Wednesday, May 7, 2008

No Bullshit Bible Lesson #19: Jacob vs God in the Steel Cage!

Genesis, Chapters 32-33:

Jacob was finally on his way home and, on his journey, was met by the angels of God. All of them, apparently. And if they had much of anything to say, no one seemed inclined to write it down.

Jacob sent some messengers ahead to inform his brother of his homecoming,
        “Go, tell Esau where I’ve been for two decades,” he commanded them, “and tell him how huge my flock is and how many servants I have, oh, and that I hope he’s happy to see me!”

So off they went, later returning with news of Esau,
        “So, we found Esau and told him you were coming, and he’s coming out to meet you! Oh, and he’s bringing four hundred men with him. Good luck with that.”

Naturally, Jacob freaked out. After all, he spent his early years screwing over Esau as often as he could. So he split his group in two, so that if Esau came and slaughtered one, the other might escape. He also spent quite a bit of time praying to God, and reminding Him how He said He’d do right by Jacob.

Just in case, though, Jacob gathered hundreds of his various animals and, separating them into groups of like animals, assigned each drove to a servant,
        “Okay, guys...I’m gonna send you out in waves, okay? Journey out in the direction of my brother, with some distance between you, so you don’t all get there at once. When you see him, tell him that you and all the animals are a gift from me, and tell him I’m right behind you. If we’re lucky, he won’t want to kill me by the time I finally get to him. If he kills you and takes the animals, I’m sorry. Better you than me, though, right?”

So off they went and later that night, Jacob gathered his wives, and his concubines and his eleven sons (his daughter Dinah still conspicuously unmentioned) and sent them across the ford while he stayed behind for the night.

He was all alone, except for some random guy who came along and wrestled him. They wrestled until dawn, seemingly at a stalemate. As he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere in this wrestling match, Jacob put his hand on the hollow of his thigh, because it was out of joint.
        “Okay, let me go,” he said to the stranger, “the sun’s coming up. And I’m not letting go until you bless me.” Blessings, apparently, were the big gaudy Championship Belt of the time.
        “What is your name?”
        “’re name isn’t Jacob anymore. From now on, you’ll be known as Israel, because you are a prince among men and you have power with God and you have prevailed.”
        “Uh, okay. And what’s your name?”
        “Why would you ask me my name?” he said, before revealing himself to be God, and blessing Jacob right there on the spot, which Jacob came to call Peniel.

After God took His leave, Jacob (apparently less concerned with taking the name that God assigned him than his grandparents had been) continued on his journey, catching up with his family.

Before long, he saw Esau and his four hundred men coming his way. And he did what any good father would do, he put his family between him and the threat, in order of his love for them; The concubines and their children closest to Esau, then Leah and her kids and, with him, Rachel and Joseph. Dinah, however, was still nowhere to be found.

Esau went right past them all to Jacob, who fell to his knees and bowed seven times as he drew nearer. Esau ran up and...grabbed Jacob in a big ol’ bear hug, gave him a kiss and they cried with joy to see one another!

Introductions were made all-around and Esau was reluctant to accept the offerings Jacob had sent to him, but eventually relented at Jacob’s continued insistence.

They journeyed back home together and Jacob built himself a house and bought some land and built an altar. Things were looking up.


The Barefoot Bum said...

Really terrific stuff, Shawn. First rate.

Shawn McBee said...

Thanks, Larry. I'm enjoying your blog as well. And extra-thanks for the link on your blog!

Anonymous said...

Just read all your No Bullshit posts.. awsome! Please keep them coming.

Shawn McBee said...

All of them? Wow. I'm glad you like them. I will certainly keep writing them. I plan to go straight through to Revelations, no mater how long it takes.
Thanks for Reading!

Anonymous said...

You make the common mistake of equating "God" and "religion" with Judeo-Christian beliefs. To champion "atheism" credibly, you would have to go considerably beyond these notions, which were peculiar to one part of the world, its customs, and its world view over a certain period of time.

You'd also have to deal with what people refer to as religions but that don't have a god, such as Buddhism. And with the sociological and anthropological observations that religions have arisen in all cultures for which we have records, and that the scientific evidence shows that the religious tend to be happier and even slightly healthier than the non-religious, when adjusted for age and gender.

You might also benefit by finding out about Positivism. A dictionary will not be adequate to explain it to you. You seem to be a positivist, which is generally considered to produce distorted views of historical events. Obviously, if we evaluate ancient cultures and their beliefs through the lens of our own culture and beliefs, however explicitly or unconsciously, we will fall prey to the assumption that ours is somehow endowed with absolute truth.

We're then guilty of the same errors in reasoning that the cultures you describe were, and no less idiotic than they were.

As it stands, your blog is just one more voice among a cacophony claiming to be dedicated to correcting irrationality in favor of "science". If you knew more about the history of and cultural variations between religions, and about how science has actually been done (including the "hard" sciences), you might be able to argue your case persuasively, rather than merely preaching to the converted as a gratifying exercise in self-indulgence. Had you done your homework, you'd know "science" is heavily constructed by social and political contexts and hardly as evidence-based as you seem to believe. Quite a few scientific (i.e., evidence-based and replicable) discoveries were excluded from the scientific canon rather arbitrarily by the science establishment hierarchy - including during the 20th century - often for reasons as petty as professional jealousy. See Thomas S. Kuhn on scientific revolutions and Daniel J. Kevles on physics and physicists.

Until you understand these influences, your arguments can all be discredited by any first-year master's student.

And by the way, I am an agnostic because I know that it's logically impossible to prove that something does not exist. For this reason, atheism, as expounded today, requires a leap of faith and is thus just another irrational belief.

Good luck with learning how to reason rigorously.

Shawn McBee said...


First, there's no need to post anonymously. I'm not a "flame-war" kind of guy. I am very appreciative of constructive criticism and, for the most part, your comment seems to be quite constructive.

Now, as for your points, I haven't made the mistake of considering Judeo-Christian beliefs as the only type of religion. Nor all three of the Abrahamic religions. It should be noted that today marks 5 weeks that the blog has existed. Give me some time.

Also, please take into consideration that I write based on personal experience and things that affect me more or less directly. That said, I'm an American, so it is the Judeo-Christian majority here to which I am most often exposed and who are seeking to reimagine the country as a theocracy.

And I wouldn't call myself a positivist. Mostly, I consider myself an empiricist. A positivist would, by your definition, hold the common belief that Harry S. Truman was a great man who saved hundreds of thousands of lives by ending the war with Japan using the A-Bomb. I, however, have a clear enough view of history to know that he should have been tried as a war criminal for callously murdering 200,000 innocent citizens of a country that had been trying to surrender for three months in order to show the Russians how big his dick was.

I demand evidence and I believe the truth will out.

Furthermore, I have never met, nor do I consider myself to be, a 100% Atheist. I choose to identify as an Atheist in order to avoid confusion... Agnostics are often thought of as being closer to Deist than anything. I do not believe in any God, but if credible evidence were to present itself, my views would have to adapt, of course. I identify as Atheist because I feel the chances of God existing are infinitesimal, but I do acknowledge that they exist.

Good luck with flaunting your Masters rigorously.

K Airnelle said...

Shawn McBee,

Delighted that you take constructive criticism for what it is. Not everyone (to put it mildly) making the atheist case is so level-headed. Again, that seems to be because atheism is by definition a belief itself since it cannot be logically proved.

However long your blog has been up, perhaps I may be forgiven for assuming that your ideas concerning "religion" had already been elaborated to the point of including the myriad practices that fall under this over-broad, all-but-meaningless rubric. Religion originally was merely a means of conveying wisdom about living well (and not in the materialist, consumerist sense in which it is understood today) down through pre-literate generations.

For many religions, "god" is irrelevant. Others are polytheistic; they are all but excluded from the debate for reasons that are never explained. Some religions prohibit reference to "god" to avoid reifying what is more of an energy field into a bearded being on a throne somewhere. Some have primarily intellectual, rational, and consensual origins and so resemble codes of conduct or philosophies more than what we think of as "religion". Some require the evidence of transformational visions or other personal experience certify their practitioners, wholly apart from any recognition of a god or gods. Some consider their practices a failure if they do not bring about personal and collective well-being manifesting as social peace - a far cry from the outcomes of the Abrahamic religions as practiced by their interpreters rather than their founders.

And that raises the issue of whether or not practitioners of a given religion are actually emulating and exemplifying a profound understanding of the teachings of the founder. One can hardly discredit Christianity, for example, based on the politically motivated, lethally perverted forms that its public guise assumed under Hitler or Bush. There are other reasons to discredit established Christianity, but few people bother to investigate that far.

How, then, can "religion" take in all these senses?

And yet would you not agree that most people debating "religion" and "god" still seem to think that the terms have a meaning so universal that definition is superfluous?

So what is really missing in your blog, IMHO, is first of all a rigorous, clear, socially coherent statement of what you mean by "religion". No meaningful debate can take place when one person in a dark room is describing the elephant's trunk and contesting its nature with an adversary describing its flank.

I cannot see how you could avoid narrowing "religion" from its full sense. Perhaps you could look exclusively at the religions whose founders preached peace & love yet whose modern practitioners use religion to galvanize and marshal the masses for murder and destruction. And yet if you address solely the Judeo-Christian variant, your argument is too specific to be a much value to those for whom Judaism and Christianity have ceased to be, or never were, relevant.

You say that, as an American, you are most often exposed to the Judeo-Christian majority. Are you aware that there are about as many Muslims in the U.S. as there are Jews? They don't have the political and financial resources that the Jews have, perhaps because they are a somewhat newer immigrant group and are subject to racism to a greater extent.

I, too, loathe as much as anyone those who would solve social and political problems by installing a theocracy that disregards the separation of church and state. Given that atheists, because the logical inconsistency of their position makes atheism into a belief, have many of the traits of True Believers, why would you tolerate a government that professed atheism, or any other system requiring undemonstrable belief?

You say you consider yourself an empiricist. You assert that a "positivist would, by your definition, hold the common belief that Harry S. Truman was a great man who saved hundreds of thousands of lives by ending the war with Japan using the A-Bomb". That is not, in fact, my definition. (Nor do I believe that Truman's middle name, which was just the letter S, should have a period after it, though Truman began adding one after he left office.)

My definition is more in keeping with the usual definition, i.e., an exclusive reliance on testable evidence that is taken to be objective but that in fact is, necessarily, because we are human animals, socially constructed. (See Kuhn, Kevles, Popper, et al.)

So how can we, mediating our knowledge of "reality" via our individual senses as we do, know much of anything for sure on a collective basis? Certainly not with enough certainty to wage war offensively, as the U.S. has done many times since WW II. Would you want to die because of someone else's certainty about some political or perceptual belief or other, however much it was touted as science-based?

I'm wondering how you can be less than "a 100% Atheist". Is that not akin to being less than 100% pregnant? If you have even infinitesimal doubts, you're an agnostic, are you not?

Why would you consider that there are chances that god "exists"? (I do find it strange for an atheist to capitalize "god". Is there a rationale for doing so that I'm missing?) Why, if god existed, wouldn't it have been demonstrated long ago? Were our ancestors dumber than we are? There's evidence quite to the contrary. Or might, in your opinion, the existence of god be demonstrated by some advanced technological manipulation yet to be invented? If that's what is lacking, what about the Heisenberg Principle: If it applies to subatomic particles, why wouldn't uncertainty and the effect of observer presence adulterate the outcome of any investigation into god? (Another nail in Positivism's coffin.) Can or cannot god be objectively proved? If you say maybe, eventually, are there other notions that have been around for centuries that you're thinking could still be proved?

Let's return to the proof of non-existence. What about those religions that assert that god permeates everything (and therefore logically permeates nothing)? Such a being or energy field is unknowable, in the same way that the eye cannot see itself. How could you disprove the existence of an omnipresent god?

It really all boils down to a debate that is rendered impossible by a perfusion of conflicting and overlapping meanings, experiences, and signs. Isn't the best we can do, if we hold to coherence and honesty, just admitting that the existence, presence, permeation, etc., of a god or gods are unknowable, that we just don't know, and that we therefore should not take draconian measures that imply we do know?

K Airnelle said...

Forgot to append the Ultimate Indictment of the Judeo-Christian god:

Shawn McBee said...

I just first wanted to clarify my "Atheist" label. I am, technically, an Agnostic, for the same reason you stated in your first post: The non-existence of God can no more be proven than can the non-existence of an invisible fish-shaped Jell-O mold at the center of a Black hole. Since I personally feel that both those examples have about the same chance of actually existing, I use the label "Atheist" because of the common perception that an Agnostic is just undecided and probably just hasn't given the matter a great deal of thought. So, to be clear: calling myself an Atheist is more a matter of perception than definition.

Speaking of perception, you make an excellent point about our culture and societal conditioning having an effect on how evidence is viewed and, therefore, on the outcome of science. I think that there can be no doubt that this is true, at least to an extent. But I also think that the scientific method endeavors as much as possible to negate those effects. Either way, thinking in such terms essentially calls everything we observe into question. In order to make progress, we have no choice but to make the best and most replicable assumptions we can from the evidence available to us. Thinking in these terms has taken us from horses to the Space Shuttle in a century and a half, so it seems to be working out fairly well.

As for the things you recommend that the blog should cover, they most certainly will be, in time. My focus at the moment is with Evangelical Christians because that's the great debate going on in the country at the moment. But the rest will be covered, in time. Oh, also: I try to never write from ignorance and if I were to cover Islam at this point, I would be doing so. As I learn more about other faiths, I will feel more comfortable writing about them.

As for the Atheist government vs. Theocracy, I believe in neither. I believe in a secular government, one that runs in a certain way with no regard whatsoever for belief or non-belief.

Can God be positively proved? Oh, yes. If God (or a god) existed, He/She/It could just reveal themselves to the world in a way that could not be faked with technology. Like, maybe, giving all the amputees in the world their limbs back simultaneously. I'd be converted, that's for sure. Can God be disproved? Well, I covered that above. There's no test to prove something DOESN'T exist. We can't disprove ghosts, faeries, demons, angels, or Superman, either.

On the whole, I think you and I agree on most things. The real point I'm getting from you here is that you're disappointed with the level of discourse in atheist/agnostic blogging and are trying to spur me to greater things. I appreciate that and I hope you'll keep reading. But keep in mind that I'm also a fan of humor, which is what these "No Bullshit Bible Lessons" are supposed to be (I'll let others judge whether or not I manage to be funny).

Oh, and I capitalize "God" strictly as a literary device. Since it has become a de-facto proper name for the Judeo-Christian god, I capitalize it, but when referring to "a" god, then it is lower case.

Lastly, for the record, I do not have a Masters or even a Bachelors. Most of what I know, I've learned through my own research, which I always endeavor to keep as unbiased as possible.