Photo Sunday: Valencia

We saw a lot of churches and cathedrals in Spain, but the Cathedral of Valencia could claim one mark of distinction that some of the much larger and more impressive ones couldn't. Namely, it's the final resting place of that most precious Christian relic, the Holy Grail itself. To see that and more, click to continue...


July 31, 2011, 2:32 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

Photo Sunday: Seville

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July 10, 2011, 2:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments

Photo Sunday: Córdoba

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June 26, 2011, 12:34 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Photo Sunday: Toledo

More pictures from my Spanish trip. Click the link below to see:


June 19, 2011, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Strange But True: The Misnumbered Pope

I've been reading Bob Curran's book Unholy Popes, an extremely amusing chronicle of papal misbehavior over the centuries and the more infamous scandals and shenanigans attributed to the various men who've held the seat. There have been periods of decades when Rome was rife with corruption, nepotism, bribery, and at times, open warfare and murder over the papal succession. There have been times when no one was pope and times when there were multiple contenders, each one claiming to be the true pope and threatening the others with excommunication. There have been popes who were so depraved that the Catholic Church itself has retroactively denounced them, declared them antipopes or attempted to erase them from the history books.

It's one of these stories that lies at the root of a bizarre but true fact: The current pope is misnumbered. By the church's own reckoning, Benedict XVI has the wrong number - and by so titling himself, he's tacitly acknowledged the reign of a heretic!

The explanation of this dates back to the 11th century. At that time, the German emperor Henry III had the power of choosing the pope and had installed a series of German bishops in the office. In 1057, his previous pick, Pope Victor II, died. Under the terms of a treaty, Rome was obliged to consult with Henry to nominate a successor, but they failed to do this. Several powerful Roman families instead chose their own candidate for the papacy, Stephen IX, who reigned less than a year before dying of illness. Before his death, he expressed a wish that one of his advisers, Hildebrand, should select the next pope.

But the Roman noble families ignored this wish. They chose another candidate: John Mincius, the cardinal-bishop of Valletri, who took the title Benedict X. A number of cardinals claimed the election was unjust and had been determined by bribery; they were forced to flee Rome by Benedict X and his supporters.

When word reached Hildebrand, who was at the German imperial court, he decided to take action. Together with the cardinals who'd fled Rome, they met and chose Gerhard of Burgundy, bishop of Florence, as the next pope. Taking the name Nicholas II, the new pope pronounced Benedict X an antipope, declared him to be excommunicated, and proceeded to Rome backed by an army organized by sympathetic noblemen. After several inconclusive battles with Benedict's supporters, Nicholas was victorious in a 1059 clash at Campagna, and Benedict surrendered and renounced the papacy. Nicholas allowed him to go free, but when Hildebrand returned from Germany in 1060, he had Benedict arrested and imprisoned until his death sometime between 1070 and 1080.

Hildebrand himself became pope in 1073, taking the name Pope Gregory VII. During his reign, he declared that Benedict X was not only excommunicated but had never been pope, and that any acknowledgment of him as such would be treated as heresy and punished with automatic excommunication. But the next pope who took the name Benedict, in 1303, declared himself to be Benedict XI - implicitly acknowledging his predecessor, despite the pleas of the Curia - and all subsequent Benedicts, including the current one, have followed suit.

If you look at official records, it's obvious that the church is embarrassed by the whole affair. The New Advent Catholic encyclopedia's entry for Benedict X says in its entirety, "The bearer of this name was an antipope in the days of Nicholas II, 1056-61." But this terse note can't disguise the problem: If Benedict X was an antipope, why is it that the next pope who took the name was Benedict XI? Shouldn't he have been Benedict X, since the "first" Benedict X was an illegitimate pretender to the throne? And doesn't this mean that every Benedict since, including the one that's now pope, have perpetuated this error and acknowledged the legitimacy of a man earlier denounced as a usurper, an antipope and a heretic?

June 6, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink18 comments

Darwin's Long Regret

Since we've been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it's worth remembering that there's nothing new under the sun. As long as there's been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity's greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here's one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase "by the Creator" was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can't help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he'd left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin's writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people's preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there's a lesson to be drawn here, however, it's that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that's still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn't modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It's better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don't worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

June 4, 2011, 5:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink7 comments

Words Worth Reading: The Mother's Day Proclamation

As you probably already know, today is Mother's Day. But I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I'd like to share it with you.

Given how rampantly commercial Mother's Day has become, you might be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that it was dreamed up by the jewelry and greeting-card companies. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Although the holiday did become commercialized soon after it was established, so much so that one of its creators spent the rest of her life protesting it, it was originally created for a very different reason.

In response to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, Mother's Day was first conceived of as an explicitly pacifist holiday by the radical American feminist, abolitionist, and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870, expressed her belief that women had a political responsibility to shape the society they lived in by opposing all war and violence. It's an amazing piece of writing, and if you can overlook the biblical quote added as window dressing, it's still well worth a read:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

May 8, 2011, 1:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

Movie Review: Agora

When I wrote my review of Creation last year, a commenter suggested I see Agora, the 2009 film by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia of Alexandria. It took me a long time to get around to doing that, but I've finally seen it, and it was worth the wait. It only had a very limited theatrical release in the U.S., but if you have Netflix or similar, I strongly encourage you to see it.

Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late fourth century CE. Egypt is a Roman province in this age, and Alexandria is one of its crown jewels: polyglot, multicultural, an important maritime port, and a center of pagan learning and philosophy. One of its foremost citizens is Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), a female philosopher who's heir to the Greek intellectual tradition and renowned for her expertise in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Famous and influential men from throughout the province come to her academy to attend her lectures and demonstrations. As beautiful as she is brilliant, she also attracts her share of admirers, including her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and one of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes the provincial governor.

But in Hypatia's time, the Roman Empire is changing rapidly. Christianity, once a despised and outlawed sect, has converted the emperor and is rapidly growing in numbers and power. Its preachers, especially the murderous fanatic Cyril (Sami Samir) aren't shy about exerting their newfound authority: against the city's Jews; against the philosophers, whom they view as idol-worshipping adherents of a degenerate pagan tradition; and especially against women who defy their biblically ordained role by speaking in public and teaching men. The confrontation between Hypatia and Orestes on one hand and Cyril on the other comes inevitably to a head, and though I won't give any spoilers, if you know about the historical Hypatia, you probably have some idea of how it ends.

Although the script takes some liberties, which is only to be expected, I was surprised by how closely it sticks to historical fact: including Hypatia's close relationship with the governor Orestes, the amazing-but-true fact that one of her pupils, Synesius, later became a Christian bishop, and the memorably revolting way she rejects a potential suitor. Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia's time, and the movie accurately reflects this. (Hypatia and the other philosophers live and teach in another building, a pagan temple/academy called the Serapeum.)

The biggest departure from history is its depiction of Hypatia as on the verge of proving the heliocentric theory of the solar system. As Richard Carrier points out in his review (some spoilers), the real Hypatia wouldn't have been as empirically minded as this - she belonged to a philosophical school that largely disdained experimentation, although there's no doubt that she was a gifted mathematician and astronomer, and all the theoretical pieces were in place in the philosophies of the time for experiments like the ones she's shown to perform.

The movie also hints that she was an atheist, which the real Hypatia wouldn't have been. However, Agora isn't by any means a black-and-white, Christianity-versus-science polemic. The pagan philosophers are depicted as just as vengeful, violent, and touchy about insults to their religion as the Christians were, and it's clear that Cyril's hatred of Hypatia used her science only as a pretext; the real reason for his antipathy is as a way to hurt his political rival, Orestes. And vicious as he is, he isn't treated as representative of all of Christianity - other Christian characters, such as Synesius, are on Hypatia's side.

Nevertheless, without treating all Christians as evil, the film subtly and powerfully conveys how the immoralities of Christian theology made this story and many others like it inevitable. There's a brutally effective scene in which Cyril boxes in both Orestes and Synesius by reading from the Bible the verses forbidding a woman to teach or have authority over a man, and demanding that they kneel and swear faith in scripture (implicitly denouncing Hypatia).

Although my wife and I both loved this movie, the reviews were decidedly mixed, which I think is because it confused critics' expectations by breaking with convention. In the beginning, it seems the script is setting up a love triangle between Hypatia, Davus and Orestes - but Hypatia herself never expresses any interest, and that aspect of the story is dropped when the political conflict begins. (Just think, a female character who's not depicted as primarily interested in romance! That's a daring departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, even if the film unfortunately doesn't pass the Bechdel test due to its lack of any other women.)

All in all, this was a beautiful, tragic story that's all the more powerful for being essentially true. Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it's taken to regain it. More than that, it's a tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, and a celebration of the rational principles that she defended and that have always stood for what's best in humanity. If you have the chance to see it, you won't be disappointed.

March 21, 2011, 5:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink72 comments

The Language of God: Questions for Atheists

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Chapter 7 shows Collins' poor understanding of atheism. He starts by differentiating between "strong" and "weak" atheism, but then he makes the baseless claim that for the majority of atheists, strong atheism is "generally the assumed position" (p.161). He makes this distinction so that he has a group he can refute. He asks three questions, and I'd like to address them similarly to those posed by Michael Egnor.

But first I would like to address Collins' assertion that most atheists are "strong atheists." I would have liked to have seen some data here on the composition of atheists. I mean, if we're just speaking anecdotally, then I'm perfectly fine to say the majority of atheists I know are weak atheists - that is, we're not making a positive claim that there are no gods, so the burden of proof lies squarely with the theist - so I could go ahead and call that "generally the assumed position."

Here's how I've explained the position to people. I tell my wife that I've stuffed a monkey down my pants again. She rolls her eyes, looks, and doesn't see the usual monkey-shaped bulge; "No no," I reply, "this monkey's really small and invisible!" Knowing that she can't see my monkey, she'll then try to feed the monkey; "No no, see - it doesn't require any food." Can she sense heat from it? Can she hear it breathe? At some point, she's going to say, "You know, love, I really don't think you have a monkey in your pants this time." She's an a-pants-monkey-ist, but only because she lacks belief in my monkey. She isn't definitively saying I have no monkey, because she could not possibly meet the burden of proof. If anything, a-pants-monkey-ism - like weak atheism - may very well be the default position; I don't believe in god because I have not seen compelling evidence to warrant my doing so, and my lack of belief requires no positive evidence.

Now on to the questions. I'll provide Collins' musings on the subject before providing my responses:

1. If this universal search for God [that Collins has argued for previously] is so compelling, what are we to make of those restless hearts who deny His existence?

Recall that Collins has argued previously that humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek God. In this particular section, he tosses out yet another Augustine quote from Confessions: "Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (p.162). Since my deconversion, I've thought it odd that a god would create us for himself and stir in us a desire to praise our creator god. What a megalomaniacal tyrant!

The search for god is not entirely universal. There are cultures, like this Amazon tribe, who have no purpose for god and deconverted missionaries sent to them. The search for god might just be our hypersensitive agency detection device. And, as scientific history has amply shown, "Throughout history / Every mystery / Ever solved has turned out to be / Not Magic." (Thank you, Tim Minchin.) So, I first refute Collins' claim that his Universal Search for God Argument is not at all compelling.

Next, why do we atheists deny his existence? Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by an angry God who demanded to know why he had not believed. Russell said his reply would be "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence" (The God Delusion, p.104). I personally deny god's existence for the following reasons:

2. On what foundation do they make such assertions with such confidence?

Collins doesn't really address this; or, at best, his answer is combined with his assessment of the historic origins. We'll give this one a skip on Collins' part.

For those strong atheists who positively assert there is no god - and by doing so, take on the burden of proof - I would suspect that they predominantly take two paths. Not being a strong atheist (yet), I know I'm putting myself out there are as potentially setting up a straw man. I don't pretend to speak on behalf of the strong atheist community, but I'd like to put my thoughts out there in case any strong atheists can help me correct my thinking.

The first path is arguing that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I know that apologists like William Lane Craig have argued that this is incorrect thinking. However, I think it is valid when applied correctly, in the same way that the professional exterminator who does a thorough investigation, looking everywhere where evidence might be found, concludes that the absence of evidence of termite damage most probably (almost certainly) means an absence of termites. Michael Martin, as reference by Matt McCormick in an Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on atheism cites that:

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if:

  1. all the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
  2. X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
  3. this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
  4. the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
  5. there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists..

I think the second path also has a lot of power but is seldom used effectively: arguing that certain definitions of god are incoherent due to internal inconsistencies. For example, I think the concept of the Holy Trinity is incoherent (God is "Holy Spirit" and God is "Jesus" but the Holy Spirit is not Jesus; it seems contrary to the transitive property) so I'm quite confident I can rule that type of god out, though I'm not sure whether this is a category error.

As far as weak atheists go, I think it's a simple case that the arguments are not compelling and the evidence is lacking: "The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing and admits of no conclusion." —Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

3. And what are the historic origins of this point of view?

Collins talks about atheism playing a "minor role" until the Enlightenment and the "rise of materialism" (p.162). A more powerful force, Collins says, was a "rebellion against the oppressive authority of the government and the church, partiularly as manifested in the French Revolution" (p.162). Collins states that atheists who equated the organized church with god himself decided it best to discard both. Finally, Collins mentions Freud, who argued that belief in god was just wishful thinking.

I would say the historic origins of atheism have roots in the increasingly open and decreasingly unpunished application of human reason. It was kind of hard to be an atheist when the Spanish Inquisition was around. As societies have become increasingly tolerant of free speech, I think fewer people have shied away from speaking their minds on this subject.

Other posts in this series:

February 20, 2011, 10:58 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Abolition Spirit Is Undeniably Atheistic

Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I've previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I'd like to add some more evidence on that subject.

Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. - the highest elected position in that body - and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that "Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion" and praised "his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching", which "gave him such power... as few of the Lord's ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church".

But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln's election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that "I have never intermeddled with political questions," but that he was compelled to speak on politics because "we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation". Since Palmer was the representative of "a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance", namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.

And what vital message did he have to impart?

A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual.... this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world's progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken... If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.

Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn't just the South's divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since "their character fits them for dependence and servitude", and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon "relapse into their primitive barbarism" and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South's side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was "recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God".

Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension... My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!

And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too: this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.

...This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — "liberty, equality, fraternity," which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs - but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I'm happy to accept it.

We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist - and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)

Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That's because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn't nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they're quite right - because we're the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!

January 17, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

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