or those of his parents.  Jesus said “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” John 9:3. See also Luke 13:4-5

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In my last blog I talked about the rule based systems Jesus is here repeatedly and emphatically moving away from and rather pointing us in a moral direction.  That direction can best be expressed by loving God and treating others as you would want to be treated.   That is the basic rule Jesus applied above and it can serve us to address all these “tests”.

Imagine this from the perspective of the woman caught in adultery and the rule Jesus is asked to address.    Imagine being a person suffering from paralysis or blindness and believing Jesus can heal you, but unfortunately the time Jesus comes near just happens to be the Sabbath so he follows the rule and says he will not work that day so you are out of luck.   What if you were the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for years (thus preventing you from going to temple and forcing you to be considered unclean causing you to be outcast from society) knowing that if only you touched him you would be cured.  But when you did touch him instead of healing you he reprimanded you for breaking the rule!  Lepers obviously suffered.  They also had to announce to others they were unclean.  Jesus could heal you with a touch but sadly touching was against a rule so he walked by.  Putting ourselves in the shoes of others is the key that now makes all these “tests” seem easy.   If you were a Pharisee listening to the Gospels at Jesus time I am not sure you would always anticipate how he answers these tests.  Jesus directly and radically changed the rule based system.   That is one of many reasons why the Gospels are so amazing.

Am I saying that God Changed what is Moral?

People often misunderstand what relativism is or at least when it is objectionable to the moral realist.  The moral realist does not say that a certain action – say killing someone is always immoral.  Rather they say that it is not dependent on the mind of the person judging.   So there may not be anything wrong with someone making an “eeeeee” sound.  But if you know that action is aggravating/effecting those around you then it may be immoral.  The moral realist is fine with that view.  The moral realist agrees the surrounding facts can effect the morality of a specific action.  However the objective moral realists says the rightness or wrongness of a given set of facts is not relative to the mind of the person doing the judging.  So if Jesus not stoning the adulteress (assuming all the facts and circumstances of her case) then it is not evil then it doesn’t matter if some Pharisee thought it was evil.    The relativist would say his not stoning her could be morally good for Jesus but not morally good for the Pharisee.  I address this common misconception of relativism here.

The passage from Mark 3:1-6 is especially illuminating on this point.   Jesus states “ Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil….”  Of course, if it were objectively evil to break a rule (do any work on the sabbath) his statement would not make sense.  But they know what Jesus did was good and not evil despite the rule!  And Jesus knew he did not need to explain.  How did he know?  Because God is a loving relational being and he made us in his image.  Yet we are so attached to rules that even today people will still ask is ok to work (in a hospital healing people no less) on the sabbath?  Following Jesus does not require a high IQ and an understanding of a complicated rule system.  That is not why it is hard to follow him and do good.

Hopefully anyone can see one of the main messages that Jesus repeatedly taught was that specific rules are often twisted so that they work against their intended goal.   He repeatedly tells us what the moral goal is (love) and shows us how to apply that goal to our thinking.   This is why I am somewhat baffled by people asking why didn’t Jesus just simply announce another rules against [insert whatever specific rule you want].    “’Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them.” Matthew 15:16

It is likely just that people haven’t read the Gospels, or if they did, they read them with a motivation other than trying to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate.      The anti-theists of today are so much like the Pharisees thinking they could teach morality better than Jesus by using the rule based system.   It is almost miraculously prophetic how Jesus addresses this same issue so directly and repeatedly.  It is also interesting that just as in Jesus day those who want to harden their hearts to his message will succeed and not understand even the basics of what he repeatedly taught.

So when Christian opponents say we are “cherry picking” passages or reading the passages in ways that allow us to be loving, we should admit it is true.  That is what God told us to do.   Don’t let their ignorance of even the basic, repeated, and explicit teachings of Jesus lead us off the path God told us to take.

Christ’s “Moral Direction” Versus “Moral Rules” Approach: Surpassing “Every Jot”


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I have a few blogs drafted on understanding the Old Testament.  A common attack on Christianity will be to take a passage out of the Old Testament and try to use it a sort of “Gotcha!” statement.   And sometimes it will be a gotcha statement for people who are raised Christian because Christians usually do not dwell on these passages – for good reason.  The reason is because God himself in the body of Jesus gave us instruction on how we should understand the Old Testament.  So by focusing on Jesus’s teaching we can see the Old Testament as God intended.   I Hope that by reading these blogs atheists and theists will gain a deeper understanding of how Jesus calls us to live.


Quite a few atheists will ask questions like: Why doesn’t Jesus say it is wrong to have slaves?  Why doesn’t he say it wrong to discriminate based on  [insert category]?  Why didn’t he command [insert rule]?      This is what I call the “rules model” of moral behavior.  Certainly, taking individual actions and saying you must (or must not) do X is one way to inform people how to act.  But Jesus overwhelmingly took a different approach.  He gave us a moral direction not more rules.  That is why early Christians were “followers of the way” rather than “keepers of the code.”


Both models have their advantages and disadvantages.  The atheist complaint that there are a lack of more simple minded rules, that the rules model offers tends to misunderstand Christianity at a fundamental level.   But that is not to say I do not understand where they are coming from.  There is a certain comfort in having a set of rules and believing as long as I follow these I am ok. Regardless of the authority figure, parent, police, referee, school teacher it seems obvious and fair to have the rules set forth in a plain way.   So we see that just as we want to know the rules today, Jesus was also asked for the rules.  What are the rules to get past those pearly gates?


But there is another reason we want the rules.   And here we are getting into a drawback.   We want to know the minimum.  We don’t pay more for items than the price tag, we don’t overpay taxes, etc. We often think of morality as a restriction similar to a lack of money – in that it can limit our pleasures and increase our suffering.   We really don’t want that.  We don’t want to give up more of our worldly pleasure than is necessary.   This focus of living a life of earthly self-centered pleasure and avoiding suffering is often understood as a form of slavery in Christianity.  It can keep us from living a life of love, and service to God and others.


Because “rules model” tend to make moral minimums the bar, it makes sense Christ would not dwell on specific rules.  That model tends to cap off our goodness.   With rules you only have to go so far and you can comply with a code/rule, but Jesus wants us to always strive to go further in a moral direction.  Does anyone really think they are a good person just because they do not own slaves?   It is obvious that Christ wants much more.


Yet often Christians – including myself – when we think about whether we will go to heaven we will naturally at least go through the ten commandments and consider if we have kept them.  Jesus does not entirely discourage this, but obviously he goes beyond that.  see e.g., Matthew 19:16-28    We should love each other so, obviously, we shouldn’t murder.  But we are not ethical just because we follow the rule and do not murder someone.  Jesus wants more from us than a simple minded rule model suggests.  Jesus teaches the basis of the rules and then tells us to take the basis to the fullest.  Because his moral directional teaching does not put a cap on our morality like rules based morality Christianity has lead to unprecedented moral progress in the west where Christianity has had the longest and most intense effect.


“Rules models” have at least four downsides.  First, As explained above and below they tend to suggest we can cap off our morality.

Second, They are subject to gamesmanship in interpretation e.g., what is slavery?  Are indentured servants slaves?  Are all workers in communist countries slaves?  Is saying if you don’t work you don’t eat forced labor?   Is slavery ok in prisons or for prisoners of war?   There are many questions we could ask just about slavery.  The bible might have to be an infinitely thick rule book to cover all the different and wide ranging moral questions.  Human laws are always restricted by our lack of ability to understand someone’s true intentions.  We can only make inferences about their intentions from their behavior.  Thus people often play games and try to technically comply with rules even though they violate the spirit of the rule.  See e.g., Jesus healing on the Sabbath.   Unlike human laws that can only deal with what humans can learn, God’s law addresses our intentions and scripture consistently makes it clear that we should not think we can fool God.  “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 God does not have to rely only on the outward behavior we can observe, so his judgment is not so limited.


Third, people want to know the reasons for the rules not just have a list of dos and don’t “because I said so.”  We don’t want to do things that seem arbitrary.


Fourth,  by addressing who we are and why certain moral rules exist we can understand and develop many moral understandings.  So not only do we go further than each rule we can develop our own rules on different issues.    For example understanding that all human life is sacred and made in God’s image not only prevents murder but it can, and has, lead to much more, including the understanding that slavery and discrimination is wrong.


Where is the scriptural evidence that Jesus ended the rules model of the old testament but not the moral commandments in a directional sense?    It was the point of his statement about “the smallest letter or least stroke of the pen” from Matthew.  It is perhaps one of the most quoted passages from Jesus by atheists trying to buttress their “gotcha” verses by claiming it means that Christians must follow every “jot” of the old testament in a literal sense.    But that takes Matthew 5:17-20 way out of context and can even contradict Jesus.  First here is the passage:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20


What is the context?  Jesus said this near the beginning of his famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  And we have three full chapters of Jesus himself explicitly elaborating what he means by that quotation.  Those chapters are Mathew 5, 6, and 7.  And indeed when you understand that statement in the context of rest of the sermon on the mount, you will see why atheists not only misunderstand the context but often try to use that quotation to contradict what Jesus explicitly said when he elaborated on what he meant.


In that sermon Jesus famously blew the “cap” off of many Old Testament moral commands.  He kept the intent but insisted we go further in our moral development.   He explicitly says how we are called to not just meet the morality of pharisees and teachers of the law but “surpass” them.  He then goes on to specifically articulate how we should “surpass” them.


I always encourage people to read the gospels but here, I won’t quote all three chapters but rather just paraphrase with citations.   Not murdering is not sufficient don’t even get angry or disparage others.   Mathew 5:21-22   Don’t just avoid literally committing adultery.  Do not even look at another woman with lust.  Mathew 5:27-30.   Not only should you be required to give a bill of divorce before leaving your wife, you shouldn’t divorce her at all.  Mathew 5:31-32  Not only should you not violate your oaths but you should always speak the truth.  Mathew 5:33-37  Not only should you limit your vengeance based on the violation you suffer (“eye for an eye”) but instead you should not take any vengeance and instead give your enemy more than they wrongly took and the beggar more than what they ask for.  Mathew 5:38-42 He expands the love of neighbor to everyone even enemies.  And directs us to love our enemies. Mathew 5:43-47  “Be perfect…” Mathew 5:48.


Don’t just give to the poor but give to the poor silently without a big show. It is to be done out of love of others not to improve your image. Mathew 6:1-4 Likewise pray but your prayers should be for your relationship with God not in order to make you look holier than thou.  Mathew 6:5-6  Forgive everyone like you want God to forgive you.  Mathew 6 9-15.  Fast but do not do it so others will be aware of your holiness but again make the sacrifice without letting everyone know.  Mathew 6:16-18   Desire for money and greed should have no place as they will control you instead of God. Mathew 6:24  In all things rely on God and don’t be a slave to worldly possessions Mathew 6:25-34.


Notice Jesus specifically rejects the atheist interpretation of the harsh punishments of the old testament and specifically that we should not to judge others. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Matthew 7:1 and we see this theme of not retaliating but instead forgiving throughout the above sermon.     He says we should focus on our own moral shortcomings rather than those of others and understand that we are always biased to think we are morally better than we really are. Matthew 7:1-5.


“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” Matthew 7:28-29


Amazing indeed.  He changed our morality from the simple minded view of “ok just don’t do these things and you’re good” that atheists often claim to want, to the much more challenging call to love others as best you can.    This change in approach has lead to moral progress never seen before or since and of course will lead us to even greater moral progress if we continue in this direction.

Slavery and Christianity: The First Known Abolitionist Speech.


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Understanding the ancient world is often difficult for those who were raised in a Christian Culture.  It is very hard to believe that slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world.  Why did they tolerate it?  It seems like they just treated it as we treat different roles.  Some people will own the restaurant some will bus the tables and some will cook etc.  People can own animals, and people are animals, so why not?   Aristotle expressed this view:

“And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.”

Aristotle, Politics


At first blush Paul’s exhortation to seems take the view that being a slave is just another role people have:

 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.


Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

Ephesians 6.

At one level this passage seems to accept these roles.  At that level this passage reminds me of my father telling me he didn’t care what I did just whatever I did I should, do it well.     Of course, today we don’t see slavery as just another role.


But, he says “And masters treat your slaves in the same way” right after he describes how a slave should treat their master.  What?!?     This is often overlooked by people when they are trying to be critical of Paul and Christianity.  So how should a master treat his slave “the same way” Paul wants a slave to treat his master?  Well let’s fill that in:

 “Obey your earthly [slaves] with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.  Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”


Whoa, that’s pretty crazy stuff for his time.  But, of course, it naturally follows from the view that “the first will be last and the last will be first” Mathew 20:16 and “I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Mathew 25:40.  I mean if this is really what that God wanted us to believe you would expect him who has power over us to come and do something like wash the feet of his own creation. John 13.


Paul and Christ are doing much more than arguing for a change of legal codes.  They want our heart, mind, and soul to point in the direction of love for another as opposed to us seeing others as tools.  They want us to view our relationships with other people in an entirely different way that cannot be captured in law and works regardless of the laws we live under.

Clearly this passage like so many others in Christianity turns what was the common view on its head.  We are all to be servants of Christ and by that we do what he wants which is to be servants of each other.  Not because we are forced but because of the love he wants us to build for each other.


But slavery was accepted everywhere for so long, why did people change their view and start thinking peopled should not own other people?  We see Paul is starting to really upset the apple cart but he still seems to accept the institutional roles themselves at least superficially.    How did we start to see this differently, and start to see the institution of slavery as immoral?  Of course If morality is defined as whatever we want then it seems the change would just be arbitrary like the wind.


One way to at least approach an answer to this question, is to examine the reasons given by the first person we know of to argue against Slavery as flat out being immoral.     This will give us an idea of the original grounds to break from that long established but immoral tradition.


There were certain Stoics who took a view somewhat similar to Paul’s, in that we are meant to be free in a spiritual sense and this can be extended to the physical sense.  And indeed the Stoic Dr. Piggliucci quotes, Seneca the younger, was so loved by early Christians that he was often referred to as a proto-christian Saint by them!


I would liken some of these statements from Stoics to some of Paul’s.    E.g., Paul asks Philemon that he free his slave out of love rather than have him order to do what he ought to do, and there is no such thing as slave or free in Christ,  and that it is good that slaves become free and that they stay free First Corinthians 7:21-24.    Paul like these stoics stopped short of giving a giving lengthy attack on slavery itself.


Dr. Piggliucci says  “That said, it is certainly the case that no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery. But it is rather unfair to criticize Stoicism in particular for this failure. Every single ancient philosophy and religion, including Christianity, has incurred in the same failure.”  He may be right about other ancient philosphys and religions but based on what I say below I think Christianity is indeed different.  Even if we don’t count the teachings of Jesus and Paul as making slavery obsolete we have at least one Ancient Christian attacking slavery.


I would also question Dr. Piggliucci suggesting racism had nothing to do with ancient justification for slavery.  He says:

“The Colonial idea of slavery was intrinsically racist, founded on the conceit that some people are literally sub-human, not worthy of the same consideration as the rest of us. That was not the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, where one could become a slave by losing a battle.”


Consider this quote from Plato:

“…nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.”


Plato, Gorgias


Moreover, Aristotle specifically addressed this case and said that if a person who was not naturally a slave was made a slave after being captured in battle (a legal slave) it would be wrong for them not to be freed.  And if a person who was a natural slave was freed by law that would also be wrong not to re-enslave him.  See politics book 1 part 6.


What made someone naturally a slave and another naturally a ruler?  That is somewhat unclear but he seems fairly sympathetic to the view that “Helenes” (Greeks) are fit to rule.  Whereas non-Greeks “barbarians”  have no one fit to rule as they are all natural slaves. “But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female.” Politics book one part 2.


Aristotle also talks about the inability to understand certain things would make someone more fit to be a slave.    But whatever the details it is fairly clear he sees the natural slaves as inferior to the natural masters.  Here is a quote that also gives us some insight as to some other moral views Christianity inherited from the ancient world:

“And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”

Aristotle politics book 1 part 5.


It is for these reasons I would question Dr. Piggliucci’s statement suggesting the bigotry of the later centuries was not around in ancient times.


In any case the first known assault on the very notion of slavery comes from Saint Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa.  He lived from @335- @395 AD.  I quote a translation of his attack on slavery from a homily on ecclesiastics where the person boasts of owning slaves.  I will offer a rather lengthy quote because it is important to get the reasoning.   The reasoning of the first people to take a different view is evidence of what caused the gradual change to our current views.  Moreover, the first known argument against slavery is in my opinion a text worth reading in its own right.


…..as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? “I got me slaves and slave-girls”, he says, and homebred slaves were born for me.


Do you notice the enormity of the boast? This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all (Ps 119/118,91). So, when someone turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?


I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.


You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen, 1,26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? You have subjected all things to man, declares the word through the prophecy, and in the text it lists the things subject, cattle and oxen and sheep (Ps 8,7- 8). Surely human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock? Irrational beasts are the only slaves of mankind. But to you these things are of small account. Raising fodder for the cattle, and green plants for the slaves of men, it says (Ps 1041 103,14). But by dividing the human species in two with ‘slavery’ and ‘ownership’ you have caused it to be enslaved to itself, and to be the owner of itself.


I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?


How too shall the ruler of the whole earth and all earthly things be put up for sale?  For the property of the person sold is bound to be sold with him, too. So how much do we think the whole earth is worth? And how much all the things on the earth (Gen 1,26)? If they are priceless, what price is the one above them worth, tell me? Though you were to say the whole world, even so you have not found the price he is worth (Mat 16,26; Mk 8,36). He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul. Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room. Presumably, then, the property belonging to him is up for auction too.  That means the earth, the islands, the sea, and all that is in them. What will the buyer pay, and what will the vendor accept, considering how much property is entailed in the deal?


But has the scrap of paper, and the written contract, and the counting out of obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? What folly! …


The Bishop’s indignation is palpable.   So while many of the ancients seemed to see people as an animal that would have value often based on traits they had no control over, such as intelligence or race etc.  Christianity and Judaism introduced a different way to understand who we are separated by God from the other animals and things of creation.

  1. Humans are priceless. God gave us everything in the world and that is priceless and so as owners clearly we are priceless.
  2. God gave us authority over animals and plants but not other people. Our God given authority does not go that far.
  3. The least shall be first and first shall be last, and how we treat the least is how we treat God himself. (This one was not in the Bishop’s text but permeates the Christian message.)
  4. And yes we are made in the image of God! Jesus built on this idea in saying we should refer to God as our Father.  Hence, we are all children of God.   We don’t try to analyze the worth of human being based on traits like race, ethnicity, intelligence or ability/disability.  We are all Children of God made in his image.    We all know we would not want our own children to be used and thought of as tools for someone else, we can rest assured God does not want that for his children made in his image either.


These are the seeds that lead inevitably to the assured destruction of slavery.  So long as we hold to these principles it seems impossible that people would ever treat other people as property again.   But we can also see how the reasoning of the pre-christians (that can indeed lead to our value being reduced based on certain traits) is slipping back into the ethical discourse.   As people, for whatever reason, want to distance their views from Christianity they seem to be saying personhood and our worth is based on certain traits we have rather than affirming the four principles I list above that reveal the sanctity of all human life regardless of the traits that person has.

It took far too long because our views were so different from God’s.  The Christian (or Jewish view when you consider the arguments from Genesis) view was not the view held by any other ancient people.  We believe all humans are connected to God in important ways.  For others mastery of everything was good.  So what could be better than mastery over other humans? “And there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects and that rule is the better which is exercised over better subjects- for example, to rule over men is better than to rule over wild beasts;”  Aristotle Politics Book 1.   To the ancients, people were fungible and their value was assessed by their traits, like the value of any other animal or thing.


But once we started to understand our role and that of God’s it was inevitable slavery would go.  So long as we hold onto that understanding it can never return.   Genesis was a huge part of this understanding.  Those who read Genesis as nothing but a scientific text miss so much. (or even primarily a scientific text)  It portrays us differently than other myths in important ways.  But when people just read it like any other creation myth they miss out on the most important parts.


Saint Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa, offered his congregation good reasons to reject slavery when he wrote that Homily.   Many of the views would be repeated today and throughout history to provide the truest and best foundation for humanism generally.


If I said I am in favor of banning slavery based on the arguments presented by Saint Gregory would I be charged with “forcing my religious views on others?”


Wearing the Juice: Overconfident Atheists, The Dunning Kruger Effect and other Biases

In 1995 McArthur Wheeler walked into a bank, with his face fully exposed to all the cameras, and proceeded to rob it.  So his face and identity was all over Pittsburgh by the time he was robbing the second bank with his face fully exposed to the cameras.  Needless to say he was quickly apprehended by police.  When a cop told him they saw him on the surveillance tape he said “but I was wearing the juice.”

Apparently, lemon juice can be a sort of “invisible” ink.  That is when you write with it on paper it is invisible unless it is heated up.  Mr. Wheeler thought he would be the next mastermind criminal by wearing this invisible ink (lemon juice) on his face.


This case lead to research into whether people who are more confident are really more competent.  As it turns out confidence tends to suggest the opposite.  The Dunning Kruger effect is a bias where people who are incompetent tend to be over-confident.  People who are less confident tend to be more competent.


Talking about arguments for God or Meta-Ethics or epistemology are really philosophical questions.  These questions have been debated for as long as we have written records.  Yet I find that certain atheists with the least philosophical training tend to be the most confident in their various philosophical assertions.   Belief in God is Childish!  Christians need to just grow up!  Belief in God is like belief in fairies or Santa Clause.  Of course, we don’t believe in miracles or any supernatural events. Etc etc.


Lately I have found some of the same sorts of claims about morality and the basis of morality called meta-ethics.  I have been told I am ignoring what is obvious and simple by believing in the most common view of ethics held by professional philosophers – moral realism.


Now we all know that these are just assertions about what is disputed and has been disputed by the most intelligent people to ever live.  Yet these guys with little or no training seem so confident.   When I see comment like that I can’t help but think they are “wearing the juice.”


Now that is not to say it is unpersuasive to sound confident.  Confidence is more persuasive then expertise.

Moreover simply repeating the same conclusion can make us believe it is true.  This is called the illusory truth effect.


So simply repeating these claims that it is obvious there is no God or it is obvious no miracle could ever happen will tend to make us believe the claims are true.   But are such assertions good reasons to believe them?  Rational people want to have good reasons for their beliefs not just believe due to biases.


Memes are another form of persuasion that more often than not plays on our mind’s biases instead of our reason.  These will often incorporate confidently repeating the same slogan, but they often also try to embarrass people.  This subtly suggests people should be ridiculed and socially ostracized for daring to remain Christian even though it is “obviously” so unreasonable.  This is effectively bullying someone to accept that persons position not because there are good reasons to accept the position but out of fear of being a social outcast.  Have courage.


If you see no evidence for a disputed claim in their post it doesn’t hurt to ask if they can offer some.  Maybe they will – but then at least you are dealing with evidence and that is what we want to get to.   Take your time and think about it dispassionately without fear of ridicule.  Does it really prove their point?  Feel free to ask how they get from that piece of evidence to the conclusion that God or real morality can’t exist.   I don’t think there is any such obvious proof out there or we would all know about it.


If they never/rarely offer any actual evidence for their claims then the site is solely playing on biases and not a source of rationally good reasons for belief.     I want all people to look for these biases at work.  Recognize how they are trying to “play you” as opposed to “reason with you.”  After you read a blog ask what evidence against God was presented and what premises/evidence did they use.  Is it a valid argument (that is can I agree with the evidence as being factual or the premises as true but still not be bound to the same conclusion) Or did they just repeat the same conclusion or assume the conclusion and engage in some Bulverism?



If you feel like you might be ridiculed if you posted on that blog or talked with that person, then ask yourself if you think that person is trying to essentially bully you into accepting their view.  Are they overconfident?  That is a sign they are not competent.  I highly suggest you read from people who clearly work in the field under discussion. That is why I recommend sources like the Stanford Philosophy encyclopedia and people who regularly publish in meta-ethics.   I think you will find more often than not those who are experts tend to have much more nuanced opinions.  It is true the opinions may not seem as exciting or dramatic but I think you will learn concepts that tend to keep egos in check.


I’m not immune.  I spent quite a bit of time reading about meta-ethics and majored in philosophy for my undergraduate degree.  I also have a law degree which I believe added quite a bit of nuance to my understanding of morality and our overall circumstance in general.  But I don’t claim to be as expert as philosophers who regularly publish in meta-ethics.  I specifically remember reading Richard Joyce and thinking along the lines “Why is he so tame in his conclusions?  He can argue for a much stronger conclusion with the reasoning he uses!”  I may have even dropped him an email asking him why.  I think that was several years ago and I haven’t heard back…. yet.  I suspect he is aware of some concepts that keeps his conclusions a bit more modest.


But anyway if you think a person is too boring and doesn’t argue as strongly as you like, it may be that person is actually just more informed and competent than the guy who seems very confident and convincing but is really just dodging the important questions, repeating assertions, bullying, and spewing bulverism.


Both sides of an argument can be that way.  So the same advice applies to Christians who are reading other Christian Apologists.  Your brain may get a more pleasing chemical cocktail by reading others who confidently restate conclusions you agree with, than it does by those who are not so enthusiastic.  But the less enthusiastic author is likely more informed and I believe more likely to pass on some more trustworthy wisdom.

Ad Hoc Reasoning Suits Moral Subjectivism and Anti-Realism


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The subjectivists I speak with seem to treat the topic of morality as though we can have a reasoned discussion in the same way we might about facts of reality.  I think many times the moral anti-realist doesn’t fully appreciate the problems with this view.   I explain why I think the subjectivist will have trouble with the very notion of having any sort “good reason” to believe here and here.

There I argued that there are 3 general types of “good reasons” to believe something.  First are theoretical reasons, second pragmatic reasons (see this blog for a philosophical explanation of the distinction) and third we would have good reason to believe something if not believing it caused a contradiction in our beliefs.  In the earlier blog I merely said that it is simply too low a bar to only ask that the views not lead to logical contradiction.   But I want to discuss the coherency condition more fully here.

I do concede that the constructivist can at least appeal to internal coherency as a way of preferring beliefs.  Overall, I think this bar is too low but it is especially low when we understand that objective reality itself will not constrain the beliefs we do come up with.  This blog will explain how the rational quality/virtue of consistency/coherency is trivially easy for the subjectivist.

Consider the fact that many people thought Hitler had many internal inconsistencies in his thought.  A subjectivist might say this would prevent them from following his moral scheme.  But let’s consider one such inconsistency that we often hear and see how that really would not be a problem for the subjectivist.   Roughly the argument is made that Hitler was inconsistent in saying

  1. The proper German must be, blond haired, blue eyed, and have great genes for athleticism.
  2. Yet he had none of those traits

and still he thought

3.He was a proper German.

Now if these were the views he held, and for the sake of argument let’s say they were, then I would agree they are inconsistent.

So what could he do?  Well he could just add to the first claim that “…. unless that person was Adolf Hitler.”   There that takes care of that inconsistency!  You might say well there might be another Adolf Hitler that he wanted to exclude from being a proper German.  And we can just say that “…. unless that person was Adolf Hitler who was born on such and such a date and hour at such and such a place…”  We could also make these exceptions for Goering and Himmler etc.

These exceptions seem dubious because they are “ad hoc.” Ad hoc additions to a theory are those that seem irregular from the overall theory but they are included for the sole purpose of saving our theory or view.  Normally we frown on ad hoc explanations.

One of the reasons Kepler’s heliocentric theory of elliptical orbits was preferred over the Copernican system involving perfect circles (the Greeks like Ptolemy thought circular motion was more perfect) was because the Copernican system had epicycles.  Smaller circular motions of the planets were added as well as the larger orbit.     http://www.astro.sunysb.edu/fwalter/AST101/keplers_laws.html

Epicycles are I think it is fair to say another example of ad hoc reasoning.  In that I am sure Copernicus would agree he was only including the epicycles to shoe horn his theory of perfectly circular orbits into the reality he observed. That was the sole reason to posit the existence of epicycles.   If the math and observation worked without epicycles then Copernicus would not have suggested them.   Once Kepler showed that the math works with ellipses (no epicycles needed) people tended to prefer that system.   This was all before Newton and his theories about inertia etc.

Why should we be suspicious of ad hoc reasoning?  It is because as the products of the culture of Athens and Jerusalem we tend to think A) that reality/truth is not created by our beliefs about it so it is not going to be different so it suits our beliefs, and B) Copernicus was making a claim about objective reality.

Of course, if you are subjectivist you think differently.  Subjectivists think the truth about morality is dependent on our view of it.  So in that case A is not something we accept.    To the extent you think our moral constructs are unconstrained by objective reality then you also reject B.     There is no objective reality we are trying to explain.   Rejecting either A or B seems to take all the sting out of the charge or ad hockery.   Morality is what we make it – or so they say.    So there is no reason to prefer the regularity we see in objective reality.

I mean I can’t like and dislike the taste of the same pickles at the same time in the same way, but it is just fine that it used to be those pickles tasted bad but now they are good.  No explanation is necessary.  My mental state makes it “good” and that can change in an arbitrary way.   And once we break from objective reality and its apparent regularity, it is ridiculously easy to be consistent.  It was OK for me to kill a minute ago but I wouldn’t do it now?  Ok no problem, it’s just that my relevant mental state is different now.   We are not saying our beliefs about morality corresponds with any objective reality – indeed we are saying no such objective reality exists for them to correspond with – so there is no reason to be against ad hoc views.

Do we see ad hockery in moral theories?  Yes I gave a few examples that I think are common.

We should care about well being of all sentient creatures except when we don’t.  See animal rights 

In suffering being the key – except when it is not.  Oral Surgeon case. 

Empathy is great even though it seems to add suffering – well we like it anyway!

Of course, people, especially anti-realists, can have all sorts of views on morality so it is hard to explain any case that will apply to everyone.  But for me it was just a matter of really thinking through moral issues and being honest with myself about the grounds I claimed to have as a basis.  I think most people try to be honest with themselves, but I don’t think people often try to think through moral issues that frequently.

In law school we study a huge number of cases involving difficult moral issues. How much the students tried to understand the reasoning as opposed to just learn the law seemed to vary.  Moreover, law school and legal cases do not usually dive into the deep understanding of moral concepts but rather just tends to refer to vaguely worded values.     And, of course, most people have not gone to law school or had any similar exposure to the variety of moral cases that are involved.    Coming to this realization (that creating your own morality with no objective anchor is extremely arbitrary) requires both an inclination and experience that are both uncommon.   So I am not surprised that many people think the amount of ad hoc reasoning might be rare.

When what we decide defines a very concept like “pickles are good” means, such and such fact about my view toward them, then we hardly need to come to any principled reasons for why pickles were “bad” before but now they are “good.”    If I didn’t like pickles yesterday but do today, it’s no big deal.

I see no reason for the subjectivist to reject ad hoc explanations.  But for me it made this whole exercise of supposedly “deliberating” about morality in order “decide for myself what matters” too much of a charade.  I am constantly reminded of the people in allegory of the cave who keep insisting to the philosopher who saw reality that what they are doing with the shadows is important.  I simply have no interest in playing.  My missing out on this involves extremely low stakes.

So yes it may be correct that there is no objective moral realism.  So I don’t discount that possibility.    And if I live my life based on a false belief in moral realism then I agree it was in vain.  But if I just missed out on this big charade, I am perfectly at peace taking that risk.   In fact, I am not sure I can fully express how much at peace I am about taking that risk.

Animal Rights Follow Up: Morality Based on Evidence.


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After my last post I had a few posts by some atheists that I think deserve a more lengthy response.  Generally I think the atheists here post good questions and concerns and I am grateful to have them visiting.  Jim is one of them.  Here are some of the comments we exchanged leading up to the point I want to make in this blog.



“Man has trumped the morality of the Bible over and over. ”


Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, North Korean leaders, Lenin, Reign of Terror.

To which Jim responded:

“The bigger problem here isn’t these men. It is the followers. Here we argue which belief is best, but the culprit of all our divisions, racism, hate, all of it Joe, is beliefs. Mere convictions of thought without evidence. Break it down, that is the card played by the writers and founders to keep humanity at odds, while they do whatever the hell they want.”


I want to focus on his claim that we need evidence.  I don’t think the atheist has any evidence to support any sort of moral views but I will get to that in a bit.


Consider this statement by Ingrid Newkirk President of PETA:


“Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”


Now many atheists say there is no actual truth about morality.  Maybe killing six million Jews is not morally worse than killing six billion broiler chickens.  But the key word is “maybe.”  The thing is they do not know there is no objectively moral way we should live.  So a rational person would say either there really is a way we should morally live, or there is not really a way we should morally live.    Once we acknowledge this uncertainty we should be rational in how we approach the uncertainty and address the consequences of our actions with respect to both possibilities.


Let’s say the moral anti-realist is right and morality is not real.  Then it really doesn’t matter whether I value Jews more than chickens.  If that is the case, it doesn’t matter which way I chose.  I can make up whatever morality I want.    So my going with the Christian view is morally no worse than going with PETA’s view or living any other life of make believe.  That state of affairs is a dead option.  It is not the option a rational person should concern themselves with, because in that state of affairs it doesn’t matter what we do.

The rational person should focus their mind on the possible state of affairs where there really is moral Truth.  That would be the state of affairs where we can live our lives rightly or wrongly.  So a rational person would focus on the possibility that, in fact, there is objective moral truth that we should follow.  But how could we know what that objective morality requires of us?  What evidence do we have that PETA is wrong to think killing six billion broiler chickens is morally comparable to killing six million Jewish people?


Now my own view is that it is morally repulsive to view the killing of six million Jews in the Holocaust as equivalent or even less morally evil then killing six billion broiler chickens.    But is my emotional revulsion evidence of moral truth?  Why would someone who was created by a random universe guided by natural selection think their moral revulsion tracks objective moral truths?  I firmly believe there would be no reason to think that, and I offer my reasons for that conviction here.


So what evidence do I have that morality is on my side?  If I appeal to other humans, and their views, is it not obvious they are in the same situation I am?  I have no reason to think other people’s convictions are guided in more reliable ways that my own.  So why should I listen to other people who are in the same boat as me?  What I need is a source of information that is not bound in the same way we are bound.


I have scripture that tells me humans are made in God’s image and humans are indeed more important than chickens and other animals.  I have Scripture that tells me God became man in order to save humans.  I have scripture that tells me I am to love my neighbor etc.  All of this scripture tells me people are special among animals.   But what evidence do I have that this scripture is really from something other than another human just like myself?   The answer is the evidence of Christ’s miracles including but not limited to the resurrection.


Now I can hear the groans about how that evidence is weak.  And I won’t lie there are times I wish I had more evidence.    Sometimes, like Saint Thomas I wish I could see Jesus and touch the wounds to see it was really him.  I don’t think this is unchristian.  Thomas was Saint Thomas after all.   So I am not here to say the miracles are strong evidence or weak evidence.  You can listen to the debates on that, as there are plenty of them.   Weak or strong, we clearly have some evidence that Jesus was from God and therefore his teachings on morality were from a source not bound by human limitations.   This means his teachings have a chance of reliably tracking the truth regarding morality.


I think the Christian miracles are the best evidence of any religion actually being from God.  I know other religions claim miracles but, I don’t think the claims I examined are as good as the Christian claims.    I am certainly willing to consider the evidence if someone wants to claim some other religion has a better claim to being true through miracles or other evidence.   Here is a blog where I give an outline of the criteria I use.


In the end, people can say the evidence for Christianity is strong or weak, but it is what it is.  This is the situation we are in and it seems quite clear to me that it is the best evidence about what we should do that we have.   Why would I trust Ingrid Newkirk (or even my own moral views which I recognize and science suggests are based on emotion) more than Christ?


Now what evidence does the atheist have to offer that their moral views accord with objective moral reality?  If you start to say “If the morally good is….(flourishing) or (wellbeing) etc etc ”  Then I need to stop you right there.  I am asking for the evidence you have for what is morally good.   So if you start with an assumption, of what is morally good, and then keep talking based on that assumption, I think you are missing the question.  What evidence do you have that your view of moral goodness corresponds with objective reality?  You may say something that I like or that I agree with but people agreeing or liking an idea does not make it true.


So you can say you think my evidence for my moral views based on Christ being from a supernatural source is weak.  But it is some evidence.   Even weak evidence is better than no evidence at all.      Life does not have a pause button.  You can’t pause life until you find some evidence that you are satisfied with.  Rational people have to make due with the evidence they have.  And you can call it strong or weak,  but the evidence for Christian morality is the best evidence we have for any moral view.

A Moral Question for Atheists: Animal Rights


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I do not think it is a coincidence that the last century’s worst moral offenders happened to be anti-Christian.  I am certainly not saying all atheists are morally horrible people.  Nevertheless, I also think people who claim rejecting belief in God can somehow be done with little or no damage to our overall worldview (I would prefer to use the term “noetic structure”, since I think there are real contradictions created, but I will just use the term “worldview” as it less technical) are either dreadfully mistaken or dishonest.


I have a few blogs posts drafted that I would like atheists to think about concerning legal rights and generally about moral and legal issues.   I really think beliefs are only as strong as the reasons we have for them.  So when the foundations for moral beliefs are taken away we should fully expect the moral beliefs they hold to fall with time as well.   If you want to be atheist in a culture that was created by Christianity you will hopefully realize you should try to patch up the foundations – or at least see with eyes wide open how morality and legal systems are effected.



Consider this:

While driving I accidentally hit a deer and it is badly hurt on the side of the road.   If I called an ambulance it might survive after a surgery and medical care that might cost $100,000.00.  I think it would be moral for me to keep driving.   It might be better if I thought it would suffer and to take a gun and shoot it if I had one in the car.


Now consider how we treat a person that we hit with a car.   We handle that quite differently.   Human life is a sacred gift from God and Humans are made in Gods image.  So this disparity is perfectly natural for a Christian society.    But if we are just animals like other animals and there is nothing sacred about human life why should we think this disparity is justified?  Deer seem to suffer.  Many animals seem to be at least as conscious as new born infants.


Now you might say the disparity is not justified.  But then the question is should we treat people like deer or deer like people?   As you think this through try to notice if you are rationalizing your conclusions or if you are truly “reasoning” your way to the conclusions.


In any event this moral confusion was evident in Nazi Germany which passed strict animal protection laws.

A telling quote is from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda:

“The Fuhrer is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian. He views Christianity as a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a branch of the Jewish race… Both [Judaism and Christianity] have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end, they will be destroyed. The Fuhrer is a convinced vegetarian, on principle. His arguments cannot be refuted on any serious basis. They are totally unanswerable.”

Goebbels Diaries, 29 December 1939

By the way, I am not saying Hitler was atheist, but he was anti-christian and clearly rejected the teaching that human life is sacred.