Category Archives: Philosophy

An Information Theory View of the Catholic Church

network-sept132013Imagine if you will that you’re an information engineer, and you’ve been handed a task. God himself has literally come down to Earth, walked among the people, and spoken. In fact, He’s spoken quite a bit. Your job now is to record everything that He taught. You have some important requirements.

  • The Word Of God must not be added to – only what He actually said shall be recorded.
  • The Word Of God must not be subtracted from – everything He taught must be preserved.
  • The Word Of God must be accessible – the people must be able to learn what He said.
  • The Word Of God must be preserved for all time – it must not be allowed to fade from this world.

If you’re working with modern computer systems, this isn’t all that bad. You’d set up a data center, maybe on the cloud somewhere. You’d initiate regular backups, both on-site and off-site. You’d make sure you had one heck of a disaster recovery plan. Budget for plenty of bandwidth. But the storage requirements aren’t really all that bad. He was only around for a few years, after all.

Now imagine that you’re given this task in a pre-information age society with a 90% illiteracy rate. Instead of modern computing devices, your information storage and retrieval system consists of human beings. Which have the following characteristics:

  • Data storage is unreliable. You can’t actually count on people to remember what they’ve learned.
  • Data deteriorates over time. The human brain forgets.
  • Retrieval is unreliable. Even if people remember it right, they can’t necessarily say it right.
  • Communication is unreliable. Even if it’s remembered right and said right, it might not be heard right or understood right.
  • Corruption is inevitable. Some people will deliberately corrupt the data and spread a false message.

And all of that is under the best of circumstances. Every one of those characteristics can be made worse by disease, old age, injury, war, famine, even bad weather. In short, for the given task, human beings are a really terrible information network. So what do you do? How do you build your system so that it meets the goals above?

I submit that if you gave the task to an information theorist you’d end up with something that looks an awful lot like the Catholic or Orthodox churches. Here are some of the great characteristics of that system, given the tasks as outlined:

  • It has very high redundancy.
  • It has very strong error detection.
  • It has very high error correction.
  • It has very high data accessibility – even to those who aren’t prepared to understand the full depth of it.
  • It has very high longevity – the system has lasted two thousand years.

The mother church catches a lot of flack, and some of it is deserved. But for its primary purpose in life it is beautifully – some might even say immaculately – designed.

Christianity’s Oral Tradition

sermon_on_the_mountWhen the Catholic and Orthodox churches speak of Tradition, most of us in the modern world get the idea that they’re stuck in some ancient world and just can’t get with the times. This is a modern misunderstanding, not the misunderstanding of the Church itself. We have failed to understand the difference between Tradition and tradition – a distinction that the church understands quite well.

To put it simply, the position of the orthodox (small ‘o’) churches is – and always has been, for two thousand years – that the written New Testament is not everything that Christ taught. If you take a moment to think it through at all it becomes readily apparent that this must be the case.

We don’t know if Christ himself was literate. There’s no mention of it in the bible, one way or another. We do, however, know that no actual writings of his survive today. We also know that he lived and preached in a highly illiterate society. And the descriptions we have of his actual teachings don’t tell of him passing out textbooks. Instead we hear quite a bit about him speaking.

That’s right. Christ’s actual teachings were all oral.

The four gospels were written later, years after he died. Two of them – the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John – are attributed to direct disciples of Jesus himself. But the other two aren’t even that. Longstanding Christian tradition says that Mark was a student of Peter, not Christ himself. And Luke is at least twice removed – he was a companion of Paul, who wasn’t one of Christ’s direct disciples either.

Bear with me for a moment and assume that the Christian tradition that these books are accurate is correct. It still seems incredibly unlikely that these four books alone contain everything about Christ’s life. What if we include the remaining 23 books?

Let me tell you something about writing and teaching. I’ve been a martial arts teacher for more than fifteen years. I can tell you definitively that there is no existing collection of books, articles, videos, audio recordings, or any other recorded medium that contains 100% of the knowledge that I’ve collected in that time. I have friends who have been teaching for far longer than that – some with literally half a century of teaching experience. The gap between their knowledge and what’s written is even larger. I know of one specific Kung Fu instructor who deliberately leaves things out of his instructional videos. That way he can always tell who learned it from one of his students and who learned from the video.

This isn’t limited to the martial arts. When I was earning my master’s degree in computer science I noticed the same phenomenon at work. The text books and journal articles we studied were nice. But at that level, a fair amount of instruction came straight from the professor’s lectures and simply wasn’t in the books at all.

This is simply how the passing of knowledge works among human beings. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches have never claimed any differently. When they use the word Tradition (big ‘T’) they aren’t referring to, “well, this is how we’ve always done it.” They’re referring to, “this is what we’ve learned from the sum total of what Christ actually taught us.” That includes the bible as its core component. But it also includes teachings that have been passed orally from bishop to bishop for two thousand years. This is a large part of what is meant by the term “apostolic succession.” The church claims that not only have we inherited the written Word of God, we’ve also inherited his spoken word that has been passed down to this day.

Unlike fundamentalists or some protestants, the church’s view is not that the bible is 100% correct in a literal sense. The church’s view is that the bible is 100% correct and inerrant when it is interpreted correctly – and correct interpretation requires knowledge of the oral traditions handed down by the apostles.

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 7

resurrected-christ-wilson-ong-212048-wallpaperEditor’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.

Anybody still here? I think I heard an echo. Yes, this has gotten a bit long. I’m almost done, I promise.

The Catholic church is not perfect to my view. But then, nothing is. Our modern society has developed this ridiculous obsession with perfection. If things aren’t exactly perfect, we can’t take it. Car isn’t perfect? Trade it in before it’s paid off! House isn’t perfect? Trade up every few years as your income increases – it’s only resetting your 30 year mortgage. Marriage isn’t perfect? Try another one! Church isn’t perfect? Start another one across the street!

I can live with the imperfections of the Catholic church. But I still see them.

The biggest blemish is that they haven’t handled the pedophilia scandals very well. Much of this is a PR issue, but there’s some validity to some of the criticisms laid before the church. The church is an institution of great power. They have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to ensure that children are safe. As a comparison, I’d look at the Boy Scouts. Another organization that was plagued by pedophilia scandals, the Boy Scouts responded quietly but rapidly and forcefully, and as a result you don’t hear much about it anymore except as off color jokes. Key policies that the Boy Scouts implemented include at least two adults present with any child at any time (if only one is there, that single adult can be accused, honestly or not, of suspect behavior), an extreme open door policy (parents being very welcome to see what’s going on at any time) and more. In short, they took it seriously and responded to the problem. Is it a perfect solution? No, it can’t be (see above). But they responded.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been slow to show that they take the problem seriously and it’s been a bit of a disaster.

Even the mighty Catholic church has allowed itself to be feminized, at least in the western world. Annulments are too easy to get. In the 1960s, there were about 300 annulments a year granted in the US. As of 1996, that had grown to over 60,000 a year. Many of those are from protestants converting to Catholicism (it’s easier to get your marriage recognized as invalid if you married outside the church), as I learned while going through RCIA and hearing deacons counseling divorced people on how to navigate the system. As somebody else noted (I think it was Dalrock, but I can’t find the post) churches love marriage more than they hate divorce. The Catholic church is better about it than most, but it’s not fully immune either.

I’m not a big fan of hulking bureaucracies. Not much for it, I just have to deal.

The rite of Confession will probably always be the most difficult practical part of being Catholic for me. Then again, it’s not meant to be easy.

I have problems with authority (unless I am the authority), and the Catholic church is very hierarchical and authority based. This will also be a struggle for me.

The emphasis that the church puts on humility and submission is very useful in some places. For example, it’s good at helping to keep a check on the very wealthy and powerful. But it’s also dangerous for people who are already poor and weak. Some percentage of those people need a little bit of confidence and self worth to move themselves up in the world, and such a powerful push for humility and submission can damage that. I don’t really have a solution to this issue, I just note it.

This is my path, and this is why I’ve chosen it. This essay is also now five years old, and my feelings on many of these issues have grown and evolved. I’m a lot better educated about my faith than I was when I originally wrote this. Don’t be surprised if there are future blog posts that revisit much of the ideas discussed here, both to add greater detail and to add corrections where I’ve learned and grown.

I don’t expect anyone else to follow the same path I did. This is not here to convert you. It’s just my story. It simply is. Take from it what you will.

The Whole Series

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

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

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

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

My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1

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.

My conversion to Catholicism is best described as an uneasy alliance. I am not the best Catholic out there, and I’m not likely to ever be. I still have issues with the church, its theology, and its dogma. But my wife and I jointly came to the decision that it was the best choice for our family. I can’t speak for her. If she wants to tell her tale, that’s her business. I suspect that it was at least in part because she was following where I led, but she’s bright enough and educated enough and strong willed enough that she never would have let me lead her there if she didn’t want to go.

I was raised as a Protestant. Specifically, I was raised Methodist, but I don’t think it really matters much. The nit picky details of their theology may be different, but the different branches of modern liberal American Protestantism are more or less indistinguishable from each other on a day to day basis. The church I was raised in was more or less like any other SWPL protestant church, only more so. In the almost two decades since I stopped attending, it’s grown substantially, to the point where an old friend of mine once referred to it as “Fort God.”

Like most children, I didn’t much question religion when I was small. It was what all the adults told me, so it never even occurred to me to question it. Unlike most children – at least then – I was introduced to the concept of atheism fairly young. A good friend of mine declared in late middle school that he was an atheist. Like most bright people, being introduced to the concept of atheism forced me to rethink everything. And frankly, once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot to find issue with inside Christianity – especially modern “Churchianity.”

Though I didn’t understand it very well at the time, there’s also a lot of social pressure toward atheism, agnosticism, or “Christianity lite” from our “educated” classes. I was most definitely born a part of that class and lived most of my life within it. You could describe my mother’s family fairly accurately as “educational aristocracy”, but the term might not make any sense to anybody who doesn’t know my mother’s family or people like them. I didn’t have the words to express it in my youth, but at a base level “Churchianity” always seemed just silly to me. And growing up in the American south, the other flavor of Christianity I was routinely confronted with was fundamentalist evangelicalism. Although most fundamentalist evangelical Christians are nice people, and many are quite bright, frankly, the kind of thought (or lack thereof) that leads to that particular breed is… well, to me it’s always been the counterpart of radical feminism. Both breeds of “thought” are vapid, empty headed, flim flam that ignore large portions of reality.

Atheism couldn’t hold me for very long, though. Atheists will do all kinds of logical somersaults to avoid it, but true atheism requires a kind of arrogant denial of reality of its own. Like any other religion, atheism itself is an insistence that we know, definitively, all that there is to know about the universe. In a sense, every argument “proving” the non-existence of God has a kind of Black Swan problem. “God can’t exist because we have no evidence of him,” the arguments essentially go. Well, if all we ever see are white swans, we would conclude that there are no black swans. How could there be? We’ve never seen one. Every swan we’ve ever seen is white. Until whoops, along comes a single black one, disproving our argument that all swans are white.

The Christians hadn’t done a very good job of convincing me that God exists, at least not in the way that they described him. But the atheists couldn’t convince me, either. His existence being highly, stupendously, amazingly improbable is not the same is it being impossible. At the same time, it seems abundantly clear to me that there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. I don’t even necessarily mean anything supernatural. Relativity has been work in the universe since the beginning of time, but it’s only in the last hundred years that human beings have been able to understand it. What else is out there that science doesn’t understand yet? I’m guessing there’s a lot. Again, there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. God is as good a word for them as anything, and at this point in time, Science can’t explain them any better than religion.

Also, Science is still struggling with some deep and difficult questions that push up right against the boundaries of philosophy and religion. Where does conscious thought come from? What causes it? Science tells us it comes from neurons firing, but the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t replicate it. Despite decades of effort, we have no artificially intelligent computers. Indeed, we’re not really much closer to them than we were decades ago. We haven’t genetically engineered highly intelligent rats (to pick a random animal), and if we did, how would we even know that they’re intelligent? Or self aware? Science fiction has spent a lot of time dealing with this problem, but even there we find no real answers. Also, most of the hoopla about such and such an animal being as smart as or almost as smart as man is mostly bull. When you start to look into the studies, you do indeed find aspects of intelligence. But there’s nothing that brings with it the same capacity for abstract thought and reason that humanity has. Who is to say that it isn’t an eternal soul that gives us intelligence and self awareness?

Five years of undergraduate study toward a Philosophy degree didn’t really clear it up very much. Unlike most in the department, I could have skated through pretty easily. It could have been (and in some ways was) the easy path toward a college degree. For me, it was deadly serious. These were all issues that I cared a great deal about. I found a lot there to ponder: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Nietzsche. I found a lot to ponder in the field of science, too – especially modern physics, which – when it’s not being hijacked by Richard Dawkins types – is doing more interesting philosophical work than modern philosophy (which is mostly a bunch of pseudo-intellectual, New Agey, relativistic nonsense). I didn’t really find a lot of answers, but by the end of college I did know one thing for sure: I was not ready to accept full blown atheism.

True agnostics are rare. It takes a certain uncommon kind of strength to admit that you just really don’t know about anything, much less the really important issues like religion. But for a long while, that was me. The only thing I knew for sure was that there are forces at work in the world I didn’t understand.

Tomorrow in Part 2 – how and why I came to realize that religion in general is important.

The Whole Series

The Case for Reading Shakespeare

In response to a recent Washington Post article arguing against teaching Shakespeare, Megan McArdle asks a simple question:

What I’d like to hear more of — and have failed to see so far in any of these essays — is a coherent theory of why we bother to teach any writers at all. It seems to me that we need to know that before we can decide whether Shakespeare is one of the writers we ought to teach, or whether we ought to give up on the project entirely and just let the students spend their time watching YouTube videos, or reading Shakespeare, as they please.

702px-ShakespeareIt’s a fair question. Sadly, it’s also a question with a rather obvious answer. Even more sadly, the answer is so obvious that previous generations internalized it too well. As a result, they did a very poor job of teaching us the answer. As usual, our generation has to learn it all over again, unable to learn from the mistakes of the past.

And that, in a nutshell, is the answer. As Nassim Taleb points out repeatedly in his various works, an older book that is still widely read is more likely to have real truth in it than a widely read modern book. The classics are valuable not because they are old but because they have withstood the test of time.

Of course, the list of “classics” is not immutable. It changes over time. But the longer that a work has been on that list, the longer that it’s continued to be read, the more likely it is that the truths contained therein are universal rather than specific.

There’s a reason that some of our older classics never go stale. Shakespeare is a slog, no doubt about it. I’m a voracious reader with an oversized IQ and a master’s degree level education. To put it bluntly, I still have to work at it to read Shakespeare. I don’t fill my entertainment hours with nothing but Shakespeare because it’s too much work. But I do continue to read the bard because the bard speaks to the truth of the human condition – not the truth of the early twenty-first century American condition.No, we won’t absorb every bit of this truth on every reading – and certainly not on a single reading in our teenage years. But that was never the point. The point is to ensure that the future is at least exposed to it, so that when the need for that truth arises they know where to find it. That’s why our children should still be reading Shakespeare.

Christian Forgiveness

forgivenessLast week I closed with a discussion of the power of forgiveness. I think it’s worth following that up with some thoughts about Christian forgiveness – specifically, what it is and what it isn’t. The modern western culture has adopted some pretty specific ideas of forgiveness, claiming that this is the “Christian” ideal. It’s not. It bears no relation to any historical version of true Christian forgiveness that ever existed in any major culture… until the modern day.

First, the modern misconception of Christian forgiveness. The modern idea is that “true Christians” should forgive anything, anywhere, anytime, always and forever. As is typical of most modern misconceptions of Christianity, this isn’t completely off base… it’s just missed some of the details that turn out to actually be rather important. Amusingly, this version of Christian forgiveness is pushed the most heavily by non-Christians – very often the exact same non-Christians I derided last week for not wanting to ever forgive anything

But, you say, they’re not Christian – they don’t have to. But us, us Christians, oh, we have to. Well, no – they are dictating the rules of our own faith to us in an attempt to disarm us in the culture wars. And, as usual, they completely misunderstand our faith. Unfortunately, so do many Christians, which is why they can get away with it.

The nugget of truth is that, yes, by Christian dogma nothing is unforgivable. Literally nothing. It doesn’t matter how evil your deeds were. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve lived an entire life of evil and repent only right before death. By two thousand years of Christian dogma, God will forgive you. Those of us who are practicing Christians are supposed to also strive for this ideal – although the other part of Christianity, largely forgotten in the modern culture as well, is that we are fallen humans. We are expected to strive for it. We are also expected to fail.

Even so, there is another part to this that is completely forgotten (or, mostly, purposefully ignored) in modern attacks on Christians supposedly acting in an un-Christian way. The forgiveness isn’t free, and it isn’t automatic. Forgiveness requires three things:

  1. An acknowledgement that one has, in fact, sinned [or, in the case of forgiveness from someone other than God, acknowledgement that you’ve committed a grievance; for brevity, I will just say sin from here on out]. That implies a further requirement: acknowledging that what you did was, in fact, wrong. Being a good Christian does require that you try not to judge others, and that you forgive them if you do judge them. It does not require you to pretend that what they did was right.
  2. Contrition – an honest regret for the sin. You have to actually be sorry for having done it. As we learn in grade school, being sorry for “getting caught” isn’t enough. Neither is it enough to be sorry merely because our sin had a bad effect. We must be sorry for the actual commission of the sin.
  3. We must make an honest and true attempt to turn away from the sin. You can’t acknowledge your sins, confess them to God, and totally plan on doing it again tomorrow and expect to be forgiven – even if you’re really, really sorry. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re going to just go out and cheerfully do it again, well, don’t expect your forgiveness. Now, God does know that we’re merely fallen mortals. If we really mean to be good, we try to be good, and we screw up… well, he expects that. But we have to try.

Now, God’s forgiveness is infinite – and it’s not subject to our rules. If he chooses to, God can forgive us even if we don’t meet these requirements. But the entire history of Church dogma tells us that we’re only assured of it if we meet these requirements. In turn, we are not under any obligation to forgive others who don’t meet them. If we choose to do so anyway, that’s our business and good for us. But honest Christian forgiveness doesn’t require it.

This is the true nature of Christian forgiveness. The modern version of “forgive everybody everything even if they’re not sorry, don’t view it as sin, and plan to keep doing it forever” isn’t Christian at all.