Monthly Archives: May 2016

Blogging is Your Long Game

blogging2As I discussed last week, social media is your short game. It’s important, and you can’t neglect it. But if you’re trying to build a lasting web presence, blogging is equally critical. It’s your long game, and you’ll pay the price if you neglect it.

Too many people start a blog to promote their business or brand without knowing why they need one or how it will help them. Without these crucial elements, blogging is nearly pointless (from a business perspective). You must know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve already written several posts discussing why blogging is important. I’ve talked about why building blog traffic is both harder and easier than it used to be. I’ve talked about why both inbound and outbound links are critical for your blog’s success. I’ve explained why your blog should be ad free. But why does blogging actually work? What is it that you’re actually trying to accomplish with your blog?

A well run blog will help you on two fronts: it will help you build a relationship with your readers and it will help you gain visibility with search engines such as Google.

Blogging is all about building a relationship with your readers, but I’m going to gloss over that part today. People have written a ton about it. The only point I’m going to emphasize is that this is a process that takes time – lots of time. You can’t expect overnight results from it.

Today, though, I’m going to get a bit more technical and focus on why blogging helps you so much with search engines. Inbound links are important for this – critical even. But I’ve already written a whole post about that. Here’s the other big reason blogging helps you so much: content quantity. Raw quantity is important. Everyone tells you that you should set a blogging schedule and keep to it. I’m going to tell you that that schedule should be as aggressive as you can find the time for. Get as much content out there as you can – but not all in one post.

A high post count on your blog will help you in many ways with the search engines. First, as I mentioned before, outbound links from your blog are huge – especially those sidebar links. The more posts you have, the more pages Google sees. The more pages Google sees, the more times it sees those sidebar links. This post will be my 183rd on this blog. So those sidebar links show up 183 times, right? Wrong. Due to the nature of blogging software, Google recognizes the sidebar links on this blog at least 367 times (based on information from Google Webmasters). Holy cow! How did that happen?

Let’s consider WordPress because it’s what I use for this blog (but realize that pretty much all blogging software works the same way these days). When I create a new post, that’s not the only thing that happens. My main page is updated. But my main page only shows up to 10 posts on it. When post number 11 goes live, WordPress now creates a second page. You can see that if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the main page and find the link that says, “Older Posts.” When I hit post 21, it has to create another page. And so on. 183 posts means 19 pages, just in the main stream. See all those “categories” listed on my sidebar? Each one of them has at least one page of their own. But for each category, when the magic is hit then another page gets created. Click my author name at the top of this post and another multi-page stream is created, showing all the posts written by me. Since this is a single author blog, it won’t look any different than the main stream – but Google sees an entirely separate set of pages.

Each of these pages gets to “vote” by linking other places. In a well setup blog, each of these pages will link back to your homepage. And they’ll usually link to other important pages on your site. And, of course, if you’ve followed my advice they’ll link to your business pages. Pretty nice, isn’t it?

It gets better.

Google likes big sites. All else being equal, a large site will rank better in Google’s search results than a small site. So the more raw content you create on your blog, the more Google will like it. The bigger your site is, the more often Google will check it for updates. That means that anything new you add will make it into Google’s results faster. Pro tip: Google also likes it when you update frequently, so posting regularly will help trigger Google to scan your blog more frequently, too. Not too shabby!

But there’s one last reason that’s a biggie – perhaps the biggest of all. Every author has a unique writing style.

Try this test:

  1. Pick one of your blog posts at random.
  2. Pick a paragraph of text at random.
  3. Copy that text.
  4. Paste it into Google – but be sure to put quotation marks around it! (This triggers Google’s “exact match” functionality)
  5. Hit the search button and check your results.

I bet you a dollar that the only result you got was your own page (or somebody quoting you directly). Leave a comment here if you get different results. If I can verify it, I’ll pay up! Now try the experiment again with three sentences. Two. One. Your writing is unique. How little of it do you need for Google to uniquely point to you?

OK, you’re thinking, what’s the point? The point is that sooner or later somebody is going to come along and search for a topic you’ve written about using a particular combination of words that nobody other than you is using. With a whole paragraph, your writing style is unique. But for a small sentence fragment, it’s merely rare. It doesn’t matter if there are ten million pages on that subject. Google thinks that yours is the match because your word choice matches that person’s choice for that topic. So that person sees your page on his search results, clicks it, loves your post, and boom, you’ve got a new long-term reader!

Great, but that’s just one guy. Right? Sure – if you’ve only got one page of content. But what if you had hundreds of pages? Thousands? And then what happens when those readers start sharing and linking to your blog content, or effectively “upvoting” it to Google? Over time the search engines come to love you, and more and more traffic comes your way.

As I mentioned, this blog has fewer than 200 posts. Yet I now get a very steady stream of daily traffic from Google and other search engines. I’ve upped my schedule recently to two posts a day (on weekdays). So far I’ve managed to hit it. Don’t stress about it too much if you miss it every now and then. At that rate, I’ll double my current post count in less than 19 weeks, or about five months. Based on previous experience, I expect that to more than triple my incoming traffic from Google.

Now imagine that spread not over months but over years. Not hundreds of pages but thousands – maybe tens of thousands. The power that has on the search engines is massive, and it’s yours for the taking.

But it isn’t going to happen overnight. And that’s why blogging is your long game.

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 6

cathedralEditor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

The Catholic church isn’t just able to bring good responses to some of my issues with Christianity. The church itself has a number of qualities that I find very valuable.

The Catholic church is highly resistant to change. It’s not that it doesn’t change. It just changes at a truly glacial pace. In my youth, I would have found this to be a bad thing. These days, I think it’s an extremely good thing. The church has a 2000 year history from which to understand that although technology changes, human nature doesn’t. People are still basically the same as they were a few thousand years ago. And every few generations we start to get some truly silly ideas in our head. Yes, I think ideas such as modern leftist feminism are significantly sillier than the idea that a Jew died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected 3 days later. Significantly. I believe that a good religion can provide a kind of inoculation against particularly harmful social ideas.

A friend of mine called this the Snow Crash theory of religion after I explained it to him. After some thought I had to admit that he’s basically right, and that’s more or less where I even got the idea from. The story is kind of far fetched, and Neal Stephenson is a mixed bag as a writer. But I think the root concept of religion as a vaccine against true craziness has some real validity to it, and I think the Catholic church overall works better in that regard than just about any other religion due to various parts of its nature – due mostly to its slowness to change and the way it maintains rituals that have a powerful effect on the human psyche. Part of what I’m looking for, after all, is to inoculate my kids against our feminized society.

The Catholic church still has schools that are worth a damn. They may not be as good as I’d like, even they have been somewhat infected by the PC virus, but they’re a lot better than the public schools. My wife and I have decided to make the leap to home schooling if we can avoid it, but if it doesn’t work out… I’ll sell body parts before I let the public schools destroy my son the way they nearly did me. That is not an exaggeration. If homeschooling doesn’t work out for us, we’ll give the local Catholic school a try.

Oh, and our local Catholic school gives a pretty hefty discount to parish members. Multiply that by four kids for k-8, and it’s slightly fair to say that I’ve sold my soul for somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter million dollars in today’s money and a far better youth and education for my children. My sister-in-law’s Catholic priest physics teacher uncle? He teaches taught at a (different) Catholic school, and he’s one of the best trained people I’ve ever met in classical philosophy and logic. Two thumbs way up. We’ve looked at the curriculum for the local school, too, and it’s significantly more advanced than what I did in the local public schools. This is a very big deal to me, and I think we’ve got a good backup for our children here. Most of all, the school is small enough that it’s unlikely to form the same kind of social cliques that were rampant in the public schools I attended [Editor’s not: and are now far worse]. Other factors were very important, too, but this was probably the single biggest one that cemented me on the Catholics before we decided to homeschool.

The Catholic church understands and emphasizes that it’s a human organization, and that it’s members and even its leaders are human beings who make mistakes. I believe that the scandals regarding pedophilia in the church have been blown a bit out of proportion by our sensationalist media. There’s nothing specific to the priesthood that encourages pedophilia. It is a position where a pedophile might actually have access to carry out his desires, so I’m not surprised that the very small percentage of our population with that problem is drawn there. The church’s reaction to it also is completely consistent with how the church treats priests who have committed other crimes. For one, the confidentiality of confession is absolute. Like it or not, that’s strictly necessary to make confession work. Take that away and it all breaks down. If a priest confesses pedophilia to another priest, that priest can’t report him. It’s against the vows. Second, the church has a longstanding policy of viewing all transgressions (even murder) as sins to be forgiven, perhaps with penance paid. Criminal punishment is left up to the secular governments. That’s basically the way the church works.

That said, I do think they could have handled the pedophilia issue better. One of the priests at our local church has suggested that the church should add windows to the confessional room so that parents can keep an eye inside. I agree with this proposal. It doesn’t breech confidentiality any more than one already can. All it lets you do is know who’s inside the confessional. You can tell that anyway if you just hang out outside and watch who goes in and out. But its existence would both reassure parents and force the small number of priests who are a problem to behave because they’re being watched.

I like the emphasis that the church places on the sanctity of both human life and human dignity. I agree with them on both counts. I’ve been somewhat wishy washy on the idea of abortion in the past, but I’ve pretty much come around to agree that it’s a terrible thing under pretty much any circumstances. I certainly believe that our current abortion numbers are a crime against humanity. There’s absolutely no good reason for a society as rich as ours to have a 30% abortion rate. Likewise, I believe that all human beings are worthy of a certain degree of dignity – and that in our modern world, it’s most often people robbing themselves of dignity, rather than others doing it. I’ve also come around to being completely against the death penalty. I’ve read too many stories of death row inmates being exonerated by modern forensic techniques (mostly DNA) both before and after their executions. The execution of even one innocent man is a tragedy beyond belief. I’m ashamed that I ever supported it.

I like that the priests who have talked before our RCIA classes have had the balls to stand up before a bunch of protestants and women and call divorce, abortion, adultery and premarital sex sinful. I like the shock on some of those women’s faces when they hear that stated so openly and plainly. Frankly, they need it.

I like the humility that the church essentially forces on its own leaders. It’s not perfect, but it places a good check on the very real power that they hold.

I like the church’s approach to charity. First, it simply does more charity than most protestant churches. The Catholic church is the largest charity organization on the planet. Second, at least most of the time the charity is freely offered, rather than being contingent upon church attendance or converting to their own religion. Also, the charity isn’t dependent upon some church idea of who is worthy and who isn’t. It’s real charity, and I like that. I know there are exceptions to this (it’s a big, imperfect organization), but in general this is the case.

I like churches that look like churches, not shopping malls. The Catholics still do a pretty good job of this even with newer buildings. Many of their older buildings are simply breathtaking, even when they’re from a poorer parish. [Editor’s note: the Catholic church we attend now was designed by baby boomers and it looks like it. In other words, it’s terribly ugly – with the ugliest stained glass window I’ve ever seen. Our priest has done his level best to adjust for that with internal decorations and the new additions, though.]

In part 7 I’ll discuss some difficulties I still have with the church. Only time will tell if I’m ever able to move past them or not, but they’re not enough to keep me from signing on.

The Whole Series

Trump Made Out Like A Bandit on Miss Universe

Donald Trump, left, and Miss Universe, Gabriela Isler, of Venezuela, talk during a news conference, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, in Doral, Fla. Three of the last six Miss Universe titles have gone to Venezuelan contestants. This year's Miss Universe competition has a unique undertone: It will take place in South Florida, home to the largest number of Venezuelans in the U.S., the majority strongly against the current Venezuelan government. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Donald Trump just filed a new financial disclosure form with the Federal Elections Commission claiming his net worth has risen to $10 billion over the last year. Forbes rebuts that, claiming his net worth has instead dropped from their previous estimate of $4.1 billion to $4 billion.

For the record, I have no idea what Trump’s net worth actually is. And I don’t care. Trump is almost certainly giving an answer higher than the real one. He wants to be called out on the lie. As Scott Adams has repeatedly pointed out, this keeps the conversation in the news. And most people aren’t even listening. For the average person, the takeaway is simple: Trump is really, really rich. The specifics don’t matter – the only argument they hear is an argument over just how really, really rich he is.

But I think Forbes did make a pretty big error in their calculations. Specifically, I think they factored Miss Universe as a loss for Trump last year.To quote their own words:

In fact, we’ve lowered our valuation of the real estate tycoon from $4.1 billion to $4 billion since his controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants during his campaign launch speech, which led to the end of his business deals with NBCUniversal, Univision, Serta Mattresses, and Macy’sM, as well as PVHPVH Corp. and Perfumania, the manufacturers of his menswear line and fragrances, respectively. In the wake of these developments, we have dropped the value of his brand to zero (previously, we pegged it at $125 million).

Like most people, I think they’ve missed what actually happened here. To be fair, you had to be paying really close attention to catch it, as the sales numbers and contractual arrangements for Trump’s Miss Universe stake weren’t public. I only caught it by sheer accident. But I’m pretty sure I’ve pieced together what happened, and it’s sheer genius on Trump’s part.

First of all, I don’t disagree that the value of Miss Universe dropped when Trump made his comments about Mexican immigrants. Those business deals were, indeed, canceled. However, what most people miss is that before then, Trump only owned half of Miss Universe. That changed later. On September 11, 2015 (an ironic date), it was quietly announced that Trump was buying out NBC’s half of Miss Universe. Most people missed that. What they didn’t miss was the second part, that came only days later. On September 14, Trump sold all of Miss Universe.

And therein lies the genius. Trump bought the beauty pageant at a deflated price – it was worth less because of his involvement. It had almost no media contracts, destroying its value. But when he sold it, he automatically became uninvolved with it. Which means that the value of the company was much higher, because all of those contracts could now be reinstated for a Trump-less pageant. Or maybe they’d negotiate better ones. The point is, it doesn’t matter. When he bought it, the company was severely undervalued compared to its potential. But that’s not the company he sold. The company he sold had full value (or near to it) again. Remember, it’s an age old adage of investment: the money isn’t made on the sale, it’s made on the purchase. Trump purchased the company at the right time.

Odds are very good that he planned this out as part of his campaign. But even if he didn’t, it shows a remarkable flexibility and the ability to take advantage of opportunity when it knocks.

Again, the actual numbers aren’t public. I can’t prove that this is how it went down. But look at the timing of it. There’s really no other way it could’ve happened. I only noticed because I happened to see the news that he’d bought NBC’s stake on the day it happened. I was laughing at the time, certain that he’d gotten a fire sale price for it. Then a few days later I saw that he’d sold it, and I was laughing even harder.

Trump Trumped NBC, plain and simple.

Bonus thought: the value of Trump’s brand may be lowered or may be raised by the events of his presidential bid. But Forbes has gone full retard by labeling it as “zero.” The eleven million votes he’s received in the Republican primary definitively proves that it’s not zero.

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5

catholicismistrueEditor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

If you made it through the last installment, you’ll see that I have a pretty long list of issues with Christianity. But over time, I’ve come to realize something. Many of these issues aren’t actually issues with Christianity itself, but rather issues with protestantism.

I’m going to go through this in roughly the same order as the last post, so for some it might be helpful to pull them both up side by side.

Catholic dogma is that Jesus wasn’t just a man, but he was also a God. Also that he rose from the dead on the third day after his Crucifixion and ascended bodily into heaven after that. OK. I’ll admit it – I still have issues with that. But you know what? I can accept it, if not outright believe in it. As I said before, it’s a powerful story. I’m willing to just take it as a premise that can’t be proven and go from there. The only church that would call itself Christian that might not ask me to believe that is the Unitarian church, and that’s just kind of pointless. So OK, I’ll bite… but only if I can accept what follows.

As for the bible… the Catholic stance is that the bible is inerrant (without error), but only when it’s properly understood and interpreted by the church. Now, this may at first seem to open a can of worms of its own. But the church’s position basically is this: Jesus was part of an oral society. He taught orally. He instructed his apostles to teach orally. The scriptures of the New Testament were written down much after the fact in order to capture the oral Tradition of the church. The church itself has maintained that tradition, person to person, for 2000 years.

You know what? I can buy that. Unlike the literalist stance, it matches with the known history of the documents we have today. Is the modern tradition of the church a perfect recreation of the traditions of 2000 years ago? I doubt it. It’s basically a 2000 year old game of telephone. I’m pretty sure that it’s not exactly what Jesus was teaching. I doubt the church would argue with that. They’d probably say that the teaching has evolved, guided by the Holy Spirit, to match the times. Fair enough, I can get behind that. I’m pretty solidly convinced that nobody else is going to be closer to what Jesus actually taught. This is where the idea that Catholics aren’t as big into the bible comes from. It’s not that they don’t honor it. They just claim that the bible captured church traditions rather than being the source of church traditions. Along these lines, they say that some parts of the bible were meant to be taken literally and some were meant to be metaphor, and the oral tradition of the church, handed down priest to priest for 2000 years tells us which was which. To me, this makes infinitely more sense than taking the bible literally. If you believe that the Holy Spirit really has guided the church, then this is pretty pure. Myself, I’m betting that the telephone game has distorted it somewhat… but I’m willing to live with that.

The Catholic church does not preach predestination and never really has. It’s a Protestant idea that came primarily from John Calvin. Free will is, in fact, very important to Catholic dogma in general. This is a big plus to me.

Likewise, the Catholic church doesn’t really have this idea of “being saved” simply by believing in Jesus. It’s not enough. You also have to make a true effort to live a good life, free from sin and doing good deeds. This is a very good social construct, as it encourages people to actually live their morality rather than skating by just because being a believer is good enough. Points here.

Even in the watered down form you find it in modern America, Catholicism asks something from its members. Catholicism doesn’t allow divorce (although it’s far too easy to get an annulment these days, especially in America… but it’s still better than the protestants). Catholicism expects you to confess your sins regularly, a painful but powerful act (and probably the single part of Catholicism that I have the most trouble with). Catholicism expects you to do penance for those sins. Catholicism expects you to actually give up something for Lent, to contribute to charity, to show up to Mass regularly and on special holy days. Yes, there are lots of “bad Catholics” who don’t do these things. But the church still has the balls to stand up there and tell you that you should. It’s better than most. However, Catholicism also doesn’t ask so much of you that it’s absolutely draconian. None of this really will crush you. And… it expects you to fall short.

The Catholic church has had its issues historically with science. Yes, we all remember Galileo. But we mostly remember the story wrong, and that’s our loss. The real story is far more interesting and dramatic (the short version: Galileo and the Pope were frenemies, and his punishment wasn’t religious it was mostly personal). The modern church is very friendly to science, with one big caveat: science is there to tell us how the world works, religion is there to tell us how to make moral judgments about it. As a philosopher, I find this exactly right. Science is fantastic for finding out factual info. It provides no guidelines on its own for morality. My sister-in-law’s uncle is a Catholic priest and a physics teacher [Editor’s note: sadly, this man – who was a major influence in my conversion – has since passed away]. The church views these as compatible, and I approve.

The Catholic church is extremely consistent with its views. They’ve had 2000 years to practice and some of the biggest powerhouses in the history of philosophy to help them get it right. Most of the argument that people have with their views can fall into two categories: coming from a different set of first principles or letting their rationalization hamsters run loose because they don’t want to agree with the church. I doubt that there’s any other sizable organization on the planet that’s as consistent as the church. To be honest, I’m a little bit in awe of it, especially considering its raw size (there are over a billion Catholics in the world). Is it perfect? No. But it’s pretty good.

The Catholic church supports big families. If you’re going to claim birth control is a sin, you kind of have to. Works for us, since we have a big family. The support network is nice – and you can’t find it in many other places these days. I don’t think I really need to explain this one.

The Catholic church more than any other Christian church except perhaps the Orthodox churches maintains a high degree of ritual in what it does. Excess ritual is often associated with paganism and cults, and for good reason. But the rituals capture us because they speak to something fundamental in the human psyche. Even if you believe that the Mass and the Eucharist are a bunch of hogwash, the rituals associated with them are pretty useful as a kind of meditation period – much like the rituals that Buddhist monks go through, only in larger groups. Indeed, all of the seven sacraments serve as pretty powerful rituals to accomplish specific purposes within the human psyche. Baptism as a ritual helps cement your status part of the tribe. Confirmation serves as a rite of passage (something modern western society is sorely lacking). Making marriage a sacramental ritual emphasizes the importance the church places on family. I find this extremely useful, even if a part of me does think it’s all a bit irrational.

Christianity itself could, to some degree, be called the biggest cult of personality of all time – if you consider the big man, JC himself, to be the alpha at the top. But he’s been elsewhere for about 2000 years, and in that time the church has become a large bureaucracy. I’m not overly fond of big bureaucracies… but they’re better than cults of personality. The church has a lot of rules in place specifically to prevent it from becoming too much of that. 2000 years of history will help you figure out that kind of thing.

The church doesn’t claim it’s getting “closer” to the original teachings of Christ. It claims they are the original teachings of Christ, and always have been. They certainly have a better claim to it than anybody else.

This installment has been a response to a bunch of negative ideas about Christianity. The next installment will focus more on positive traits of the church that I find very appealing.

The Whole Series

Social Media is Your Short Game

Social media is a really useful tool for promoting yourself and your brand. With some changes and improvements I’ve made over the last few weeks, social media now accounts for almost three quarters of the daily sessions coming into this blog.

Twitter alone accounts for nearly 60% of the incoming traffic now. I’ve upped my Twitter game substantially, and the results are readily apparent. This blog got more traffic from May 1 through May 15 than it got in all of April. That holds true whether you measure it by sessions or by pageviews. And I expect another big growth wave as I branch out into other social networks and study the right ways to optimize traffic from those sources.

But social media is your short game.

The traffic from social media is ephemeral. The traffic from social media has a high bounce rate (the visitors who only look at one page on your site). Most who come in from social media are one time visitors. Social media visitors are far less likely to leave comments on your actual blog – but far more likely to talk about it on social media, so there’s a trade-off! But worst of all, the traffic flow is here today and gone tomorrow. If you don’t keep active on the social media every day, that traffic comes to a halt. The picture below represents traffic from Twitter after one particular influencer retweeted a blog posting of mine last week.


Note the large spike and then the quick fall-off afterward. That’s not a snapshot over a period of days – that’s over a period of hours. Now, keep in mind that Twitter is the shortest of short game. Even in social media terms, Twitter is ephemeral. The tweets are gone quickly. Facebook moves at a much slower pace. And Google+ seems to have a nice staying presence in Google’s actual search results. But in general, you need to understand that any given post on social media doesn’t stay around on people’s radar for very long.

This doesn’t in any way mean that you should be neglecting social media. This one retweet by one influencer brought in more sessions in one day than I got in most months in 2015 (when I wasn’t doing much to promote this blog). But the following day, traffic was back to very close to normal. To sustain the traffic, you have to keep hammering away at the social media every single day.

But the key point that I want to make is, social media is the short game and must be treated like it. Spend time on it, but don’t neglect your long game. What’s the long game, you ask? Come back next week and we’ll talk about that!

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 4

Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

–Hub McCann, “Secondhand Lions”

In part 3 I mentioned that I believe Christianity can be objectively shown to be both better and more advanced than competing religions. Despite that, I still have issues with it.

I’ve never had any question that a man named Jesus (or, more accurately, the Hebrew equivalent) lived in the Holy Lands at some point during the reign of Augustus, gathered some disciples around him, and taught more or less as he’s represented in the Gospels. His crucifixion is probably the single most believable part of the story. Here comes this guy who at one and the same time is stirring up trouble against the local religious authorities and is spouting off a lot of stuff that sounds like it’s undermining the authority of the Roman overlords? Oh yeah, I’m sure they crucified that guy. OK, so there’s not a lot of corroborating historical evidence to back up a lot of the specifics. There’s not really much to go against it, either, so I don’t really see much of a reason to discount the basic non-miraculous parts of the gospel story.

Was he the son of God? Did he rise from the dead on the third day? I’ve had a lot more trouble with those, I’ll admit.

For a time I was convinced that it didn’t really matter. It’s a powerful story even if it’s only metaphor – or even if it was made up after the fact by his disciples in an attempt to bolster their fledgling faith. As I’ve said already, a large part of my own journey to religion was practical. Some will find this offensive. Many will find it unconvincing. Others will scoff. I don’t really care. I’m not writing this to soothe your feelings. I’m not writing it to convince you. I’m sure as hell not writing it for your approval. It’s just my story as it is. I have difficulty with these elements, but I can live with them.

I’ve had serious trouble believing that the bible is the literal word of God. Not to make too light a point of it… but if it’s the literal word of God, which version is the right one? And don’t hand me an English translation, because I’m not buying it. The original books of the bible were written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) at different times and places by different people. For some books of the bible, there are multiple versions in the original language. Which one should we use for the translation? Biblical scholars don’t always agree. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant bibles don’t even have the same number of books.

I refuse to accept the idea of predestination. This isn’t just a selfish need to feel like I have some degree of control over my own life (although I’ll admit to a little of that). Whether free will is real or not, I believe that we must act as if it is. If we stop acting as though we believe in free will, society fundamentally breaks down. This is one of the many cultural/religious issues that the Islamic Middle East faces that keeps it from rising above its current problems. If you don’t believe in free will, then you stop caring about the choices you make. Morality as we know it breaks down because nobody has any real responsibility for anything. I reject predestination completely, and everything that comes with it.

I outright reject any faith that preaches that God has already chosen who will be “saved” and who won’t. If God has preselected whom He’s given Grace to and whom He hasn’t, and everybody else is just fucked even if they try their best to live a good life and follow His teachings… well, that God’s an asshole, and He’s not worth of my belief or worship. And if that’s really how He is, then I’ll stand before Him on judgment day and tell Him to his face as He casts me into the fiery pits of hell. So be it.

I find no benefit in any religion that doesn’t ask something from its members. Modern protestantism, especially in America, is so pathetically lame. A quote from a friend’s Facebook page recently [five years ago now]: “For lent I’m going to give up self-loathing and being so hard on myself about everything.” Really? Wow, what a sacrifice. For those wondering, yes, it’s from a girl’s page. I say girl even though she’s in her 20s because… well, it should be obvious. Or as Dalrock has pointed out repeatedly, they can’t even condemn divorce anymore. Our churches have become so feminized and so overrun by the self-obsessed Baby Boomers that they’re mostly just intolerable. No wonder membership is declining.

I can’t join a faith that doesn’t have a basic respect for science. Yes, our society has swallowed a lot of pseudoscientific crap. But real science – the kind that, you know, follows the actual scientific method – has been the single greatest tool humanity has ever known for removing misery, poverty, starvation, and premature death.

It’s a lot to ask of a religion, but I’m much more comfortable something that’s internally consistent. Yes, with Christianity I’m being asked to accept a few things as basic premises that I have a bit of trouble with. But thanks to Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem (summed up for the lay person: any logical system that is internally consistent will always have premises that are unprovable but are nonetheless true within that system) we know that this is pretty unavoidable. I have little stomach for those who can’t be intellectually honest with themselves about where their theories and philosophies lead them.

I really have come to believe that elements of our culture and government have been deliberately designed to keep families small and help break them apart, and we’re looking for institutions that counter that. Specifically, my wife and I want a big family [And now we have four kids], so we want a community that’s supportive and understanding of that. In this day and age, anything more than 2 or 3 kids is kind of rare, and almost looked down upon. We also want a place that is very firm in supporting marriage – not divorce.

massI have come to believe that rituals are an important part of culture and religion and that our society is seriously lacking in them. Yes, they’re completely irrational and don’t serve much of an objective purpose. But I believe that the human psyche needs them nonetheless.

I’m not at all interested in a cult of personality, and that’s what most fundamentalist evangelical churches are. An alpha minister is OK, I just expect him to be a moral and spiritual leader as part of it, not just a douchebag.

I have no patience for those who claim that they’re getting “closer to the original teachings of Christ.” Right. And how, exactly, do you know? Were you there? No, of course you weren’t. Your rationalization hamster is just spinning away to rationalize your own interpretation of Christ’s teachings. I even say this as one who’s been partially guilty of this in the past. Sure, we have some interesting historical documents that have turned up recently that give us a new perspective on the early church. There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that they’re any more authentic than the scriptures that have been passed down over the centuries. If anything, those who formalized the canon at the Council of Nicea were probably in a better position to decide that than we are today, given that they were much closer to the source and had access to a whole lot more documentation that has since been lost to us. Also, they were living in a Christian tradition that had had much less time to evolve. I doubt that they were perfect in their decisions, but I even more doubt that we’re going to be able to be more perfect 1700 years later.

In Part 5 I’ll explore why I believe Catholicism in particular has answers to most of these issues.

The Whole Series

Catfish Literary Festival

catfishfest2I will be appearing at the second annual Catfish Literary Festival on June 4th at the Athens-Limestone County Public Library in Athens, Alabama. Silver Empire will have a booth at the event and author S.D. McPhail, author of the Treasures of Dodrazeb series, will be joining me for book signings. The Catfish Festival will be your first chance to get copies of our upcoming anthology, Between the Wall and the Fire, and we’ll have a limited number of advance review copies of Ms. McPhail’s upcoming novel, The Origin Key. Ms. McPhail will also be joining me for the fantasy/sci-fi panel at 12:20. Come on out and see us!

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 3

Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

Some religions are better than others in objectively identifiable ways.

Some religions are more advanced than others in objectively measurable ways.

If you’re still here, then good. You haven’t let the multicultural PC crowd crush all of your capability for rational thought yet. If we’re willing to set aside our preconceptions and give it honest thought, a study of comparative religions will show us that we can compare religions objectively and conclude that in a very meaningful sense some are better than others. We can also say, in a very different meaningful sense that some are more advanced than others. These are separate methods of comparison, but both are useful and meaningful.

Before we delve too deeply into this, an important note has to be made. All of the world’s dominant religions have been around for a very long time. In the time that they’ve been around, they haven’t remained constant. At times they’re not even constant from place to place within the same time period (witness modern Christianity, which currently exists in dozens, if not hundreds, of different flavors). Therefore, at times we’ll have to be fairly specific about what flavor of a given religion we’re referring to at any point in the discussion. But even when the flavors differ (again, Christianity in the modern world is a good example) sometimes we can lump them together for the purposes of discussion because they share many of the same fundamental traits.

Also, although I’ll briefly mention some others, most of the discussion will follow the evolution of the religions of western civilization. The main reason for this is that the evolutionary chain of advancement is fairly clear. Eastern religions largely followed an entirely different path of evolution, which is interesting in its own right but will mostly just serve to clutter the discussion.

When I say that one religion is better than another I mean that it has measurably better results for society. We can measure in a lot of ways, but I like to use the following question. How well does a society that follows religion X fare at meeting the basic, necessary needs of its citizenry? This isn’t always straightforward to answer, but we can get a pretty good idea of it by looking at things like mortality rates, starvation rates and poverty rates. Notice that I’ve left off things like GDP, GNP and average income. Many religious people would argue that making us all wealthier doesn’t necessarily make us better off. From a religious point of view, I think this is fair. I do think, however, that having fewer people die and live in abject misery is an objectively good thing that almost all religious people would agree upon. Otherwise, what’s all that charity for? I’m also well aware that there are a lot of other factors that determine the success of a society. However, I believe that culture is a major one, and that religion is the largest component of culture.

When I say that one religion is more advanced than another, I mean that it’s introduced some novel concept. Not just a new flavor on something, like “Oh, we have a thunder god and a lightning god!” But a radical (at the time of introduction) new concept that fundamentally changed the way people thought about religion. As I’ll discuss in more detail later, a study of the history of religion reveals several massive leaps forward in religious understanding.

Now that we understand our terms, let’s look at the major religions of the world, both now and historically. Most modern hunter gatherer tribes still follow basically the “nature spirit” template of religion. Each animal has its spirit, each aspect of nature (wind, rain, lightning, etc) has a spirit, and so forth. This is not a very sophisticated religion at all. Most of us will be the most familiar with the native American flavors of this, but it essentially survives in other forms today. Shinto is a more modernized and advanced form of this as well. It’s not very advanced because it doesn’t offer us much in the way of new and original thought. By my measure, it’s not really a very good religion either, because it rarely brings groups much out of the hunter-gatherer stage, which is a pretty brutal stage of civilization. Nature spirit religions don’t really have a lot in the way of morality to offer, and what they do have basically boils down to, “don’t piss off the spirits because then they’ll deny you food, shelter, water, or clothing.”

Pantheistic paganism is the next evolution. Instead of a unique spirit for every aspect of nature, mankind has advanced to perceiving distinct “gods” that govern entire realms of responsibility. Instead of a spirit inside each animal, now we have a goddess of the hunt (Diana). Or instead of a spirit for each river and lake, now we have a generalized god of the sea (Poseidon). It is a bit more advanced, but not much. It shows a little bit more abstract reasoning. It’s also a little bit easier to organize. With fewer deities around, we can standardize our practice more easily around the few that are left. But it doesn’t really get us a lot more than that. Morality hasn’t advanced much. It can still be summed up as, “Don’t stand on the top of the mountain in a thunderstorm cursing Zeus.” It’s a bit more noticeably better than nature spirit religions, because this kind of religion brought forth almost every major ancient agricultural society. The human race survived better and flourished more under these systems than it had before them.

Judaism is where things start to get interesting. It is important to note, however, that Judaism did not just spring into being in full form. Even Judaism as reported in the Old Testament is well advanced from what modern scholars believe it to have been in the early days. There’s debate about what exactly its earliest forms was, but even in the Old Testament itself you can see the religion evolving. Later, it retrofitted some of the advanced concepts of Christianity, at least into Jewish culture, if not directly into the religion. Yes, I realize I just pissed a lot of people off with that statement, but it’s observably true from a historical perspective. Modern Jewish culture has Christian elements in it. Deal with it.

Two fundamental and distinct breakthroughs really set Judaism apart from the pantheistic pagan religions. First, and best known, it made the switch to true monotheism, claiming that the Jewish God (now a proper noun in its own right) was the only God, creator of all things. Second, it made the leap to a non-anthropomorphic god. Despite the early verses of Genesis that tell us that God made man in his own image, Jewish tradition (going way back, but not quite to the beginning) is that God is an abstract being. God is everywhere, and in everything. He’s not contained in this or that statue, or this or that temple. We can’t draw make idols of him because it would be blasphemous to make idols of a being that has no physical form for us to see. He’s beyond our understanding. This is a really big leap in abstraction. On its own, it doesn’t necessarily make the religion better or worse than any other, but it’s clearly more advanced in terms of its thinking. [Editor’s note: this gets even more interesting when you consider that both Jewish and Christian traditon simultaneously teach that man is created in God’s image; but that seeming paradox is a topic for another discussion.]

Was Judaism much better than pantheistic paganism? I would argue that it was, but only somewhat. Set aside the Roman Empire for the moment, which is more or less a historical anomaly. It’s also debatable as to whether the Empire increased or decreased human misery. The Romans themselves were obviously better off, but they rather clearly got that way by making everybody they conquered much worse off. Other than that one exception, the best that pantheistic paganism was able to consistently achieve in the western world was city-state level civilizations that occasionally progressed to smallish “empires” like the Macedonian empire or the Egyptian empire. Yes, I know the Macedonian empire at its peak was quite large geographically, but it didn’t hold together long enough to really matter. Judaism never got much beyond that point either. At its height, the ancient nation of Israel was still pretty small compared to anything else. But the Jewish religion does seem to have one very interesting factor that I believe makes it somewhat better than the pagan religions. Throughout the millennia since the ancient nation of Israel was finally conquered and dispersed, Jews have survived and even thrived as a subculture in almost every part of the western world, against almost all kinds of intolerance and persecution. At times, it’s enough to make one think that they really must be God’s chosen people.

However, around 2000 years ago Christianity took the human race on another religious quantum leap. Christianity is far more advanced than Judaism, in so many interesting ways that it’s hard to decide where to start.

The most radical concept at the time would have to be Christ’s so called 11th Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This was a massively revolutionary idea, and not just in terms of religion. It especially stands out if we place it in context of the time Jesus taught. The Hebrews of Palestine at the time were one of many peoples highly oppressed by the Roman Empire very near the peak of its power. Like many subjugated peoples, the Romans were basically squeezing every last bit of profit they could out of the province, completely uncaring of how it affected the native people. But even besides the Romans, it was a brutal world. People generally helped their families, and their close communities (say, the village they lived in). Beyond that, it was more or less a world of take what you can, when you can, and from whom you can. Then all of a sudden here comes this man with a message of loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.

This was literally viewed as crazy talk by the people of the time.

Christianity was the first major western religion that not only welcomed but openly recruited ethnic outsiders. To this day, it’s not exactly easy to convert to Judaism. It’s doable, but they make you work for it. Christianity changed that very early on, openly welcoming and recruiting non-Jews. This, also, is a bigger advancement than it may seem to modern eyes. Yes, Christianity, like all religions, represents some form of tribalism. You’re a part of our Christian tribe now, so you’re OK. But it’s tribalism at a much more abstract level. No longer is your “tribe” so dependent upon your ethnicity. Now your faith can determine it instead. We all know that this is imperfectly executed, but it’s a major advancement in ideas nonetheless.

maxresdefaultChristianity, more than any other major world religion, has also proven very adaptable. To be sure, it has struggled somewhat in the modern era. But over the course of 2000 years, it has adapted to some amazing situations. You can see this almost right out of the gate. As someone familiar with classical history, to my eyes it is very rightly called the Roman Catholic Church. Confronted with competing religions, Christianity co-opted their celebrations, feast days, symbols, and even some ideas and made them its own. Again, its parent religion has done this as well to some degree – but nowhere near to the same extent.

Christianity is also the only modern major world religion that from the very beginning demanded strict monogamy. Judaism does now, but in its early days it was OK with polygamy. And yes, I know that there have been offshoots of Christianity that allowed polygamy. They have never been mainstream Christianity. Even tolerance of divorce is recent in terms of Christian history. Although this may be detrimental to a few individuals, it’s a huge bonus for society at large.

Is it better than other religions using the criteria I’ve outlined? I think the answer is an unqualified “yes.” The Middle Ages are often derided as a miserable period in human history. Yet we can say two things about them. First, scholars now unequivocally acknowledge that they weren’t as “dark” as they’re made out to be. Second, they really weren’t any worse than most of human history, even if they were “darker” than the periods of western history that bookended them. The modern western world was built on the shoulders of Christianity, and it’s unquestionably the golden age of human history as far as a time and place of low human misery.

Islam, frankly, is a step backwards in terms of how advanced it is. It’s much more similar to Judaism than it is to Christianity, despite accepting Christ as a prophet. It’s moral code is fairly modern (don’t laugh; compared to the Greeks and the Romans, it is fairly modern) and in keeping with the other religions of the book (up until their liberalization about a century or so ago), but it doesn’t really offer anything obviously new. Also, I’m not at all a fan of Islamic acceptance of polygamy. This is fundamentally not a good thing for society. Is Islam better than other religions? It did fairly well in the Middle Ages, but the Islamic world has been in decline ever since. The biggest issue that Islam suffers from is its lack of adaptability. It did well at the right time and place, but it can’t adapt to a changing world.

This post is already running really long, so I’m going to go ahead and wrap it up rather than delving deeper. But the short version is this: I believe that Christianity (or at least flavors of it) is both the most advanced religion that the world has seen to date and also the best religion the world has seen to date, in terms of how that religion benefits society.

Part 4 will delve more into Christianity and some problems I have with it and/or various flavors of it.

The Whole Series

Book Bomb for NETHEREAL

NETHEREAL is getting book bombed today!
NETHEREAL is getting book bombed today!

Larry Correia’s latest book bomb is TODAY and it’s for my friend Brian Niemeier‘s Nethereal. Brian is a truly excellent up and coming author, and Nethereal is about as good a first novel as you could hope for. That’s why he got nominated this year for a Campbell Award. You can read my review of it here, and you can see my three part interview with Brian here, here and here. I won’t be participating in this book bomb by buying the book because I already bought a copy a long time ago. You should get yours today though. If you like sci-fi horror, you will love Nethereal.

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 2

jesus_armwrestles_satanEditor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

In Part 1 I detailed my falling out with Christianity as a young man. So how and why did I decide, from a position of agnosticism, that religion is important?

First and foremost, despite my disillusionment with religion, I’ve always maintained a belief in morality. Specifically, I’ve maintained two distinct beliefs about morality. First, society as a whole is far better off with some kind of code of morality than without one. We can argue about the specifics of which code of morality, but I think it’s pretty hard to argue that society is better off without morality. Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that civilization as we know it simply can’t exist without a shared moral code [Editor’s note: I believe this even more strongly now than I did then]. Second, I believe the overwhelming majority of individuals are better off following a code of morality, especially if others in society are doing the same. But they’re also better off even if nobody else is following such a code. There are some clear exceptions to this rule. Kings, rock stars, and a few others might be materially better off ignoring the rules – but even here, that’s not entirely clear. A king who pushes the boundaries too far often won’t remain king for very long.

It’s a hard point to argue that individuals are better off following a code of morality even if others around them don’t, and it’s something I’d have had a hard time explaining even just a few years ago. The benefits aren’t always immediate and obvious. But the short answer is that a clear code of morality makes it easier for others to interact with you and trust you, even if they don’t follow your code of morality. All they have to do is understand your code. If they understand it, and know you’re serious about it, it gives them a clear understanding of exactly how far and in what ways they can trust you. Being too trusting is a good way to get taken advantage of, sure. But being very trustworthy is a good way to build up social capital. Trust is a huge bit of grease that makes the mechanics of socialization go more smoothly, and we need other people (if only to serve as minions in our evil overlord schemes). Even pagan societies pushed men to be trustworthy, and they benefited from it. Our modern hedonistic culture often loses sight of this.

I’ve always had a strong sense of this, and as an adult I haven’t really felt like I needed a church to tell me about it. I also very firmly believe that you don’t need religion to have morality. But my marriage brought with it a new challenge. When the kids eventually come, how do you teach them to be moral? Sure, I can lead by example. But frankly, religion is very valuable as a teaching tool for this. I know from my own experience growing up that church, for all its flaws, helped teach me what it meant to be a good and moral person.

Religion also plays another role in society that we should all recognize by now: it tempers the worst sexual impulses of both men and women. The emphasis on faithful marriages that all religions traditionally have keeps both female hypergamy and male promiscuity in check, and that’s good for everybody – especially children. Oh, and there’s convincing research that married couples that regularly attend church together are quite a bit more likely to stay married.

Also, over the years I’ve come to believe something about human beings: we’re not the rational creatures that we pretend we are. Of particular relevance to the topic at hand, people need religion. I think it’s biological. A more devout Christian would argue that God gave us that need. An anthropologist might argue that we’ve somehow evolved it. I don’t think it much matters which is the case. We need religion. In the absence of anything else, we’ll start to Worship the Thunder God [Editor’s note: this was a reference to a comment left on the original posting of part 1]. We can’t help it. It’s part of who we are. The most striking modern version of this is the modern west’s cult of liberalism. Make no mistake, it’s every bit as much a religion as fundamentalist evangelicalism. Indeed, the two faiths are more alike than they are different.

George Lucas of all people once made a comment in an interview in Time magazine that has always stuck with me. I tried to track it down, but Time appears to have taken it offline. Paraphrased, he explained that we could think of the old cave man days as being a 1 on the religious scale. Things like pagan mythology could be considered a 3 or a 4. Modern religions could be viewed as somewhere around a 7 or an 8, and we’re pretty proud of ourselves for that. The thing most of us don’t realize is, the scale goes to a million.

For all of the man’s pompous asshattery (and there’s kind of a lot of it), I think he had a pretty valid point here. Not only is there a lot we don’t understand, but we don’t even have a good idea what it is we don’t understand. But there’s another good point buried in here as well, and it’s one that he probably didn’t even intend to make. Indeed, it’s a point that most of the modern educated elite seems to completely miss as well. It’s a simple and clear point, but it’s completely and utterly politically incorrect. If you even try to utter it the multiculturalists will jump down your throat for it. But if you study them abstractly for any length of time you’ll come to the inescapable conclusion that the dominant religions of the modern world are more advanced than other, older religions. And I don’t mean that in a tribalistic, “we’re better than you, neener neener” kind of way. I mean in some clear and distinct ways.

But that will be part 3.

The Whole Series