Sunday, December 15, 2013

What war on Christmas?

There is no war on Christmas, except in the paranoid minds of those that insist Christians are a persecuted majority in the US (perhaps it is contagious - Canada's federal government in recent years seems to be making wishing people a Merry Christmas a priority).

In the bad old days, pretty much every Canadian was Christian (those that were already here were sent to residential schools because they weren't considered "real" Canadians; those that believed differently either weren't allowed in, were openly discriminated against, and/or were deemed disposable (by, for example, forced labour building rail lines)). Canada now boasts significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, Wiccans, and a growing percentage of individuals who adhere to no religion.

"Happy Holidays" as a generic greeting is a recognition that, until you learn otherwise, it isn't necessarily accurate to wish your conversation partner "Merry Christmas." Of course, if offered a seasonal greeting that isn't part of your cultural heritage, just respond in kind. It's simply being polite - a quintessential (in stereotype, if not in reality) Canadian value. In no way is it accurate or reasonable to portray "Season's Greetings" as an attack on Christianity.

Christmas has been a secular consumerist event for decades. Many people celebrate and love Christmas for entirely non-religious reasons. If a store doesn't erect a Christmas tree or manger display, it's a business decision - not an ideological assault or anti-Christian sentiment.

Using the term "war" is a clear example of overblown rhetoric. We're moving from assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas to recognizing the reality that many do, and some don't. No one is shunned. No one is hurt. No one is maimed. No one is killed. No one is having their rights infringed upon in any way. Where is the war? Because religious displays are left to private homes and houses of worship instead of city hall? Because Christmas iconography (including the "secular" kind, such as conifers and sleighs) are merely prominent instead of universal?

To those incensed at the fading prominence of explicit Christmas greetings - get a sense of perspective. Christmas is offensive to no one, but the phrase "War on Christmas" is to many. Direct your passion, indignation, resources, money, and energy to the plenitude of issues facing our society that need addressing. Don't waste your (and so many other people's) time with this invented non-event.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Do not give your money to these people

They are everywhere this time of year - at the entrances of supermarkets, in the hallways of malls, by the exits of beer and liquor stores.

They use a number of gimmicks to attract your attention, are usually polite, and all want the same thing - your money. 

I am talking about the Salvation Army, and I want to encourage you not to let the bell-ringers convince you to make a contribution to their organization.

Last year I learned that the Salvation Army is a despicably homophobic organization. The Canadian chapter "believes marriage is the covenanting together of one man and one woman for life in a union to the exclusion of all others." It has similarly unenlightened views about gays and lesbians (but does not condone violence). Different chapters (countries) have different policies, some of which state that being gay is a sin before God and must be corrected.

Despite its generally successful efforts to portray themselves as an inclusive organization serving anyone in need, in practice it is ecumenical - serving folks of all religious backgrounds, as long as they are Christian (or willing to consider becoming so). I have heard that some branches offer food, coffee, and extra breaks to employees who attend daily prayer groups.

 "The Salvation Army exists to share the love of Jesus Christ." The Canadian chapter's mission statement reveals that the primary purpose of your money and gifts is to proselytize the Good Word. I was shocked to discover this about the Salvation Army, given its ubiquity; perhaps others will be surprised as well.  

I will not contribute anything to the Salvation Army, regardless of their other good works. They operate under false pretences, using the goodwill of others as a club to evangelize, and consider the words written on a piece of parchment millennia ago by desert nomads to be more important than the well-being of their fellow contemporary human beings. I encourage everyone instead make a donation to organizations that are genuinely charitable. Given the multiple disaster areas around the world, from the wreckage left by extreme weather events to the horrific human consequences of war, I recommend Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders).

Friday, December 06, 2013

What was Brian Pallister thinking?

Brian Pallister, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party and head of the provincial official opposition, created quite the stir in some circles when the following video was widely circulated online on Monday, December 2 2013:

Many self-identified "infidel atheists" were incensed by his remarks. I fail to see what the hubbub is about. 

Here is a basic breakdown of what Mr. Pallister focuses on during the 23-second video:
  • 5 seconds wishing folks a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah
  • 15 seconds talking about how he doesn't understand unbelievers, and how that's fine with him
  • 3 seconds wishing everyone all the best
Atheists got top billing in terms of air time.

Of course, I have no access to the inner workings of Mr. Pallister's mind, but the following seems to me to be a reasonable guess.

Mr. Pallister was speaking off the cuff on a topic he is rather uncomfortable with - hence the stumbling, almost stuttering delivery. He is probably aware of atheists and religiously unaffiliated Canadians in a way he wouldn't have been even ten years ago.

So while saying "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," he possibly thought, without preparing an answer, "What about the nonbelievers? I can't appear to be excluding them, and I don't want controversy." And so he started his sentence, and another part of his brain interrupted with, "Don't be too accommodating; you don't want to alienate your religious constituents."

Thus the strange mix of inclusiveness, wishing everyone all the best, with terminology ("atheist infidels") most often used in a pejorative manner.

Mr. Pallister inadvertently drew attention to the fact that a large and growing number of Canadians do not view Christmas as a religious holiday in any way. Canadians generally view the end of the calendar year as a time to embrace family, feasts, gifts, trees, lights, retail discounts, and three statutory holidays within one week. The religious nature of December 25th matters to an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. "Keep the Christ in Christmas" was quaint twenty years ago. It is not as obsolete as abacuses or monocles, but still a reminder of times past, like cathode ray tube television sets or people wearing wristwatches. Mr. Pallister clearly recognizes this on some level, even if it doesn't apply to him personally.

In my view, this is a tempest in a teapot. He spent most of his time saying how he wanted everyone to enjoy this time of year, and was clearly grasping at straws to find a way to do so. Yes, he employed a poor choice of words. But rather than criticise him for that, freethinkers should thank him for explicitly mentioning the community and his desire for all to appreciate the season. Instead, request that Mr. Pallister accept the invitation to speak with a representative of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba so he can extend warm wishes in the future to a significant part of his electorate in a more diplomatic, appropriate manner. If he accepts, it would demonstrate genuine good faith, and his message will be received with the warmth and compassion with which it was (presumably) intended.

Citing this as an example of anti-atheist bias in elected officials is inappropriate and will dilute warranted criticism when other public figures make far more egregious, explicit attacks on atheists' legal rights and physical well-being. Save outrage for truly outrageous acts.

Secularism is not nearly enough: Video

One year ago, I attended the Centre for Inquiry Ottawa's Eschaton 2012 conference. I gave a speech entitled Secularism Is Not Nearly Enough as part of a Canadian Secular Alliance panel, which was recorded. The video has just been made publicly available. The video freezes during the first minute, but is of reasonable quality thereafter. Enjoy.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Star

On Friday, October 25, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno published an article entitled "Brampton father fighting with Catholic school board should consider public school". In it, she criticizes a teenager and his father for demanding that their legal rights be respected, and litigating when they were not. The article prompted me to write the following letter earlier this week to Ms. DiManno, the public editor, and the Letters to the Editor page. The Toronto Star declined to publish it (or respond at all).

Update:  The Toronto Star published my letter to the editor on their web site and (in slightly abbreviated form) in the November 2 print edition.

Good day,

Why did Ms. DiManno choose to spend an entire column attacking the characters of a Brampton teen and his father?

Their only sin, according to Ms. DiManno, is holding the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board accountable for not obeying the law.

There are any number of reasons that a family may prefer a local Catholic school to a distant public one - but Ms. DiManno makes no effort to discover what motivates the Erazos.

Instead, Ms. DiManno characterizes the Erazos as "helicopter parents" "incubating a couple of claim-to-blame whiners", who are "selfish" and "holier than thou". These smears are not justified in any way in the text of her column.

Leaving teens without oversight during school hours perhaps could be unwise. Furthermore, ensuring supervision for those exercising their legal right to be exempted from Catholic liturgies seems a small price to pay to maintain special status in Ontario's blatantly discriminatory educational system, wherein Catholics (and only Catholics) receive billions of dollars every year from the provincial government to educate their children according to their faith.

I realize that Ms. DiManno's is an opinion column; nonetheless I was disappointed to find it utterly devoid of facts.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Conversation with a believer, part 4

I initially engaged in this conversation because my conversation partner seemed an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate person, with a radically different perspective on the world. I hoped to learn something of value from our interaction, perhaps changing some of my deeply held assumptions about how best to understand the universe. However, I found that when examined, the bold claims made by my discussion partner morphed or changed or retreated to such an extent they bore little resemblance to their initial form. When the discussion shifted from a search for truth into a description of differing world views, I withdrew. As with other entries, the text has been lightly edited for clarity and anonymity. I let my conversation partner (indented text) have the last word.
You don't need to take my word for it regarding corrupted translation or not, go ask any fluent Hebrew speaker, there are plenty [where you live]. The source of the corruption is from when the Torah was translated into the Septuagint. There are many words in Hebrew that don’t translate well into English (especially by way of Greek), simply because a word for it doesn't exist in the English lexicon. An example is the word "Et" (found all over Genesis, no translation in English). Other corrupted translations in English include "Ruach" (Gen1:2) translated as spirit, real meaning is "wind"; "Tzelem" (Gen1:26, 27) translated as image, real meaning is "shadow". Meaning, inside, we are a remnant or representation of G-d. We function like G-d on a small scale. He placed within us a shadow of Himself to act in the same manner. In other words, we are creators as well (think procreation).

Your rebuttal regarding people trading across large geographic areas as an explanation about the 4 animals claim still doesn't make sense. How did the author of the Torah, even with all of the trade information, know with absolute certainty that a 5th animal doesn't exist, either fossilized from the past or somewhere undiscovered in the present or future? Pretty bold statement coming from a mere mortal.

The centrality of the oral law is prime principle of Judaism. It is what explains how to do everything we are asked to do in the written law. I also never claimed that the oral law was human-made. On the contrary, I wrote that the Torah on at least 13 instances mentions "Torah's" (pl.), indicating that it was given at the same time on Sinai.

You claim that saying humans trying to comprehend the divine is cop-out (although I understand your reasoning) totally undermines the definition of an all-powerful, all-knowing, divine being. If humans were to be able to comprehend the divine, then what does that say about G-d? "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD" (Isaiah 55:8). If we would be able to understand the Divine language, there would be no reason to talk about G-d's hand, G-d's anger, his throne of sapphire, and other physical attributes ascribed to spiritual things. The reason physical metaphors are used, is to help us understand the divine through our human frame of reference and context.

If a fish were found tomorrow with scales but no fins I would abandon my beliefs, however over the course of history none has been found yet, and we have been deep sea exploring for quite some time now. Regarding the passage Gen 1:30 about the carnivores, you are assuming that carnivores existed from the beginning of time. Jewish tradition states, and scripture supports, that animals and humans were herbivores in the beginning. Re-read Gen 1:29-30. Man was given herbs and fruit (not animals to eat). Animals and birds were given green herb to eat (not other animals). Only in Gen 9:3 was man and animal given the green light to eat meat, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all." and there is a reason for that, but that would take us way off track, so for the purposes of our discussion I will leave it at that.

Regarding the 1018 stars comment, I truly apologize, but I couldn't get Facebook to recognize the exponential script. What that really should have been is 10 to the 18th power (18 zeroes). NASA claims 10 to the 21st power stars. Now, granted 10 to the 18 is not 10 to the 21, but they are both way different from the 4,000 stars that can bee seen with the naked eye back then. So the question remains, conventional wisdom of the times stated about 4,000 stars, but the Torah really went out on a limb and wrote a significantly higher number. Now you can argue that 10 to the 18 is not 10 to the 21, so therefore – ERROR. Looking at the big picture, when you are talking about numbers that high, they are fairly close, and secondly, much like everything else in science (like the age of the universe) I'm sure this number will be revised in time to be much closer together.

Regarding your comment, "To my way of thinking, the invisible and the non-existent are indistinguishable." I suppose then in your world x-rays, FM waves, and sound itself doesn't exists, because I can't see any of them.

Just as a way of background, I have a science background myself and very much believe in empirical proof. In my field (Physical Therapy, or Physiotherapy if that makes you feel better ) we are driven by data, outcomes, and research. However, the things that the Quack-a-doos were doing 10-20 years ago is now mainstream with solid systematic reviews backing it. What I am saying, and have been saying, is that Science is ever evolving and our concept in science of what is "right" is always changing (just think of poor Pluto and his lost planetary status).

Even today, in the field of quantum physics we are arriving at a truth that merges very much with the Torah world-view of interrelationship of everything (see M Theory).

One serious question I've been meaning to ask you; if an atheist hears someone sneeze, do they still say 'bless you'?

I also wanted to respond to the comment you keep bringing up about the sun and the moon. As I previously stated, Science is always discovering "new" things that the Torah has always known as the truth. According to the Torah and Midrash there were two great lights created and then the moon diminished in size and lost her light. This is in the process of being proven scientifically by the answer / theory being recently promulgated to explain the gravity anomalies on the surface of the moon. The theory says that the moon lost something which escaped its gravity and left behind this gravitational anomalies. The conclusion of this article states, "We now know the ancient moon must have been much hotter than it is now and the crust thinner than we thought."

Two other quick things: Please re-read my comment about the waters above and below the firmament. It was not referring to rain, anyone can see rain, nothing to prove here. But the profundity of the statement is that there is more water above the firmament than below. Anybody from down here can see gigantic bodies of water (~71% of the Earth's surface) and can't really see that much water in the skies. The divine authorship is the knowledge that our space particles can fill 1,000 Earth sized planets, thousands of years before telescopes and a space program.

Also, in case you didn't like my comment about all animals being herbivores at first, please reread the passage from the Torah and you may see it a bit differently. The tiger and other carnivores eats animals that eat grass and herbs. So the tiger was given grass and herbs to eat, just like all other animals, but just not in a direct manner.
I think we have reached near the end of a productive conversation, as we no longer seem to have any common ground.

How can you claim a given text is divine when you yourself readily provide many instances where it has been corrupted in translation? Your examples involve mistranslations from Hebrew into English, but (at a minimum) the Torah has been translated from Aramaic into Greek, and from Greek into Hebrew. You really believe that these two translations were without flaw when so many errors crept into the Hebrew to English translation?

You find it "entertaining" that I did not address every single point you bring up, when my response had already ballooned to be larger than a blowfish with a water retention problem, while failing to address or even acknowledge major sections of my response. I am not amused.

I didn't address certain items you brought up because you have already made it clear there is little point. You have sidestepped most issues I addressed, either by saying it doesn't matter, that it is a translation error, or by ignoring it completely. I point out contradictions, you respond "Oral Law!" No examples, no citations, no argument, no rational explanation - as though the mere existence of the Oral Law magically erases all contradictions within the Torah. You say water above and below is proof of God because only God could have known about meteorites and that they contain some amount of ice, utterly discounting the (far more likely) possibility that the author was referring to rain. (Here is the entirety of Gen 1:7: "And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so." How you get from there to "there is more water above the firmament than below" is a mystery to me. Gen 1:7 is not a profound statement about meteorites - it's oceans and thunderstorms. Am I wrong? Show me! You haven't done so thus far.) I went into detail about how your "proofs" regarding the moon were unconvincing, pointed out blatant falsehoods in the Torah, showed an example or two of where the Torah directly contradicts itself - and your response was that since I didn't address the Big Bang, the Torah is right in everything.

This is not arguing in good faith - this is whack-a-mole. You keep moving the standards on which this conversation is based. It started with "Find one flaw in the Eternal Torah and I will abandon my faith" and has now moved to "Until you, Leslie, who is far from an expert on life and history of the Biblical era, can explain the terrestrial origins of every chapter and verse of the Torah, I will maintain that I am right and your mind is closed."

Genesis 1:30 incorrectly states that all animals are herbivores, which is not true. Arguing that carnivores eat plants indirectly, which was your reply, is an exercise in rationalization - you might as well say all animals live on sunlight, since plants simply store the energy of the sun. Then the antelope eat the leaves, and the cheetah eat the antelope. Would you really say that it is fair and accurate that animals live on sunlight? Any teacher would give a failing grade to a grade 9 student who claimed all beasts eat plants - but you're willing to give God full marks. Your standards for a divine, all-knowing entity are astonishingly low.

The Torah got the order in which species appeared on earth wrong in Genesis 1. It contradicts itself in Genesis 2.

The God who wrote the Torah was either far from omniscient (which I infer would mean he isn't God, so maybe humans wrote it), deliberately misled people (a trickster God - "Haha, look at that silly human walking up to a lion thinking he won't be eaten! Human misery makes me giggle." - is hardly a moral role model), or was pretty lousy at expressing Himself (in which case, one can't really trust anything He has written). Whichever interpretation you adhere to, I don't find any reason to elevate the Torah above all other written works.

The article on mass concentrations on the moon has nothing to do with light sources in the sky and so for that reason alone is utterly irrelevant to our conversation. In addition, the time scale the author is referring to is billions of years ago during the moon's formation, not thousands of years ago when the Torah was written. If you're off by six orders of magnitude, you're not right. People thought the moon glowed. They were wrong. So is the Torah on this point.

You seem like an intelligent, articulate individual, which is why I engaged in this conversation. Your recent posts show a breathtaking lack of intellectual rigour. To take my remark about "invisible" and interpret it solely to mean the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can see is to miss the point entirely. True, humans cannot observe x-rays, FM waves, and sound with the naked eye alone. But we observe their effects every day. X-rays diagnose numerous medical conditions, from cavities to broken bones to cancers. Anyone who has listened to a radio has evidence that both FM and sound waves exist. Do you really want to equate the existence of God with the existence of sound waves? Be careful, because there is no proof - none - direct or indirect - that any of the thousands of deities humanity has worshipped over the ages has ever been more than a figment of human imagination.

Your "serious question" is anything but. Yes, in North America, almost all atheists will say "Gesundheit!" or "Bless you" when they hear someone sneeze. They do this because this is the social custom, not because it reflects an underlying belief. I doubt very much most Christians are thinking about their Saviour when they stub their toe - nonetheless, many of them shout "Jesus Christ!" at that moment. (For that matter, many Jews say the same thing in this situation.)

Your justifications for the divine origin of the Torah are not at all consistent with someone who values empirical proof.

And unless you adhere to basic fairness in argument, address the substantial points I have raised, and demonstrate far more consistency in the standards you apply, I fear I must withdraw from this conversation.
"To take my remark about "invisible" and interpret it solely to mean the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can see is to miss the point entirely." That's pretty much how I feel when you take the Torah's words literally. There are many layers to the Torah's words from poetry to prose, hidden numerical and equidistant codes, inferred meanings, and mystical intentions, but if you take it solely on the literal level you miss the point entirely. That is why I keep bringing up the Midrash and the Oral law. You may know x-rays and FM waves exist because you observe their effects everyday. Well I know G-d exists because I observe His effects everyday as well, and it is all encoded in nature, geography, science, and human psychology.

"Religious beliefs define for its believers an entire mental construct about how all existence operates. Religious beliefs, however primitive or advanced, share this one element. Therefore, what one accepts to be true, and what one considers to be the source of truth defines for one everything, what they think, how they feel, and what they do." -Ariel bar Tzadok-

Your religion is Science and mine is more traditional in terms of definition. Yours can be observed with the naked eye and involves the physical world, mine is beyond measure because it is not of this world. If you look back carefully, you will see that I tried to answer most, if not all of your questions and statements.

You did not accept any of them and deemed them all to be primitive. That is fine. That is your free choice. I did not accept your answers and deemed science and its theories to be ever evolving, so therefore how do we know when it has stopped evolving and we have arrived at the final answer?

If you look back carefully, you will see that we both arrived to the same conclusions, except the conclusion is relative to our point of view. Much like the theory of relativity posits, we did arrive to the same place, but it's hard to recognize that when you believe we are viewing the world from the same platform.

I wish you the best and I thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. However, I think we both knew from the beginning there would be no clear "winner", or perhaps we are both the "winner", or maybe I knew I would be the "winner" while you knew you would be the "winner". Perhaps all of the above scenarios are true, depending on how you look at it, and from which angle you examine it. After all, it's all relative.
I thought we were discussing truth, not personal worldviews.

Your religion is your philosophy; that's fine. But no religion has ever contributed one whit of knowledge about the universe. From that perspective, all sacred scrolls are dead, inert documents.

They contribute nothing to our understanding of the world.

Religion may be how you structure your understanding of and interactions with the world; that says nothing of its truth, accuracy, or value.

When the Torah, through its words, poetical allusions, numerology analysis, numerous inferences, and mystical connotations, can be interpreted to mean anything, then really the Torah says nothing. No matter the truth of the world (which has only been discovered via secular means), you will be able to find a way to reconcile that with the Torah.

As I said before - if it only contains wisdom in hindsight, it is useless as a source of knowledge.

I took you at your word that you were interested in truth; I see now I was mistaken. Instead, all things are subordinate to the words of the Torah. This may provide comfort and happiness to you and your family; but it is not an open, honest search for how the universe truly functions.

These are fundamentally different philosophies, and the source of our incompatibility.
I respect our differences and am happy to leave it at that. My premise was not that the Torah contributed one whit of knowledge, but that all the knowledge we have now was encoded in the Torah thousands of years ago, including events in world history. You may not see what I see, and I dont expect you to. Science will always be following the Torah, and that is not my opinion. Thank you for challenging my worldview and engaging me in this conversation.
Also, I need to correct a glaring mistake in your statement. The Torah's original language was Hebrew, and then later translated into all other languages. This fact is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform circles, I am not sure what your source is. The term "lost in translation" is very applicable here, since there are many words and concepts that are native solely to Hebrew and simply don't have a word in other languages, so the language (English, Greek, Russian, etc..) has to pick words from its own lexicon to explain it, but it's never the same. A document can only be corrupted in translation, when it's translated. The original Hebrew that's printed in books and is on the scroll is the actual original text brought down from Sinai. I feel like I needed to point this out so that you don't think the Torah is one big corrupted translation from Greek, Aramaic, or other.

When there is a discrepancy in any legal or other document you always have to go back to the original.
This, I'm sure is something we can agree on. That is the reason I can't accept or utilize corrupted English translations to explain the passages. That's why I had to revert back to the original text when discussing the hare and the image of G-d.

Again, I respect you and your position. Your arguments make perfect sense from your point of view, and I have tried to see it from your point of view. However, there are still too many questions that science hasn't the answer for, simply because certain things can't be measured and measurement is the standard science lives by. It is all fair in physical things that can be measured, but as quantum physics is starting to discover, there is a whole other world that runs by a whole different set of rules and we have not explored the quantum world thoroughly enough to understand it completely. But, even scientists are starting to recognize through quantum physics, certain truths that were described in the Torah long ago. Even they are searching for the so-called "G-d Particle".

X-rays and FM waves can be measured and their effects can be seen, but 3,000 years ago there was no method to measure them and their effects could not be seen. That doesn't mean that they didn't exist. We just didn't know how to harness them. Take a laptop or television back 300 years and show it to the people of the time. They will call you a witch and burn you at the stake.

All I'm asking is not to burn the Torah and it's believers at the stake, just because the people of today can't see or measure what it describes. Perhaps in time science can develop a measuring tool to record the presence of a divine being in this world, much like they did with x-rays and radio waves. That would truly be the epitome of Science and Torah being symbiotic.

I wish you the best to you and your family.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Conversation with a believer, part 3

The conversation between a devout Jewish believer and myself continues, in a lengthy message and my response. I believe my final two paragraphs of my reply, at the bottom of this post, contain the most important words of the entire exchange (part 4 will conclude the conversation). They are what I write in response to the question, "What have you got to lose?" by believing the Jewish God is real.
To address your comment about the hare not chewing its cud, it is inaccurate. The hare does not practice rumination, which is the typical meaning of “chewing the cud” (bringing up food and chewing again), but they do practice refection. Refection is where they eat their partially digested pellet droppings (different than horses and pigs which just eat any feces). They take it directly out themselves with their mouth and eat their food again. The error is in the translation of the Hebrew ‘Ma’alat Gerah’, commonly translated as chewing the cud, but literally means ‘raising up what has been swallowed’. So the hare, in the uncorrupted Hebrew translation, essentially does the same, re-eat partially digested food. If you want more on this see “The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax” by Slifkin. So the camel, hyrax, and hare are the only three that do so, without split hooves and none other has yet to be found. Also, regarding your assertion that this knowledge was culled by traders, conquerors, and various kingdoms, integrated at the height of the spice trail in the time of Alexander and the Roman kingdom, doesn’t apply here. The Torah was written at least 1,300 years prior to those civilizations.

As far as your verses in Genesis that you are finding inconsistencies with, you are missing a key verse that screams ERROR!

Genesis 2:17 - but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.'
Genesis 5:5 - And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.

Wait a minute, didn’t it just say that the day Adam eats the fruit he will die? But Adam lived 930 more years! If the Torah was written by an all-knowing deity, shouldn’t he, at the very least, keep his word? After all, I want a G-d that I can trust. But if the Torah was written by man..well honestly, I think even if the person had alzheimer’s he would have remembered what he wrote just a couple of chapters ago, as not to cause inconsistency don’t you think?

The answer is….the Torah, especially the first chapters of Genesis, obviously was never to be taken literally and the intended meaning of these verses has been transferred by the Oral Law through an unbroken tradition dating back to Sinai. We call this our Mesorah. How do we know that we received an Oral Law? There are at least 13 instances in the TaNaCh that refers to “Torah’s” (plural): Gen 26:5; Ex 16:28;18:16, 20; Lev 26:46; Is 24:5;Jer 32:23;Ezek 43:11;44:5, 24;Psa 105:45;Dan 9:10;Neh 9:13. This refers to the two Torah’s received on Sinai; written and oral. How do we know that the Mesorah is an unbroken chain of tradition that has been maintained and not modified over thousands of years? Up to 100 years ago, travel, communication, intercontinental travel etc was all difficult and dangerous. But, lo and behold when people started traveling more we found that even in the far reaches of the world and in the most isolated communities, the Torah scroll, the Tefillin the Mezuza, the tones blown on the Shofar, the method of kosher slaughter… every aspect of Jewish law was practiced in the exact same way from Zimbabwe to Timbuktu. This is because the Oral law provides the how-to’s of the Torah’s laws. For example, nowhere is it found in the Torah how to slaughter a cow, but we know how. The Torah says, "You shall slaughter an animal as I have shown you on the mountain." What was it that G_d showed Moses? Regarding Tefillin, the Torah says that "these words should be totafot between your eyes." What on earth are totafot? Where is between your eyes? When do you wear them and how?

So your verses in Genesis have a meaning in the oral law and the kabbalah (which is the “why’s” of everything), but there is no point in discussing them at this juncture. One thing I will say is that you are basing some of your argument on the theory of evolution, which is still a theory, and the missing link between man and monkey has still not been found. There are so many divergent opinions in science on the age of the universe, and that number is still changing. If all the scientists are basing their results on the same data set, then why are there so many opinions? It’s safe to say that the answer has still not been found. After all, they can’t all be right so who is to say any of them are correct?

You are right, Genesis is seemingly full of continuity errors, but that’s because you are trying to understand it rationally with your human mind when the document itself is extra-terrestrial; meaning it is not of this world. It uses human terms to help us understand concepts that we can’t perceive with our limited intellect. By us trying to rationalize something in the Torah, which was written by a Higher Being, to our understanding, either elevates us to the level of the Higher Being or diminishes the Higher Being to our level; either of which is not possible when you are talking about a Diving Being.

Here are more instances where science has confirmed the ancient Torah:
  • The Earth is round and people living on the bottom of the globe do not fall off (gravity). How did the Torah know?
  • The duration of a season of the year is no longer than ninety-one days and seven and a half hours; and the beginning of one season is removed from that of the other by no more than one half of a planetary hour" (Eruvin 56a). How did the Torah know?
  • The Earth was created with a big bang (Steady State Theory was ursurped by the Big Bang Theory until 1929). How did the Torah know?
  • The sun has a sheath, a protective cover (which absorbs heat radiated from the sun and restrains shockwaves from the sun’s core). How did the Torah know?
  • There are 1018 stars (NASA says there are 1021 stars; mind you the Torah was written when the naked eye could only perceive about 4,000 stars). How did the Torah know?
  • Gen 1:7 “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so”. Interpretation: There is water above the Atmosphere. The Midrash which is written about 1500 to 1800 years ago makes the following statement. The Water above the firmament is more abundant than the water below the firmament. In effect there is more water in outer space than in our oceans and clouds. (We now know that that meteors in space are actually particles of dust and rocks mixed with ice. If all these meteors and comets were melted they would fill the oceans of over 1,000 Earth sized planets.) How did the Torah know?
  • Deut. 11:11 " but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down." Interpretation: The whole world drinks from the waters above the firmament, this is referring to the water that comes from the meteors. (Science estimates that every 24 hour period approximately 30,000 meteors strike the earth.) How did the Torah know?
  • The commandment of circumcision is to be done on the 8th day. Not the seventh, not the ninth. Only about 30 years ago did science discover that Prothrombin (clotting factor) peaks at 110% of adult levels on 8th day of life, then drops off. How did the Torah know?

You have to realize that all of these statements by the Torah were considered incorrect, out-of-touch, erroneous, and even blasphemous in comparison to the known science of the day, whether it was biblical, ancient, middle ages or modern times. Everything that you claim now about the Torah being inaccurate has been said for thousands of years. But, as Solomon once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Now that science is catching up to the Torah, there is still difficulty with scientists in acknowledging that the Torah something other than your typical book.

All other religions and cults started by the claim of one man who had an angel teach him, or found a book in a cave, or something else. In contrast, the Sinai event was witnessed by 3 million people. Consider this scenario… Let’s pretend I was Moses who was making up a religion, and making up laws, creating “hazing rituals” as you put it, and I’ve got the people wrapped around my finger. I’m having fun with this making a new religion thing, I’m writing in my man-made book, which I claim to be divine, this is soo fun! Then all of a sudden I tell the people, “Hey guys! Remember how I went up on that mountain to speak to G-d? You remember how I went up and you saw that great fire come down on the mountain, and you remember that big voice you heard? Now, don’t you think out of 3 million people, one person, only one, would say, “uhh, Moses, I don’t know how to say this, but I didn’t see or hear anything,” or, “Moses, what are you smoking? That never happened!” Maybe the blind guy in the back, or the deaf one one on the side? Maybe the one who was sleeping or the one who was on his gameboy? But no one refuted what Moses said.

God spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound. He told you of His covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.’ (Deut.4:9-13)

‘You have been shown in order to know that God, He is the Supreme Being. There is none besides Him. From heaven he let you hear His voice in order to teach you, and on earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words amid the fire.’ (Deut. 4:32-36)

Moses called all of Israel and said to them: ‘Hear, O Israel, the decrees and the ordinances that I speak in your ears today — learn them, and be careful to perform them. The Lord your God sealed a covenant with us at Horev [Mount Sinai]. Not with our forefathers did God seal this covenant, but with us — we who are here, all of us alive today. Face to face did God speak with you on the mountain from amid the fire.’ (Deut. 5:1-4)

What you are looking for is the sound and light show that came down on Sinai as absolute proof that a Divine Being exists. Well, that is not going to happen. It happened only once in history and never again. If such a thing were to happen then our free choice would not exist. If every time a person who desecrated the Sabbath was immediately struck by lightning or if every time a person stole, his hand would immediately get chopped off I guarantee you there will be no Sabbath desecrators or thieves anymore; their free choice whether or not to keep the Sabbath or steal would be gone. Likewise, if you had absolute proof of a G-d then your free choice of EVERYTHING would cease to exist, because you would not do anything against His word.

Have you EVER seen a creation without a creator? Cars, computers, a cup, a pencil?? Have you ever seen a creation without a purpose? Imagine an interview with an inventor, “Why did you make this device and what use is it for us?” “Umm, I don’t know” Doesn’t really cut it! And don’t say the purpose of life is to eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves, because monkeys do that too. Have you ever seen a relatively simple invention without an instruction manual? Watches, stroller, Ikea furniture? What does that say about the most complex creation on the planet, us? The word Torah has often been mistranslated as “Law”, but ask any Hebrew speaker and you will find that the word Torah means “Instruction”. The Torah is our instruction manual for life.

There are certain times in one’s life where you come upon a bridge and the bridge is shaky and narrow. Sometimes you have to take that leap and see where the path leads you. If I am wrong, what do you have to lose? After all you claim there is no Divine Being, therefore you would not be subject to Divine Justice. But, what if I am right? You are Jewish and so you have a Jewish soul. Your conscious mind denies it but the soul knows its source and deep within your unconscious mind you know what I am saying here is the truth. I hope that one day something would cognite and you would listen to the inner voice that is being suppressed. Science and Torah go hand in hand. If you want more you can read “Science and Torah” and “The Coming Revolution”, both by Zamir Cohen. I can also mail you a DVD called “Science and Torah” by Yosef Mizrachi, or you can watch it online. This DVD actually goes in depth, in a step by-step fashion with proofs repudiating all other religions, establishing that there is a Divine Being, and the Torah is Divine. Please, I would love to hear your comment and feedback.
You covered a lot of territory.

Regarding the hare, I referred to your rendition of Deuteronomy. If there is an "uncorrupted" translation of Hebrew that you know about, why not use that in the first place? I am trusting you to say what you mean in this exchange of ideas; changing "chewing its cud" to include refection seems like a bait and switch technique, which leaves me feeling frustrated (though it was probably not your intention).

Yes, the Torah was written before the height of Alexander the Great and the Roman empire, but trade routes existed far before either of these, and there is evidence of extensive trading across wide geographic areas over 12,000 years ago (though we know less of their technology and lifestyle than later societies). My specific examples were ill-chosen, but the overall point that "there were traders, conquerors, various kingdoms and empires that spanned over time all of Eurasia and Africa. Oral traditions, written records, and animal specimens were imported from all these areas" stands. People moved, and knowledge was transferred across large land masses, and a demonstration of such information in the Torah is far more an indication that human migration occurred than of the divine provenance of its verses.

I am genuinely confused by your introduction of the Oral Law into this discussion, because it seems to me to change everything you've said until now. The Torah is "eternal", "divine", "written by the hand of G-d", and that I would "never find any inaccuracies in it". Yet as soon as I did so, quoting from just the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, you state that the Torah "obviously was never to be taken literally and the intended meaning of these verses has been transferred by the Oral Law".

So the words of the Torah, written by the divine creator, cannot be understood without the human Oral Law. (Again, there was no mention of its centrality until now, which is another point I find frustrating.) And although you mention the Oral Law, you do not demonstrate even once how it resolves contradictions between the Torah and the real world ("Two great lights" when there is only the sun; "every beast is given green herb for food" when carnivores exist) or when it contradicts itself (your example of Adam surely dieing and living to 930 years is one of many).

And frankly, the rationalization that Genesis' many continuity errors (which you acknowledge) is a result of mere humans trying to comprehend the divine is a cop-out. It is an excuse that can be used any time there is content in the Torah that is demonstrably false or inaccurate. By your own standards, if anyone finds a fish with scales but no fins, "the Talmud (and Judaism) will be proven wrong". Do you stand by this comment? If such a fish were found tomorrow, would you renounce the Torah as an infallible source of knowledge? If so, why are you so committed to this verse of the Torah but not to the fact that there exist carnivores while Genesis 1:30 says there are none? Why is the first a bedrock for your faith while the latter can be explained away by our limited mortal minds?

More generally: Why, when the Torah gets it wrong, it's because we humans are trying to comprehend the divine and inevitably fail in our attempts, but when it gets things right, you regard it as proof of divine origins?

I hope you realize that the same arguments could be applied to the foundational text of any religion or cult, from the Hindus to the Muslims, from the Scientologists to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

You mention that evolution is only a theory.

Evolution is a theory in precisely the same way that gravity is a theory. In common parlance, theory can be used as a synonym for "guess," "hunch," or "hypothesis". In a scientific context, theory means "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." Evolution is a theory in the latter sense - it is a well-substantiated body of knowledge.

You also write that "the missing link between man and monkey has still not been found."

This is because no biologist has ever seriously claimed that humans are the descendants of monkeys. Monkeys and humans both descended from an ape-like ancestor. Think of monkeys as (distant) cousins, and you'll be on the right conceptual track. The fossil record is full of transitional forms from one species to another (including the human lineage). Claiming otherwise is simply false, and demonstrates a lack of knowledge or a deliberate misrepresentation of the fossil record (I assume that you simply don't know). You have great museums and libraries [where you live] - if you're interested, you can learn as much as you like on the topic.

Some of your scientific proofs are quite silly. "There are 1018 stars". False. There are many billions of stars. I can't imagine NASA stating there are 1021 (and cannot find it on their website). Even if we grant both statements (which I don't), the Torah is wrong. It may be close, but it's still wrong. Which means that its writers were clever, intelligent, thoughtful, and other very positive things, but human and subject to the limitations of knowledge of the time.

Waters above and below the firmament - this is proof of divine authorship? Really? I assume that even you will grant that anyone living several thousand years ago could easily observe the sea (or ocean, or lake) and the rain. "Water above and below" is hardly divine knowledge.

The Torah may say the events at Sinai were witnessed by 3 million people, and that no one refuted what Moses said. But since I believe the Torah was written by human hands and minds, perhaps these events were witnessed by 3 million, or perhaps by three. (People have been known to exaggerate.) Perhaps the events did not occur precisely the way they are described in in Torah. (People have been known to record fanciful interpretations of events.) Perhaps rebuttals to the official version of the Sinai events were left out of the Torah. (People have been known to edit out contrary views.) You argue that God will never show his presence again as he did on Sinai. Which means that, for all practical purposes, for the rest of history God will remain invisible. To my way of thinking, the invisible and the non-existent are indistinguishable.

Have I ever seen something without a creator? Many times. Not the human artifacts you mention, of course, but yes, many things I have seen are beautiful, wondrous, and sometimes useful without the hand of a creator of any kind. The paths rivers have carved in rocks over millions of years. Natural arches that bridge two mountains. Caves. Patterns of driftwood that form a letter, or a tent, or a recognizable symbol.

If you truly believe humans are created by God, then you must recognize that He is a terrible engineer. Humans are amazing machines, but so flawed on so many levels that to think we are created in God's image is to say some pretty unflattering things about God.

Finally, you ask, "What do you have to lose?" This is known as Pascal's wager. And it is one I refuse to accept. It can be asked of any faith - why not be a Christian? Or a Sikh? Or a Scientologist? What if they are right? Why not convert to one of those faiths? Their promised punishments for being wrong are far more severe than Judaism's - and the promised rewards certainly win out over the vague claims from the Torah. If you truly adhere to this logic, you'd best change your belief system, just to be on the safe side.

But putting that aside, I have plenty to lose. I could lose years of my life chasing an illusion, a falsehood, a lie. I could stop being curious about anything, stop contributing what knowledge I can to the world, because everything worth knowing is already documented in a particular text. I could stop thinking for myself, stop challenging assumptions about the world, stop leading the examined life to the greatest extent I can, and stop learning about new things, because (as you wrote) "there is nothing new under the sun". I could devote my life to something that claims the existence of an afterlife, never to know it is a tremendous fraud, instead of doing what I can to improve the lives of my family, community, culture, country, and planet.

What could I lose? I could lose almost everything that is of value. And so could you. Let me turn the question around - what if you devote your life to the God of the Torah (out of the thousands humanity has genuinely worshipped over its history), and you discover at the end that you have been, at the most fundamental level, wrong?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Conversation with a believer, Part 2

A dialogue continues between me, who thinks that the Torah, like all other works of literature, is a product of human imagination, and another (indented text) who believes it is divinely inspired and inerrant.
First of all, Leslie, we should define what qualifies as divine and what isn't. I think it's safe to say that anything from a divine origin has to be free of errors and mistakes. "On September 11, 2001 three planes crashed into the Sears Tower in Des Moine, IA." Any intelligent person who picks up a book and reads that sentence will quickly put down the book and not continue reading it. For a holy book to be truly divine and not written by the hand of man, it must contain things that is only known by a higher power, and not by man. Now we can debate whether prophecies in holy books count because man can always reinterpret it to line up with the times, as you stated above. But what if a book contained information that is clear cut, not open to interpretation, and can only be known by divine origin. Would you agree that such a book is indeed divine? Do you know if such a book exists?
If a source contained knowledge "that is clear cut, not open to interpretation, and can only be known by divine origin", then yes, I would agree such a text was at least inspired by a deity.

I am not aware of any work that meets these criteria, and I have read the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Tao Te Ching, and Bhagavad Gita. All contain wisdom. All contain barbarity. All contain useful moral precepts; all describe abominable moral behaviour in glowing terms. All are riddled with factual errors about the physical world given our modern understanding (but are completely understandable given the very human context in which these books were written). Personally, I have found the works and poetry of Shakespeare to be more incisive, beautiful, eloquent, and accurate about human nature than any holy book.

That aside, let's assume there was a document that described an insight, technology, wisdom, or other information that is so far beyond our current capabilities that any reasonable person would agree that it could not have a terrestrial origin. There are many possibilities to exhaust before we could state with confidence that it the source was the Jewish God. Perhaps it was the result of a secret research program, years in the making, that produced a breakthrough far beyond anything known outside a small circle. Perhaps an alien civilization developed more advanced technology or simply developed along very different lines. Perhaps it is the result of one of the thousands of deities that humanity has worshipped over the ages - Zeus, Apollo, Ba'al, Ra, Shiva, Jesus, etc.

So to directly answer your question: yes, while in principle, such a book could exist, I do not think any such book does, or ever has.
“This may you eat of all that is in the waters: everything that has fins and scales, you may eat. But anything that has no fins and scales, you may not eat.” Deuteronomy 14:9-10.
All [fish] that have a scale(s) also have a fin(s) [and are thus kosher]; there are [fish] that have a fin(s) but do not have a scale(s) [and are thus not kosher]" Talmud, Niddah 51b
By using the word ALL, the talmud tells us that a fish that has scales but no fins does not exist in the world. Who could make such a brave statement even among today's scientists? Who, 2,000 years ago, could have travelled through all the depths of the sea (and we know it is miles deep), in all of the oceans in the world, all simultaneously as not to miss even one fish, in order to make such a declaration? It turns out that even though so many fish species have been discovered since the Talmud was written, a fish with scales and no fins has not been found.

Practically speaking, this means that for a fish to be kosher it has to have fins and scales. But if you catch remnants of a fish and you can't identify whether it has fins, but it has scales, know that it is kosher because a fish with scales but no fins does not exist.

If anyone finds such a fish, the Talmud (and Judaism) will be proven wrong. How did the Talmud know? Well, because its tradition that comes from the Creator of all.
If I understand correctly, you are saying that if a creature of the sea existed with scales but no fins, your belief in the Creator of all would dissipate. You would agree that the Torah/Tanach/Talmud was written by people and, though perceptive and insightful in places, is therefore fallible.

I am not aware of such a maritime animal, but the Torah is filled with other factual errors about the physical world. Why do these inaccurate assertions have no bearing on your belief, but instead this claim (so far validated by all our observations) is the one on which your faith rests?

My perspective is that the Talmud made several sweeping claims that exceeded the knowledge of the day; some turned out to be accurate, many did not. I do not find your argument that a few have withstood the test of time to be persuasive when doing so requires discounting or ignoring those that have not.
The Torah was written by the hand of G-d and as such, you or anyone else will never find any inaccuracies in it. Simply for the reason I mentioned above regarding the definition of a divine book. The Nach (Nevi'im - prophets / Ketuvim - writings), on the other hand, were written by people. The Nevi'im was written by people who had prophecy and the Ketuvim was written by people who had divine inspiration. Likewise, the Talmud was written by people as well. The Talmud is a commentary on the Mishna, which is a recording of the Oral Law handed down to Moses on Sinai, both were written through divine inspiration.

Just as an aside, consider this; the Talmud has nearly 6,000 pages and considering that there were no word processors or computers back then, all of it was written by hand. The Talmud was written over a very long time span and in all 6,000 pages of the Talmud you will not find a single point of contradiction. Meaning, the people who wrote it had to basically memorize every single fact, name place, date, etc, so that years later, and thousands of pages later they did not contradict themselves. Not solid proof of divine inspiration, but makes you think...

Back to our story. If you are not satisfied with my fish example from the Talmud, because the Talmud (you claim) is filled with factual errors, then here is one from the Torah, which we do claim to be Divine. (By the way, please point out some of the factual errors in the Talmud that you are referring to).

In Leviticus 11:3-7 it says; “Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat. But these you shall not eat among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you. And the hyrax, because it brings up its cud, but will not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you; And the hare, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you; And the pig, because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud; it is unclean for you.”

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 6-8 it says; “And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat. But you shall not eat of those that chew the cud, or of those that have the split hooves: the cloven one, the camel, the hyrax, and the hare, for they chew the cud, but do not have split hooves; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You shall neither eat of their flesh nor touch their carcass.”

It clearly delineates and cautions us about three animals that can “trick” us in thinking it is kosher; the camel, hyrax, and hare chew it’s cud but doesn’t have a split hoof. Tell me Leslie, which man 3,325 years ago, could have traveled through all of the discovered and undiscovered lands, through the entire Amazon and Serengeti, to the depths of every cave and the peaks of every mountain, so as not to miss inspecting a single animal, in order to make such a brave declaration, and to know that a fourth species that chews its cud and doesn’t have a split hoof will never be found through history ? Again, it turns out that even though so many animal species have been discovered since the Torah was received, a fourth animal that chews its cud, but doesn’t have a split hoof was never found.

If anyone finds such an animal, the Torah (and Judaism) will be proven wrong. How did the writer of the Torah know? Well, because its came from the Creator of all.

One other point. Don’t you think if a man wanted to create a religion and generate a following, shouldn’t he at least make it easy? Eat what you want, do what you want, just be nice to each other. See me every week so I can forgive your sins and give you blessing, etc, etc… (sounds like many other religions). But no, the Torah has 613 Commandments and some required the men and women of the day to get divorced because the Torah all of a sudden came and said you can’t marry your sister, cousin aunt, etc.. Then it comes up with, honestly, the weirdest rituals and laws. Mix a red cows ashes with water and sprinkle it on yourself; give me all your gold so I can build a tabernacle; visit me 3 times a year (even though travelling took up to a month and was dangerous) to offer sacrifices in the Temple, see me every time you make a sin (again travel for up to a month in dangerous conditions) and offer a sin offering; it goes on and on.

Why would anyone in their right mind follow such a person, with the most complicated laws, that separated families…unless the people knew it was the word of G-d and not man!
[Ed note: At this point, another individual interjected stating that the Torah is meant to be interpreted, not taken literally. My conversation partner (whom I refer as [A] below) added that "2/3 of the Tanach and the entire Talmud were written by man, but the Torah is Divine."]

The point is not that I am a scholar of the Torah, but that [A] claims it is divine truth. If one word of it is proven false, he says, then his faith in the Jewish God would be misplaced. I find this a truly astonishing claim. And since this directly overlaps with a deep philosophical principle of mine (truth), I wish to engage on that level.

That the Torah is intended to be interpreted is quite at odds with [A's] position, and reduces to what I said before - "We make advances using purely secular techniques (though many contributors are deeply religious), but then holy books are reinterpreted to line up with new discoveries." I am not arguing that the Torah (and other religious texts) are without merit, but that they should be viewed as written by people in a particular place and time - studied and appreciated as literature (as is, for example, Socrates and Shakespeare). This is a very different perspective on the five books of Moses than [A's].

[A] earlier used the example of astronomy to claim a divine origin of the Torah. While I find the degree of precision impressive given the tools of the time, we are talking about the largest, most prominent, and variable sight in the night sky. Of course it will be of intense interest to anyone with a tiny dollop of curiosity. I would be far more likely to ascribe divine origins if ancient civilizations accurately transcribed the process of nuclear fusion at the heart of every star, for example, or quasars, or black holes. But no - we have instead a description of an celestial body easily observed with the naked eye.

As for the various references to animals that chew their cud - there were traders, conquerors, various kingdoms and empires that spanned over time all of Eurasia and Africa. Oral traditions, written records, and animal specimens were imported from all these areas during the height of the spice trail, in the time of Alexander, during the Roman Empire, and so on. That scholars looked at the incorporated evidence from all these sources and found the exceptions to a general rule is not all that surprising. (There could have been divergent evolution in the Americas or Australia, and I will take your word that this hasn't happened. I wouldn't know - this is beyond my area of expertise and I choose not to research the point solely for the sake of this discussion.) Again, impressive scholarship - but I attribute this to human thoroughness and diligence, not divine provenance.

The best example I know of that demonstrates an almost unbelievable inspiration in a field of human endeavour is an Indian mathematician named Ramanujan. He was born in a rural village to illiterate parents that could barely afford to send him to school. He read a basic level textbook on Algebra and spent years devising theories that stunned the world when they were published (his notebooks, even today, are producing results that no one has come up with nearly a century after his death). If ever there was a God that whispered to human ears, I know of no more compelling an example.

All of this is an aside - an attempt to demonstrate that I am not immune to awe and wonder. But I am humbled by the abilities and accomplishments of my fellow humans, and do not ascribe their talents and discipline to any sort of deity (though Ramanujan himself did).

[A] says I will "never find any inaccuracies in" the Torah. I disagree. I will start at the beginning - Genesis 1. I will not nitpick and detail every error I find - just the ones that completely contradict the facts of the origins of life on Earth. Other examples abound in other chapters, and other books.

1:11 - The first living thing is grass, herbs, and fruit trees. False. Life first evolved in the seas. Plant and animal life existed for millions of years in the seas before any of it migrated to land.

1:16 - God made two great lights, and the stars. False. There is only one great light - the sun. The moon is not a light - it reflects the sun.

1:20 - Sea creatures are created here. These should have preceded 1:11. Also, fish and fowl did not evolve at the same time. Continuity error.

1:30 - "every beast of the earth [is given ...] green herb for food." False. Many beasts (tigers, for example) are strictly carnivorous. They would starve eating green herbs of any kind.

There is more, of course - much more. But just the first chapter of the first book of the Torah contains at least four major inaccuracies about the physical world we live in. This, for me, trumps claims about observant astronomers and diligent taxonomists.

For your "one other point": it's an interesting quirk of human psychology, but no, if you want to create a religion you shouldn't make it easy for your followers. That's why there are hazing rituals at fraternities, and why people still want to join despite them. Having suffered so much to get in, people believe it has to be good for them or else they wouldn't have done it. Similarly, they want to ensure that future recruits go through at least as many hoops as they themselves did. Anything easy to join is easy to leave. It isn't intuitive, but it is human nature. The restrictions form an in-group and a sense of identity. We are social creatures, and find this appealing, despite (or because of!) the sometimes onerous costs involved. An alternative explanation to consider to divinity.

Another falsehood to consider, which I mention only because you brought it up: hares do not chew their cud; Deuteronomy says they do. The Torah is wrong.

This does not invalidate much that is good in the Torah; only the claim that it is divine and inerrant.

It is, like all the varied deities humanity has worshipped over the ages, a product of human observation and imagination.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Conversation with a believer, Part 1

It started with a status update from a friend of mine:
To believe that religion holds a monopoly of virtue is as narrow minded as to believe that science holds a monopoly of truth -- Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Which prompted my reply: "Perhaps, but if I were a gambler I would wager that the physicist paints a more accurate picture of the origin of the universe than the tales told by a rabbi/priest/imam/swami."

This led to a prolonged discussion with a devout Jewish individual, previously unknown to me. I had hoped to learn something new about the foundations of faith. I was resolved from the start to be polite and to take his arguments seriously, while not compromising on what makes for a cogent argument. I will share the (lightly edited for anonymity and clarity) discussion in the next few posts. All indented text is quoted directly from my discussion partner.
Accurate to our perceptions, but science does not have the complete picture. Besides, both science and religion's depiction of the origin of the universe are starting to merge.
Have religious texts changed to such an extent that they are now largely consistent with our current scientific understanding of the universe? If so, a lot has happened without my being aware of it.
Religious texts don't change, they are eternal. However, science is always changing. Look up the Unified String Theory and quantum physics. They are very similar to what was written in religious texts over 2,000 years ago.
So much was written in religious texts centuries or millennia ago, you'd likely be able to find something from eras past that is consistent with whatever our best understanding of the universe is at a given point in time.

The key point is, it took astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists studying the skies to comprehend galaxies, supernovae, the lifetime of stars, along with all the other knowledge we have accumulated in recent decades. All of this progress was made without reference to any religious text.

If the best you can say about a particular religious text is that it sat dormant for thousands of years, and only after humanity harnessed its collective brainpower to learn about the world we inhabit does it release its wisdom to the world, then it is a stale, sterile book that contributes nothing to human knowledge. Something that is useful only in retrospect does not, in practise, contain wisdom.

Finally, religious texts are anything but eternal. The Jewish ones were written between five and six thousand years ago; humans have existed in their current form for roughly ten times as long. Hindu scrolls go back a bit further; Christian and Muslim holy texts are considerably more recent. But none of them are eternal.
I respect you disagreeing, but your argument has many holes and I can't address all of them now. I will say this; If it has taken decades recently to discover what we now know about the universe, but the same information was written in religious texts milleniums ago, you are right- it doesn't contribute to our knowledge- however it does validate the divinity of the text. For example, the fact that the world is round, revolves around the sun, and the exact number of days, minutes, seconds, and hundredth of a second it takes for the the moon to revolve around the Earth was written in Judaic texts over 2,000 years ago, but only recently discovered in Science a couple of hundred years ago. Without telescopes and high powered scientific methods we have today, who or what could have given us that information? Anything divine is by definition eternal.
Please point me to a two thousand year old source that accurately describes the moon's period around the earth to the hundredth of a second.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, page 25a.
Here is the text: "Twenty-nine days and a half and two-thirds of an hour and seventy-three halakin" (Lit., ‘parts’ (sc. of one hour), 73/1080 X 60 m == 4 m 3 1/3 sec)
This is from NASA; the synodic month is 29.53059 days (29d 12h 44m 03s) (NASA is off by a mere 40 minutes, and they couldn't calculate to the hundredth of a second!)
Let me know if you need any other proof of the divinity of the Torah.
I find your reasoning interesting. Given a discrepancy between NASA's measurements of the moon's orbit and the figure given in somewhere else in the Talmud, you claim that therefore NASA's measurements are inaccurate.

Wouldn't a more reasonable interpretation be that Jewish astronomers two thousand years ago were off by (an impressively small, but still far more than divinely inspired) 40 minutes, rather than NASA being incorrect today?
Science is constantly updating its theories and there is nothing discovered in science that hasn't been mentioned before in Judaic sources (for example, that the earth is round). There are also some incredible claims made in the Torah itself that, if debunked, would would invalidate the entire religion. But, try as they might, no one has been able to disprove these claims in over 3,300 years. And I'll be more than happy to be specific about these claims.

So for me, NASA is inaccurate, and in time they will adjust their data accordingly- as science always does. But, in all honestly, we are talking about a mere 40 minutes of something measured millions of miles away, without any advanced multi-billion dollar equipment and a team of rocket scientists. Are we really that naive to think any human being has the capability to measure such a thing back then? Or, perhaps it was the oral tradition divinely handed down from generation to generation tracing back to Sinai that gave us this information. Tractate Rosh Hashana page 25a will answer this question for you.
Assuming that one halakin equals one second (I could not find a formal definition in several online dictionaries), then the passage translates to 29 days + 12 hours + 40 minutes + 73 seconds, or 29 days, 12 hours, 41 minutes, 3 seconds.

According to several astronomy sites, the synodical month is 29.530588853 days, or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.88 seconds long (note the precision). So if a halakin is indeed equal to one second, the Jewish astronomers were off by only three minutes, not forty.


Not divine.

The Babylonians recognized that Venus was a planet over 3,500 years ago. Their discoveries were the foundation for astronomical advances in later civilizations, including for Egyptian, Indian, and Greek star gazers, each of which made unique and (at the time) unprecedented contributions to our understanding of the sun, stars, and planets.

Perhaps Jewish astronomers were the first to measure the synodical month of the moon with such accuracy. It is one accomplishment of a long list of advances made by civilizations before, during, and after that period, all around the world.

Nothing about it demonstrates anything in the least about divine inspiration.

If the Talmud (or any other text) were an accurate guide to the universe, then people would use it to learn more about the world we inhabit. But that's not what happens anywhere. No sacred scroll has ever contributed one whit of knowledge about the physical universe that was not already known elsewhere - the best that can be said is that they sometimes recorded the best knowledge of the day but very, very often got things entirely wrong.We make advances using purely secular techniques (though many contributors are deeply religious), but then holy books are reinterpreted to line up with new discoveries.

Or, in this case, human intelligence and diligence are discounted and only a divine revelation is deemed an acceptable explanation for the development of new theories, advances, and technologies.

The conversation continues in my next post.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Twenty-five years after R v. Morgentaler

Today is the 25th anniversary of Canada's Supreme Court decision to strike down its abortion law, which had prevented a woman from obtaining an abortion until after a panel of medical experts agreed the mother's life was at risk. Thanks to Dr. Morgentaler's long efforts, for a quarter-century most Canadians (though only few in New Brunswick and none on Prince Edward Island) have had ready access to safe, professional, confidential procedures to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Canada has largely avoided the ongoing embarrassing spectacle still seen in the United States to overturn the 40 year old Roe v. Wade decision that granted women there the right to an abortion. The most recent American attempt to restrict access is only one week old - in New Mexico, a Republican lawmaker proposed a measure that would "legally require victims of rape to carry their pregnancies to term in order to use the fetus as evidence for a sexual assault trial."

This brought to mind Canadian federal Conservative Member of Parliament Stephen Woodworth's proposed Motion 312, which last fall would have created a special committee to examine whether "a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth". 

I was appalled at the motion, and relieved when it was soundly defeated in the House of Commons in September 2012. But as someone who treasures scientific discovery and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, why was I against a government committee whose stated purpose is the advancement of human knowledge? I found my reaction to be somewhat inconsistent.

My stance is not an absolute one. I recognize that sometimes placing a moratorium on certain aspects of research is justified while ethical, environmental, and other implications of potential discoveries can be considered and appropriate codes of conduct, safety protocols, and other procedures developed and implemented. The foremost example of this is from early 1975, when most leading biologists endorsed a self-imposed pause on genetic engineering research until the US National Institute of Health released guidelines in 1976 (these have been regularly updated). More recently, a debate rages within political and scientific circles about the wisdom of research into the H5N1 influenza virus.

But my response was not based on any variant of the precautionary principle. There were other issues that disturbed me. Why would this government, hardly known for its commitment to scientific inquiry, suddenly be interested in discovering a scientific definition for a human being? Is a government panel the right body to investigate this question? Could Mr. Woodworth, as many claimed, have had a hidden agenda, and use the findings of the committee (whatever they were) to restrict abortions in Canada to the maximum possible extent?

Furthermore, I was fundamentally uncomfortable with how the motion was phrased.

The development of life is a continuum. There is no distinct threshold before which there is only a collection of dividing cells, and after which there is a fully formed human being. It is ridiculous to argue that the few cells of a just-fertilized embryo are a complete person with full rights and protections, just as it is to say we have no moral responsibility to care for a healthy nine-month gestated unborn fetus. (This is implicitly recognized by the medical profession, as virtually no one performs an abortion after the first trimester or so unless the mother's life is at significant risk.)

Any answers such a commission would have come up with would crucially depend on how "human being" is defined. The following have all been proposed for the definition of a human being:
  • The point of development at which the fetus can survive outside the womb; 
  • When the first heartbeat, brain activity, or some other physiological trait can be first detected;
  • As soon as the fetus displays a detectable personality or identifiable set of behaviours such as pain avoidance.
All of the above are highly dependent on the current state of technology. As our knowledge of fetal development increases and detection equipment gains greater resolution, any of these definitions could in principle push back when we classify the fetus as a human being earlier and earlier in the embryonic development process.

As a scientific endeavour, such an investigation is legitimate. The problem arises, in my view, with public policy. Anti-abortion activists are not renowned for accurately reflecting the subtleties of scientific knowledge. If, for example, a paper is published claiming that a fetus displays an aversion reaction (or "pain") as early as 2.5 months, it won't matter how provisional the conclusion is, what the disclaimers are, or what caveats are attached - it will be used by religiously motivated activists (such as Stephen Woodworth) to argue that no abortions can be performed past that point. That, fundamentally, was why there was such a strong reaction from myself and many other Canadians to Mr. Woodworth's motion in the House of Commons in September. It was not based on a belief that the question is taboo or that science should not inform public policy. Instead, there is a well-founded concern that any discussion based on these premises will not be undertaken in good faith. The motion, as phrased, could not be answered in a reasonable fashion and would likely be used for purposes that stray far from scientific inquiry.

Which leads me to an observation that I hope to substantiate. I find that, in practice, the label "pro-life" is misleading. Anti-abortion activists do not seem to be generally pro-life - only very specifically pro-fetus. I do not hear of any anti-abortion protesters taking any practical steps to ensure the children resulting from pregnancies carried to term are cared for (which reminds me of my favourite bumper sticker: "If you cannot trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?"). I have not noticed any support from "pro-life" groups for the elimination of capital punishment (which unambiguously kills a human being). National and global vaccination programs would be a natural fit for those that believed longer, healthier human life is a good thing. It seems to me genuine pro-life activists should support stricter gun control laws, as gun violence takes innocent lives every day in the United States. School food programs in poor neighbourhoods significantly improve the well-being of children's lives, and have large effects even into adulthood. Yet the only correlation I am aware of between being anti-abortion and supporting initiatives that are genuinely pro-life is a negative one. 

In the interest of accuracy, perhaps we should refer to those on opposite sides of the abortion debate as "pro-choice" and "pro-fetus".