Why Poor Europe?


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So in the comments to my last blog I had some outstanding questions that hit on the topics I really hoped to discuss.  So rather than commenting only in the comment section I thought I would give my take on them in a separate blog.

Eric was the person who asked the questions and he has an outstanding blog himself that you can see here.



We are both Christians but I think we have some different economic and political views.   But let’s get to the comments and questions.  For clarity I will put his comments in green and my views in blue.

Hi Joe, this is a very interesting post. I am intrigued why you posted this information. I am also interested that you have based your comments on wealth, not on any other measure of wellbeing – which I find curious because a christian surely knows that there are things more important than wealth.

Yes I absolutely agree with you.  Certainly, I do not want people to think that wealth is what is most important to me and I would strenuously disagree with anyone saying that would be a Christian outlook.  The reason I focused on wealth is because the policies I was mostly taking aim at were economic policies – such as minimum wage, socializing sectors of the economy, adding government regulation to what businesses can do etc.  I do agree these policies can have impacts outside of the direct economic policy but those arguments tend to become more speculative. 


In other words saying

  • These countries have these economic policies and here is the empirical data on how their economy is doing.

seems more closely connected then saying

  • These countries have these economic policies and here is there overall happiness measurements.  

That is why I focused on the economic impact. 


The reason I made the post is because I often see comparisons with tiny Scandinavian countries in discussion about the United States and what our economic policies should be.   And the responses and arguments seem to revolve around whether these tiny countries are “socialist” or not.  My view is they are more down the road of socialism than we are but drawing hard and fast rules on what is socialism is not all that fruitful.  


The bigger problem with the comparison is that it is cherry picking in the extreme.  That is the majority of  countries in Western Europe that have economic policies that are much closer to socialism than the USA and on the whole they are overwhelmingly doing much worse than the USA.   So I am suggesting that instead of just looking at the extremes maybe we should look at an overall picture.


So I am not saying lets focus on Greece or Norway but lets consider all the western European countries including Italy and Spain and France and the UK.    I also would agree that Eastern European countries have some unique problems trying to get over the socialist disasters that they had to live through.  So I am fine with not including former soviet bloc countries.   I am fine with including or excluding Germany.   


If you only take the top tiny countries then the better comparison would be to compare them with the top US states.  And you will find that the top US states outperform them economically – with the exception of Luxembourg which is so small it is more like a town in the US rather than a whole state.         


So there is another way of looking at these things. I have looked at some other factors globally, especially for the USA, Scandinavia and western Europe, and Australia (where I live).

Wealth inequality – measured in various ways as the gap or ratio between the rich and the poor. USA has more unequal wealth distribution than most European countries and certainly worse than Scandinavia and Australia.

Yes but as the Pew research shows that is because the US has many more prosperous people than those countries.     They are more equal because they have fewer objectively prosperous people not because they have fewer lower income people.  Objectively Western Europe has a much higher percentage of lower income people its just that they have so few objectively prosperous people they are more equal with each other. 

To the extent we want to equalize we would want to make the poor more prosperous not the reverse.  Do you agree?


GDP per person – highest in Europe and some tax havens, then USA (12th) and Australia (14th).


Highest in Europe?  If by that you mean there are a few tiny countries in Europe that have higher gdp per capita than the whole US averaged out then yes.   But if you mean Western Europe as a whole then you are very mistaken.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita


For 2019 the US is pegged to be a bit over 65k in gdp per capita.  65,281 by the world bank and 65,111 by IMF estimates.   According to the IMF the only European countries above the US in GDP per capita are Ireland Norway Switzerland and Luxembourg.  That is not even close to all of western Europe. 


Just working off World bank numbers, Denmark would need to boost its economy by about 10% to match the US.   Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Finland would have to boost their economy by about 20% to match the US.   Germany and Belgium would need a 30% boost to match the US.  The Uk would need to boost their economy slightly over 50% to match the US.   France would need to boost its economy by over 60% to match the US.  Italy, Spain and Malta would need to boost their economy by about 100% to match the US.  Portuagal would need to boost their economy by 180% to match the US.  Greece would need to boost their economy by 225%.  I haven’t seen anyone take the populations of western Europe into account here but given Switzerland has a population of about 9 million, Ireland and Norway both have populations of about 5 million and Luxembourg has a population of about 620,000 it should be obvious that European economic policy is on the whole performing dramatically worse than US policy.


And it appears Ireland’s performance may be because they tend to go against the socialist model and had unusually low corporate taxes.  https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/060316/why-ireland-sometimes-referred-tax-haven.asp.  This has lead to certain US companies especially tech companies where it is hard to pin down where they are actually making money can claiming their income was generated there.  So apple claims they made so much income in Ireland due to Irelands very favorable tax rate.  This boosts the heck out of Irelands GDP.    Irelands GDP per capita is boosted mainly due to US companies.   Luxembourg is also considered a tax shelter for companies. 


But on the whole the point is only a tiny number of tiny countries are doing better than the average state.  Our best states our better and the average country in western Europe is considerably behind the US economically.      


Now it is worth noting that in earlier years the US was doing worse.  The main economic changes in recent years have been away from socialism and the European model.  They involved tax cuts and less government regulation under republicans.   In other words moving away from the European economic models was followed by a huge boost to our economy.    


Happiness – highest in Europe and South America, whereas USA is among the lowest. The Nordic countries are consistently in the top ten and often the top 3.

Wellbeing (measures health and happiness) – USA 35th out of 169 countries, with European countries and Japan at the top.


Ok so obviously these studies are much more controversial on their own.  Moreover, even if we accept them, it is getting harder to pin this on economic policy as opposed to overall cultural issues that are not so clearly related to minimum wage. 


For example Nordic countries are small and homogenous.  The fact that they are small means that people might feel they have some control in the way they are governed.  In the US you saw people yelling at the sky when Trump was elected.  We certainly have a feeling that we have no control over the federal government.  I never even saw Washington DC until I was in my 40s.   My vote and voice is watered down much more than a Norwegian citizens.   


We also have a much more diverse citizenry.   So it is not the case that we will all tend to agree on how we should be governed.  All of this I suspect leads to less happiness.  So is there an answer?

Yes.  The answer is sticking to what we call federalism.  Federalism means less power to the federal government and more power to the states, local government, and individuals.  The U.S. federal government was intended to have very limited powers and most decisions were supposed to be made by states and more local governments.  But the trend is to always look to the federal government for answers.  Police departments are hired and fired at a city level – and to a smaller degree the state level.  But somehow people are yelling at police in a completely different state (let alone city) for the actions of a single cop in a different city in a distant state.  And our federal government is now going to try to make the rules for the whole country.  I don’t think any American really feels they have any control over what will happen regardless of party affiliation.   That is just an example, the loss of local control is happening throughout the spectrum of issues in the United States. 


Even with respect to these economic policies that seem to be clearly failing Europe, I do not mind if a city or a state wants to implement a higher minimum wage as some have done.  Or if Massachusetts wants a government run medical system they can have at it.    If there are barriers to them doing that I am ok with changing it so they can.   My main problem is that the Federal government wants to force it all over.  My view is if local governments want minimum wage that is fine let’s see how it works for them, rather than destroying the whole countries economy.     




Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy – highest include Scandinavia, Canada, Japan and Australia. USA is in the second of 4 categories.

Yes we eat lots of food that is really bad for us.  But I am not sure socialist economic policies are the answer. 

Everyone in the US has access to medical care.  Sometimes the media will try to equate having health insurance with access to medical care.  But those are different.   The state will provide free health insurance for those who are deemed to poor to afford it.  For those can afford insurance, but choose not to buy it – say a 25 year old who is in fine health and never feels the need to see the doctor whether they are insured or not – can go to a clinic as needed and pay for the service.  If it is an emergency he can not be turned away even if he can’t pay.  My area and the vast majority of areas in the US have free clinics for people who can’t afford care.




Gun deaths – USA is second to Brazil in absolute numbers and in top 20% per capita. USA is highest of all for gun suicides, lower for homicides.

Yes we have quite a bit of crime in the US.  Not just “gun deaths.”  Why are you including suicides?   Increasing the minimum wage will if anything lead to more unemployed people and more crime.  Or at least it is far from clear the increasing minimum wage or having other socialist policies will reduce that crime.  The most socialist governments run our large cities and they have the most crime.    


In the US we believe people have a right to defend themselves.  And that is part of our bill of rights, in particular the second amendment.  Europe seems fine with making its citizens completely at the mercy of government.  That is part of the reason why Europe had to be bailed out from their horrible governments in the last century.  The first thing authoritarians do is disarm the citizens.   Hopefully, the US will never do that.    


Suicide – USA is in top 20% as is Sweden. Australia and other Scandinavian countries are in 20-40%.

I’m not sure what the percentages mean.  But to bring this to economic policy, being unemployed is a considerable risk factor for suicide.   The US with its recent capitalist changes had reduced unemployment to record lows.  It is unclear how reverting to the more European model and higher unemployment will help.      

Quality of life – several indices have been used, based on factors like health & health care, wellbeing, education, human rights, etc. USA is not in the top 10, and just about all the countries in the top 10 are western European, including all the 4 Scandinavian. Australia and Canada are also there.


Again I would want to see the studies.  Certainly if the studies are valuing socialist ideals that Europe Australia and Canada tends to promote then Europe will unsurprisingly do quite well.  And also if you are going to look at tiny countries it might be best to compare them to states rather than the US as a whole.   But some of these studies are interesting.  Some are better than others.    


So those statistics present another way to look at things. I think most people praise Scandinavia and western Europe not because they are sheerly wealthy, but because their wellbeing is high, people are happier, there is less inequality, they have good healthcare, and feel safer. It is not that different here in Australia.


I certainly agree with much of that.   I am not that familiar with Australia’s economic model or governance. 

If Europe is indeed on the whole better despite being objectively so much poorer, that is interesting.  But I think when we look at economic policy the closest links to their efficacy will be on economic results.   

If we want to look at overall “happiness” that might have more to do with culture.  The US is the country that takes in more immigrants from more various countries/cultures than any other.  


 So it is in many ways unique.  Comparing it with a country of 5 million people who all have about an identical cultural background is unlikely to be helpful.  The comparisons should at the very least include all of Western Europe – even though the US is more diverse than even Western Europe and certainly as a country more diverse than any of those countries individually. 

Having done the research, I intend to post about it on my own blog, where I’ll give all the references, if you are interested.


I’m very interested.   And I look forward to it.  I hope you do not cherry pick Europe’s best and ignore the European countries at the lower end of the scales you decide to use. But in any case I appreciate your comments and and questions as I think the discussion we are having is much more productive than arguing whether Sweden really is capitalist or socialist. 

Poor Europe


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I love many things about Europe.  But as an American one thing I do not envy is their economy.  Europeans are economically worse off than Americans.  It is not that they are all hugely worse off.  But many are, and on the whole they are clearly worse off.  So why are so many Americans trying to say we should do what Europe does? (Bigger government imposing on free markets e.g., health care, higher minimum wage etc)   I think it is due to ignorance.

Of course, there are many things that can effect wealth.   And in any region some areas will do better than others.  So often times we hear we should be like “Scandinavian countries.”  But the policies such as universal health care and higher minimum wage are in several other European countries as well.  We don’t really hear about those countries.  Why? They are not doing as well and so considering them definitely hurts the case for bigger government.   But I think it is foolish to only focus in on a tiny country and not consider a wide range of countries that have policies similar to what is being proposed in America.

The USA is huge compared to any individual western European country.  Sweden has a population of 10 million.  This means Sweden is about the same size as New Jersey with 9 million.     Finland Norway and Denmark are each about 5 million.  So they are about the same size as Maryland which has about 6 million people.       New Jersey and Maryland are doing much better than any European country.  So if you want to compare top performers with top performers the US is wealthier.  But let’s look more broadly.

America is much more diverse than Western Europe as a whole so let’s not assume that all 330 million Americans will get the same results as 5 million Norwegians.  Let’s look at a larger selection of Western European countries and the US on average has more spending power pretty much all of them.

Some argue that the US has more money, but Europe has a larger “middle class.”  And that is where it gets interesting.  You see the “middle class” may be defined as someone who makes between 2/3s and 2x the average income of that country.  That is “middle class” is defined relative to the wealth of that country.  It is not defined objectively.   So a country that is considerably poorer than the US in every objective way may have a larger “middle class.”  Their “middle class” may average less spending power than the average person considered “poor” in America.   That doesn’t sound good to me.


This Pew research is quite interesting:



What it shows is that if we define the middle class as 2/3 of average income to 2xs average income 59% of the US population is “middle class” and 26% is lower income and 15% upper income.  Europeans have bigger relative middle classes but that is mainly because the average European makes much less.


When we actually define middle class in an objective sense we see Europe is objectively less wealthy.   In this research Pew calculates middle class off the median disposable income of Americans.   Because people in Denmark and Finland make on average less we see a very different class picture when we look at spending power objectively.  So if we define middle class in absolute/objective terms based on what the average Americans’ spending power is, we see just how much economically better off Americans are.


Instead of an 80% middle class in Denmark it drops to 70% and their “lower income” goes from 14% to 28%.  Their upper income goes from 7% to 3%.    So what we see is that if measured objectively, Denmark has 2% more lower income people than the USA and 12% fewer high income people than the US.    So by USA spending power measures (or any objective measure) they have more poor and less wealthy than we do.  So the increase in middle class is not because fewer are poor, a larger percentage of people are objectively poor in Denmark as compared to the USA.  We are so much wealthier than Denmark our upper income group more than makes up the 10% difference in middle class they gain.   In other words going with Denmark would mean more lower income and less higher income people.


Finland is even worse.  When we use spending power Americans are used to, as the mean their lower income rises to 33% versus our 26%.   Their upper income is again at 3% versus our 15%.  So their bigger middle class 65% versus 59% is more than entirely due to a lack of the wealthy people we have in the US.


But let us consider the UK.  Fully 40% of the UK’s population would be considered “lower income” based on the American economic standard of living.  They would have only 55% middle class compared to our 59%.  They would have only 5% upper income compared to our 15%.  Objectively the UK is doing much worse than the USA.


Spain and Italy gets even worse.   The majority of their populations would be considered “lower income” by US economic standards at 53% each.  Only 45% and 44% would be middle class versus our 59% and only only 2% would be upper income versus our 15%.  In other words switching economies with any of these countries would be clearly worse but in many cases it would be catastrophic.  On average it would be a disaster.

So why would we want model our economy off of theirs?  It is insane.

Now I realize this is based on 2010 data.  And I would be interested in a more recent analysis.    But if you look at the per capita gdp since 2010 you see that the European union has basically stayed about 35k whereas the US went from about 50 in 2010  to about 65 in 2019.


Now gdp per capita is not identical with he spending power calculations used by Pew, but it would be surprising if the numbers are now worse for the US as compared to Europe.

Viable Scenarios and Rationality


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A common view is that we are rational when we weigh the evidence for and against any belief we hold, and if the weight of the evidence says it is more likely than not true we can/should continue to believe it.   If not, then we shouldn’t continue to believe it.   Another approach is to say we should “apportion our beliefs to the evidence.”   These approaches are different from each other, but as far as they go they seem ok and I am not trying to parse them out here.  Instead I want to suggest there is more to having rational beliefs than simply following either of those approaches.

Consider the various Cartesian skeptical scenarios.  These scenarios force us to ask how we know anything about the external world. ( BTW throughout this  blog I am using “know” as imprecise short hand for “reasonably  believe.”  I think “knowing” something does require more certainty that what we “reasonably  believe”  but my sentences are awkward enough so I am sticking with the term “know”)     We might be dreaming.  Some god or evil genius may be manipulating a brain in a vat somewhere causing us to have these experiences etc.  If that was the case it would seem there is still something (a thinking thing) having an experience and so in some sense “I” (this thinking thing) would still exist,  but nothing external to my mind would need to exist as I perceive it.  This is where we get the famous “I think therefore I am.”

Perhaps the easiest way to start getting the idea of these scenarios is the dreaming argument.  Everything I know about the external world is due to my experiences.   However, since I have had dreams where the experiences were such that I couldn’t tell I was dreaming it seems at least possible that I could be dreaming now.   Do I have “evidence” I am not in a very detailed dream?   We can’t step outside of our experience to see what is causing our experiences, so no I do not.  Yet I believe I am not in a detailed dream.  So that would seem to violate the notion that rationality involves “apportioning belief to the evidence.”

Moreover, my rejection of the dreaming argument seems to violate a notion of parsimony.   Every time I have the experience of oncoming headlights traveling opposite my direction on a highway, not only do I have that experience, but I also believe there are physical people with minds and lives of their own in those vehicles. And not only that I think those people will pass headlights and behind those headlights will be real people with real lives and concerns etc.

We do not think there actually are physical things (that may have their own minds) that correspond to the imagery we experience when we dream.  We just think there is the experience of seeing people in our dreams, but those people don’t really exist with minds of their own.   It is possible there are material things existing somewhere that somehow correspond to the dream experiences we have, but our experience does not require that these material things actually exist.   It seems absurd to think any material things exist somewhere corresponding with our experiences – at least when we are talking about “dream experiences.”

But when we talk about experiences we have when we believe we are awake, we somehow think the opposite.   Belief in all those extra material things and minds suddenly seems justified – even though we know from dreams – we could be having the experience without the extra material things or minds existing.

My point is not to try to convince people we should believe we are in a dream or other skeptical scenario – I generally don’t try to convince people of things I do not believe myself.   But rather I want to point out that it is not the “evidence” that is apportioning our beliefs here.  The various skeptical scenarios take up a very small percentage of real estate in my mind.  Most of my beliefs are formed around the notion that I am a real person moving around with other real people with minds of their own.   I do this even though I have no evidence against one of the skeptical scenarios being true.     So in doing that I am certainly not “apportioning my belief to the evidence.”   So if it is rational to believe I am not in a skeptical scenario then there must be more to rationality than “apportioning  belief to the evidence.”

I think there is at least one other reason we do not orient our  beliefs towards a  Cartesian Skeptical scenario.  That is because it is hard or impossible to know what we should do in such a scenario.  The converse is also true.  If we did know exactly what we should do if we were in one of these Skeptical scenarios then it would be a much more rational to orient our beliefs to account for this scenario.  It would be a possibility we could better account for because we would have an understanding of how we should deal with it.   Thus whether we could have some idea what we should do in a scenario is important to whether we should consider it a viable scenario.   But without any understanding of how we should deal with or act in such a scenario, that scenario seems a dead end.   It is only rational to orient our beliefs to viable scenarios not dead end scenarios.

Now let’s get back to reality as we believe it exists.  We see things and believe many of them exist in a material form independent of our experience of them.   But does having this “materiality” actually answer how we should deal with this scenario?   Some would say it does, but I don’t think knowing about how things are tells us how they should be.  So I think just adding materiality to the scenario accomplishes very little if anything.

But regardless of where you stand on that question, you still may agree with me that the viability of a scenario does depend on whether we have any hope of knowing what to do if we are in that scenario.   If we don’t know what scenario we are in then, any scenarios where we would have no clue how to act anyway should be discarded from consideration in orienting our beliefs/actions.   This is because by definition whatever beliefs or actions we orient to would not  be  better or worse than any other in those scenarios.  So a rational person focuses on the possible scenarios where we could know what to do and form their beliefs based on the possibility of those scenarios being true.   Those are the “live options” or what I call the “viable scenarios”.

But do we have to “really” know what to do or can we make up what to do?  That is, do we have to be a “moral realist” or can we be an anti-realist and just admit we are making things up  based on our experiences.    It seems to me that if we can just make up morality through a form of constructivism it wouldn’t matter that we are in a real world as opposed to a skeptical world.   It would seem we could just as easily make up morality if we are dreaming or a brain in a vat.  It is also at least possible that there is real morality even though we are a brain in a vat.  And it is also possible our beliefs and intended actions are morally relevant.  But the important point is that if the real world we think we live in does not offer anything better than a form of anti-realist morality, then it is no more “viable” than a Cartesian skeptical scenario.

It seems to me a “viable scenario” requires that 1) moral realism is true and 2) we have a way to know what morality requires.  That is we have a way to know how we should act and what we should believe.      A scenario where we can’t possibly know what to do in it, is not a viable scenario.  Whether viability is an on off switch, or more of a sliding scale may not be all that clear.  But let’s just say any scenario where 1 and 2 are not met is not a very “lively” scenario.  They would share the same trait that makes the Cartesian doubt scenarios non-viable.

Now consider the possibility that naturalism is true.  We can look at the possibility that naturalism is true without any preconditions and we might say the probability is X.  But then let’s consider the probability that naturalism is true if we are in a scenario where moral realism is true.  Some, myself included, would say that if they knew Moral realism was true then they would think the probability naturalism goes down.  So on moral realism the probability of naturalism becomes X minus Y.    Others might not agree.    But one thing I am fairly certain of, is that if the scenario we are in, includes 1(moral realism is true) and 2 (we have a reliable way to know what morality requires) then the probability of naturalism being true is very low indeed.

The logic of the arguments made by Sharon Street, Mark Linville and Richard Joyce demonstrate this.   They persuasively argue that if naturalism and evolution is true, even if moral realism is also true, we have no way to reliably know what morality requires.  Street and Joyce believe in naturalism so they reject the idea we can reliably know what moral realism requires even if it is true.   Linnville, and I, think that in light of this sort of argument we should reject naturalism.

For the reasons I stated above I think rejection of naturalism is the more rational option.  That is because holding on to naturalism leads to believing in a non-viable scenario, and rational people orient their beliefs around viable scenarios, naturalism should  be rejected.    If naturalism is a scenario where the probability of 1 and 2 is extremely low, then naturalism implies a scenario that shares the same trait that makes the Cartesian skeptical scenarios non-viable.

Of course, people can dispute whether 1 and 2 are necessary for a viable scenario.  They can also disagree whether 1 and 2 make the probability of naturalism low and vice versa.  But I think this is the best way to understand the structure of my moral argument for God.

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.