Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A little bit more about sex and advertising

After mulling over the thoughts in my previous blog for a few days, there are a couple more things I'd like to say on the subject.  First, on the subject of non-persons and dehumanizing:

I don't like the word "dehumanize."  It gets tossed around very easily, and I think that is undeserved.  Humans are very complex creatures, capable of very generous and kind acts as well as very cruel and despicable acts.  Mass murderers are being just as "human" as human rights activists.  They're just being particularly cruel humans.

Here's an important distinction to make.  In some situations, individuals can have their "humanity" taken away.  Examples of this would be sensory deprivation or extreme isolation.  Humans are social creatures who rely on our senses and human contact for our sanity.  When a human is deprived of these things, they are (in my use of the word) being dehumanized.  What's important to bear in mind is that the people doing these things are being very human.

Point two:  treating people as less than intimate friends is not dehumanizing them.  Humans are designed to have a hierarchy of intimacy, from that of a complete stranger from another culture to that of an intimate long time lover and friend.  We recognize that other people are humans, but we don't accord them the same level of intimacy we would someone more familiar.

Point three:  Sex is not magic.  Particularly in America, we tend to think of sex as something either above or below other kinds of human interaction.  For many fundamentalist Christians, it's something that humans basically have to do, but it's not something we talk about, and certainly not something we try to enjoy too much or give into more than occasionally.  For many others, it's something sublime and wonderful that's above the mundane, and is proprely reserved for only the most special people to experience, and only the most intimate to discuss.

I maintain that it is neither of these things.  While sex can certainly feel magical, the reality is that most people will have far more "normal sex" in their lives than they will the intensely romantic, erotic, and adrenaline fed sex they did when they found their first "true love" and had that perfect night.

In reality, many people never have that night.  Sex is not magic.  It's two people and nerve endings and heart rates.   There is no inherently correct way to view intercourse, either.  It is not true that sex within marriage is always better than casual sex, nor is it true that all married couples become bored with each other and have only infrequent mundane sex.  It's not true that monogamy is the best way for people to have sex, nor is it true that open relationships will save all marriages.  The fact is, sex is a highly subjective experience, and our perceptions of it are directly caused by our environment acting upon our genes.

This, I think is the crux of why I get aggravated by people who assert that sexual advertising, or porn, or see-thru tops, or swingers, or confirmed bachelors, or any other "unusual" variation on human sexuality, is degrading, humiliating, or dehumanizing.  What we need to remember is that the only thing we can rightly say about a particular aspect of sex is that it feels degrading to us personally.  The truth is, we cannot say that it is universally degrading, nor can we say that because most people find it degrading that anyone who doesn't find it so has something wrong with them.

Finally, I want to make clear that I recognize the difference between morality and taste.  I, for one, get kind of tired of seeing Girls Gone Wild commercials during every commercial break after midnight.  I find the videos to be overload, to be honest.  I like young attractive females with breasts as much as the next guy, but after the first hundred and fifty, they start losing their appeal to me.  It's not my thing.  However, I will defend to the end the right of women to show their breasts to anyone who wants to see, and I will defend the right of men to masturbate to videos of them doing so.

To those who will say, "Yeah, but you have to draw the line somewhere," I submit that the line draws itself in two ways.  First, there's the law.  Girls under the age of 18 are not permitted to be in sexually explicit media.  I support the law even though I quibble with the implementation of it from time to time.  (I'm thinking of a case where several teenagers were charged as sex offenders when one of their friends, also a teenager, sent a topless photo of herself to several cellphones.  That's ludicrous.  These were clearly not sexual predators.  But I digress.)

More importantly, the line draws itself by virtue of the fact that there are different tastes.  If I choose to, I can get in my car and drive to a neighborhood where everyone is rich and white.  I can drive to another area of town and have my choice of eighty or so bars.  I can go to the mall and see nothing but photos of beautiful people wearing expensive clothes and jewelry.  I can go to the seedy part of town and have my choice of adult toy stores.

The world has never disintigrated into a giant orgy despite the fact that everyone thinks about, and most people like, sex.  There is a natural limit to what people want to see, and this is reflected in our society.  It isn't that the laws prevent us from turning the world into a giant billboard for "Pussies R Us."  It's that even the most sex crazed people have other things to do and other interests.

Sure, there will always be debates over particularly risque ads, and someone will always push the envelope when it comes to advertising their product.  The important thing to remember is that human nature is not infinite.  We won't turn the whole world into a brothel.  We've got other shit to do.  Most of the fuss and worry is unfounded because sex isn't magic, it's not dehumanizing, and it's not all there is to being human.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sex and Advertising

I've been reminded again recently that sexual advertising offends a lot of people.  To be honest, I've always been a little bit puzzled by this.  I'm still working on a genuine book chapter dealing with Evolutionary Psychology's possible explanations for this, but for the moment, I'm just going to bounce a few thoughts off of the blogosphere.

I hear two objections more than any other:

1) Sexual advertising objectifies people (especially women) and "dehumanizes" them.
2) Sexual advertising imposes a false sense of beauty on us, and pressures less than perfect women (and men!) to obsess too much about their looks.

First, what does it mean to "objectify" somebody?  Webster says it means either "to treat as an object" or "cause to have objective reality."  Alternatively, it can mean "to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others < class="Apple-style-span" style="font-style: italic; ">objectify differing facets of the child's emotional experience -- John Updike>"  Clearly, we must be talking about the first definition, so let's work with that.  What does it mean to treat someone as an object?

What is an object?  Webster has a lot to say about that question.  It can be something material, perceivable by the senses.  Clearly, all people are objects in this sense, so that's probably not what we're talking about.  It can be something mental or physical toward which thought, feeling, or action is directed, as in "the object of my affection."  At first glance, maybe this isn't what people are objecting to, either.  Most people like being the object of affection and admiration.

Even so, are the models on billboards objects in this sense?  I think they certainly are.  When I see a male underwear model with six-pack abs, I sometimes think to myself that I am far short of that goal.  Sometimes it causes me a sense of envy.  Gosh, I think.  If I had abs like that, women would line up to have sex with me.  In reality, it's not clear whether my sex life would be more fulfilling if I had six-pack abs, but I certainly do entertain the thought from time to time.  So in a sense, I'm making that person's body the object of my envy.

Is that bad?  Is that what women are objecting to?  Perhaps it is, in the sense of the second complaint I listed.  I'll return to this idea later.  In the meantime, we need to hash out what it means to objectify someone in a bad way.  In browsing through several dictionary sites on the web, I've had a hard time finding a definition that fits this use, so let's just play around with making our own.  The sense I get when someone says an ad objectifies women (or men, or whatever group is being portrayed) is that some generalization or stereotype is being emphasized to the exclusion of other traits.  That is, a Victoria's Secret model is nothing more than sexuality.  In the pages of the catalog, there are no minds.  There is no camaraderie.  There is no love, no self-respect, and there certainly aren't any shared goals in the context of a loving monogamous marriage.

I think this gets closer to the meaning of "objectification" in advertising.  For the time being, it's what I'm going to use.  Now, let's ask the obvious question.  Is this kind of objectification bad?

If you've lived in the real world at all, you've probably known a man who objectified women.  That is, he treated them as nothing more than sex toys, and didn't invest any kind of energy into forming deep emotional bonds.  (In fairness, we've probably all known women like that, too, but we'll go with men for the time being.)  These kind of men don't often make good husbands, so we can say that if all men treated women that way, it would be very bad for monogamous marriage.

The thing is, all men don't treat women that way.  Most men are looking for a monogamous lover who also happens to be a great friend.  Sure, they'll take casual sex along the way while they're searching, but the ultimate goal of most men is long term meaningful relationships.  Considering the huge number of sexual ads, it's safe to say ads don't turn all men into objectifiers.  But do they turn some men?  Perhaps, but even if they do, we have to ask the question, do these men objectify because the ads are bad, or do they objectify because they were socialized poorly and don't have healthy views of women?  It's a chicken and egg problem that probably doesn't have a clear cut answer.

Instead of trying to find a clear answer, let's approach it from the other angle.  Do most men look at sexual advertising and still manage to have healthy relationships?  Yes.  They do.  Perhaps we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by blaming the existence of sexually selfish men on billboard ads.  In fact, psychologists have made a very compelling argument that images are not the main cause of emotional dysfunction in men or women.  One of the best indicators of relationship health in any person is the relationship health of their parents (or whoever raised them).  Religion also plays a much larger role in shaping sexual identity.  In America, people who think sex before marriage is inherently harmful are almost all religious, and those who aren't have almost all come from religious backgrounds and given up the organization.

In fact, there's a lot of new and compelling evidence that sexually vivid advertising, erotica, and even downright smutty porn are a significant part of a lot of healthy relationships.  It appears that emotionally healthy people are not only not "dehumanized" by sexual advertising, they incorporate it into their own healthy lives!

Since I just used the word, "dehumanized," let's define it.  Webster says "to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit."

Hmmmm.... did you notice something there?  That's what most people mean by "objectify."  Ok, I admit I kind of snookered the reader a little bit here.  "Objectification" is not really the right word for protesting sexual advertising.  The real argument is that it deprives people of human qualities or personality -- that it reduces them in some way.  (I'm leaving out the spirit part because spirits don't exist.  Sue me.)

So, let's ask another pointed question.  Is depriving people of human qualities or personality always a bad thing?  Ask yourself that question next time you get annoyed with a waiter for getting too much into your business during lunch.  When you're asking yourself why he won't just refill your tea without talking, remember to consider whether we ought to treat every human as equally "human."

The fact is, we dehumanize people everyday.  It's part of the lexicon of modern psychology.  Servers, taxi drivers, gas station attendants, people standing next to us on the train, and any number of other people are less than "whole people" to us.  Road rage is another great example.  We simply don't think of other people as entirely human when we're insulated by our automobiles.

If we're honest, we have to admit that humans absolutely do dehumanize other people.  In fact, it's necessary.  If we had to take the time to develop deep relationships with everyone we encountered in our lives, we'd never get anything else done.  Relationships take a long time.

So, we've taken a long route to get here, but we have to admit that dehumanizing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  We can't say sexual advertising is bad because it dehumanizes the models.  Just to hammer the point home, realize that if you passed a supermodel on the street, you wouldn't think of her as any more human than if she was on a billboard.  She's just another face in the crowd, just like 99% of the people you'll ever meet.

I'll be mercifully brief on the second objection.  Does sexual advertising impose a false sense of beauty on us?  In a word, yes and no.  Mostly no.

Scientists have known for quite a while that humans' perception of beauty is not arbitrary.  That is, we don't just like what society tells us to like.  Across all cultures, scientists can pick out the people that will be judged most attractive by a random sampling of judges.  They can do it by measuring symmetry and comparing facial features to a "cultural average."  People whose noses are average sized and very symmetrical will be judged as more attractive than people whose noses are very small or very large, but very symmetrical.

Culture certainly does shape our perceptions of beauty, but only within the bounds that already exist.  To put it bluntly, there has never been a time when grossly obese people with large warts on their noses have been considered highly attractive.  Yes, Titian painted "healthy" women by today's standards -- and that's about where the outer boundary lies.  With the very occasional exception, virtually every society values physically fit bodies and symmetrical features, though they have quite a bit of leeway.  In America, we've gone from Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss to Britney Spears in just a few decades.

Does sexual advertising cause people to obsess about their looks?  Sure, some people.  Again, though, we have to ask a pointed question.  Do the people who obsess about their looks do so because of advertising or does the advertising bring out an existing insecurity?  In the same way that males become sexual "users" because of their family and peers, females become obsessively looks conscious because of their family and peers.  To hammer this point home, we should realize that we have female jewelry going back to the beginnings of human tool use.  Before TV, there were looks-obsessed women and women who just went with the flow.

Is it possible that the information age has exacerbated the situation for certain women?  Sure.  Does that mean the advertising is bad, or does it mean that some women have been raised with an overly looks-conscious mental outlook?  I can't answer this definitively, but a quick scan through history tells me that men have always gone after the prettiest women, and women have always wanted to be the prettiest.  

Finally, I'd like to return to the spirit of the original question.  Is sexual advertising in and of itself a bad thing?  I think no.  Humans are products of natural selection, which is inevitably going to produce lots of 5s, a couple of 10s, and a couple of 1s.  Almost everybody is average looking.  Just as in any other species, the standouts are going to... well... stand out.  We can't blame them for being better looking than us.  It's genetics.  Nothing else.  If we're honest, we have to admit that they're more sexually attractive to more people than we are, but does that mean we're dehumanized?  No.  It means we're realistic.

Humans are walking sexual advertisements.  If you're in a relationship, the odds are really, really high that you are (or at least were) attracted to your mate sexually.  If you hadn't been, you wouldn't be in a relationship.  You'd be friends and nothing more.  We dress up so that we're sexually appealing.  It's just what it is.

This brings me to my last (and hopefully most convincing) point.  As you've hopefully read and understood in my articles on human sexuality (links to follow) it is patently wrong to say that human nature is above sexuality.  Sexuality is literally what makes us who we are.  Were it not for sex, we wouldn't make art and music and poetry.  Sexuality isn't the basest part of our nature.  It is intrinsic to everything we are.

Freud was right even though he was horribly wrong.  Everything really does come back to sex, but he just had no idea how or why.  (If you're reading this and thinking, "No, it isnt!" I'll ask you to please read my other articles thoroughly and come back to this one.)   In other words, we are all walking sexual advertisements.  Even when we don't try to be sexual, people look at us sexually.  We're human.  That's what humans do.

So next time you look at a billboard with a scantily clad woman selling something that seems completely unrelated to sex, remember... sex is what makes the world go round, and we're all sexual advertisements.  The one on the billboard just got paid for it.  No biggie.  Really.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christians and Projection

Projection is the psychological defense mechanism of assigning one's own bad qualities to someone else, usually the opposition.  For instance, a hypothetical football player (cough... cough... T.O.) who is well known for selfishly wanting all of the spotlight for himself might suggest that his team is somehow conspiring to keep him from his just rewards by selfishly not throwing the ball to him enough.  By assigning the quality of selfishness to the quarterback, he absolves himself of his own selfishness.

Christians are particularly good at this.  I read an interesting post this afternoon, in which a Christian said that he thinks consumerism at Christmas is due to a secular materialist worldview.  I admit, I almost choked on my iced tea when I read that.  A short trip through Googleland produced 387,000 hits for "Christian Merchandise."   Curiously, "Secular Merchandise" spawned only 171 hits.

Ok, I know, that's not fair.  Nobody labels their stuff "secular merchandise" but the point is still quite valid.  Christianity is big business, and anybody who doubts it needs to have their head examined.  The point I want to make, however, is not that Christians are particularly evil in their consumerism.  As I mentioned in my blog about scary atheist morality, Christians operate on the same principles as everyone else.  They just think they're different.

We're all materialists.  We have to be.  We live in a material universe, and our only way of staying alive is to consume.  We must have clothes, shelter, and food.  We accumulate resources because we recognize our own fragile mortality.  We want to have enough tomorrow.

The fact of the matter is that the only thing separating one person from another is the degree of materialism.  Some people want "stuff" more than others.  This goes for Christians, atheists, Muslims, and Buddhists.  Some versions of Christianity preach a much more materialist worldview than others.  TV evangelists promise that if we just send in enough money, God will give us so much money that we'll never want for anything again.  Other churches preach the value of an almost ascetic life, eschewing the trappings of the material world.  It's the same with non-Christians.  Some people think the one who dies with the most toys wins.  Others think we have an obligation to preserve the earth for future generations.

The point is that the distinction between "secular materialism" and "Christian ethics" is a non-distinction.  It simply doesn't exist.  We're all people, and we all have our own values.  Once again, Christianity proves divisive for no good reason.  It's not us and them.  It's just us.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Selling Christmas and Christianity

Christmas time is here, and I thought it would be a good time to think about what Christians say that Jesus did for us.  First, let's talk about it the way they say it in church:

From  (The best hit I got on a google search for "God's Plan of Salvation."):

The Bible specifically says, without any other possible interpretation, that there is only one God, one faith, one baptism and one way to God the Father - and that is only through His Son Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus says that He, and only He, is the way, the truth and the life leading to God the Father and that no one comes to the Father except through Him!

Many people, including some Christians, believe that God the Father honors all other religions as long as people try to live a good and godly life and try to stay out of trouble.

As you will see in the Scripture verses I will list below, this is not the way God the Father has everything set up. God will not honor any other religion, and He makes it very clear that it is only through His Son and His sacrificial death on the cross that will give people eternal salvation and thus eternal life with Him in heaven.

So Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God who became man.  We celebrate the fact that he came to earth to die at the  hands of men so that all who would come after him would be free from the law and free from sin.  It all sounds pretty amazing when we hear it in chucrch.  I've been there.  I lived it for over twenty years of my life.

I'm trying to make this blog about what it is to be human, and not another rant about how much religion sucks.  To that end, I want to help explain a little bit of what's going on with the whole salvation-Christmas thing.  Take a couple of minutes and watch this video.  Seriously... it's very important for you to do this so that what I say afterwards will make sense.

Ok.  What I want to discuss is how there can be two completely different tellings of the same story, and though they both have the exact same content, they are perceived quite differently.  When you go to church to see a Christmas production, what do you see?
1. Pretty Lights.
2. Angels
3. Mangers
4. Adorable children with big doe eyes.
5. Cute little baby Jesus
6. The pure virgin Mary.
7. The loving supportive Joseph

What do you hear?  Beautiful music.  Some of the best music ever written was written for Christmas.

What is the message from the pulpit?  Love.  Lots of love.  So much love that God paid the ultimate sacrifice for us to save us from ourselves.  So much love, he was willing to be born in a common stable!  The Lord Of The Entire Universe lowered himself soooooooo much that he was willing to be born IN A STABLE!!!

For you.

Just you.

He loves you that much.  Personally.

Ok.  Enough of that.  You get the picture.  Now, think about the last time you decided to make a major purchase.  Suppose you were going to buy a car.  If you are like most people, you were greeted personally by a salesman who immediately wanted to learn your name and a little bit about you.  You were led to a glittery salesfloor where everyone was dressed sharply and all the cars shone of fresh polish and smelled of leather.  Someone immediately scurried off at butler's speed to fetch you any drink you wanted.  You were shown fancy brochures with snappy photos of "your new car" doing feats of incredible maneuverability, protecting children from harm, and safely delivering the whole happy family to visit the smiling grandparents.

We are all familiar with the manipulation that goes on with salesmen.  We expect it because we know it's their job to sell us their wares.  However, we don't trust them.  We only go there because we want a new car, right?

Well, that's not entirely true, is it?  How many commercials have you seen for new cars in the last week?  I have TiVo, and I fast forward through commercials, yet I'm sure I've seen at least a few dozen ads in one form or another, whether at a bar, or in print, or on billboards.  Car ads are everywhere!  They are all designed to show me exactly how wonderful my life is going to be when I get a new car.

Folks, this is brainwashing.  Pure.   Simple.  Brainwashing.  It's exactly the same phenomenon used by preachers, salesmen, and interrogators at Gitmo.  Whatever it is you're trying to sell, the important thing is to make the buyer do the selling!  Make the buyer believe he was the one with the idea.  He thought of it.  That way, the ulterior motive of the salesman doesn't matter.  The salesman is irrelevant.

That's why we buy cars, and that's why we buy religion.  So what if Ted Haggart fucks male prostitutes in his spare time.  We have an empty place in our life, and we want Jesus.  We feel it deep down inside.  Ted Haggart doesn't matter.  Neither does Jimmy Swaggart, Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson or anybody else.

Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.  Religion is dressed up for a pageant.  We have huge churches with amazing architecture.  We have choirs singing beautiful (by some tastes) music.  Everyone wears their "Sunday best."  The hymnals have fake gold gilding.

I want you to do one last thought experiment.  Think of one of those late night infomercials where people are trying to sell you real estate or male enhancement pills.  Forget the words for a moment and think of just the images you see.  Men in nice suits.  Charismatic, strong gestures.  Pictures of huge mansions, nice cars, attractive women... everything we want that we don't have in life.  And we can have it, too... for just $19.99.

Is it clear?

Just in case, try this on for size.  The world is an evil, nasty place.  You don't have everything you want.  You're afraid of dying.  Your family feels like it's a complete mess.  What if I told you that there's a super-awesome King of The Whole Universe whose biggest desire is to make you completely happy for the rest of eternity?  You get everything you want.  Just look at all these people in nice clothes who will be your friend for the rest of this earthly life.  When you get to heaven, there will be millions more!  Just look at this huge building.  We built it for you.

All you have to do is believe that the Super-Awesome King of the Whole Universe came to earth to die to save you from your sin.

Sounds really great, doesn't it?  Yeah... so does the new Super-Awesome-Turn-By-Turn-Super-Duper-Satellite navigation system in the Brand New Ford Excessive NINETY TWO THOUSAND!!

Yet somehow, without all the ads, the glitz, the glamour, how many of us would spend a year's salary on a new SUV when the car we have is fine, if a bit outdated?  Car companies, male enhancement companies, and religion need to advertise.  Not just a little.  They need to constantly show us how awesome they are, or we wouldn't buy them.

Now, go back to the simple stick figure movie and watch it again.  See if it rings more true now than it did before.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Morality and Fear

I'm afraid I've gotten off topic more than I'd like in the last few weeks.  This blog is primarily for discussing human nature, science, and what it means to be atheist.  Today, I'd like to briefly discuss one of the most volatile issues between theists and atheists, namely godless morality.

A fellow blogger recently voiced his discontent with Christopher Hitchens' standard response to the accusation that godless morality is a scary thing.  Hitchens reply is usually that he is appalled to think that anyone would be good just because they're afraid of a big supernatural hammer.  True morality, he asserts, comes from within oneself, not from without.

I have also felt a vague discomfort with this response for years.  The thing is, it's only partly true, and it's skirting around a bigger issue.  Theists are right to be afraid of godless morality.  Yep.  I said it.  Godless morality is a scary thing, and theists are right to fear it.  Atheists also ought to fear it.  It's scary.

Unfortunately, it's the hand we've been dealt, and making up stories to make it seem less scary doesn't accomplish anything -- nothing good, anyway.  Atheists debating morality with theists make a fundamental mistake out of the starting block.  They allow themselves to be caught using theist models and trying to make atheist morality fit.  When a theist speaks of the difference between theist and atheist morality, he is literally not saying anything, for there is no difference.  There is no god, so morality cannot derive from it.  All theists are functioning within the same moral paradigm as atheists.  They're just lying to themselves and others about it.

This is why I don't like invoking the Crusades.  All of the atrocities attributed to God are directly attributable to humans and human nature.  We do have an evil side.  It's really nasty.

The reality of human morality is that it is subjective.  It is not, however, arbitrary.  As I've previously mentioned, killing is not always wrong to humans.  Most people get turned on by Dirty Harry or James Bond or some other hero from that genre of movie.  There's a reason we spend millions of dollars to watch the good guy shoot all the bad guys.  We like killing bad guys.

Young men join the army in droves, and not because of the health insurance.  They want the chance to kill, or the chance to help someone else kill.  It's exciting and sexy.  They'll get laid more because they are in an organization formed with the express purpose of killing other humans.

We are animals, and animals kill.  It's a fact of life.  We also steal, rape, embezzle and defraud.  It is part of the human experience.  Everyone reading this blog has done something that they knew was wrong, and they knew it was wrong while they did it.  Nevertheless, they did it, and they would do it again if put in the same situation.

So yeah, theists are right to be afraid.  Humans are scary creatures.  The thing is, we're also good creatures, and we are instilled with empathy for others.  More importantly, we have amazing intellects which are capable of recognizing our own dark drives for what they are -- evolutionary adaptations.  We are not bound by our natures in the same way as dolphins who gang rape females.  We have the choice of looking at our own bad behavior and deciding not to do it anymore.  More importantly, we have the capability of building societies which encourage good behavior while making bad behavior less appealing.

There are human societies in which murder has been all but eliminated.  In a recent television program about a certain city in Japan, the commentator mentioned the collective shame felt by one city -- a city of millions of residents -- in which eight murders were committed in one year.  (I believe it was eight.  It was less than ten, at any rate.)  It didn't take god to do this.  It took human ingenuity and good planning.

The fact is, with knowledge, humans are capable of great engineering feats, and we should not exclude human society from the discussion.  Humans work just like anything else -- we follow natural laws.  We have set natures which give us the capacity for good and evil, and we do good or evil based upon our environment, not our inherent goodness or badness.  This simple fact can change the world if we only embrace it instead of fearing it.  Change the environment, change the behavior.

This is the true explanation of morality.  It's a little scarier than believing everything will be ok because God said it would, but let's be honest.  God's had his chance.  He failed.  It's time to see what humans can do on their own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Response to John Loftus Historical Jesus Blog

John W. Loftus has been receiving rave reviews for his acceptance of a historical Jesus, and this is a bit of a puzzle to me.  You can find his blog post on the matter HERE.

I'm going to quote John directly so that the reader will not have to continually refer back to his blog, but I encourage you to read his whole post before continuing on with my response.

I know fellow bloggers here at DC may disagree with me, perhaps even Biblical scholar Hector Avalos. But let me very briefly outline the case for the historical person of the man Jesus. Even though I think the Christian faith is delusional, I think a man named Jesus existed who inspired people in the first century who is best seen as an apocalyptic doomsday prophet.
There certainly are a lot of modern scholars, including Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Thomas L. Thompson, all with very good credentials, who put forth very good arguments against a historical Jesus.  I have nothing to add to their arguments.  History is not my primary interest.  Good critical thinking is what I try to encourage in all disciplines, and this is where I think John is falling short.  I do not intend to argue for the a-historicity of Jesus.  Instead, I feel there is far too little justification to make the positive claim that Jesus either certainly did exist or very probably did exist.

Before continuing, I should point out that the Burden of Proof is always on the positive claimant.  This is not just in history, but in everything involving the acquisition of knowledge.  It is so fundamental, in fact, that if we attempt to overturn the Burden of Proof, the necessary and inevitable result is incomprehensible nonsense and paradox.

Where a lot of people seem to get confused is in the identification of positive claims.  Many atheists claim to be "weak atheists."  That is, they see no evidence for a god, so they don't believe.  This is not, in an epistemological sense, a positive claim.  It is the absence of a positive claim.  

Think for a second about a globelrafk.  Do you believe in it?  Unless I have inadvertently made up an existing word, you do not, for you have no idea what a globelrafk might be.  Technically speaking, you are an aglobelrafkist, since you do not make the positive claim that globelrafks exist.  Through complete ignorance, you simply do not make a claim either way.

For all the potential gods we've never heard of, we are similarly atheists.  For the Christian god, or Allah, it becomes more problematic to say that we're simply not making a positive claim.  We've been presented with the evidence and rejected it.  Most atheists are not blank slates that simply have no thought of god(s).  They consistently reject specific god claims.  What we must bear in mind, however, is that in terms of the burden of proof, we are simply rejecting insufficient evidence.  We are responding to a positive claim by saying, "I'm sorry.  You have not met the burden of proof."

This can get very tedious, since the claim "You have not met the burden of proof" is a positive claim, and is subject to the same kind of scrutiny.  Even so, it's important to note that this chain of proof eventually stops somewhere, and that is the initial claim.  That is, we can argue all day about the burden of proof being met or not met, but all of those arguments hinge on the initial claim -- in the case of atheists, the claim that a god exists.  The reason I mentioned globelrafks is to illustrate the point that without an initial positive claim, the default position is disbelief.

With all that in mind, we must realize that the claim that Jesus existed is the positive claim.  We do not begin by claiming all that does not exist.  Though it certainly feels like a lot of historical figures are taken for granted as existing, from an epistemological position, the evidence is simply so overwhelming that it never occured to anyone to bother making the positive claim.

Obviously, with Jesus, this is not so because many people do question the positive claim of his existence.  The fact that there is not a consensus means that the positive claim of his existence is perceived by a great many people as not having met the burden of proof.

I think pure historical studies cannot prove whether Jesus actually existed or not. That something happened in the historical past doesn’t mean we can show that it did. That something did not happen in historical past does not mean we can show that it didn’t. You’ll have to read my chapter on “The Poor Evidence of Historical Evidence” to know why I think this, where I argue that if God revealed himself in the historical past he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so. Historical studies are fraught with difficulties. Even Christian scholar Richard Bauckham acknowledges in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that “Historical work, by its very nature, is always putting two and two together and making five—or twelve or seventeen.” (p. 93)

Strictly speaking, no historical study can "prove" that anybody did or did not exist.  It's always an inductive conclusion based on the weight of the evidence.  History is more nebulous than physics because there are no immutable natural laws of historicity.

The very fact that several scholars have reasonably concluded Jesus probably never existed is proof that historical studies is a slender reed to hang one’s faith on. Historians disagree over a great deal, even over mundane things. Christian, your faith is based upon so many conclusions about history, including whether Jesus even existed at all, that with each question the probability of your faith diminishes. Why don't you admit this fact and then turn around and say something like this: "I am willing to stake my whole life on the basis of a probability from historical investigations. It's probable that my conclusions on a whole host of historical issues are true by, say ____% (insert the probability)." [51% 55% 60% ???].
I know John is being loose with his terminology, but I don't like the use of the word "faith" in this context.  Hanging a belief on probability is not faith in the theological sense because probability is math, and math is based on deduction.  While I agree that Christianity has very low probabilities on which to rest belief, I hardly see this as a valid analog to the argument over a historical Jesus.  How do you even begin to discuss the difference between a supernatural claim and a matter of science?  Yes, I am invoking science in the question of Jesus' historicity.  The most compelling of all historical evidence is scientific, not literary.  That is, if you have twenty stories of an African man who did such and such at a certain time, and you uncover the actual remains of the man, and DNA testing reveals him to be Asian, the only reasonable conclusion is that the stories were in error or were fabricated.  Evidence of historicity is weighted, and archaeology trumps literature.

I’ve read the relevant passages in Tacitus (64 AD), Pliny (112 AD), Suetonious (49 AD), Rabbi Eliezer (post 70 AD), the Benediction Twelve (post 70 AD), Josephus (post 70 AD). I’ve read the Christian inscription in Pompeii, too (79 AD). I understand the debates about them. But consider the majority scholarly consensus about the two-source theory of synoptic gospel tradition (Q and Mark) that predate the Gospels, and that we have early creeds inside Paul's writings (I Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 15:3-4; Galatians 4:4-5; I Tim. 3:16) that predate his letters. Consider also the close connection between the New Testament era with the early church fathers like John the elder, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and others. We have to date these texts, no doubt, and many of them are indeed late, and some were forgeries. But they still offer some kind of early testimony to the historicity of a man called Jesus. Even a tradition is based on something. I just don’t see why we must discount the various independent writers of the New Testament itself on the historicity of Jesus. Why, for instance, should we not believe anything at all in the New Testament unless there is independent confirmation from outside sources? 
We certainly don't have to discount anyone out of hand, but what we must do is consider the weight of their testimony against their potential for having reliable information and their motivation for accurately relaying the information they had.  In the case of Jesus, many historians seem to get hung up on the fact that there are a lot of relatively early sources mentioning Jesus.  What they seem to miss is that there are only two significant sources within the first several decades of Jesus alleged existence -- Paul and the author of the Gospel, whether Mark or some lost "Q" document.

The gospel hardly counts as a historical document by any stretch of the imagination.  It is riddled with magic, deities, demons, and clearly fictional events.  Many of the themes are clearly metaphorical, or would be if not for the presumption of Jesus historicity.  Twelve apostles?  Twelve tribes of Isreal?  Coincidence?  I think not.  The notion of a dying and resurrected savior was clearly not new, and recently Hellenized Jews (at least those capable of writing the first gospel) would surely have been aware of previous models from both Jewish and Classical mythology.  It is an ad hoc rationalization to suppose that the gospel was meant as anything other than a fictional story.

Paul was a cunning man who clearly enjoyed being the center of attention.  We have it from his own pen that he spent most of his time after his conversion preaching.  Let's not kid ourselves about this.  Paul's testimony fails on two levels.  First, he never claims to have met Jesus.  He had a vision.  Exactly how trustworthy are the thousands of preachers who claim to have had personal contact with Jesus in the 21st century?  I'm sorry, but just because Paul was removed from Jesus alleged existence by a couple of decades (give or take a few years, depending on your beliefs) his proclamations are no less suspect.

The fact is, our only sources that fall anywhere within the reasonable bounds of "contemporary" to Jesus are highly unreliable and certainly fail the test of motives for honesty.

Strike one against the burden of proof.

Furthermore, what Jesus may have did and said seems to correspond to the Jewishness of that era as best as we can tell. E.P. Sanders in his book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, even thinks there was nothing strange about his message that would've gotten him killed by the Jewish authorites (he argues instead that the Romans were the sole actors). He argued that "the level of disagreement and arguments falls well inside the parameter of debate that were accepted in Jesus' time." (p. 216). He adds, "If Jesus disagreed with other interpreters over details, the disputes were no more substantial than were disputes between the Jewish parties and even within each party." (p. 225).
So?  I hardly think it surprising that a fictional writer would attempt to create a believable character.  This is not evidence for historicity.  It is not evidence for anything, since there is an equally plausible explanation for both fiction and non-fiction.  If anything, there's less reason to believe it's factual since most of the gospel resembles fiction much more than fact.

I could be wrong. But here is why I think I’m right. Passionate cult-like religious groups are always started by a cult figure, not an author, and not a committee. It’s always a single charismatic leader that gathers passionate religious people together. So who is the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult? Jesus himself is, although Paul certainly was the man most responsible for spreading what he believed about his story. And even though Paul never met Jesus and only had a vision of him on the Damascus Road (Acts 26:19), his testimony is that there were already Christians whom he was persecuting in Palestine in the first century.
But you are wrong.  Passionate cult-like groups are not always started by a cult figure.  L Ron Hubbard?  Author.

Furthermore, why is Jesus the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult when we have the words of Paul himself stating that he was responsible for spreading the word to so many places?  Not only that, we have a good psychological profile of Paul from his own words.  He was a driven and charismatic man who thrived on being the center of attention.  This sounds an awful lot like the kind of man who could run with a fledgling religion and make it his own.  To the claim of persecuted Christians in first century Palestine, this is all well and good, but if Paul is being honest, (that's a big "if") this is evidence that there were people in first century Palestine who were following a new religion -- not evidence that the figure in the gospel was the originator of the religion.

I think if we look at the New Testament texts it's clear Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who's message, like that of John the Baptist before him, is for people to "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Is it really clear?  How is it so obvious that this was a real man and not a fiction set in contemporary times? It only seems obvious if we presuppose the conclusion.  Otherwise, we're just guessing.  Let's not forget that a clever author could easily make use of the messianic expectations of his audience.  Also remember that even in 20th century America, thousands were fooled by a radio broadcast into believing that aliens were invading earth.  It's not so implausible to think that in a time far, far before radio, an author could fool a few hundred people with a cleverly written story.  Also remember that War of the Worlds was not originally intended as a giant hoax.  It was just a made up story.  After it was written, it developed a life of its own, so to speak.  We must remember that the author's intent is not necessarily relevant when we consider the historical ramifications of his work.

That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet has been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer and given a robust defense recently by Christian scholar Dale Allison in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. For an excellent overall treatment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet see Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
It's also been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer that God exists and watches us when we masturbate.  Is that also true?  I'm aware that all of these scholars have big books on the historicity of Jesus, but have there not been consensus opinions before that have been fundamentally flawed?  I'm speaking of methodology and critical thinking here, not consensus.  I have not yet read a reasonable treatise that compels me to disregard the paucity of contemporary evidence coupled with the unreliability of the closest "witnesses."

So even though historical studies are fraught with some serious problems, I think the evidence is that an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus developed a cult-like following in Palestine in the first century. I cannot be sure about this though, from a mere historical investigation of the evidence. I could be wrong. But that's what I think.

Fire away now, on both sides. I stand in the middle.
I hate to say it, John, but your arguments (in this blog, at least) don't hold water.  I'm happy to admit that I have not read much else of yours, so perhaps you are simply not making this particular argument well, but none of what you have said here passes muster as proof of anything other than a lack of proof.

I'd like to point you to my official statement on Jesus' Historicity in this very blog.  In THIS POST, I explain why I believe that though it's certainly possible that there was some figure in history that served as inspiration for the Jesus myth, there's no compelling evidence to suggest that this figure in any way resembles the figure in the Gospel or Paul's epistles.

I disagree that there must certainly have been a single apocalyptic preacher who got himself killed.  There were tons of mystery cults floating around in first century Palestine, and there's no particular reason to believe that Christianity either did or did not revolve around a significant historical Jesus.

It may not feel particularly satisfying, but the correct position with regard to the existence of a man whose life closely resembled the gospel in any meaningful way is a shrug of the shoulders.  There simply isn't enough evidence.


Rationality through Fluffy Fur and Pointy Claws

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