Monthly Archives: October 2013

Is the Bible Special?

I love the bible, particularly the New Testament. I love it in the way I love my slide-rule: I’ve had it for a long time; I enjoy playing with it; I enjoy knowing stuff about it; I like the connection it gives me to an earlier time; and I like the look of it on my shelf.

I don’t, however, think it is very useful. At least, for any particular problem I can imagine it solving, I can think of many other resources that would be better suited to the task. It is a beloved curiosity.

The bible, I think, is a religious book of its time and context. Just a religious book of its time and context. It is no more special in its time and context than the book of Mormon is in its, or the writings of Baha’u’llah, Gurdjieff, or LRH; the Bagavad Gita, the Analects or the Qur’an.

All of which may be deeply profound to some, but all of which would be utterly pointless reads to the average reader arriving at the text unprimed.

The point is, if you actually read the bible without being primed to think it is holy, True (in some sense), important, or special, the text is simply not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, far fetched, even more tedious, and alienating.

It takes hard work, perhaps sustained by naive enthusiasm, to get much out of the bible. But the same is true of any work of literature, spiritual or fictional or both. If I went back 30 years now, to talk to my former self about what to spend my life studying, I’d be hard pressed to give good reasons to choose the bible over Shakespeare, say, or Bach, or any other cultural artefact. At least those alternatives are easier to derive pleasure from, on a shallow level. I don’t regret the choice I made, I just don’t think I somehow picked perfectly.

Even most Christians barely, if ever, read it of their own volition. Unless guilted into a daily ‘quiet time’, or in the context of a church bible study (and even then it is usually cut into tiny edifying pieces, provided with ample ‘correct answers’ for why they are to find it profound). Most Christians don’t read it because they don’t enjoy it or get much out of it.

Of course there might be a small proportion of exceptions. But if you’ve spent any time with Shakespeare scholars, or (especially perhaps) fans of Joyce, you’ll see the same passion for the subtleties, the same willingness to be moved by the deeper interpretations.

The average person would simply not make it through the bible, and most of the few who did would be utterly baffled at what the fuss is about.

I think those people who claim the bible is some ultimately wonderful book, chock full of important truth and unique in human history are either deluding themselves, or have never seriously read one of its competitors.


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Google Completion Polling

The united nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women (phew), or UN Women, has released an ad campaign showing the search-engine completion results for phrases like “Women shouldn’t” and “Women need to”:

Search engines guess what your search should be, based on previous searches by others, and so they give an insight into what people are searching for.

To check, I did some of the same searches on Google UK, with the same search for men to compare:

Women shouldn’t work Men shouldn’t marry
Women shouldn’t vote Men shouldn’t wear flip flops
Women shouldn’t preach Men shouldn’t wear shorts
Women shouldn’t have equal rights Men shouldn’t cry

which is every bit as outrageous as the ad campaign, and

Women need to be wanted Men need to feel needed
Women need to shut up Men need to ejaculate
Women need to grow up Men need to grow up
Women need to feel safe Men need to cheat

which is a little more mixed.

A similar idea has been applied to religion

Christians have… Mormons have… Atheists have…
lower IQs horns higher IQ
killed more people my child no morals
more abortions multiple wives no songs
no morals a lot of kids faith

Which I’m not sure tells us very much at all.

Using big data from search engines is interesting. I’ve used it before on the New Testament. I’ve used it professionally too, it is a good way to check which of a set of computer generated combinations is more ‘human’. But I wonder whether it quite tells us what we think it is telling us. I have no doubt misogyny is widespread enough to be reflected in search results, but I wonder whether the majority of people who search for ‘Mormons have horns’ are doing so because they are tempted to believe that, or whether they are trying to find out what the source of the ridiculous joke is.

Have a play with categories you think you fall into. E.g. “Nurses should” (be paid more!), or “Engineers are always” (right!), and let me know any particularly interesting results that come up.

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The Republican Party is in Terminal Decline!

It seems that every day, on the sites I read, increasingly bizarre stories are coming to light about Republicans: politicians and voters. I can’t help but conclude that the whole edifice is crumbling and the party is splitting apart at the seams. On the basis of what I’m seeing, I’m pretty sure the Republican party is collapsing, and in five years, it will be a footnote in history. And not before time!

From a blog comment thread:

you conveniently left out the fact that there are now many secular scientist who are saying the same thing concerning the demise of [modern evolutionary science]. I hope this thread stays posted for another 5 years. I know this sounds petty, but I would love to come back 5 years from now and say “I told you so”

Why The Collapse?

Reports of the imminent collapse of our intellectual opponents are everywhere.

I suspect it is a form of confirmation bias. If you spend your time at heavily left-leaning websites, you get a view of Republicanism that panders to your desire to see it defeated. I’m sure you get the same from the other side if you frequent Wingnut sites.

It is very easy to deceive ourself.

The Demise of Scientology

I don’t believe that either the Republican party, or evolutionary biology is in any danger of imminent collapse.

This post was actually motivated by my increasing involvement in the community of people concerned about abuses in the Church of Scientology. For this group (e.g. the folks commenting at Tony Ortega’s Blog and the Ex Scientologist Message Board) Scientology is on the verge of collapse.

I do (tentatively) believe those who say the church is in trouble. I can list a dozen reasons to think the ex-scientology community is right. There are leadership woes, court cases being lost, PR disasters. It feels like the end.

Still, it is very easy to deceive ourself. Perhaps I should be skeptical.

But, in this case, I’m going to choose not to be.


The ex-scientology community is full of people who’ve suffered real harm from the church. If you’ve never gone down the rabbit hole of how Scientology works, I’d encourage you to read Jon Atack’s Piece of Blue Sky. It is worse than you think!

There are good folks I’ve met there, who have lost their children, who’ve lost their houses and income, who’ve lost decades of their life. Folks who’ve been forced to have abortions, divorces, who’ve been prevented from receiving healthcare, folks who’ve spent years in scientology prisons, whose parents signed over their guardianship to the church when they were children, and who were routinely physically abused.

I hope corporate Scientology is collapsing, but whether it is, isn’t the point. Celebrating its defeats gives a lifeline to a mother who hasn’t seen her kids for five years, and empowers someone who’s childhood was an blur of abuse. To them it is important to know that, this too shall pass.

There are times to speak up for critical thinking, and times to shut up and be a social animal.

So perhaps I should allow myself some Schadenfreude at the Republican humiliation in Washington too.


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Arguing Online

Things are quite busy here at the moment, so I’m not posting as often as usual. In lieu of a more substantive post, I thought I’d share a new site and podcast I came across today.

The site is You Are Not So Smart.

The current episode is about arguments, and contains a lot of interesting anecdote and speculation. The preview of the episode on the site links this image from Wikimedia:

It is a diagram of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of online disagreement (I assume the Paul Graham, Silicon Valley luminary, since he is referred to as a programmer). It nicely summarises some of the issues we all face trying to have constructive conversations about religion online. I’ve shared before my frustration at facing conversations that drop down the pyramid, and my frustration at my own tendency to do the same. I think the diagram summarises my experiences pretty well.

If you do listen, let me know what you think.


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