A Philosopher's Blog

Another Christmas, Another War on It

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2013
Christmas gifts.

Still not a crime. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many Americans, I grew up with many Christmas traditions: the tree, the Advent calender, decorations, and candy canes. While I am not particularly religious, these traditions still hold great meaning to me and I still think back fondly to Christmases past. However, there is a Christmas tradition I am not fond of. This is, not surprisingly, the yearly claim that there is a War on Christmas.

Listening to certain pundits, who are mainly denizens of Fox news, one would get the impression that those that celebrate Christmas have been forced to hide in ancient catacombs under the shopping malls to avoid being thrown into the arena where they would be cuddled by liberal, vegetarian lions of ambiguous gender.

On the face of it, to claim that there is a war on Christmas in America would seem to be prima facie evidence that a person is either joking, epistemically damaged or insane. After all, Christmas trees are displayed openly. People boldly wish others a merry Christmas and are not arrested. Christmas stockings are still hung from the chimney with care, rather than being hidden away in some secret corner. You can test this yourself: boldly go to a store that sells cards and ask for Christmas cards. Approach a police officer and ask her if you can report people for celebrating Christmas. Go to the mall and loudly proclaim that you are there to buy Christmas presents. Decorate your yard and your house for Christmas. Eat a candy cane in public. Then report in the comment section what happened.

The fact that Christianity does not get to be the official religion is not proof that there is a war on Christmas. The fact that non-Christians are not compelled to engage in Christmas activities is not proof there is a war on Christmas. The fact that religious tolerance and diversity is respected is not evidence there is a war on Christmas. The fact that some people do some ridiculous things regarding Christmas does not show that there is a war on Christmas.

As happens every year, the folks who (pretend to) believe in a war on Christmas point to problems involving Nativity scenes on state property. As I have written before, I rather like Nativity scenes: When I see one, however tacky it might be (one had flamingos lined up to adore the baby Jesus) I will pause and look at it, remembering days gone by. As such, I have nothing against Nativity scenes. However, I do agree that religious displays should not occur on state property.

Not having religious displays on state property (that is, the property of all the citizens) is not a war on Christmas. After all, not having the state actively endorse a specific faith is not an attack on that faith. If the state burned Nativity scenes as part of a public display, then that would be a war. Having a general ban on religious displays is not a war on religion but rather a refusal to exalt one faith above any others. That is an important part of allowing freedom of (and from) religion.

It is also important to note that manger scenes are not banned from anywhere else. If you want to turn your entire lawn into just such a scene, then you are free to do so. If your church wants to put up a massive manger extravaganza, they are free to do just that. And some do. If it is nearby, I will go see it. Even if it includes flamingos. Actually, especially if it includes flamingos.

Defenders in the imaginary war on Christmas also point to the use of “happy holidays” as a sign that Christmas is under attack. The obvious reply is that this is actually a holiday season. While Hanukkah is over, there are still holidays left such as Three King’s Day and New Year’s. The other obvious reply is that wishing people happy holidays when one does not know their faith (or lack thereof) is a sign of respect and inclusiveness.

I have no objection to someone wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah-I usually assume that the person is expressing good will towards me. I’m especially fine with it when the person is giving me a gift at the same time. But, honesty compels me to say that Christmas gifts generally put Hanukkah gifts to shame-not that I did not appreciate the dreidel and chocolate coins, Dave.

That said, I can see how people who are not Christians might find being relentlessly wished a Merry Christmas a bit off putting, especially if it is not done with the spirit of the season but issued as a challenge of faith. Fortunately, that does not happen all that often.

It has also been pointed out repeatedly that schools now have winter breaks rather than Christmas break. I do admit that even now it still sounds odd to be on winter break. I still use the term Christmas break because old habits die hard and, for me, I am on Christmas break. However, not everyone who attends state universities is a Christian and state universities are not supposed to endorse any specific faith (private religious schools are another matter). This is, however, not an attack on Christmas anymore than not calling it Kwanzaa break is an assault on Kwanzaa.

The self-styled protectors of Christmas also lament that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. However, it is not clear just how much Christ has been a part of Christmas. Much of the Christmas mythology and trappings are pagan in origin. Also, when you throw in the gross commercialization of the holiday, that would seem to have done a great deal to take the Christ out of Christmas.

While I would really like an Xbox One for Christmas,  I’d also like the pundits to stop making up this war on Christmas. While it no doubt appeals to the base and creates that warm feeling of righteous indignation in some, it is completely contrary to the spirit of Christmas, namely peace on earth and goodwill to all. Ironically, it is the pundits that are waging a campaign against Christmas. So, ironically, I suppose they are right after all.

As a final point, if there is a war on Christmas, this is a war Christmas wins every year. Merry Christmas.

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The End Time & Government

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2013
Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Michelle Bachmann seems to have claimed that Obama’s support of the Syrian rebels is a sign of the End Times:

“[President Barack Obama’s support of Syrian rebels] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. […] And so when we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; that these days would be as the days of Noah. We are seeing that in our time. Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

While Bachmann’s political star seems to be falling, she is apparently still an influential figure and popular with many Tea Party members. As such, it seems worthwhile to address her claims.

Her first claim is a factual matter about the mundane world: she asserts that Obama is “willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists.” This claim is easy enough to disprove. Despite some pressure (including some from Republicans) to arm the rebels, the administration has taken a very limited approach: rebels that have been determined to not be terrorists will be supported with defensive aid rather than provided with offensive weaponry. Thus, Bachmann (who is occasionally has problems with facts) is wrong on two counts. First, Obama is not sending arms (taken as offensive weapons). Second, he is not sending anything to terrorists.

Now, it could be objected that means of defense are arms, under a broad definition of “arms.” Interestingly, as I learned in the 1980s when the debate topic for a year was arms sales, “arms” can be defined very broadly indeed. If Bachmann defines “arms” broadly enough to include defensive aid, then Obama would be sending arms. However, this is rather a different matter than if Obama were sending offensive weapons, such as the Stinger missiles we provided to the mujahedeen when they were fighting the Russians.

It could also be objected that Obama is sending arms to terrorists. This could be done by claiming that he knows that what he sends to Syria could end up being taken from the intended recipients by terrorists. This is a reasonable point of concern, but it seems clear from her words that she does not mean this.

It could also be done by claiming that Obama is lying and he is, in fact, sending the aid to actual terrorists. Alternatively, it could be claimed that he is sending the aid to non-terrorists, but intends for the terrorists to take it.  While this is possible (Presidents have lied about supplying arms in the past), actual proof would be needed to show that he is doing this with will, knowledge and intent. That is, it would have to be established that Obama knows the people who he is sending the aid to are terrorists and/or that he intends for terrorists to receive these arms. Given the seriousness of the claim, this would require equally serious report. Bachmann does not seem to provide any actual evidence for her accusation, hence there is little reason to place confidence in her claim.

While politicians tend to have a “special” relationship with the truth, Bachmann seems to have an extra-special relationship.

Her second claim is a factual matter about the supernatural world: she seems to be claiming that Obama’s alleged funding of terrorists is a sign of the End Times. While I am not a scholar of the end of the world (despite authoring a fictional version of the End Time), what she is claiming does not seem to be accurate. That is, there seems to be no reference to something adequately similar to Obama funding terrorists as a sign of the End Time. But perhaps Bachmann has access to some special information that has been denied to others.

While predictions that the End Time is near are common, it does seem to be bad theology to make such predictions in the context of Christianity. After all,  the official epistemic line seems to be that no one but God knows when this time will come: “But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” As such, any speculation that something is or is not a sign of the End Time would be rather problematic. If the bible is correct about this, Bachmann should not make such a claim–she cannot possibly know that something is a sign of the End Times or not, since no one can know (other than God) when it will occur.

It could be replied that the bible is wrong about this matter and Bachman can know that she has seen a sign and that the End Times are thus approaching. The obvious reply is that if the bible is wrong about this, then it could be wrong about other things–such as there being an End Time at all.

Interestingly, her view of the coming End Time might help explain her positive view of the government shut down. When asked about the shutdown, she said “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” While Bachmann has not (as of this writing) claimed that this is also a sign of the End Times, her view that the End Times are approaching would certainly provide an explanation for her lack of concern. After all, if the End Time is fast approaching, then the time of government here on earth is fast approaching its end. Bachmann does seem to think it is on its way.

Weirdly, she also seems to think that Jesus will handle our retirement–which is presumably a reason we will not need the government. She says, “Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.” This seems to be saying that people who believe the End Time is coming, such as herself, will worry that they will not be able to enjoy their retirement. This seems oddly reasonable: after all, the End Time would certainly clash with the sort of non-end-of-the-world retirement our parents enjoyed. But, oddly enough, she thinks that people who know Jesus will be able to have that retirement, apparently with Jesus providing the benefits rather than the state.

As might be imagined, the fact that Bachmann is an influential figure who apparently has some influence on politics is terrifying enough to itself be a sign of the End Time.

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Review: The Myth of Persecution

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionThe Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom
Candida Moss (WebsiteFacebook page, and Twitter account. )
$25.99 Hardcover
308 pages

In her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss argues for her claim that the early Christians created a myth whose legacy still impacts the world today.

She begins the book with the story of the December 31, 2010 murder of Mariam Fekry and this sets the stage for the discussion that follows. Mariam, a Coptic Christian, was cast by some as a martyr and the bombing that killed her was presented as an attack on Christianity itself.  This attack, some claimed, warranted divinely sanctioned retribution. Moss contends that this way of thinking is grounded in the myth of persecution and she spends the remainder of this book examining this subject.

Moss’ main claim is that the commonly held view that “Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs” is simply untrue. She spends much of the book endeavoring to support her claim.

She starts her argument by considering martyrdom before Christianity and tracing its likely influence on the Christian views of martyrdom.  Naturally, she notes that there was no ancient word for “martyr” but makes an excellent case that the concept was well understood even in the ancient world.

As a philosopher, I found her analysis of the deaths of the philosophers (most notable Socrates) interesting. I Candida_Mossdid, however, find her assessment of the death of Socrates problematic in some ways (such as her claims about his philosophical views). On the whole, however, Moss does a reasonably good job tracing the likely influences on the Christian concept of martyrdom from the ancient world. This is, of course, not new—philosophers have noted the connection between Socrates (and Plato) and Christianity for quite some time (some thinkers referred to them as being “Christians before Christ”). However, Moss does a good job focusing on the specific connection as it relates to martyrdom (rather than, for example, metaphysics).

Moss then shifts to examining the pagan and Jewish martyrdom traditions and connects the dots between the pre-Christian martyrs and the Christian martyrs. Her approach is quite sensible: she looks for relevant similarities between the stories of the non-Christian martyrs and the stories of the Christian martyrs and uses these similarities to support her claim that Christians borrowed heavily in creating their stories of martyrdom. While this sort of approach does have its weakness, she does a reasonably good job making her case. After all, if the Christian stories significantly replicate the tales of the earlier non-Christian martyrs, then this suggests a clear influence. It also provides evidence that the Christian stories are, at the very least, embellished with details from the older stories.

After considering the non-Christian influences, Moss then turns to making a direct case that persecution is a myth. She does this by considering the available evidence and takes it to show that the Christians were not, as a matter of fact, persecuted in the manner that has become the received view. She notes that from the death of Jesus to the time of Constantine Christians were only sporadically subject to the attention of the Roman authorities and that this attention was not consistent in terms of its harshness or lack thereof. That is, the Roman Empire did not engage in what would legitimately count as persecution of Christians.

Moss then focuses on the six allegedly “authentic accounts” of the first Christian martyrs, such as Polycarp and Felicity.  One of her methods in assessing the plausibility of these accounts is to look for anachronisms such as attacks on heresies that post-dated the story or references to traditions that did not exist at the time when the story allegedly took place.  Another method she employs is to look for errors in the stories in regards to what we now know about Roman society (or details that are inconsistent with likely behavior). While these methods do not provide complete support for her case (after all, such inconsistencies could be explained away), they do lend credence to her claims.

Another important method she employs is what can be regarded as an argument by definition. That is, she considers what would actually count as persecution and examines the available evidence to see if the treatment of Christians would count as persecution rather than prosecution.  She carefully makes the case that although some Christians were sometimes subject to brutal punishments this does not entail that they were persecuted. A key part of making this case is arguing that the Christians who were prosecuted were treated in such a manner not because of a campaign of persecution against Christians as Christians. Rather, it was because the specific Christians in question acted in ways that were punishable under general Roman law (like refusing to accept the authority of the Roman officials).

Obviously enough, this approach is only as good as the historical data used to make the case. As such, a potential weak point lies in the fact that our information about this time is far from complete. Of course, this is also a problem for those who would claim that Christians were persecuted—they, too, have to draw on limited resources and engage in speculation. However, the weight of the evidence (at least as presented by Moss) seems to favor the view put forth in the book.

Moss heads into the end section of the book by arguing that the notion of Christianity as a persecuted faith was manufactured almost entirely in the fourth century and later. Interestingly enough, this was when the faith was doing quite well. Moss claims that the reasons for the development of the myth included the desire to have a rhetorical tool against heretics (having a martyr praise the orthodox and condemn the heretic was the equivalent of a celebrity endorsement and condemnation) as well as to provide the equivalent of a horror story to entertain the faithful.

While the majority of the book makes a reasonable strong case for Moss’ thesis, the end of the book is somewhat disappointing. In fact, it almost feels as if it were hastily tacked on in an attempt to make the book more relevant to today and to appeal to a more diverse audience.

Disappointingly, Moss moves rather too quickly through her short examination of the legacy of this myth. While she does briefly note some of its harms (such as how it enables powerful Christians to claim that they are being victimized and thus feel justified in refusing to tolerate their critics), this section is more of a lost opportunity than a significant success.

While I do agree with her assessment of the matter, her case is not particularly strong. She spends a significant portion of the last section involves a personal anecdote about overhearing two students condemning a nine year old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather.  While I do understand the rhetorical power of an anecdote, such an appeal to anecdotal evidence is at best logically weak. It is not for nothing that the appeal to anecdotal evidence is a classic fallacy.

If the anecdote had been backed up by more significant evidence of the effect in question, then her case would have been considerably stronger—after all, this is an academic work rather than a discussion of her personal experiences. It also has the unfortunate potential of creating the impression that she is relying so strongly on an anecdote because she lacks solid evidence.

Moss ends on an optimistic note that revealing the myth as a myth will help undo its legacy. Somewhat ironically, she makes a strong case against her optimism in the preceding chapters by noting how eager some people are to embrace and employ the myth.  Perhaps the greatest irony is, of course, that those who give her case due consideration are already reasonable people while those who most need to be “cured” will probably just regard the book as a work aimed at persecuting Christians.

Overall, I found the book informative, well-reasoned and approachable. I would certainly recommend the tlc_tour_hostbook to anyone who would like to consider a rational case aimed at exposing the myth of persecution.

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The Return of the Fourth King’s Game

Posted in Humor, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on December 15, 2012
Pile of gorgeous gifts

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most people, I accumulate stuff that I no longer want or need and I like to get rid of it. I also like Christmas gift giving. As an experienced game master, I also really enjoy tormenting others (in the context of the game, of course). Back in 2010 I combined all of these into the much dreaded King Bob’s Game-an event my gaming group has learned to fear and loath.

The theological basis for the game was inspired by the Three King’s Day celebration in Puerto Rico. This is a very pleasant, but very hot, place to visit and I certainly recommend going there. The Spanish fortifications in San Juan alone are worth the trip.

As the story goes, three wise men or kings (not the same thing at all, of course) brought the baby Jesus some gifts. While this served as the theological foundation for the massive commercialization of Christmas, it also gave rise to Three Kings Day, which is celebrated in Puerto Rico. The gist of the holiday is that children put out grass and water for the Kings’ camels and they get small gifts in return. This holiday is on January 6th.

Fortunately, a little research revealed that there was a 4th king, King Bob. Unlike the Three Kings, Bob was not great with directions and ended up arriving at the wrong city, albeit a few days before the other kings arrived in the proper destination.

Since King Bob could not find the baby Jesus, he decided to give away the gifts via a game, which is now known as King Bob’s game. Alternatively, it can be called The Game of the Fourth King.

Here is how the game is played.


What You Will Need

Gifts: At least 1 wrapped gift per player, preferably more. Cheap gifts are best.

A typical twenty-sided die

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dice: Ideally you should have a D20 and some D6s, but for non gamers six sided dice will do.

The Roles

There are two roles in the game: King Bob’s stand in and player. King Bob supervises the game but does not play. He also does not get any gifts. Optionally, King Bob can also play and get gifts, but that is bad theology.

Everyone other than King Bob’s stand in is a player.

Setting Up the Game

King Bob sets up the game by creating a pile of the wrapped gifts and defending them from the greasy hands of the players until the game starts. Each player should have a die (or dice) and a board or piece of paper is needed to keep track of the order of play.


Gamers will be familiar with this, but non-gamers will not. For the non-gamers, this is how you determine the order in which the players take their turns. To determine this, each player rolls a die (preferably the standard D20). The player with the highest roll goes first, the player with the second highest goes second and so on. In the case of a tie, reroll until it is settled.

Starting the Game

The game starts with the player who has the highest initiative. S/he selects one gift from the pile and DOES NOTopen it. Shaking and such is allowed. The second player then has his/her turn and so on for each player until it is back to the first player. After the first player has selected his gift, the other players will have more options and the first player will also have these options on his/her second turn.

Playing the Game

After the first player has a gift, the second player has his turn and so on until everyone has had a turn. The first player then has his second turn and so on. During play, a player has options. Only ONE option may be taken each turn. A player can take a different option each turn, but is not required to do so.

  • Pick a Gift: the player selects a gift from the pile but DOES NOT open it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
  • Open a Gift: the player opens one gift that s/he has in his/her possession and opens it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
  • Steal a Gift: the player attempts to take a gift from another player. The player who is trying to steal the gift is the thief and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the theft or resisting. If the defender allows the theft, the thief gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the thief and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the thief’s roll, then s/he keeps the gift. If not, the thief adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.
  • Inflict a Gift: the player attempts to give a gift to another player. The player who is trying to give the gift is the giver and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the giving or resisting. If the defender allows the giving, the defender gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the giver and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the giver’s roll, then the gift remains with the giver. If not, the defender adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.


Ending the Game

The game ends as soon as no more gifts remain in the gift pile (that is, the players possess all the gifts). Players must take their gifts with them when the game ends, mainly because the game is often played with the intention of getting rid of bad gifts or items that King Bob no longer wants.

Drinking Variant

A Kranz (wreath) of Kölsch beer.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people enjoy adding a drinking element to all games. In this case, a player who loses a roll has to take a drink.

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Athletes & God

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2012
English: This cross-country race course in Sea...

Did God knock those guys down?

While professional athletes get the most attention when they thank God for their successes and victories, athletes thanking God is not that uncommon. It is also not uncommon for this sort of thing to attract both negative and positive attention. As should come as no surprise, there are some matters of philosophical interest here.

I will begin in a somewhat non-philosophical vein by noting that I have no problems with people expressing their faith in the context of sports. When I ran in college,I  noticed that quite a few of my fellow runners were religious-I distinctly remember seeing people praying before the start of a cross country race (on some courses, divine protection was something well worth having and flipping their crosses from the front to the back (also a good idea-racing downhill can result in a cross to the face). I was, at that time, an atheist. But, as a runner, I have a respect for devotion and faith. Plus, most of these people proved to be decent human beings and I certainly respect that.

When I race now, some races I compete in are put on my churches or have religious race directors. As such, I participate in races that often have a prayer before the start. While I am not known for my faith, I am generally fine with the prayers-they tend to be ones that express gratitude for the opportunity to be healthy and express the hope that the runners will be watched over and come to no harm. I agree with both sentiments. What I find to be a matter of potential concern is, of course, when athletes credit God with their successes and wins.

On the one hand, if someone does believe in God it does make sense to give God a general thanks. After all, if God did create the world and all that, then we would all owe him thanks for existing and having a universe in which we can compete in sports. There is also the fact that such thanks can be seen as being the sort of thing one does-just as one thanks the little people for one’s success in the movies or politics one should thank the Big Guy for His role in literally making it all possible.

On the other hand, an athlete thanking God for his or her specific success over others does raise some matters of philosophical interest that I will now explore.

One point of concern that is commonly raised is that it seems rather odd that God would intervene to, for example, help a pro-football player score a touchdown while He is allowing untold amounts of suffering to occur. If He can help push a ball into the hands of a quarterback why could he not deflect, just a bit, a bullet fired by a murderer? Why could He not just tweak a virus a bit so that it does not cause AIDS? The idea that God is so active in sports and so inactive in things that really matter would certainly raise questions about God’s benevolence and priorities.

Another point of concern is that to thank God for a victory is to indicate that God  wanted the other side or other athletes to be defeated. While this would make sense if one was, for example, doing a marathon against demons or on the field against a team of devils, it seems less reasonable when one is just playing a game or running a race. When I beat people in a race, there seems to generally be no evidence that they are more wicked than I or any less morally or theologically deserving in the eyes of God (with some notable exceptions-you know who you are).  It seems odd to think that God regards some teams or some athletes as His foes that must be defeated by His champions (I will, of course, make the obvious exception for the damn Yankees).  So, if I beat you and I thank God for the victory, I would seem to be saying that God wanted you to lose. That would, of course, raise questions about why that would be the case. It seems to make more sense to say that I won because I ran faster rather than because God did something to bless me on the course or smite you.

The notion that God did something also raises an important moral point. A key part of athletic ethics is competing fairly without things like illegal performance enhancing drugs or outside intervention. If I win a race because I was blood doping and had people tackling other runners in the woods, then I would be a cheater and not a winner. If God steps into athletic events and starts intervening for one side or person, then God is cheating. Given that God is supposed to be God, surely He surely would not cheat and would thus allow the better team or athlete to win. He might, of course, act to offset or prevent cheating and be morally just. However, while  Jesus turned water to wine,God generally does not seem to turn steroids into saline.

As a final point, there is also the rather broad matter of freedom. If our athletic victories are due to God (and also our losses-but no one praises God for those on TV), then it would seem that our agency is lacking in these contests. God would be like a child playing with action figures (“zoom, Mike surges ahead or the win!” or “zap, Jeremy blasts past the Kenyans to win the NYC marathon!”) and the athletes would no more deserve the credit or the blame than the action figures. After all, the agency of both is simply lacking and all agency lies with the one moving the figures about. As would be imagined, this lack of agency would seem to extend throughout life-if God is responsible for my 5K time, then He would also seem responsible for my publications and whether I stab someone in the face or not. This is, of course, a classic problem-only now in the context of sports. Naturally (or supernaturally), the universe could in fact work this way. Of course, this would also mean that the athletes who praise God would be like sock puppets worn by a puppeteer who is praising himself or herself.

Now, if God does actually intervene in sports, I would like to make a modest request: God, could you see fit to shave two minutes off my 5K time this coming year? Oh, and as always, smite the Yankees. The Gators, too.

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A Modest Challenge

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2011
Republican Party (United States)

Image via Wikipedia

Republicans tend to make a point of claiming that they are people of faith-typically Christians. However, they often seem to take positions that directly contradict key parts of Christianity.

As an intellectual exercise reconcile Exodus 22:21( “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt”) with the views of most of the Republican party.

Bonus points for reconciling Herman Cain’s view of the poor with Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Additional points for reconciling  Exodus 22:25 (“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest”) with the capitalist banking system.

Even more bonus points if you can explain why the media folks seem to never raise the point that there appears to be a serious inconsistency between certain espoused Republican values and actual Christianity.

Since Democrats are supposed to godless atheists, they get a pass on this one. 🙂


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Is Mormonism a Cult?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2011
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Image via Wikipedia

Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, handed the media another controversy by his remarks about Romney and Mormonism. Jeffress noted that while Romney is a moral man, he does not regard Romney as being a Christian and sees Mormonism as a cult. He did add that he would prefer Romney over Obama.

Hearing Jeffress compare Romney and Perry, I was struck by the fact that Jeffress refereed to Romney as being moral in a way that made it sound derogatory. Jeffress noted that he would prefer a Christian to a moral and good person. This could, of course, be taken as indicating that Jeffrress thinks that Christians would do things that a good and moral person would not, but presumably he thinks that being a Christian someone makes a person better than someone who is merely moral and good. It is, of course, not entirely clear what this would be in terms of doing what is right. In any case, I will now turn to the main focus of this post, the matter of Mormonism.

Some years back I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of cults with a colleague in religion. His considered view was that the term “cult” was merely a derogatory term and that there seemed to be no principled way to distinguish between a religion and a cult (other than the fact that “cult” is a dysphemism for “religion”). I, perhaps because of many years of writing Call of Cthulhu adventures, was inclined to contend that “cult” did have some use as a term of classification-if only in terms of popular usage. However, the claim that “cult” is a mere insult with no real intellectual heft behind it does have some appeal.

That said, cults are generally taken to be distinguished from religions on the basis of size and doctrine. In terms of size, cults are supposed to be relatively small. However, the size factor does not seem to be the most significant. After all, there are small religions and it seems reasonable to think that cult could get rather big and still be a cult. Unless, of course, a cult must be (by definition) small. Mormonism is, obviously enough, not small and hence would not be a cult if a necessary condition for cult status is being small. Of course, “small” is a vague term, so perhaps it could be considered small given the right sort of definition of the term.

In terms of doctrines, cults are supposed to have strange, sinister, threatening or pernicious tenets. To use a fictional context, the cults in Call of Cthulhu worship alien beings (like Cthulhu and Hastur) and often intend to bring about terrible things, such as mass destruction or the fall of man. To use a real world example, Heaven’s Gate members held that the earth would be recycled and that they could escape via a UFO by committing suicide. There do seem to be some important and practical distinctions between these cults (real and fictional) and, for example, Episcopalians. If so, the question then becomes whether or not Mormonism is more like Heaven’s Gate (or a Cthulhu cult) or the Episcopalian church.

Mormonism does, of course, have what strike many as odd tenets and beliefs. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have translated an ancient book through God’s power and he also claimed to have visions. While using magic to translate texts is standard fare in D&D (the spell comprehend languages does it quite nicely), it does seem like an odd thing. Mormons also practiced polygamy (and some sects still accept it) and there are various secrets that are supposed to be held by the church (including what some folks call “magic underwear”).

Of course, if Mormonism is compared with other religions (or cults, if your prefer) it does not seem to be unusual in such matters. After all, the bible is full of tales of the supernatural (burning bushes, parting seas, healing of the sick and raising from the dead). Also, some folks see accepted religions such as Catholicism as being full of secrets and having sinister and pernicious doctrines. As such, there seems to be nothing about Mormonism that would single it out for cult status that would also not include other faiths that are typically not regarded as cults. As such, my considered view is that Mormonism is no more (or less) a cult than Catholicism or any evangelical variety of Christianity.

As far as Mormons not being Christian, that would seem to depend on whether Jesus is really the Christ or not. While the Mormons have some different doctrines relative to Christian sects, they do seem to have the main tenet in that they accept Jesus as their savior and so on. So it seems likely that he would accept them as Christians. Of course, Jesus seems to often be rather more loving and tolerant than some of his followers.

If Jesus was just some guy, then there seem to be two main possibilities. The first is that Christianity is thus a mere fiction and asking whether they are Christians or not is a bit like asking whether people are really Sith or Jedi or not. The second possibility is that Christianity is some sort of social construct that does, in fact, matter in some way. In this case, the question would be one of who gets to define what it is to be a Christian (much like the question of who gets to define what it is to be a liberal or conservative).

My considered view is that the Mormons are, in general, just as much Christians as the other folks who profess to be Christians.  In fact, it would be rather un-Christian for a professed Christian to reject them as mere cultists. But, of course, this is not up to me-God gets the deciding (and only) vote.

As far as how this will impact the general election, I suspect that conservative evangelicals would back the cultist Romney over Obama and that most other non-Mormon Americans would probably not hold Romney being a Mormon as a mark against him. There would be, no doubt, some vocal exceptions.


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Religion and Violence

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2011
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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When it comes to Islam and terror, the fine folks at Fox have generally taken the view that Muslim terrorists are representative of Islam as a whole. However, when it turned out that Breivik (the person allegedly responsible for the terrible murders in Norway) claimed to be a Christian, the fine folks at Fox rushed to argue that he is not a Christian.

The main argument put forth by the fine folks at Fox is that a person who truly accepts Jesus would not engage in such horrible behavior. Naturally, Muslims who are not terrorists have argued that true Muslims would not engage in terrorist behavior. On the face of it, if the argument holds in the case of Christianity, then it should also hold in the case of Islam.

The obvious reply is to argue that while a true Christian would never do such things, such horrible acts are perfectly consistent with true Islam. The challenge is, obviously enough, to prove both of these things.

It will not do to point to the actions of those who profess the faiths. After all, people professing to be Christians have done terrible things as those who have claimed to be exemplars of Islam.

Turning to the holy books as evidence is a better approach, but not without its flaws. While the writings of Islam seem to allow and even endorse terrible things, the same is true of the Christian texts. As such, turning to the texts hardly seems to achieve the goal in question.

It can be argued that the violent content in the bible is either not an expression of the true essence of Christianity or that (to steal a bit from True Lies) true Christians only harm bad people (and thus are justified in doing so). In contrast, it must be argued that violent content in the Islamic writings is an expression of the true essence of Islam and that harming the good and the innocent is perfectly consistent with Islam. If this can be done, then the fine folks at Fox can consistently brand Muslims as terrorists while insisting that no Christian can be a terrorist.

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End of Days in May?

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2011
Armageddon looming

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The end of the world has been predicted numerous times and has yet to come to pass. However, the past failures of the world to end as predicted has not deterred new predictions. The latest prediction is based on an interpretation of the bible and the date set is May 21, 2011. If this is correct, then we do not have that much time left.

Interestingly enough, the bible (Mark & Matthew) seems to clearly state that no one (other than God) can know the hour or the day when the end will come. As such, to use the bible to predict the day of the end would seem to be somewhat problematic. After all, if the bible is accurate, then it would be accurate in regards to the claim that the day cannot be known. If that part is not accurate, then this would cast doubt on the parts that are used to make predictions about the end. Naturally enough, folks who calculate the end of days always have a response to the claim that this day cannot be known and perhaps they are right.

Not surprisingly, I am rather skeptical about May 21 being the end. After all, there have been numerous other attempts to calculate the end from the bible and these have all failed. As such, there seems little reason to believe that this new calculation is correct. Unless, of course, the new calculation is such that its methodology and content are both reliable. I am inclined to suspect that this is not the case. However, we do not have long to wait for an answer.

If the end does not arrive on May 21, the result will probably be the same as what occurred with other failed predictions: a new prediction will be offered based on the claim that the original calculation was off to do some (until then) unknown error in the calculations or in the interpretation of the textual evidence. The group that accepts the prediction will lose some members due to the failure, but others will accept the changed prediction. However, if the new prediction does not come to pass (or is set too far in the future) then the group will gradually lose membership and fade away.

In any case, it is not clear how useful a correct prediction would be. Given that we have no real way to confirm the predictions until the day arrives to confirm or disprove it, it makes little sense to change one’s life on the basis of such predictions. Unless, of course, the change is one that would be a good idea anyway. However, to quit one’s job or abandon one’s family on the basis of such a prediction would seem to be a bad idea. After all, such things would seem to have no impact on what is supposed to occur in the end and would have a negative impact should the prediction turn out to be wrong.

In any case, we’ll have the answer soon enough.

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The Belief Obama is a Muslim

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2010

Belief is an interesting thing. When people are being rational, they believe in proportion to the evidence and in accord with its strength. When people are being irrational, they believe whatever they happen to feel strongly about. Good reasons and bad reasons matter not, all one needs is to feel it strongly enough.

One excellent example of this is shown by a recent Pew Research center poll. While there has been no new evidence for the claim that Obama is a Muslin, there has been a significant change in the percentage of people who believe that he is a Muslim and not a Christian. As shown in the Pew results (above) only 34% of those polled think he is Christian while 18% think he is Muslim. 43% now claim to not know his religion.

Another interesting bit of information is the fact that 31% of Republicans apparently believe that Obama is a Muslim.

As far as his faith goes, only he truly knows what he believes. However, as far as external evidence, there seems to be about as much evidence to believe that he is a Christian as there is for most people who claim to be Christians. After all, he goes to church occasionally, he claims to be a Christian, and he mentions God from time to time. He is clearly not, as some might say, a “Super Jesus” Christian.

As far as his being a Muslim, there seems to be no real evidence for this claim. No evidence of his being a member of a mosque, no profession of belief, no following of specific Muslim doctrines, and so on. While he has said nice things about Islam and has acted in ways to improve relations between the United States and Muslim countries, this hardly counts as evidence that he is a Muslim. After all, many Christians have said nice things about Islam and have worked to improve relations between the faiths. So, if he is a Muslim, then he is certainly a very secret Muslim.

Of course, that might be exactly what some people believe-that Obama is concealing his true faith under the guise of Christianity. The obvious concern is, of course, how did such people pierce his disguise and what evidence do they have of his true faith?

What I suspect is that they have nothing that would pass muster as evidence. Instead, the change in what people think is based on how they feel about Obama rather than any plausible evidence that supports the claim that he is a Muslim. As noted above, 31% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim. This seems to indicate that the belief is not based on evidence but on the political views of the believers. Of course, it could be countered that the Democrats fail to see evidence because of their own bias. But, then how does one explain that fact that most Republicans do not believe that he is Muslim? The best explanation, I think, is that he is not a Muslim.

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