Saturday, July 26, 2008

Demons in your Ouija Board

Let's talk about pamphlets.

Living in Chicago, there are a lot of people walking around on the streets trying to hand out things or get you to sign up for stuff. Some of it's okay, some of it's stupid, and some of it's just plain scary.

Now, we ahve a lot of church groups around here, and sometimes they walk around and hand out brochures and stuff. As far as I know, not many go door to door, but as that I live in an apartment with key-protected access, I might have a bit of a biased view on this.

Today I want to share with you a particular brochure that I got from some Jehovah's Witnesses. It's entitled "Who Really Rules the World?", copyright 1992 by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Printed in Canada, if that matters.

Anyway. Let's break this thing down. I'll write out parts of the tract (in italics) and respond with my own commentary (in regular print), all of it after the fold. Before the jump, I'd just like to say that it is pretty full of terrible logic and spiral of crazy. Let's get to it!

Who really rules the world? Many people would answer the above question with a single word - God. But significantly, nowhere does the Bible say that either Jesus Christ or his Father are the real rulers of this world. On the contrary, Jesus said: "The ruler of this world will be cast out." And he added: "The ruler of the world is coming. And he has no hold on me." - John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. So, the ruler of this world is in opposition to Jesus. Who could this be?

Who could this be indeed? I have an idea where they're going with this, but let's talk about this sort paragraph for just a moment. I'm going to ignore for this post the central problem with all of this: Why should we believe the Bible to be true? Why am I ignoring that? Because you really don't need to go any farther than that to completely disregard the entire pamphlet. You get into the Creationist/Fanatical loop of "How do we know the Bible is true?" Because it is the word of God, "How do we know that God exists?" Because the Bible says so. See what they did there? Keep tracing around that circle for a while.

In some rather rare cases, that's a bit of a straw man and you have people who claim that they have "evidence" of God's existence or "work in the world." Long story short, I'll deal with those individually as people want to suggest them, but for the general responses, I'm going to link you to Answers in Genesis - BUSTED! and Talk Origins.

Now, as to that paragraph, it's quite interesting that the Jehovah's Witnesses deny that God has control over this world. Not entirely surprising, as I feel that any sort of climatic-apocalyptic group needs to believe that God doesn't really control this world and instead it is ruled over by something "evil" that will have to be disposed of. It makes it that much easier to condemn anything that happens in this world, or to ignore any effort to improve the situation of people in this world. On that point alone, I would condemn this sort of idea. It is absolutely antithetical to helping humanity and improving our lot in life. It's just another "suffer until God comes back and then things will be great for us." It's reprehensible and utterly self-centered. I can't really talk about the logic of this because...well...yeah, there is none. It's an inferential argument from a particular interpretation of a particular book that is considered by some to be sacred. I find it amazing that so many groups can read the same book and come up with so many different interpretations...really makes you think that...well, maybe there's more of humanity in these religions than they're willing to admit. By which, yes, I do mean it's made up and simply reflecting human psychology and cultures.

Let's go on, shall we?

A Clue From World Conditions - Despite the efforts of well-meaning humans, the world has suffered terribly throughout history. This causes thinking persons to wonder, as did the late editorial writer David Lawrence: "'Peace on earth - nearly everybody wants it. 'Good will toward men' - almost all peoples of the world feel it toward one another. Then what's wrong? Why is war threatened despite the innate desires of peoples?"

It seems a paradox, doesn't it? When the natural desire of people is to live at peace, they commonly hate and kill one another - and with such viciousness. Consider the cold-blooded excesses in monstrous cruelty. Humans have used gas chambers, concentration camps, flamethrowers, napalm bombs, and other heinous methods to torture and slaughter one another mercilessly.

Okay. Yes, we have suffered throughout history, despite the efforts of well-meaning persons. However, things have, by nearly every measure, gotten better as time progresses, and we are still trying and still trying to deal with some quite parochial and violent groups out there. This is not a reason to stop trying! It's goddamned hard to get people to give up their stereotypes and insular/isolationist/xenophobic tendencies. But it's pretty goddamned hard to eradicate diseases too, and we don't stop just because it's tough.

Well...some of us don't. Some of us just say it's too hard and assume that there are insurmountable external forces that will completely ruin whatever effort we put into improving things. Screw that attitude, I say.

On another point, isn't it odd that it's typically the very religious groups who don't want peace on earth, or see violence and war as inevitable, simply because they really want an apocalyptic future? And good will toward men? Let's be honest. For all of human history, and continuing into the present, we want peace and good will within our own group, but we don't give a damn about outsiders, and typically feel reservations, fear, or hatred towards them. This is a simple understanding of coalitional psychology. I think, in fact, it is the great advantage of various humanisms and evolutionary theory that we realize we are all part of a single human family. It is religious and ideologies that tend to separate us into "us-and-them," feeding upon and exacerbating our human fears of outsiders. And as for their list of monstrous cruelties, all were committed by BOTH religious and secular people. No evidence towards either side being more moral or pleasant.

Do you believe that humans, who long for peace and happiness, are capable, in themselves, of such gross wickedness against others?

Why, yes. Yes, I do. It seems that Jehovah's Witnesses underestimate humanity on both ends of the spectrum. We're neither good enough, nor evil enough, in their eyes. Just completely in the range of mediocre. Well, sucks to be us, I guess.

What forces drive men to such loathsome deeds or maneuver them into situations where they feel compelled to commit atrocities? Have you ever wondered whether some wicked, invisible power is influencing people to commit such acts of violence?

Probably basic human psychology? I mean, honestly. This isn't all that complicated. We don't need to posit supernatural explanations to explain things like humans killing one another. Really, we don't. When will people get this through their heads? We are quite naturally violent towards members of the human species who we don't accept, understand, or like, and we can have a tangible effect on these things if we WORK for it, and don't give in to supernaturalism and fatalism in the face of "God's Plan."

There is no need to guess at the matter, for the Bible clearly shows that an intelligent, unseen person has been controlling both men and nations.

Well, glad you could completely clear that up by referencing the ole' Bible and completely divorcing humans of responsibility.

It says: "The whole world is lying the power of the wicked one." And the Bible identifies him, saying: "The one called Devil and misleading the entire inhabited earth." - 1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9.

Oh! Wow! Satan, I was wondering when he'd come into all this. Good job! Now that we're all on Crazy Train together, let's keep going.

On an occasion when Jesus was "tempted by the Devil," Jesus did not question Satan's role as the ruler of this world. The Bible explains what happened: "The Devil took him along to an unusually high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him: 'All of these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me.' Then Jesus said to him: 'Go away, Satan!'" - Matthew 4:1; 8-10.

Think about this. Satan tempted Jesus by offering him "all the kingdoms of the world." Yet, would Satan's offer have been a real temptation if Satan was not actually the ruler of these kingdoms? No, it would not. And note, Jesus did not deny that all these worldly governments were Satan's which he would have done if Satan did not have power over them. So, then, Satan the Devil really is the unseen ruler of the world! The Bible, in fact, calls him "the god of this system of things." (2 Corinthians 4:4) Yet, how did suck a wicked person ever come into this powerful position?

See what they did there? That's it, right there. It's entirely a linguistic point. Let's ignore for a moment that here, also, is clear evidence that if you're a literalist about Biblical interpretation, you have to believe in a flat earth (a short aside, Witnesses admit that parts of the Bible are not literal. At this I say only "inconsistent." How do they decide, and how do they know they're right?. A great question. One that's largely unanswered.) That'd be the whole "high-mountain, see all the kingdoms of the world thing..." if the earth is, no matter how high the mountain is, because you're still attached to the earth and are rotating. You'd have to be in orbit, watching the earth rotate underneath you. But, note, Jesus doesn't mention that either, so it couldn't have been that.

Now, let's note very quickly that there are plenty of unstated major premises in this "argument." To note only a few:

* At least one God exists
* This God is the God of the Jehovah's Witnesses
* Satan exists
* Jesus really existed
* The Bible is inspired by God
* The Bible is true
* The Bible faithfully and literally records these series of events
* These records have been passed down faithfully
* The actual word that we translate as "temptation" is the same in both languages, in all possible ways.

As I said, these are only a few, and you will notice, they are all non-sequitors of each other. Even if you can prove one, that gives you not the slightest stepping stone to any of the others. Even if we just "accept" all these premises, then I still couldn't go along with the argument for a few reasons:

1) I don't think it's accurate to say that because someone was tempted, the object of temptation necessarily has to exist. This reminds me of Anselm's ontological argument. I think it's quite easy to be tempted by things which are not true. I'm quite tempted by free energy/perpetual motion machines. However, these do not exist. Obviously.

2) Satan could simply have been...lying? You know, whole Father of Lies and Deceit thing? Now, you might say that Jesus really knows everything, and would have known if he were lying...well, that brings us to

3) If you're going to argue that, you have some additional problems. Jesus apparently doesn't know that the earth is round. Secondly, if Jesus has this supernatural power, why not attribute all the others to him anyway? And if ultimately God is really going to own the world (and maybe Jesus does too) then how, how I ask, can you be tempted by the temporary lender of something that you own anyway? Now, of course, Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Trinity, so Jesus is not identified with God. Still, we have the question...God IS seen as the ultimate sovereign of the whole So, again, We're left with the same question. Satan is given temporary lease of the earth - does this qualify him to offer anything as a real temptation? So...full...of stupid...

Anyway, the brochure goes on to talk about the "origins" of Satan as an angel, how he was the snake in the garden, and that Satan's job is to try to turn all of Adam and Eve's yet unborn offspring away from God. Note, this is sanctioned by God, supposedly supported by Job 1:6-12; 2:1-10. So, it's really just a bet between God and Satan, and we either get heaven for getting lucky and not getting personally tempted by Satan (or by resisting a supernatural being with infinitely more powers than mere humans) or, we fail and get hell for falling for a supernatural being with infinitely more powers than us mere humans....hmmm...seems really like a short shift to me. They also claim that Satan tempted other angels away from God and now they're all rulers of the world and tempters of humanity....huh....I love how we keep multiplying supernatural beings. Now, to be fair, Jehovah's witnesses don't believe in Hell. Nor do they believe in survival after death. Of course, if you're "righteous" you get to be resurrected bodily and live in paradise forever. But, worst comes to worst, you just go to the big sleep. Which sort of makes me wonder about Jehovah's Witnesses. You hellfire, just unconscious death. They're so close to being secular! But they really can't give up on the whole paradise and supernatural thing...unfortunate.

Anyway, to go along with this whole disbelief in Hell (suck it evangelicals) and in survival after death and intervention (suck it Christians, especially Catholics), they go into a whole new spiel about resisting wicked spirits:

These unseen, wicked world rulers are determined to mislead all mankind, turning them away from the worship of God. One way wicked spirits do this is by promoting the idea of survival after death, even though God's Word clearly shows that the dead are not conscious. (Genesis 2:17; 3:19; Ezekiel 18:4l; Psalm 146:3, 4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Thus, a wicked spirit, imitating the voice of one who has died, may talk with that one's living relatives or friends, either through a spirit medium or by a "voice" from the invisible realm. The "voice" pretends to be the departed one, yet it is actually a demon!

I love it when one pseudoscience/religious/ridiculous belief system endorses another with reality! It makes my job so much easier...anyway, it's nice to know that we DON'T survive after death unless we are bodily resurrected on earth by God (good job, other Christians for getting that one wrong for so long...Good going, Jews?), and that demons are really working through psychics and stuff.'s kind of like saying..."Psychics aren't real! But demons are! Psychics are just channeling demons!" See what we did there? Just substitute one supernatural explanation for another? Good job.

So if you ever hear such a "voice," do not be deceived. Reject whatever it says, and echo Jesus' words: "Go away, Satan!" Do not allow curiosity about the spirit realm to cause you to become involved with wicked spirits. Such involvement is called spiritism, and God warns his worshipers against it in all its forms. The Bible condemns "anyone who employs divination...or anyone who consults a spirit medium or a professional foreteller of events or anyone who inquires of the dead." whole praying thing you know, to Jesus? Right. I love how these square up. Also, this raises the interesting question of how do you know that you're hearing Jesus when you're praying? Couldn't it just be a demon? Or your brain misfiring? Or you just talking to yourself? I mean, c'mon. Please, what's your criteria? If the voice tends to agree with your previous conceptions of what it should say? Unlikely to be right, buddy. Thanks, anyway, and please come back to play again.

Since spiritism brings a person under the influence of the demons, resist all its practices regardless of how much fun, or how exciting, they may seem to be. THese practices include crystal-ball gazing, use of Ouija boards, ESP, examining the lines of one's hand (palmistry), and astrology. Demons have also caused noises and other physical phenomena in houses that they make their territory.


In addition, wicked spirits capitalize on the sinful bent of humans by promoting literature, movies, and television programs that feature immoral and unnatural sexual behavior. The demons know that wrong thoughts if not expelled from the mind will cause indelible impressiona dn lead humans to behave immorally. Like the demons themselves.

It always comes back to sex! Christians just can't get enough of legislating sexual behavior in a homophobic, patriarchal way. Don't you just love it? *vomit*

True, many may scoff at the idea that this world is ruled by wicked spirits. But their disbelief is not surprising, since the Bible says: "Satan himself keeps transforming himself into an angel of light." (2 Corinthians 11:14) His most clever deception has been in blinding many to the fact that he and his demons really exist. But do not be deceived! The Devil and his demons are real, and you need to resist them continually. - 1 Peter 5:8, 9.

This reminds me of every conspiracy theory out there. "What? There's a total lack of evidence...well of course! It's a conspiracy! That just proves that it's true!" You see? You can't be wrong. If things go badly, then obviously it's demons. If things are okay and there's no reason to believe in demons, then obviously it's demons who are trying to deceive you. Right. And 9/11 was in inside job, Kennedy was shot from the grassy knoll, vaccines cause autism, and Jesus really had children, all of which was covered up by reptilian alien Freemasons in the Catholic Church. Man...I just LOVE conspiracy theories.

So, there you have it, some utterly ridiculous nonsense which tries to convince you that demons actually exist and are in control of the world, and thus, you should do nothing about the state of affairs in the world and just sit on the sidelines until God does something about it.

Verdict? Reprehensible for its complete shifting of blame and responsibility, as well as denying that we have the power to do anything in this world. Also, completely illogical and promoting ignorance. Jehovah's Witnesses...full of FAIL.


The Rooster said...

Hey man, I'm 25% through it. I'll finish it when I get some free time. But this reminds me of a funny story. I was walking around campus with a fellow grad student and we were debating the relative merits of a correspondence versus coherence theory of truth. This poor brainwashed sap walks up to us, hands me a religious pamphlet and says, "THIS corresponds to the truth!" I said, "I don't think so, bro" and I walked away.

Ragoth said...

Hah, take your time.

Yeah...I've been in that situation so often. It's quite annoying.

tom sheepandgoats said...

Perhaps you're being too hard on them.

It's a bi-fold tract, after all, not a scientific treatise. All of those "unstated major premises" are addressed elsewhere in lengthier publications.

And a little unfair.

.....we want peace and good will within our own group, but we don't give a damn about outsiders, and typically feel reservations, fear, or hatred towards them.... No. JWs don't hole up in seclusion. They go to considerable inconvenience and expense to communicate a message with outsiders. Hardly consistent with not giving a damn about them, don't you think?

And what is this self-satisfaction about "this dumb book must suppose the earth is flat since the high mountain vantage point is sufficient to show all 'the kingdoms of the earth?'" The Bible's not permitted figurative speech like any other book? You say, probably, that the sun will rise or it will set. Am I to conclude you think that the sun rotates around the earth?

However, things have, by nearly every measure, gotten better as time progresses....

I can think of some measures by which they have not. In fact, quite a few measures. In fact, if you disregard purely materialistic measures......the ones that help us accumulate more overwhelming number. Is that the purpose of life, to die with the most toys?

It's as if you've trashed a classic based on reading the cliff notes.

Ragoth said...

@ Sheepandgoats

Perhaps. I'll entertain that notion.

First off, yes. It's possible that these concerns are addressed elsewhere at length. And this is most certainly not a scientific treatise. I am not basing this criticism wholly upon this single tract, however. I have a file-folder full of other tracts, and I'm thinking of making this a rather extended series (and no, not all of it will be about Jehovah's Witnesses. I have a much larger collection than just them). What I am basing this upon is the total assortment of tracts which I do have, and personal conversations with Jehovah's Witnesses from back in North Carolina. None of them have been able to successfully address my stated problems with those premises that remain unstated in this tract.

And I'm glad that you brought up "scientific treatise," because, if it were anything like that, it would at least reference other tracts or other locations to go to to examine these types of issues, which are inevitably raised. Instead, all they give us are a few Bible verse locations.

This is a circular argument, however, and does not address any of the questions that I raised in response to this particular tract. So, this particular point stands.

And a little unfair? I mean, this is a bit of a non-sequitor. More of a value judgment than an actual argument against anything that I stated.

As for what you quoted me, that was a point about the vast majority of human history. Are there exceptions? Certainly, and I think more recently we're beginning to tear some of those boundaries down. But secular people as well as religious go out to help others. Note, I did NOT say that Jehovah's Witnesses stay at home and do nothing. I know quite well that they do a lot of missionary work, which, great, if they're actually helping people. My question is why the religious proselytizing angle is even necessary? Just...go help people...Sign up for Doctors Without Borders, or the Peace Corps, or any number of groups. Or, just say, very simply, we're going to go help people. We're not going to have to hand out tracts or try to convert people, we just want to offer what assistance we can. Who cares what religion we are or what we believe?

If Jehovah's Witnesses, and likewise, any other religious group, would just go out with that kind of message, I would have no reservations about it. But most don't. Most go with an ulterior motive, especially to disaster areas, which to me, seems to be preying upon peoples' vulnerabilities.

So, to sum up, I feel that this was a bit of a quote-mine or straw man. I'm equally condemning of any group, religious or otherwise, that is so isolated and xenophobic, and I am strongly for our realization of our ultimate shared humanity and a desire to help one another. I would prefer that this have no religious ulterior motives, but if a religious group wants to help out in this, then good for them. So, a half point to Jehovah's Witnesses; but also to most other missionary groups, I suppose. Satisfied?

Likewise, I didn't say it was a dumb book. I think it's wrong about a lot of things, but I don't recall ever saying "dumb." I have a lot of respect for what the Bible and other religious books can cause people to do. I think in this day and age, anyone would have to.

Note also, I made this a strict point about literal interpretation and the very next sentence was a disclaimer that Jehovah's Witnesses are not strict literalists. Good for them! But, it still raises a point - if they believe the temptation was literal, and they apparently (according to another tract booklet) believe that the Great Flood was a literal event...why do they quibble on the "high mountain?" I'm not saying the Bible can't have figurative speech, I'm just asking who gets to decide what is figurative and what's literal. Along this same point, how can you be so sure that you're right. And on another point, why wasn't God just clear about what he wanted to say? I mean, he's supposed to be all-powerful and omniscient. He should know that people would argue incessently over what parts are supposed to be literal (and in some cases, this is quite important indeed). Why not just set it down in stone? Or say honestly what happened - "And Satan gave him visions of all the kingdoms of the world, as though he were looking over the land atop a high mountain." See? That's easy. And it would have dispelled so much confusion!

Yes, I can think of quite a few ways by which things haven't improved too. We have nuclear weapons and religious fundamentalists who are willing to use them, for one.

But, at the same time, I would still argue that modern medicine, communications, etc...basically extending the quantity and quality of life, are huge improvements. I could live long enough to see my grandkids grow up, or maybe even some of my great grandkids. How many people from centuries ago could say that?

If, however, you mean by "getting worse" we are less spiritual and less committed to Gods and other such things...well, I'm sorry, but I think this is quite a good thing. And I think this is the major point of contention for your whole response. But, I don't think religion does much, overall, to improve the human condition in the long term, especially not given today's realities and threats. I want us to be more reasonable, more rational, and I think that's the only way we're going to survive for any length of time.

If, however, you just want the apocolypse to come...well, I guess that's where we differ. I think any apocolypse will be man-made because we're too caught up in tribal and bronze-age thinking. It won't be some glorious return of a god, but the last gasp of life from a small civilization, bound to a tiny planet in some far-flung quadrant of a humdrum galaxy in a vast universe which is rather indifferent towards us.

It's as if you've completely misunderstood me and taken me out of context.

Ragoth said...

As a final, follow-up point, yes, indeed, I do sometimes say things like "sunrise" and "sunset." I hate it every time, but we simply don't have a good, concise word or phrase to describe the event of the earth's rotation bringing the sun into view over the horizon.

What worries me is that a lot of people say things like "sunrise" and "sunset" and really mean it. One recent survey (2005) suggests that one in five Americans do not know that the earth orbits the sun ( That's frightening.

My point is that I have no problem with figurative language - so long as we recognize that it is, indeed, figurative, and there's no doubt about that. I love music, and I play blues and jazz (as well as rock and metal). It's incredibly moving, often with very abstract themes. I also enjoy the feeling of love. However, I will readily admit that music is really just patterns of compressed air interacting with the ear and auditory networks of the brain. Likewise, love is a complex cascade of chemical signals carried out in the brain that affects the rest of the body. Does this take away from the "magic" of either of these? Not at all, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, to me, it's all the more wonderful to know that these are the kinds of things that molecules, in the right kind of order, can do.

But the Bible, and any other religious text for that matter, gives us no easy guide to determine when it's merely being figurative, and as we both know, vicious personal (and not so personal) battles have been fought over matters of interpretation over just which passages are meant to be taken literally. And, as I said in the post, one major problem really is with the Biblical literalists (which, I would also like to note, I also stated did not necessarily include the Jehovah's Witnesses in all cases) - if they want the Bible to be considered real, literal truth, they have to deny reality over and over again.

If you would like to continue this discussion, I would be happy to, either in public on this thread or in private over email, as well as to reply any specific questions or concerns. If I came off as a little heated in the previous reply, then please forgive me, I've been working overtime this week and have only been sleeping a few hours. I'm not always in the best of moods when I check the blog.

tom sheepandgoats said...

Alright, let's do that and see where it leads. Here on your blog.

Your reply was both thoughtful and respectful. It deserves a worthy reply, not some hasty shot from the hip. Give me a few days. I, too, have lots on my plate.

And don't worry, I took no offense to any of your comments. Decent of you to express that concern, though. Rather, I would agree somewhat with your charge of my "quote mining," though I temper that agreement with the observation that anyone offering quotes is vulnerable to the charge. The only sure fire solution is to repeat verbatim everything your subject says. Nobody does that, of course. Otherwise a newspaper would be the size of a phone book.

Ragoth said...

@ Tom

Sure thing, take your time. I'm on vacation for a few weeks, so it may take me a while to get back to you, but I will certainly reply as soon as I get the time.

Okada said...

I will start off by saying I am Ragoth's friend and share a lot of his same viewpoints although I do not want this to seem like we are ganging up on you, I just have a few questions and points of my own.

First one problem I have with most of organized religion is conversion. This is something that particular Jehovah's Witnesses are infamous for. I understand that for a group to prosper and continue this is a fundamental and necessary process. I think it is cruel, not only to the person they are attempting to convert but also to the person converting. To make you feel like it is your duty to "save" as many people as possible is a vile tactic to simply further the ranks of a religion. I have never understood, although through my college years I am sure it is at least partially a psychological factor that makes people think that their way of life, religion whatever you want to call it is superior to all the different ways of life around the world. What makes yours so special? Just because you were born into a geographic location and a particular religion you think it is right? Your chances of being right on the subject are the same as every other religion, and if that is the case you have no right to convert anyone else to yours unless some form of actual evidence arises that is more than simply faith.

Now what frustrates me even more than simple conversion to a religion. Children are hardly allowed to choose what religion they will choose to follow. Raising a child in a household with a certain religion will be exposing this child the religion of its parents, if you ask him later in his life what religion he wants to be a part of, what do you think he is going to say? The religion he has viewed all of his life and most likely even taken part in the rituals of, or another religion that he has heard next to nothing of or maybe even hostile attitudes towards? This tactic is clearly a combination of preying on the child’s ignorance of the world as well as taking advantage of an evolutionary trait that young children will believe what their parents or a person of authority tells them to be fact or they see them taking part in. It is true as the child grows up they might be more prone to leaving the religion or choosing a different path in life. This is possible but I would argue highly unlikely, try telling your parents that in their eyes, you are not going to the same heaven or whatever afterlife they are. (on the premise such as Christianity you have to believe in God in order to receive the benefits of Christianity.) That is a very powerful deterrent as well as letting everyone in the community that you are part of(your religious group) that you do not believe what they believe in. In some of the more extreme cases and I would say to a small degree in all situations like this you would be viewed as almost a traitor and bringing shame onto your family. This again is cruel to say the least and it is not the fault of the people it is more the overall tactic of the religion. I know it is not practical to shelter a child from your religion, maybe attending church in secret, that is ridiculous but it is still unfair to the child and a very dirty tactic taken by most organizations. It is in essence extreme advertising taking advantage of something the advertising agencies could never use, the trust of the children’s parents.

tom sheepandgoats said...

You’ve made a few concessions. I’ll make one, too.

I’m not too enthused about the tract you dissected and I defended. In fact, I’m not crazy about any number of our tracts. But that may be inherent in what they are. I likened them to Cliff notes, and Cliff notes aren’t very satisfying. Rather than short tracts attempting to cover a broad category, I’d prefer ones targeted on more limited areas. (Of course, then we’d be carrying a ton of different tracts for every conceivable subject. What’s an evangelist to do?)

That tract may have its place in areas where there is respect for the Bible. Lots of areas are still like that. But our society is not one of them. In a land where people are none too sure about God, let alone the Devil, the tract can easily miss its mark.

What I do like about it is the very passage we have been discussing about all the kingdoms of the world. If we ask people the question: who (spiritually speaking) is running things, most will say ‘God.’ Even if they don’t believe it, they may say it, imagining we will be satisfied with that answer and go away. I like the passage mentioned because it unambiguously shows exactly the opposite; God does not run things. Sometimes even the irreligious are intrigued to discover the Bible says the opposite of what they supposed it did. If I had my druthers, the tract would confine itself to that point.

However, this was not your main point. If I’m not mistaken, your main point was….

My question is why the religious proselytizing angle is even necessary? Just...go help people...Sign up for Doctors Without Borders, or the Peace Corps, or any number of groups.

How can you not have respect for outfits like Doctors Without Borders, the Peace Corps, and the associated people who donate their time and energy? Lot’s of folks want to make a difference, and such groups appear to be an avenue for change. Nevertheless, people have different talents/assets and everyone brings something different to the table. How best can Jehovah’s Witnesses contribute? What signature traits do they have to offer?

Here are two areas of focus:

Though many millions of persons have been killed in the past century’s wars, not one of them has been killed by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Surely this is no small thing. The United Nations building displays the scriptural (and in their case, inappropriate) slogan about how nations will “turn their swords into plowshares.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are a ‘nation’ which has done just that. This is not a trait of religious people in general, as most of us are well aware, (the truth is often quite the opposite) or even of persons of the same religion. When push comes to shove, nationalism always wins out over “brotherly love.” Not so with Jehovah‘s Witnesses. Were their attitude to become the norm, there would be no need for a Peace Corps, and even Doctors Without Borders would be largely twiddling their thumbs.

So we are a peaceable people. Now how can you use this “gift” of peaceableness to benefit society? How do you “export” it? Can you, say, approach national delegations and persuade them to adopt the same model which has worked for us? Hardly. Fundamental to our faith is the recognition that nations in themselves are not in keeping with God’s purpose…..that he never intended the earth to be divided up in such a way…..and that as long as such divisions exist, divisions made purely along lines of self-interests, real peace doesn’t stand a chance.

Again, consider the point from the tract showing God not in charge of this earth’s division of nations….it’s not his idea. Rather, his adversary is, which is a consequence of mankind’s original rebellion, but obviously belongs to a different discussion

…… Who cares what religion we are or what we believe?, you asked…. Actually, I don’t agree with this point at all. What makes a person what he is if not his beliefs? And when discussing our peaceableness, it only works because of our beliefs. Thus, sharing our beliefs is the only way we know of spreading our “gift” of peaceableness.

Of course, our stand regarding peace is not the complete answer, for until everyone adopts our view, what does one do with the aggressors? This is where another aspect of our beliefs come into play: that God will ultimately bring his rulership to bear, and that rulership will replace today’s division of the earth into its eternally squabbling nations (like an adult version of “King of the Mountain“). In the meantime, the proper role for Christians is to stay neutral regarding those nations and focus on representing the coming Kingdom. Of course, purely secular people aren’t likely to agree with our Biblical slant on things, but nevertheless, you must surely acquiesce that it can only benefit the world to have more potential combatants “converted” into peaceful persons.

Is this to say that there are no peaceable persons in the world except for Jehovah’s Witnesses? Obviously not. Many today describe themselves as pacifists. But the version of peace we bring to the table only works because of our beliefs. It would fall apart without them. The trouble with pacifists in general……and we are not really pacifists, but persons of neutrality……the reason that military types loathe them, is because deep down they suspect that all the pacifists belong to their nation, that the hard-nosed enemy doesn’t have pacifists because they simply won’t put up with them. In other words, they question the motives of today’s pacifists, suspecting that they’re really just self-absorbtion, laziness, apathy, or even cowardness. You don’t think regarding many pacifists, (certainly not all) especially in the materialistic West, that they have a point? But Jehovah’s Witnesses have proven their peacefulness time and again and under the harshest of conditions. Likely you are aware (go to the Holocaust Museum if you are not) that Jehovah’s Witnesses, virtually alone among organizations, refused to bear arms for the Nazi regime in WWII. Therefore, as many as the Gestapo could lay hands on were sent to concentration camps, preceding the far more numerous Jews. Once in the camps, they were the only group given the opportunity to let themselves out. All they had to do was renounce their beliefs and pledge cooperation with the Nazi regime. Only a handful took advantage of the opportunity.

Seeing people renounce war, and do so not because of fad or expedience, but because of deep conviction, is surely a good thing. That is among our contributions to social stability.

That’s one area. My other area of focus concerns disaster relief.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were among those who lost possessions in the aftermath of Katrina. About 5000 of their homes were damaged or destroyed. Yet within twelve months most were renovated or rebuilt, and all by now. This is because fellow Witnesses with varying degrees of building experience converged from across the country and set to work. JWs are organized for such activity; this country is divided into a few dozen “regional building committees” composed of volunteers with organizational or building skills…in times of crisis ordinary members swell their ranks…. and many members volunteer to go mobile when needed. They traveled at their own expense. Their motivation was brotherly love. A couple of descriptions are here and here. (In the first, note the astounding number of mostly irrelevant comments posted by some alarmed that anyone should say anything good about JWs…..a lot of people don’t like us)

You’ll recall the experience of New Orleans residents in general was quite different. Groups whose charter purpose was disaster relief proved completely inept. To this day, many residents have yet to make serious headway in rebuilding their lives, and at the flood‘s one year anniversary, practically nobody had.

Now, for the most part, those who benefited from our rebuilding efforts were fellow Witnesses or interested persons. Was this wrong? Some have criticized us for this. Why just take care of your own? Why not expand and do the entire city? But this is kind of a cheap shot. Disaster relief teams are largely individual JWs using vacation time or taking unpaid leaves of absence. Self-employed persons put their personal business on hold, ignoring temporarily their obvious need for income. They are not in position to do a general rebuild of the city and have never represented themselves that way.

But imagine if all the world imitated this example. New Orleans would have been rebuilt long ago. Any suffering would have been of short duration. In fact, recovery from any natural disaster anywhere would be prompt and, barring human casualties, of little lasting consequence.

Since JWs already routinely achieve such disaster relief, can they not inspire or nurture other groups to do the same? It might seem so, yet we don’t know how. Here is another instance relating to your statement “Who cares what religion we are or what we believe?” Our system is not coincident with our beliefs… only works because of them. We don’t know how to inspire persons not holding those beliefs to do the same.

Nobody on any level is a paid worker in our efforts. People make sacrifices in the belief that such works are part of their “sacred service” to God, and that they will be cared for physically and repaid (not necessarily monetarily) by him. They have internalized such sentiments as “For we have brought nothing into the world, and neither can we carry anything out. So, having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things.” (1 Tim 6:7-8) Our worksites embody our beliefs. Prayers are said. The day is opened with discussion of scripture. Even our dress is in keeping with respect for God, showing reasonable modesty and nothing uncouth. Many persons wouldn’t put up with this for a second, yet we feel it’s essential to our worship which makes the entire project possible.

Could we somehow change it into a paid model, expanding it and thereby stripping beliefs as the primary motivation? We don’t think so. At any rate, there were plenty of paid programs around in New Orleans, both government and private charity. (private charities using volunteer labor, but with organizers and executives paid….often very well paid) They proved incompetent. Our people were organized and efficient and skilled in their work, yet those are hardly unique traits. Any competent business can muster the same. What made the difference is our beliefs. So we feel that spreading our beliefs…..even door to door….is an effective way of bringing our “volunteer spirit” model to others.

I think you get the point. No one organization can do everything. Each must pick and choose. Most good works today are of the “give a man a fish” variety. These have their place, no question about it. Still, the more rare “teach a man to fish” variety surely has more lasting impact. Yet even those groups who teach a man to fish mostly stress physical needs….acquiring job skills, for example. Again, I don’t say this doesn’t have its place, but we focus on spiritual needs. We don’t apologize for this. We think spiritual needs are closer to the essence of permanent happiness and productivity.

Okay, that’s enough for now. I’ve mainly tried to address your concern of proselytizing. Hope you’ve enjoyed your vacation. Once you fashion an answer, assuming you decide to, give me a heads up at my email or post something on my blog. (you know how bloggers love comments) That way I don’t have to keep checking here.

tom sheepandgoats said...


I've just noticed your comment as I'm posting my reply to Ragoth. Possibly my reply will address some of your questions. However the matter of raising children to reflect one's beliefs I have not addressed. I'll try now.

Children usually adopt the religious views of their parents, true enough. They also adopt every other view. It is in the nature of child-rearing. Children of American homes believe in the supremacy of American life. Children of Chinese homes believe in Chinese life. Children of pacifist parents become pacifist. Children of hawks become hawks themselves. Children of parents who value education likewise value it. Children of parents who don't also don't.

Children of Ford or Chevy fanatics also favor those brands. Even Jakob Dylan's following the old man's footsteps in music. Children often reassess their values as young adults, but as small children they usually are a reflection of their parents.

This is a fact of human family life. As you don't object to it in any context other than religion, I take your comment primarily as a statement of dislike (if not loathing) for our faith. Moreover, if you do not train your children, it is not true that they grow up free and unencumbered and subsequently select their values from the great cornucopia of ideas. No. All it means is that someone else will train them, and it is unlikely that the someone else will have the child's welfare at heart to the degree of the natural parents.

If children are separated from their parents when very small, they may not adopt the parent's values. It's the only way to break that natural cycle. Lots of schemes in human history have attempted to do just that. Do you favor such tactics?

Ragoth said...

@ Tom

I'll admit - it's a tough thing. Scientists often face the same problem when we have to give abstracts for journals or conferences - there's a huge amount of background literature that you have to assume your audience knows, and you only have time and space to give the "cliff notes" of your own research. This is usually the point at which you get together with the researcher and start an extended conversation - in person or in email. I'd like to think that this is analogous to this conversation. I have a background in religion (both personally and in a scholarly mode), but not specifically in Jehovah's Witnesses. I have had personal contact with them both in my hometown and where I go to school, and, as I've said, I have a fair collection of Watchtower publications. An expert on them, I am not, but at the same time, I would argue that's not an absolute necessity to debate certain points where they intersect with reality.

I agree, it is a different tack than most religious groups take to argue that God is not really in control of things. I think I might have mentioned this in my original post (I'll go back and check), but either way, to me it still begs the question of the basic existence of God, Satan, demons, etc.

I agree, that is one of my main points. I have several points of criticism, which I will attempt to lay out in the following paragraphs.

You note that people have different skills and bring different abilities to the table. Doctors Without Borders obviously are capable of providing medical services. The Peace Corps can bring relief and other aid. Habitats for Humanity has its own specialties, as do other organizations like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, etc, etc. Some of these are religious organizations, some aren't. If people are providing aid to those who need it, I don't really care whether or not the person is religious. It's when a religious agenda interferes with helping people that I begin to have problems. Things like "if you convert, we will give you these medicines," or "we will build a church, but we won't build houses for you." I realize that some will say servicing these "spiritual needs" is more important than mere "needs of the flesh," but...this is the crux of the entire argument. I realize this is my atheist outlook leaking through, but if I have the option of saving a person's life or giving them "spiritual comfort" and watching them die...I go for saving their lives...mere flesh and all. I assume that you can understand this point (i.e., differences in priorities), but for those who may not, it's sort of analogous as to how most American Christians feel when they hear how serious Orthodox Jews and Muslims are in avoiding pork. The general response is a shrug of the shoulders and a "what's the big deal?" or "there are more important things to worry about." That's the way most atheists feel when religious people talk about religious needs.

As to your discussion of the peaceful nation of Jehovah's Witnesses. I find the commitment to non-violence and neutrality a mostly positive thing. Let me be the first to say that religious groups can indeed do good things, for members of their own groups and sometimes for members of other groups. However, this is a moral (and mostly utilitarian) argument. It in no way provides support for the actual claims about the existence of God that religions make. I am confident that if a group is united under a common, closely knit ideology (especially those that make use of our predilections for familiar language) they tend to have the same ethos of helping one another in whatever way possible. The Amish come to mind, as do many other "utopia" groups. We could equally well say that if all the world became Amish, or Quakers, or other such groups, we would have a much greater chance of being at peace world-wide. Of course, there is also a statistic problem many nations have been ruled by the Amish, or Quakers, or Jehovah's Witnesses? We simply do not know what would happen if an entire "nation" of such people came into being. And this need not be an actual state - there are simply not enough of them organized into adjacent areas.

But again...even if all the world converted to being Jehovah's Witnesses and ushered in an era of world peace - even if Jehovah's Witnesses have figured out the ideal methods by which humans should live together (a proposition I am not in agreement with), this would still give no evidence that the religious claims made by Jehovah's Witnesses are valid.

A tangent analogy to tease out a related issue - if a person takes a large dose of hallucinogenic drugs and has an experience in which they describe meeting God, or an angel, or a being of energy, or whatever, who describes a new lifestyle to them; and when they come down from the trip they change their lives in accordance with their visions and find themselves much happier and hailed as a visionary pioneer in peace and spirituality...this in no way provides any validity to the claim that they actually met God, an angel, or a "higher being."

While their description of the experience, in the form of "I took these drugs, and then I saw God, etc, etc..." cannot be doubted (i.e., we do not doubt that such a person had an experience of some sort), we do disagree with their interpretation of such an experience, and the truth claims they make about it. "No," we might say, "you did indeed have a profound experience which changed your life and has improved your situation. It is terribly unlikely, however, that you actually met with a higher being, and we certainly not recommend that everyone take large quantities of hallucinogenic drugs."

There are several ideas that are caught up in this...first - people may be mistaken about their interpretation of their personal experiences. Optical illusions are the simplest (well, actually, most of them are quite complex) and most familiar examples of this. Second - the existence of God is an unproven assumption in many of these kinds of arguments...this is the most important point, actually. Third - even if God exists, truth can be arrived at independently of direct revelation from God. A simplistic example of this would be burning your hand on a stove - presumably you do not need to have a conversation with God to know that you have burned your hand. Fourth - in a related point, various groups, of differing religions or completely non-religious, can arrive at the same idea, such as non-violence. If actually followed, is it valid to say that only the religious groups are "actually" non-violent, because they arrived at the idea through a "revelation from God?" And before we get too caught up in Christian history, let's also remember that non-violence has a much longer history. I might recommend Mark Kurlansky's Nonviolence.

My point here is that I may (and I stress may) be convinced that a particular religious group (and let's say, for sake of argument, the Jehovah's Witnesses) have found the way to live life in peace and prosperity. For rhetorical point, let's assume this is the case - I champion the lifestyle promoted by said group. This, still, in no way would commit me to agreeing that the truth-claims of this group are sound. They may still be incorrect in their attribution of their success to a supreme being. If it is simply the lifestyle of peace and brotherly love that you would argue is the "proof in the pudding," then we must also admit that the Quakers and Amish are equally right in their religious truth-claims, as are the Jains, groups of Buddhists and Hindus, Jewish non-violence groups, etc, etc. I realize that some may wish to argue (and I do not assume this includes yourself) that Jehovah's Witnesses are the only ones who are "truly" non-violent or who truly have no other "problems" associated with any other group...but to me this is a matter of perspective and sounds more like special-pleading or the "no-true-Scotsman" fallacy. Certainly we can agree that these groups have hit upon a positive lifestyle choice - non-violence, but this has no bearing on the validity of their religious beliefs.

To belabor another point only briefly, I want to reiterate that I only am mostly in agreement with the idea of total non-violence and neutrality. If we lived in a completely peaceful world, there would be no need for the doctrine of non-violence. We don't, however, and if the rest of the world sticks firm to the idea of neutrality, then we are forced to watch as the indifference of good men allows evil to go unchecked. We saw this before the beginning of World War II, which you mention in relation to the persecution and strength of will that Jehovah's Witnesses faced. I would like to shift this problem slightly - I can understand that Jehovah's Witnesses would like to maintain neutrality, and indeed, they did nothing to contribute to Hitler's armies. But, likewise, they did nothing to stand up against it. There are plenty of other examples of other groups who used non-violent resistance to stand up for something. Sometimes a "nationalist" political goal, sometimes something as basic as civil or human rights. I understand that this violates the whole principle of neutrality in human politics; but it is something that has always irked me. Not as an American, but as a member of the human race. I also understand that you believe that God is going to come take care of it all eventually, but I hope you also understand the atheist point of view - that we should be doing everything we can to help ourselves. Other Christian groups may say something along the lines of "we should do everything we can in the meantime..." It is too easy, in my mind, to do nothing and claim God will clean up later (and this is not a point about laziness or self-centeredness, as it often takes a lot of courage to refuse to get involved in conflicts), instead of seriously considering the possibility that no one may be around to pull us out of a difficult situation and we need to help ourselves.

Moving on...

On your point about Hurricane Katrina - I'm pretty well acquainted with the history of outreach by Jehovah's Witnesses. I applaud them for their humanitarian efforts. I likewise applaud any group for such efforts. I was equally appalled by the incompetence displayed by our government and disaster relief agencies.

I would hope that other groups may take something from this example, but I don't think this necessitates a conversion to being a Jehovah's Witness. You say that your actions work only because of your beliefs - and this may very well be the case. However, I hope you will agree that it is a logically and analytically different question of whether your beliefs are true. Also, I think there are several confounding elements to this "experiment." Your beliefs are not the only difference between the Jehovah's Witnesses in New Orleans and the private, public, and government agencies that are also there. try to sum up...

I'm sorry that I have repeated myself and belabored a few points. I want to be clear about those points, and I'm sorry if it came off as more muddled. If so, please let me know and I'll attempt to clarify.

I suppose the real point that I want to raise is the actual evidence for the existence of God. We can argue in circles over the societal, ethical, and moral values of religious groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, but the real question, from the atheist's viewpoint, is the question of whether or not God (or gods) actually exist. This is the real question motivating this series of posts, although I have said that I will not often mention it because it's a non-starter when actually discussing the points raised in a pamphlet or brochure.

So, if you feel like it, I'd like to move the debate to the actual existence of God. I eagerly await your response either way, and appreciate you taking the time to continue this conversation thus far.


DirtyGaijin said...

On religions and humanitarianism: like Ragoth, I applaud any group, religious or not, that engages in humanitarian efforts. Anyone that is willing to help somebody in need is a great individual in my mind, and those Jehova's Witnesses that have engaged in such activities are no exception.

However, if it is simply because your religion says it is a good thing to help people that you do so, is that really so great? If the only reason you help people is because of your religion, does that make you a good person, or a fearful one?

I guess this question can also go towards morality as a whole. Does one's morality stem from their faith, and solely from their beliefs in salvation and reward after life? If this is the case, I think the individual should rethink their moral standings. Like humanitarianism, morality should be present for morality's sake. Sure, religion can be a helpful guide, but so can a secular teacher, a circle of friends, or any other social environment, not to mention any biologically psychological predispositions.

tom sheepandgoats said...

As to the existence in God, I won't address it immediately. I'll dance around it for awhile.

There is a verse that my people sometimes quote that seems childishly naive to modern thinkers, yet must have seemed blatantly obvious through most of human history.

Of course, every house is constructed by someone, but he that constructed all things is God. Heb 3:4

The thinking in this verse is so self-evident, so in keeping with everyday experience, that it must have taken much time to construct the mental gymnastics so as to get around it. Not merely to disagree with it, mind you, but to come to think of it as a infantile and foolish sentiment unfit for the modern sophisticated mind. Disbelief in god or gods is not really possible until you get around the seemingly self-evident notion that things showing evidence of design must have a designer. Of course, I’m aware that modern people have learned to do it handily, but it is a relatively recent acomplishment. At the vanguard of scientific thought 300 years ago was Isaac Newton. He was not able to do it. Newton wrote more about religion than math and science combined. Far from seeing any contradiction between those fields, he pursued his scientific discoveries with the aim of explaining how God operates….discovering exactly how he designed this or that. To greater or lesser extent, scientists of that era had, if not a personal god like Newton, at least a "creator" or "first cause" mentality.

As another example, when Kepler worked out the laws governing planetary motions and published his discoveries, he suddenly let loose with a paean to God, smack dab in the middle of his treatise. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was one of the Bible psalms. Would any scientist be caught dead doing such a thing today?

"The wisdom of the Lord is infinite; so also are His glory and His power. Ye heavens, sing His praises! Sun, moon, and planets glorify Him in your ineffable language! Celestial harmonies, all ye who comprehend His marvelous works, praise Him. And thou, my soul, praise thy Creator! It is by Him and in Him that all exists. that which we know best is comprised in Him, as well as in our vain science. To Him be praise, honor, and glory throughout eternity."

Does Kepler's praise not agree with Rev 4:11, and enable all to see where his heart and head were?

"You are worthy, Jehovah, even our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power, because you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created." Rev 4:11

And to Galileo is attributed the statement: "God wrote the universe in the language of mathematics."

Leaned ones of the past might go so far as agnosticism, but no further, since they were not able to reconcile “design in nature” with “no designer.” Fed up with the hypocrisy of religion, many throughout the years worked toward the goal of explaining life in a manner that diminished God's role. Darwin was by no means the first person ever to propose evolution. His contribution was to suggest a plausible mechanism (natural selection) by which evolution could take place. Finally, a rationally explainable way to pull the rug out from under those abusive, self-righteous sellers of religion, who had for so long self-assumed first place in humanity’s hierarchy! Yet even Darwin didn't pretend to solve the "first cause" issue. His book is "Origin of the Species," not "Origin of Life." It’s thinkers subsequent to Darwin that have finally accomplished the atheistic goal of shutting God completely out of the picture.

Until relatively recently, outright atheism (in contrast with agnosticism) seems to have been an aberration among persons of science. I admit to having cheated a little. Your question, Ragoth, touches so close to my most recent post that this reply is largely a cut and paste. But perhaps it will suffice as a first salvo. An original reply would have taken days. Actually, I often write about these things and collect them under the "atheist," "evolution," or "science" category of my own blog.

Ragoth said...

Hello again Tom,

I'll likewise fire back a quick salvo in response, as I'm planning on dealing with the design issue in more depth soon.

A simplistic response to the quote from Hebrews that you offer would be along these lines: you must consider the closeness of fit by analogy. The more dissimilar the objects you are comparing, the less weight an analogy caries, unless you are meaning to be wholly poetic and not accurate. (for example, Tolkien poetically compares chewing teeth to stamping horses. This is obviously wholly poetic - by an important sense, they are nothing alike, and you cannot assume the similarity of other attributes.)

So, for example...this verse compares a house that is "constructed" by someone and "all things" which are constructed by God.

Let me start off at the most generous and work my way back. At the most generous, if I indeed agreed that there was a valid analogy between things constructed in the natural world and things that exist in the natural world, the most valid analogy would suggest that there are many gods. There would be a god who created the mountains, or maybe a god for each mountain, a god for waterfalls, a god for flowers, etc., etc., etc. Why is this? Well, if we consider a house, it is often built by several people who have different specialties. In the modern world, we have people who frame the house, others who put down sheet rock, others who do plumbing, others who do electrical work, brick masons, shingle-workers, and the list goes on. Even in simpler times, it is rare to see a house built entirely by a single individual (and on would wonder about shoddy work on at least part of the house). It is usually a familiar or community effort to erect a new house. Why would this analogy not hold with respect to the universe at large, obviously a much more impressive and complex thing?

Suppose even (to be more generous) that I agree (somehow) that an analogy of design implies a single God (which I do not). Even then, this is a content-less statement, much like the "first-cause" argument. It is an unsupported logical jump from "designer god" to "Christian God" to "Jehovah, as described by the Jehovah's Witnesses." I could as easily make the deist argument, or, if I were being flippant or snarky, the Flying-Spaghetti-Monster argument, and on the basis of the design argument, there would be no way to distinguish between them.

To be a little less generous, we might look at the actual language you use. "Design." What does this mean? Should we substitute other words, like pattern, order, purpose, structure? Is this what you mean? Well...let's consider a simple version of this argument:

1. Everything in the Universe is designed.
2. Every design requires a designer.
3. Therefore, there must be a designer.

We have already dealt with the "birthday fallacy" of the conclusion (it is true that everyone has a birthday...this does not necessitate that everyone shares the SAME birthday). If we substitute other words, trying to discover what "design" actually means...we run into problems. "Pattern," "order," and "structure" will not work. A random series of dots can appear to have a pattern or order. Moreover, it is the human brain that attributes pattern and order to otherwise chaotic events. A simple example of this is cloud-gazing. Do you believe that God sculpts each cloud, individually, just for your viewing pleasure and so you and your family can "ooh" and "ahh" over "faces" in the clouds? Or is it conceivable that you, in fact, are the one imposing a face when there really isn't one there at all? This is a quite strong analogy to the universe itself - it may not be "designed" at all, and we merely impose a sense of order onto it all.

What I can only conclude is that you must mean "purpose," or some variant, for design. Well, if this is the case, please state that purpose and demonstrate how everything actually contributes to it, in a way that does not beg the question of the existence of an Intelligent Being - that being the point we are debating.

Also, we might ask - designed as compared to what? What is your model of comparison? What would an "undesigned" universe look like? Without something to compare it to, assuming that the universe is "designed" is really a pretty empty and meaningless statement.

As a last point, to return to our analogy argument...human artifacts and objects of the natural world are quite, quite different. For one thing, human artifacts do not grow, mate, and reproduce through generations, and they are not subject to natural-selection processes. Whenever we design something (say, a computer program) with these basic parameters (growth-mating-reproduction-competition), we immediately see evolutionary processes take over, and "design" seems to appear. Let us consider a common example that creationists like to use - the complexity of the human eye.

It is indeed quite complex. No one denies that. The problem is for creationists, the evolution of eyes (through multiple branches and through all the necessary stages) has already been demonstrated. Here's a quick question - Why do some people have better eye-sight than others? Why are some people born blind or with severely malformed eyes? How do you reconcile this with an Intelligent Designer? Certainly, if we drop the "intelligent" notion, it is easy. This is (basically) what natural selection is - a process that slowly builds up good-enough elements of design through generations. Note, that is very important - as impressive as bodily organs are, they are good-enough solutions to a particular evolutionary pressure, always subject to variation and change, and never "perfect."

If God were really the designer of everything...if, as you may argue, there were an Intelligent Designer...why do we not see a single "perfect" design? Why are other creatures much more capable in nearly every sense category than humans, supposedly God's most precious creation? Why do mantis shrimp have arguably better eyes than us? Why do canines have such wonderful senses of smell? Because it allows them to hunt food, and God knew this would be beneficial to them? Why not just eliminate the extra assumption there and say "because it was beneficial to them in their evolutionary history?" This is, of course, incredibly simplistic, but it is a powerful idea. Unless you want to argue that everything is made for the greater pleasure of mankind (dogs smell well so that we can use them in hunting, etc.), which is an incredibly hard argument to maintain. Malaria and smallpox come to mind.

Finally, to finish with our analogy, just how far are you willing to take the argument of design? Remember, an analogy cuts both ways. If an architect builds a house, which later collapses due to shoddy design, or makes the inhabitants sick due to poor materials, the architect is held to be at fault. Let's consider all the things in the world (or universe) that are capable of killing humans or doing severe harm. Natural disasters come to mind...these are things that are inherent in the system of the earth - tectonic plates, weather patterns, etc. Human activity (at least for the vast majority of its history) has had no control over any of these, and yet they have wrecked havoc in human communities. Why did God design an earth so prone to natural disasters that would affect both righteous and unrighteous alike? You mentioned earlier that Katrina destroyed over 5,000 homes of Jehovah's Witnesses. Why?

Perhaps you would like to argue that God was constrained - doing the best that he could with the materials at hand...well, he's God. There's that whole omnipotent thing that doesn't jive with that explanation. Perhaps God simply doesn't care for the suffering of humans. That'd be understandable, but much more approaching the Deist standpoint. Perhaps God cares, but is incapable of stopping it...again, omnipotent. Why does he not? Perhaps God is capable of stopping such things, but chooses not, then, we arrive at a moral problem. Again, if our imagined architect were capable of building a house better (so that it would not collapse), and realized the danger, but went ahead with it anyway, knowing full well that it would collapse and kill its inhabitants, or even be a significant danger to them, we would rightly call that persons actions immoral. How much do you want to argue for an analogy from design?

To reply to the rest of the post, let us remember that the age of a belief is no indication of its veracity. In fact, some would argue that the unquestioned acceptance of a very old belief, or a belief that does not change at all over the years, is good evidence that it is incorrect. Aristotle was accepted for centuries because it was made dogma. Simple observation would prove him wrong (and some pre-Socratic ideas correct), and Galileo was one of the first to actually carry out the experiment and prove that objects of different masses fall at the same rate. Newton's laws, as respected as they are, have not escaped revision. Let us also remember several things about Newton - he realized that his mechanics left little place for God and so inserted the need for God to keep some orbits in place. Likewise, he could not figure out multi-body gravitation. Laplace, however, would go a long way towards figuring out this problem. Einstein would resolve the issue by completely re-imagining what gravity was and the very notion of space-time itself. Let us also remember the Pythagorean mysticism that Kepler was obsessed with (he would not discover his famous laws until he gave this up) and the mysticism which consumed Newton. All these men were wrong about quite a lot. Just because they are famous does not, in any way, indicate their correctness on any subject - their authority does not impart validity. Instead, their arguments must be weighed entirely on the basis of evidence. Newton's Laws, Kepler's Laws, and the physics of Galileo have all stood the test of time, with some (quite major) revisions along the way. Let us also remember that plenty of people have given praises to God in the midst of a variety of situations - blowing up abortion clinics, flying planes into buildings, building houses, figuring out mathematical formulas, and in any of these carry more validity than any of the others?

I also detect a note of inconsistency here. Basically - praise these scientists when they agree with you, don't listen to them when they don't. If Darwin had gone only so far as to claim that he was exposing God's method, and included praises of God throughout his work, would you also be offering up him as an example?

This is in fact something I've come across quite often - people who don't get (either through ignorance or force of will) and often detest science whenever it goes against their prejudices; but they are always willing to harp the praises of famous scientists whenever they seem to agree with them. Note creationists (mis)use of Steven Jay Gould and Albert Einstein.

Now, again, we have to separate the "design" argument into analytical components. Do you mean "design" in the universe? "Design" in astrophysics? "Design" in biological systems? Please, elaborate, and we'll deal with them in turn. I'll direct you Talk Origins for some of the most common arguments about evolution, though we can retread this ground if necessary.

To summarize, I find the argument from design intellectually vacuous. In fact, it creates more problems for the theist than it solves. Most "designers" want to focus entirely on the pleasant or positive things in the world, but the argument has to cover all cases, and cuts both ways.

Maybe I'm soft and care too much about preventable human suffering. Maybe I should just "man-up" and realize that God really wants us to tough it out down here. But at this point, we're talking a lot more about a capricious cowboy God than the one envisioned by most religions - an immoral, God of the Hercules and the Lions. If you want to argue that point, I'm all for it. Let's return to a little old-timey (Greek) religion. I think it'd be great fun while it lasts.

As always, I look forward to your response.

Ragoth said...

Also, Steven Jay Gould should be, of course, Stephen Jay Gould. Sorry for that spelling error.

tom sheepandgoats said...

Actually, I did not argue that God (or sense quibbling here, since it's not the main point) designed life/ the earth / the universe, etc. Instead, I pointed out that they (Newton, Kepler, Galileo) argued it. As we hail them as geniuses on the one hand, I'm not so sure it's right to label them as superstitious ignoramuses on the other.

That's not to say that scientists of the past cannot have have their views revised. It's only to say the modern scientific atheism is relatively new in human history. I don't think it represents its crowning acheivement, though it's ofter presented that way.

More later.

This is also a little silly:

Let us also remember that plenty of people have given praises to God in the midst of a variety of situations - blowing up abortion clinics, flying planes into buildings, building houses, figuring out mathematical formulas, and in any of these carry more validity than any of the others?

Let us also remember that scientist Bruce Ivans was a paranoid nutcase (if the FBI is correct) who conpired to murder. Should I use that allegation to malign all science? I mean, c' know better than to throw in abortion clinics and crashing jets, as if they have any relevence to what we're discussing. Their inclusion merely shows you don't like religion, a fact I already know.

Ragoth said...

Actually, my main point was that a person's achievements are a separate matter from their religious/political/social beliefs. In science, a person's merits are based entirely on the evidence. We can quite confidently say that Newton was ignorant on a great number of matters, and still praise what he accomplished - even if it has been revised in quite major ways. There are no free lunches in science, and each and every claim that a person makes is evaluated independently. The greatest scientist in the world could claim to have discovered perpetual motion, but unless he had the ability to back up said claim with observable, objective one is going to believe him. And the not-least reasons for this are that there is no prior probability; that it utterly contradicts the most well-empirically-verified laws of physics we know; and it would entail a vast number of other implicit assumptions. In science, you tend to get at most one "gimme" to try to explain a phenomenon, but then you have to back up the reality of said "gimme" with evidence. Want to posit electrical attraction? Prove it.

I went into the design argument mainly from reading your full post on your own blog. There, you say that design becomes quite obvious when you merely look upon the beauty of the natural world, and link this to a direct experience of the presence of God. I don't think it's a far stretch to see this as an argument from design, but I'll accept that maybe this is not what you were going for, and maybe merely wanted to make an emotional appeal, which is still unconvincing to me. I am utterly overwhelmed by emotion when gazing at the night sky, or walking through a garden, or standing on a mountain-top...but this does not imply the existence of a God. In fact, having been raised a devout believer, I feel I had the somewhat special experience of looking on the world, with new eyes, as it were, and coming to understand the real awe and wonder of science. The universe is vastly more beautiful and wonderful to me now than it ever was when I was a believer, mostly because as a believer I was always waiting for this world to pass away, and put hardly any value on my present life.

Is that likewise an emotional appeal that does nothing to prove the validity of science? Of course. But I'm not arguing that science is right about things like the propagation of light, or the age of the universe, etc., because it makes me feel good (or overwhelmed). I'm simply saying that an emotional response does not carry with it any real support for the validity of another concept.

And to belabor a previous point...people are complex. Many people have an area of specialty - whether technical, scientific, musical, or whatever. I know quite a few musicians who are brilliant at their personal instrument, but you can't trust them to get across the city using public transportation. And you certainly wouldn't want them running any political office. Likewise, there are brilliant particle physicists who are utterly ignorant at anatomy. And quite a few intelligent people are also quite superstitious (in fact, some studies indicate that the higher one goes in education in fields other than the physical or biological sciences, the more likely one is to be superstitious, or hold New-Agey beliefs). This is not a paradox. We can quite rightly call a person brilliant and utterly ignorant at the same time. And ignorant is not pejorative. I quite happily admit my ignorance on most subjects of depth. I am always willingly to learn, and always trying to widen and deepen my knowledge, but, I confess, reading truly technical particle physics papers, I am lost. And that's okay! Darwin, likewise, was a brilliant man who had an amazingly simple, stupid insight - that artificial selection processes can be seen in nature over long time periods. But, he knew nothing of genetics and was a Lamarckian for most (or all) of his career. It would take later scientists to synthesize genetics and natural selection - probably the second-most tested and confirmed theory in the sciences. Do we berate Darwin for his errors? Well, not berate, really, as we don't really berate Newton or Kepler. We realize that they (as almost everyone is) were men of their times. We say "thank you" for their insights that have proven right, and we cut off what was wrong or unnecessary. That's how science works, and it's one of its greatest strengths.

I agree, modern scientific atheism is quite new. Intellectually fulfilling scientific atheism is only about 150 years old. But what does that matter? I'm not sure what you're trying to argue here, but I'd like to hear you elaborate.

I would also say that I feel the last paragraph is taking it a little out of context. My argument was that the person praising God does not gain any validity from their other actions - their truth claims have to rest on their own evidence. My point is exactly in line with your final paragraph - no, we should not malign science as a whole because there are some nut cases who do evil things. Likewise, we should not accept religious truth claims because there are religious people who do great things. It cuts both ways, and so, again, I feel we are arguing the same point. Granted, the examples are at extremes, but note, I included both positive and negative examples - crashing jets and building houses. For the record, let me also include offering aid to those who need it and saving lives. These are all situations in which people offer praises to God. But, as I stated in the immediately following sentence, the point still stands - none of these grants any validity to the truth of the religious claim. The other accomplishments or actions of a person have no bearing on these truth claims.

And as a final point, I find religion fascinating, and I quite enjoy studying it. I just don't think any of them are true, and thus shouldn't guide public decisions. I really don't care what goes on in privacy among consenting adults - I just don't want people leading a country based on what they think they understand or hear from their particular God. That's really all.

I look forward to your response.

Okada said...


Without a doubt if a child is raised in a family he will adopt the memes of that family. I do understand that it is impossible to give a child a “clean slate”. This meaning keeping the child free from being bombarded by a single source of belief. Allowing enough time until the child’s mental faculties are adequate to decide for itself what religion it chooses to follow. But I think to this impossible idea is giving the child the tools needed to choose for himself. These tools are very simple, critical thinking and scientific evaluation. One thing you have to understand is that I am not subtly implying that you imbue the child with thoughts of Atheism. I think pushing Atheism is just as bad as pushing any other religion. Because scientific thinking and critical thinking may be used by atheists or some scientists may be Atheists. That in no way means that these ways of thinking and evaluating our physical world causes or turns the child into an Atheist. I simply ask that children be given the chance to choose fairly.

Personally I remember when I was baptized; I believe it was in Vacation Bible School. It was more of a surprise than anything, everything was going as normal. We memorized some scripture, had some arts and crafts and near the end of VBS they popped the question on us. I don’t remember my exact age but I would say it was between 10-14 years old. Hardly old enough to be making decisions for myself about such a significant matter. I think they even asked me in a group of people, whether they knew it or not forcing peer pressure to coarse my decision. As I said it was awhile ago so I don’t remember the exact words but the minister asked a group of kids if they were ready to be baptized. As a few of the kids spoke up saying yes, not really knowing what to do, I certainly did not want to disappoint my peers or my minister so I said yes. Personally it did no real damage to me although it was very unfair for someone to ask that of a child that has no real alternatives.

I apologize if you thought I implied separating children from their parents at any age as being a viable option for this matter. I find that notion repulsive and cruel to the child and parent.

As for your last paragraph I find it highly offensive that you think I would be even willing to suggest an idea or “scheme” as you put it. Implying some sinister plot, I will not be your “mad scientist”. Also that entire paragraph is based upon a false premise.

If children are separated from their parents when very small, they may not adopt the parent's values. It's the only way to break that natural cycle.

I can tell you from my personal experience I was raised in a religious household and my natural cycle was broken and it was not due to a separation of my family or removing me from it. As I suggested earlier critical thinking and scientific methods are excellent tools that helped me achieve this. I think they could be useful for not only children but adults as well.

tom sheepandgoats said...


My final question to you: “Do you favor such tactics?” was not necessary. Sorry.


I just don't want people leading a country based on what they think they understand or hear from their particular God. That's really all.

You understand, I trust, that I have no problem with that statement, nor with separation of church and state. Such separation is a good thing. Remember, Jehovah’s Witnesses are neutral. We don’t seek to force society into adopting our way of life. Though we take a certain amount of heat for our door to door visitation, such visits do no damage to church-state separation. When people disagree with us, we go away. We don’t afterwards try to legislate our views into law, as do many religions.

Our relations with the state may be best summed up by 1 Tim 2:1-2

I therefore exhort, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, offerings of thanks, be made concerning all sorts of men, concerning kings and all those who are in high station; in order that we may go on leading a calm and quiet life with full godly devotion and seriousness.

We don’t interfere with them, and we hope they don’t interfere with us.

Now to our main concern: The reasons I count myself a believer are not primarily scientific. They are philosophical. Likewise, judging by what you have written, (which is all I have to go on) it is largely philosophical, not scientific reasons, that swayed you to disbelief in God. For example:

Why do some people have better eye-sight than others? Why are some people born blind or with severely malformed eyes? How do you reconcile this with an Intelligent Designer?

If God were really the designer of everything...if, as you may argue, there were an Intelligent Designer...why do we not see a single "perfect" design?

Why did God design an earth so prone to natural disasters that would affect both righteous and unrighteous alike?

Perhaps you would like to argue that God was constrained - doing the best that he could with the materials at hand...well, he's God. There's that whole omnipotent thing that doesn't jive with that explanation.

Apparently, you did not find answers to these questions in your religious life. What if you had? What effects would that have had on your “switching camps?” Would you have done it?

Ragoth said...


I am aware of the political neutrality of Jehovah's Witnesses. I wish other religions would follow that example. Or, maybe not be completely politically neutral, but just keep the two separated. Alas.

I would say that my lack of faith has a complicated history. It's a mixture of lack of evidence, philosophical reasons, and, I fully admit, some element of emotion.

What I mean by this is that science takes you so far. There is a lack of evidence for God on the same level as there is a lack of evidence for any other mythical creature. Does this mean that any such thing's existence is impossible? No, not at all, but it can lead you to a base probability statement. I find unicorns, ogres, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and God about equally improbable. "Lack of any actual evidence either way" does not lead you to a 50/50 conclusion.

Beyond that, yes, I find the God hypothesis completely unsatisfying philosophically, and not just in the argument from design, but in every such argument I've heard.

Lastly, emotionally...I go back and forth about things like an afterlife. Sometimes I think it'd be kind of nice. Other times I find the idea of eternity an absolute nightmarish hell. I think the Greeks were on to something when they stated that the gods envied humans their mortality - that it allowed for meaning in life.

Lastly, if there were convincing evidence presented to me for the existence of God, then yes, I certainly would change my stance. I'm a provisional atheist, as I think anyone has to be. I also use the term "functional atheist" at times. Strictly speaking, I have been and remain an agnostic - I do not know whether or not their is a god, but I find it very unlikely. But, I live out my life based on this probability estimate, and thus, as an atheist.

If someone could present convincing evidence, however, or if God decided to come down and prove his existence to me (and assuming I could not explain it some other way, such as hallucinations), then yes, I would certainly change my tune. It would be hard, as the evidence for the existence of a god would have to be more than the evidence and philosophical reasons against. And, I'm sorry, maybe this is my bias, but emotional appeals aren't going to sway me in this.

So, finally, yes, I could be convinced of the existence of a god. Whether or not I would worship a god is a slightly different question.

tom sheepandgoats said...

When they asked Robert Jastrow whether everlasting life would be a boon or a curse, he replied: “It would be a blessing to those who have curious minds and an endless appetite for learning. The thought that they have forever to absorb knowledge would be very comforting for them. But for others who feel they have learned all there is to learn and whose minds are closed, it would be a dreadful curse. They’d have no way to fill their time.”

That makes sense to me. You realize, I trust, that when Jehovah’s Witnesses speak of everlasting life, they are speaking of life on this earth (as we expect it to be under Kingdom rule), not some nebulous heavenly life.

Moreover, most days that “life sucks” (for us in the Western world) are those days with a preponderance of lawyers, hospitals, state inspectors, thugs and thieves, tax authorities, and so forth. If there were fewer (or none) of these things, and more of what Jastrow pointed to, would everlasting life really be such a “nightmarish hell?” I think not.

On the questions you raised:

The “evolution” model holds that life, from a chaotic start, advances towards more and more complexity, that is, it steadily improves. The model presented in the Bible is exactly the opposite: human life was established in perfection, and has degenerated since. That is why Genesis 5 presents humans living 900 years or so, later dropping (chapt 11) to 400 years give or take, Abraham about 200 years, Ps 90 the familiar 3 score and ten years. In the middle ages, what was life expectancy? 30-40 years? At that point, modern sanitation and science kicks in a bit, eventually raising expectancy to the present 80 years. But the overall trend is clear.

Those first humans, per the Genesis account, would have not died at all but for “pulling the plug” on themselves by choosing independence from God. Human lifespans are therefore a bit like what happens when you pull the plug on a fan…..the blades spin progressively slower. Plus, even before death reclaims us, all sorts of flaws and imperfections appear in our minds and bodies.

Thus the Bible presents human life degenerating, not improving. I realize this is not scientific reasoning, but perhaps you will acknowledge it is internally consistent. Many of the philosophical objections you had to God are immediately accommodated with this adjusted view. In fact, all of your questions are rather straightforward and answered without too much difficulty from the Bible’s model, but, as I will try to illustrate, they are impossible to answer based upon the understanding typical of most churches.

You acknowledged “it is a different tack than most religious groups take to argue that God is not really in control of things.” Your wording suggests you view it as if it were a marketing ploy. However, we feel that such “correct” understandings of the Bible are essential; only by means of them does the book make any sense so as to earn our trust. Think of it this way: change one of your scientific equations so that the equal sign becomes an unequal. Will that not affect subsequent conclusions? It’s not so much different with the Bible. You have to have the underlying facts straight.

Now, you mentioned an “evangelist” background. Does this include such notions as Trinity and hellfire? I couldn’t begin to argue the Bible loaded down with such baggage. The first notion makes God incomprehensible, the second downright mean. Moreover, many groups have backed away from the Genesis account regarding life so as not to be thought out of step in the age of science. But this is theologically a mistake, for it removes the logical pillar upon which everything else rests. All sorts of philosophical inconsistencies arise….in fact, with logical foundations removed and illogical doctrines superimposed, the Bible becomes a book entirely divorced from reason…a book purely of (foundationless) faith. In that case, no harm done in substituting one ploy for another, since neither really makes any sense anyway. But that is not how Jehovah’s Witnesses arrive at their beliefs, and I can only answer for our faith. As religious people go, we are not especially emotional, not more than the general run of society.

To me, gaining understanding of the Bible was a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle... seeing all the diverse pieces come logically together. Upon having that experience, one is not readily swayed by religionists saying that you’ve solved it wrong. Nor is one readily swayed by the science camp who says... yes, it may be logically put together, but it is all irrelevant. You’re not swayed too much by them, especially when they provide no answers to philosophical questions that the Bible answers handily.

Sorry this has taken me a few days. I’ve been away. Also, perhaps like you, I sometimes cobble my own posts inspired by exchanges I’ve had on other blogs. Such is true of my latest post (which mostly stems from Osaka’s comment, not yours). I have some others up my sleeve as well. Not to worry, though. I may disagree with positions, but I don’t take personal shots at anybody.

Ragoth said...


It's ironic - I come back from vacation, when I had rather limited internet access, and am on the computer less now that I have it any time I want.

I'll respond this as soon as I have a few free moments (or minutes...I find it takes time to put together a response in these debates). I also read your most recent post yesterday, and if you don't mind, I'd like to reply to that as well on your own blog. I may respond to that first, as a lot of those ideas have been percolating in my head for a while now anyway.

Just want to let you know I'll get back as soon as possible, but it will probably take a few days. I'm housing some people here until they can get some furniture back at their place, so it's also taking a lot more time to cook dinner for everyone and get them settled in. On the plus side, I have a reason to cook again, so, dinners have been delicious.

Anyway, I'll get back to you in a few days, and I'd like a shot at your most recent post, if you don't mind.


Ragoth said...


I tend to agree with Jastrow, which is why I say I go back and forth on the issue. Likewise, when I was still firmly committed to religion, my ideal "heaven" was something along the lines of an infinite library and laboratory. I think that for any scientist, that would be all that was necessary for a heaven. Well, that and access to every experimental condition they could wish for. This also assumes that you don't get full access to knowledge instantaneously after you die. That would tend to take all the fun out of it.

And yes, I realize that you mean a paradise on earth. Except for th 144,000 who will rule in heaven with Jesus, I assume.

Assuming that we could wipe out all those daily annoyances or serious problems, then yes, we could have a quite pleasant life on earth (though I'm not entirely sure we wouldn't create new problems for ourselves). In fact, that's what a lot of scientists are trying to do - eliminate diseases, feed the world, promote unity, etc. I think the difference is that most scientists are not willing to wait for someone else to make things better for us in an "afterlife," but instead want to make things as good as we can here and now and help those who will come after us.

As to your point about "evolution," I disagree strongly. This is a sort of equivocation. "Evolution" in other circumstances, and certainly before Darwin, indeed holds a progressive, improving, and "betterment" model. Evolutionary theory is not quite the same. We have witnessed increases in complexity, but radical decreases in complexity are likewise observed: i.e., the loss of some organs, parasites, etc. Sometimes this may entail additional, though different, forms of complexity - parasites often have very complicated life cycles. But a trend towards "better" or "improvement" or even "more complex" is never argued. The argument is for "more adapted towards their environment." As the environment constantly changes, what it means to be "more adapted" will likewise change. Flexibility, in fact, could be seen as one of the most adaptive traits, but it carries with it its own problems. The only thing that will certainly increase in complexity is the detailed pathways of how organisms have evolved (adapted to their environments).

If we're arguing about life expectancy, there is little evidence (outside of the Bible) that shows that humans ever lived so long. I know, you may say that I am "restricting your moves" by saying that prima facie arguments from the Bible are not allowed, but I hope you also understand that I would equally not allow someone to claim, on the authority of their holy book, that the universe was born out of a lotus flower from the belly-button of a sleeping god. I think that you, likewise, do not accept other scriptures as firm evidence from authority, so I hope you will understand my reservation.

I will say again what I said in response to your own post - internal consistency is necessary, but nowhere near satisfactory, in any argument. A conspiracy theory is internally consistent. But it lacks evidence for most of its basic premises. Thus, while you may be able to create or demonstrate an argument that accommodates the evidence in a consistent way, that's only a foot in the door. You have to support all your premises. As it stands, there has not been any evidence that we cannot explain by natural accounts. Those that we haven't figured out yet, we are working on, and on a preliminary footing, we have no reason to suspect that they will require supernatural explanations. If you have an example of something that you feel cannot be explained by natural accounts, please tell me, and we will discuss it. "How do you explain that people lived for 900 years?" doesn't do it though, unless you also want to explain how Mohammed ascended into heaven from a rock, or how an army of monkeys build a land bridge to Sri Lanka, etc. Arguing that "all those books are false, mine is true" is only begging the question - while each of them may include historical accounts, I do not accept a priori all of their fantastical stories. If you have proof that people lived for 900 years for several generations before Noah, and then we are all descended from that man and his small family in the past few thousand years, please demonstrate it.

As a side note, yes, I was raised on Trinity and hellfire. Removing these elements makes the Biblical account no more plausible to me, however. I also agree that to back down on creationism (and thus a literal Adam and Eve) utterly destroys Christian theology as it is traditionally understood. By Paul's own reasoning, it would totally destroy any Christology whatsoever. The problem, for me, is that the Biblical account is utterly in contradiction to all the evidence that we have. If you have evidence otherwise, please, again, show me. The numbers just don't work out. Likewise, the same with the Flood account, which I assume (from reading other Jehovah's Witness pamphlets) that you accept as literally true. Now, you can "miracle" a lot of things and have it all work out consistently, but I hope you also agree that this is not science, and it's utterly untestable. The point that I don't expect you to agree with me on is that if you assume the literal truth of the story, it doesn't work out by the evidence we have on hand.

You keep bringing up philosophical reasons for believing. These I can't argue against, or only in a side-longs way. If it is convincing to you that the Bible explains human behavior, then so be it. But it does not, at all to me, fit with any of the evidence we have about the history of the world. The fact that it explains some human behavior and psychology is not altogether surprising, as I likewise believe the book was written by humans. This does not mean that we cannot gain some insight from it, or respect it, or any of those things. It's just that I don't agree with its historical account and do not think that it should be treated as literal truth. I realize that to you this is completely destructive towards religious faith, and I agree, it probably is, but again, if you or any other religious person wants to claim that your scriptures contains some literal truth about the history of the world, then it should be vetted against the evidence we have and are working on. I think you would agree on this point about any other religion, as you clearly don't believe in them, and I simply ask that the same critical lens that you use against Trinitarians and other religions be turned on your own as well.

As always, I look forward to your response. Feel free to reply to this post, or if you want to move it to the new post I made today, that'd be fine too.


tom sheepandgoats said...

Jehovah's Witnesses are unique among Christian groups in that they entertain no hope of future heavenly life. Instead, they look forward to everlasting life on this earth when it is ruled over by God's Kingdom, the same Kingdom people familiarly know from the Lord's Prayer. Should we die before that Kingdom comes, our hope is to be resurrected to that paradise earth. God first put humans on earth. He didn't put them there because he wanted them somewhere else. Life on earth is not "second class." to us. It is God's original purpose for humans.

Kingdom rule over earth is not too far away, in our view, and Revelation 7:9-17 is now taking place. This passage tells of a great crowd of persons gathered from all "nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues" who would survive the "great tribulation" and live on into the "new order," life under Kingdom rule. Almost all of Jehovah's Witnesses claim to belong to this group. I do.

The Bible also speaks of a "sacred secret," (Colossians 1:26) a "secret" first made known to the early Christian congregation, that there would be some from humankind, a comparatively tiny number, who would share in this heavenly government. Their ultimate destiny would be in heaven, not on earth. Since this "secret" was made known shortly after Christ's resurrection, and there are only 144,000 of these who will serve as "kings and priests," very few of them are on earth today. Most, we maintain, have long since lived their lives and been resurrected to heavenly life.

But the foregoing is just responding to your 144,000 reference. As to the bulk of your reply, I’m not sure I know how to respond. Didn’t Osaka say somewhere that our discussion becomes a comparison of apples and oranges? There is something to that.

You have made science your final arbiter on life. I haven‘t. I don’t think I ignore it, but I have not made it the value that trumps all else. Is the world to be seen through Mr. Spock’s eyes? Or the emotional excess of Dr. McCoy? Or the balanced combining of the two by our hero James T. Kirk? I like to think I am like the latter and that today’s scientific atheists are like Mr. Spock.

There is enough common ground between the Bible and science that I think the two can reasonably coexist as is by “fudging” both sides a bit. For example, no one in our camp has any beef with “microevolution”… know, the animal husbandry, Darwin beaks, feathers and feet type, and that is far-and-away the most well-supported aspect of evolutionary theory. All the thinking behind mutations and what they can accomplish….we have no problem accepting this as the likely mechanism through which such changes within a “kind” (the unspecific Genesis word) work. Plus, perhaps you realize that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not among the religionists who insist on creation happening in 24 hour days. “Day” is an unspecific term as used in everyday life and even in the scriptures. We can live with “day” representing a very long time.

Does the Bible and science agree on all counts? By no means. But there is enough overlap and scientists are imperfect enough and revise their positions often enough that I can live with both sides, not feeling either rules out the other.

You’ve previously acknowledged there are yet many areas on which science is ignorant. There are areas scientists have ruled on that they will in time revise. And even of what they do claim to know, you can’t follow it all. And you are comfortable with that….with not knowing everything. Same here. The difference lies, not so much in the nature of what we do not know, but in how we hope to find out. The fact is, should Jastrow’s musings come true, you might have a shot through both avenues…..through what God reveals and through what unlimited experimenting and hypothesizing can uncover.

Osaka’s wording may not be your wording, but I suspect you would agree with his challenge to me (on my blog):

“If any religious person can present non-circular reasoning and scientific evidence to be examined I am sure the scientific community would be more than thrilled to take a look at it.”

To which I replied:

“This argument cuts both ways:

“If any person of science can demonstrate how our universal urge to war can be allayed, I’m sure Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than thrilled to take a look at it.

“If any person of science can demonstrate how disaster relief can be accomplished promptly and effectively, eliminating greed and profiteering, I’m sure Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than thrilled to take a look at it. (recall these two points from our initial discussion)

If any person of science can demonstrate how racial hatred can be eliminated, (such elimination is a well-known attribute of JWs) I’m sure Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than thrilled to take a look at it.

“If any person of science can supply a satisfying answer to why we grow old and die, and why there is evil and suffering, I’m sure Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than thrilled to take a look at it.

“If any person of science can provide a nurturing model for raising the next generation (marriage being of religious origin, don‘t scientists favor the “four year itch“ theory?), I’m sure Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more than thrilled to take a look at it.

“And so forth.

“I see no reason to acquiesce to scientists as the final arbiters of how we are to live. I don’t think they have earned that status.” In other words, if I’m cruising down the highway at 60mph, I’m not sure why I should be overly concerned about the scientist on the radio telling me that my car doesn’t run.

Moreover, there are various other lines of evidence which I accept but you most likely find fault with: Numerous prophesies…some a bit vague, but some quite specific…..scientific facts presented in the Bible that were otherwise unknown at the time, the candor of Bible writers…..they frequently admit, even highlight, their weaknesses….something most unusual in ancient histories, accuracy of detail…..for example Luke 3:1

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was district ruler of Galilee, but Philip his brother was district ruler of the country of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was district ruler of Abilene, in the days of chief priest Annas and of Caiaphas, God’s declaration came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Is there really any comparable detail in the holy book account of “the universe [that] was born out of a lotus flower from the belly-button of a sleeping god?” much less the “flying spaghetti monster?”

But I won’t dwell on any of these things because you will take shots at each and in the end we will only have a stalemate (or worse yet, a situation with each side declaring victory). Suffice it to say that I consider such evidence sufficient to establish the authority of the scriptures, and having done so, can accept such matters as the long life spans of Genesis without feeling credulous.

Likewise, I’m not sure I’m willing to put the time and energy into a flood discussion. I mean, it’s an entirely separate subject, and we haven’t settled the original subject yet, and it seems pretty certain that we will not. At best we may part with a certain degree of respect for each other’s positions. Look up believer arguments on some flood website and assume they are mine. That’ll do, most likely. You won’t be too far off.

I will move the discussion in a new direction, with your permission. Now, you must not think I am equivocating on my position. I’m not. I am only playing devil’s advocate (I know you don’t believe in the devil):

I am pushing 60 years of age. More than half of my life has already been lived. Probably more like two thirds. (hopefully not more than that! but you never know) Now if one anticipates living forever, (and for this argument only, the going-to-heaven-when-you-die view also qualifies) then there is strong motivation to harmonize one’s life with what is true. But if the atheist view is correct, I have perhaps three decades left. Does the same motivation to adjust one’s life to truth still hold? When my car is new, I carefully maintain it and attend to every little ding and scratch. But as the end of its useful life draws near, I find myself saying “I can live with that” for more and more conditions. Why bother with nonessential repairs? After all, it will be all be scrap in the not too distant future. Is it really so different with our own lives? If our lives consists merely of a few decades, then it can be likened to a game. You well know how in many games there are players who cheat and bluff their way from beginning to end. Who’s to say that’s not the best course in life?

For that matter, what of all the qualities desirable for humankind? How do humans overcome greed, belligerence, racial hatred, self-centeredness and so forth so as to thrive (or perhaps even just survive?) The Bible motivation for doing so is rather obvious. What is the evolutionist’s motivation? Is there one? You understand, I trust, that it is not education or science, for these are only tools to be used by humans with moral qualities. If those morals are not too good, these tools are mostly used for mischief. Only if the morals are good will the tools be used for good. Where does morality come from?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that there are not moral atheists. I know there are. But what motivation is there to be that way? We’ll all be dead soon enough anyway. What makes overcoming greed, belligerence, racism and self-centeredness inherently better, in your view? Or are they?

tom sheepandgoats said...


As I read my response, I'm not sure I made a certain point clear. Would you insert at the end of my third-from-last paragraph....

"In other words, why at this point of life, should I strive to adopt an atheist point of view even if I thought the evidence was somewhat compelling (which I don't)? Isn't it like gladly accepting a 'death row' sentence? Why do it, if I can make a reasonable case for the alternative?"


Ragoth said...


I will try to finish a response to you tonight. If I don't have it done tonight, I'll get back to you over the weekend.

Looking forward to it,


Ragoth said...

Hey Tom,

Sorry I've taken such a long time in getting back to you. I've had some friends up and am just now getting the chance to settle back into the swing of things. I'm going to try to make this as short as possible, and to respond to your post on your own blog soon.

I'm aware of at least the general level of Jehovah's Witnesses belief that you have listed here.

I disagree strongly that I have "made science the final arbiter on life." In matters of factual information - that is, if we want to know better how the world really works, then yes, I have indeed thrown in my case with science, and I will let the evidence fall where it may. And yes, I do tend to evaluate things skeptically - I don't often fall for new agey, pseudo-scientific, or purely faith-based claims. I think that this is a good thing. In my personal life, I still enjoy scary movies, even though I know that it's "just a movie" and scientifically there is nothing to worry about. I am a strong proponent of the modern evolutionary biological explanation of the origin of species and how life has diversified on earth. I am a strong opponent of applying Darwinian thinking to human social structures. Luckily, the one does not require the other. It's the same with any scientific theory. It merely tells us how the world works. It may inform us about public policy or how best we should live together, but it does not require us to adopt it. Beyond that, every attempt towards social "Darwinism" has in fact been something that we've known about for a long time - artificial breeding selection. There's nothing "Darwinian" about it.

I guess this is all to say that while I think science can inform our ethics, morals, behavior, etc., I do not think that it makes any absolute demands on them. Nor do I scientifically evaluate everything in my own life at all times. It is not a final arbiter - at the very least, I can still be an emotional person. But let us also remember, while Star Trek included a great number of rituals (including Vulcan rituals - I think the mating ones were the most violent and emotionally relevant), there was very little mention of religion throughout the series for the humans on board (which has been named as one of the most unrealistic part of the whole series). However, Gene Roddenberry was an active atheist, who quite supported science over faith. He still wrote James T. Kirk as an emotional human who was likewise very scientifically minded. I see no contradiction here.

I used to feel that the Bible and science could be reconciled, but even then I erred on the side of science. Why? Mostly because it seemed a more complete explanation about what I wanted to know. That, and the Bible tends to be extremely vague about a great deal of things. I'm extremely unsatisfied with "God spoke" such and such into existence.

As to supporting "microevolution" but not "macroevolution," this is exactly equivalent to saying that it is possible for me to walk to the kitchen to fix a drink, but it is utterly impossible for me to walk to the convenience store down the block, or across the city, to get something to drink. The mechanism is the same, the only thing that is different is timescale. "Micro" and "macro" evolution are handy designators of how long you're talking about, but there is no barrier between them - only time. Likewise, I've heard the "kind" argument before, but the problem is just as you've stated - it is terribly unspecific. Is it within a species? A genus? A family? Class? Phylum? Kingdom? Sub-species? Some different category altogether? I mean, if you want to get down to it, humans are still just primates. Primates are still mammals. Mammals are still synapsids. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and some fish are still just tetrapods. We're all multi-cellular life. We're all DNA/carbon based lifeforms.

Another point, humans, compared to some other "simpler" organisms, like say, amoebas or lungfish, have tiny genomes. Even if (and let me be clear, I am not proposing this situation whatsoever, merely as a hypothetical) we assume only "microevolution" changes to the genome - single insertions, substitutions, or deletions (or replications, etc), it would still be possible to knock down a lungfish or amoeba genome to ours.

Now, of course, the actual story is that we have some highly conserved stretches of DNA. We don't actually have that many more genes that other organisms (and quite a few less than others). It's not gene count that matters, or genome size. The genes of humans and mice are mostly identical. The real difference is how and when they are activated, and in what regions of the body.

Likewise, indeed, "yom" can mean either a literal day, an unspecified time in the future (Day of the Lord), or an unspecified length of time. But this is exactly my problem with most of the Bible - it's incredibly vague and leaves a great deal up to interpretation. Why do Jehovah's Witnesses believe that numbered "days" in the Creation account (first day, etc) are not necessarily literal days, but the 40 days and nights that it rained later in the book probably are? This comes back to a point that I have asked again and again - who gets to decide, how do they decide, and how do they know they're right? I don't think there's any standard to test by, just as there wasn't any real standard to choose between Egyptian and Roman deities aside from who had the better sword. Of course, the historical contingencies that led to some religions fading away and others coming to dominance are more complex than that, but, honestly, it does seem like so many historical contingencies - nothing that is obviously true or wrong.

I guess my main contention here is that you do indeed seem to accept, at least provisionally, what science has discovered - except perhaps in geology or biology. I'm interested in why it's just these areas that you disagree with - is it purely religious convictions?

As to your reply to Okada:

Do you feel that sociology and psychology have contributed nothing to understanding human life and behavior? We've learned quite a bit about these problems (for one, mere exposure to people of other races and ethnicities is often enough to combat racism and bigotry). The problem? Implementing these findings. Psychologists have often found that people are unwilling to follow through with their recommendations. So, I suppose the better question is, why, when we understand how to combat many of these human evils, do we not follow through with them? Perhaps part of it is peoples' basic mistrust of scientists, or their desire to go their own way. Too bad for us, I suppose.

Likewise, as to aging and dying, it is one of the most studied and perplexing fields of biology, and some advances are being made in it. I would ask you why is it that some reptiles and fish do not undergo senescence? Why are hydra biologically immortal? Did these creatures escape the worst wrath of the Fall? Does God just really love cnidarians? What's the Biblical explanation? I've likewise been disappointed by every attempt at theodicy that I've heard, including Jehovah's Witnesses accounts, but, I am interested in hearing if you have an explanation for evil and suffering. Likewise, I have to ask what you mean by "favor" in "favor the Four Year Itch"? Do you mean, "Think that's how it should be," or "think that there is good statistical evidence for it happening." If you mean the first, then I strongly disagree. If you mean the second, well, I don't think you disagree that a great number of people are unfaithful. So, what's the problem here?

If you would like to bring up said specific prophecies or scientific ideas, I'd be interested in discussing them. Likewise, while the candor of the Bible writers is sometimes notable, often it is not - such as the Genesis and Exodus accounts. These are not presented as being written by fallible human writers, but as a narrative to be taken as accurate, like most every other myth from the period or earlier.

Lastly, as to the "detail," Herodotus and Plutarch are both quite detailed in their accounts of the world around them and people in it, some quite important, some not. However, they also discuss a great deal of things which we don't have to believe at all - the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian gods, for example. By the time of his death, Alexander the Great was born of a virgin, long before Jesus. Attila the Hun was likewise heralded as such, and there are very extensive records on both of these. The Caesars were supposedly men who would become as gods when they died and were filled with divinity while on earth. The Roman Emperors were extensively written about with incredibly detailed accounts, but we do not today accept their divinity. Lastly, as to the Hindu creation myth, it is actually quite a bit more detailed than my flippant description of it - analogous to saying Genesis boils down to "God spoke over some pre-existent waters and the world popped out." Accurate, as far as it goes, but incredibly simplistic.

I can understand that you do not wish to really discuss these, or the flood narrative, and that's fine by me. As to the above, I felt that those at least required some clearing up, at least in defense of the "detail" argument.

And I'm mostly willing to move in this new direction, we'll see where it goes.

Just because you realize that you will die one day, this does not mean that life loses all its meaning. I went through that period very briefly, but it's rather simplistic and naive. In the end measure, life is actually pretty good, and intrinsically valuable. In fact, as an atheist who doesn't think I get a second shot at eternal life after I die, I have every interest in prolonging this life, and making it as pleasant as possible. To that end, I try to be as healthy as I can and try not to put myself in dangerous situations. It is also pretty clearly obvious that being pleasant to others (and being around pleasant people) is the easiest way to having a pleasing experience in life in general. Beyond that, I don't worry about divine retribution. I do worry about social and legal retribution. There are much more practical and immediate restraints that the threat of God's hand hanging over me to keep me in line, if I needed it. The simple fact of the matter is, I don't really feel any desire in my everyday life to cheat, steal, murder, etc. I don't think most people do either. Is it really only the hope of paradise or threat of divine wrath that keeps religious people in line? Is that honestly the first thing you think of when you try to decide if you should or should not do something? Or is it more of an intuitive sense that you don't even have to question? I think we have a deeply ingrained precedent for morality (even our primate cousins show some fairly advanced moral behavior - supposedly without a primate God giving them commandments). In fact, basic social interactions are found throughout the animal kingdom, and in many species, it's not the "red in tooth and claw" that we tend to believe. Often, granted, it is, but these are very different social structures.

I would argue that the Biblical motivation for overcoming racism, hatred, bigotry, etc, is not so obvious as you claim. On both sides of the Civil War, people quoted the Bible to justify their views on slavery. Religious peoples are among the biggest sources of bigotry and hatred against homosexuals and other "minority" groups. Westboro Baptist Church is quite happy to quote scripture at you all day, and indeed, in their own little way it does all make sense. Are they picking and choosing? Indeed, but I would argue that at heart, so is every religious group out there. No one follows every law commanded by God, mostly because it would conflict with what we feel is basic human decency these days (as well as quite a few laws). The point is, with some few exceptions, every human group, religious or otherwise, has come upon basically the same moral ideals - eliminate greed, corruption, belligerence, hatred, and egotism; work for the greater good, support your fellow man; etc. One of the only real differences is whether these ideals extend beyond the group or not, and in that case, many religions fail, as do many other human groups. But the major point is that the Bible is not the only book to have arrived at these ideals, nor is it the earliest. Whether or not they have been fully implemented is another question. I likewise agree that science and education are merely tools, which is why I am so mistrustful of religious groups who want to come into control of these. They have an extremely bad track record.

What's the motivation to be moral for an atheist? Well, it's certainly not that I desire paradise or an afterlife. It's not that I fear divine wrath. It's not even that I fear legal or social wrath on a conscious basis. It's just, I don't have any real desire to act immorally. When a thought crosses my mind like that, I dismiss it as a rather stupid or wrong idea - no need to reference God. I think it much more likely that people have said "God wills it" to undertake what I would consider an immoral action - stoning a child to death, torturing someone, etc.

What makes happiness good? Why do I like the tastes of fats and sugars? Why does it make me feel good to help someone in need? Why do I feel a twinge anytime I see someone harm an animal deliberately? Should I follow whatever God says? I mean, this goes back to Plato, at least: Do the gods decree something is good because it is good, or is something good because the gods decree it to be so? If I hear the voice of God in my head and it tells me to kill someone, or declare war against people, how do I know what to do? Certainly, God has done such things in the past - it isn't inconsistent with his behavior. Could it be a demon? I suppose. More likely, I could just be crazy. But, the question is, how do I know, and what is the "moral" choice at that point?

I don't think anyone honestly follows strictly to the "morals" presented in the Bible, because they are quite often horrible. So, I will ask you, as you ask me, what is your motivation to follow some of these laws and not all of them? How do you decide which to follow and which to disagree with?

I'm not asking you to become an atheist - I find that prospect unlikely in the extreme. However, the advantage, from my viewpoint, is a new lease and appreciation of this life and the relationships you have in it. It's the ability to look in wonder at the world, and realize both how terrifically small you are in relation to the cosmos and how wonderful it is that you are even alive, in place of all the possible people who could have been here, and in place of all the possibilities in which people would not be here at all. You can look at all of life and see its intimate connection - an unbroken line of descent back to the earliest self-replicating molecule. To know that molecules, put together in the appropriate ways, can form a human being, in all its complexity, with no need for a "spirit" or intelligent being designing the process - that is an awesome revelation. What's the payoff? Wonder and respect for life, in my eyes. That and the realization that if you want to experience paradise, you have to do as much as you can to make it real here and now, instead of waiting for God to fix it later. That's the brief version, anyway.

tom sheepandgoats said...


Thoughtful replies and statements from you. I haven’t tackled them all, but here are a few. (You can resubmit any that are truly important to you)

“As to supporting "microevolution" but not "macroevolution," this is exactly equivalent to saying that it is possible for me to walk to the kitchen to fix a drink, but it is utterly impossible for me to walk to the convenience store down the block, or across the city, to get something to drink.”

No. Your scale is wrong. The correct contrast is not between the kitchen and the convenience store; it is between the kitchen and Alpha Centauri. Or, one might say it’s possible to flip a coin to heads 5 times in a row. Flipping it to heads a million times in a row is another matter, regardless of the time you have at your disposal.

So it is with micro vs. macro. Changing beak, feet or feather characteristics is feasible by the evolutionary measures you have described. Developing entirely new life forms is not.

“I guess my main contention here is that you do indeed seem to accept, at least provisionally, what science has discovered - except perhaps in geology or biology. I'm interested in why it's just these areas that you disagree with - is it purely religious convictions?”

That’s not how I would phrase it, but I guess it‘s reasonably accurate. Everyone prioritizes according to different experiences, logic, and influences that they have encountered. I’ve encountered and meditated upon different things than you, that‘s all.

“Do you feel that sociology and psychology have contributed nothing to understanding human life and behavior? We've learned quite a bit about these problems (for one, mere exposure to people of other races and ethnicities is often enough to combat racism and bigotry). The problem? Implementing these findings.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have managed to implement them (re racism and bigotry) and we did it without any input from sociologists and psychologists. So…sure, I am content to let those fields thrive, but I‘m not thrilled when they pronounce judgments on our field, when it is our field that has succeeded in implementing their pie-in-the-sky dreams.

“So, I suppose the better question is, why, when we understand how to combat many of these human evils, do we not follow through with them? Perhaps part of it is peoples' basic mistrust of scientists, or their desire to go their own way.”

The answer has nothing to do with your first suggestion, but you‘ve nailed it with the second. It is not intellect that makes the difference, but as you say, “desire.” It is more a problem of “heart” than “mind.” Spiritual training addresses matters of the heart. I think the notion that science does so is very shaky.

“Is it really only the hope of paradise or threat of divine wrath that keeps religious people in line? Is that honestly the first thing you think of when you try to decide if you should or should not do something?“

No, I don’t think that’s so. It is the desire to imitate God that sets a goal for us. Created “in his image,” we try to model ourselves after qualities that he displays.

“Or is it more of an intuitive sense that you don't even have to question? I think we have a deeply ingrained precedent for morality”

I think we do, too. We call it conscience….a God-given internal guide to right and wrong. But to imagine that evolution has provided it is, I think, a great act of faith.

Explanation (in part and somewhat tongue in cheek, as are much of my writings) for evil and suffering here:

“I would argue that the Biblical motivation for overcoming racism, hatred, bigotry, etc, is not so obvious as you claim.”

To be blunt, JWs maintain that most groups follow the Bible very poorly, if at all. There are reasons for this, but that’s probably for a different post. The Biblical motivation is indeed obvious to us, but it might not appear that way to you if you look to churches in general as your guide.

“I don't think anyone honestly follows strictly to the "morals" presented in the Bible, because they are quite often horrible. So, I will ask you, as you ask me, what is your motivation to follow some of these laws and not all of them? How do you decide which to follow and which to disagree with?”

It’s a big book, and so I think there is value in having an organization in which knowledge and experience can both accumulate and be disseminated. Some things are pointedly relevant today; some things are of a far-removed context. Often there is a mix of the two.

“What's the payoff? Wonder and respect for life, in my eyes.” Okay. It’s a viewpoint matter, after all, so I guess one can hardly pronounce “right” or “wrong” verdicts. But I’m not sure why one has to whittle the prospect of everlasting life down to a few decades in order to achieve wonder and respect for life.

Sorry to be so tardy in reply. It looks like things are winding down, and that’s okay. It’s been a good run. I’ve even given you an honorable mention or two in recent posts. By all means, reply if you like, and I will keep up at our relaxed pace. But don’t feel obligated to.

And we’ve strayed far from your original post, but you may recall the statement: “However, things have, by nearly every measure, gotten better as time progresses.…” to which I replied that I could think of some measures by which they have not.

Regarding the recent financial meltdown and the so-far inability of governing bodies to contain it, I’ve just thought of another.

Ragoth said...

Hey Tom,

I'm going to attempt a brief reply here. If we really want to dig deeper on any of this, we certainly can, and if something comes to mind, I'll be sure to let you know.

To re-evaluate your re-evaluation of my comparison, I'll admit that my initial suggestion was rather simplistic. So, let me suggest this - first, I'd still say that pushing the distance to Alpha Centauri isn't really that much different. I mean, the main problem with my initial conception, and the idea of going to Alpha Centauri is that both seem to be goal-oriented. There is no teleology in the theory of evolution. The store down the street or Alpha Centauri are not goals that any species is heading towards - they are locations that are reached by a random walk that asymptotically approaches "fit" with the environment, which itself constantly changes.

Now, the coin flip model...that's a bit better. If it were just me, attempting to flip a coin on heads a million times in a row...indeed, that would take a lot of time. Perhaps beyond my lifetime. But, luckily, a species is not composed of a single individual, and creatures do reproduce. If we had several thousand people, all flipping coins once a second, and all their children flipping coins, and so on and so one, eventually (probably sooner than you'd think - there is a relatively simple equation that will give you an answer to this...I don't have time to run it right now, but I'll get back to you if you really want) someone will get heads a million times in a row. Is this because of any special skill of this individual? No. It's entirely chance.

If you really want to make this model more similar to evolution, you could impose some environmental constraints - say, everytime someone flips five tails or so, they drop out and are replaced by someone who is given a record of heads (say, a "child" of a head-flipper). We could arbitrarily increase the complexity of this model to get closer to the actual situation with evolution and the real world. But, that's the beautiful simplicity of it - genetic mutations and drift are mostly chance functions. They are weeded out by natural selection, which is certainly not a chance phenomenon, but puts constraints on better fit with the environment. The more the environment changes, in theory, the fast the pace of evolution (or those species that cannot adapt are wiped out).

Now, I think the real issue that you are arguing for is that there are barriers between "micro"- and "macro"-evolution. If you want to argue that...okay. That's fine. But the burden of proof is on you. Experimentally, both in the laboratory and in the field, speciation has been observed. Now, I understand, you, and a lot of people, would probably say "Well, they're still just birds," or "Well, they're still just reptiles." And that's very true. We have never seen a crocodile give birth to a falcon. But then again, that is not a prediction of evolution. We would not expect to see such rapid and complete changes in between generations.

Now, you say that changing of "beaks, feet, and feathers' and other such changes are acceptable in your view. These are skeletal changes, which involve direct changes in DNA. It involves complex changes in gene regulation and expression. Genetically, species of birds can be very, very different from one another. So, I'm having a hard time seeing how you accept DNA mutations and selections which can produce gene regulation, enzyme, hormone, and skeletal changes, and then also want to say that none of these changes are enough to make a small, flightless reptile with feathers and hollow bones into a small, flighted reptile with feathers and hollow bones. We separate birds into their own groups in taxonomy, but their genetic relationship with reptiles is incredibly close - they really should be in the same group. Technically, mammals are still reptiles whose scales evolved into hair.

As I said before, we're all still tetrapods, we're all still chordata, we're all still deuterostomes. The skeletal differences between mammals and reptiles, or mammals and certain groups of fish for that matter, are not terribly great. So, if you have an identifiable barrier, I will leave it to you to explain it.

As for you reservations about psychology or sociology commenting on your "field," I feel that this is a little dishonest. Jehovah's Witnesses have no problem commenting on other groups of Christians or other religions. Scientists do indeed take an outsider's viewpoint on religious groups - they do not use their language all the time, and they do not accept an insider's truth-statements at face value. But I doubt that you do much different for other groups.

Consider Pentecostals - "We are protected from snake venom by our faith in God." Or Hindus or Buddhists - "In certain festivals, we are protected from pain by the power of our faith." Do you accept these at face-value and say simply "Well, that must be it, then!" Or, instead, are you more likely to say "No, you may display some impressive abilities or pain reduction, but it not for the reasons you think."

This is the same for the historian/sociologist/anthropologist/psychologist - we say "Yes, indeed, religion is "real" in the sense that it has a lot of power over groups and is incredibly meaningful to individuals. It can construct and define a person or group's identity in meaningful ways, and people structure their lives around it. However, this does not necessarily mean that any of a person's religious beliefs are "true," in the sense that their ontological commitments must be real."

I have no doubt that you are utterly sincere when you say that you believe Jehovah's Witnesses "work" because of their faith in God. I also do not doubt the powerful orienting force that this is for you in your life, and that indeed you do structure your actions around your religious commitments and beliefs. However, I do not go so far as to say that any of your beliefs must therefore be true in their ontological commitments. You've told me basically the same thing - "yes, these fields of science may be useful and have shown some evidence, but they're wrong in that their foundational beliefs are false, despite the fact that they show evidence of working."

A brief reply to the "mind" versus "heart" matter would be simply that both emotions and rationality are products of the brain, and thus are parts of the same thing. I don't mean that as a jab - I think it's perfectly fine to distinguish emotions and intellect analytically - they are different systems...however, there is a lot of interplay between the two, and emotional states are highly influential on rational systems. Sometimes this can be a positive thing - if you're in a good mood, you're more likely to think critically about things and be more generous. However, negative emotional states (and this includes biases) can have a powerful impact on your decision making, in ways that i would often define as negative.

A more detailed response would be along these lines:

Yes, indeed, in our country we do often want to "go our own way." In some ways, that's seen across the world. There is a lot of cultural mediation on this topic, and the strength of the government to impose its will is also an important factor. By the very nature of our Constitution, the government cannot impose certain practices which could potentially be beneficial to eradicating our social problems. We have the Bill of Rights, which, yes, I do indeed think is one of the greatest summaries of civil liberties in the history of government, and this is one case in which we, by consent to the Constitution, err on the side of individuals instead of enforcing cooperation, no matter the cost.

There are social programs that we can instate at the federal, state, and local levels which could greatly help with these. I hope to see some of these in my lifetime. But let us also remember - a huge difference between "America" and "Jehovah's Witnesses" is that "America" does not have a Kingdom Hall in which everyone in a local community can join together and agree to get along within the community. In America, we agree to the Constitution (at least implicitly), but our commitments fall out into other groups. Some are strongly nationalist. Some are very committed to their state. Some to their city, or neighborhood, or family, or gang, and so on...The fact that, as Jehovah's Witnesses, you have a self-selected group that has decided to get along is not necessarily impressive to me. Most self-selected groups do indeed get along, and when they have trouble, they resolve it amongst themselves. I don't think that you'll argue that there have never been arguments within the Jehovah's Witness community. The fact that you have a strong community committed to one another is pleasant, perhaps, but I could likewise point to many other groups which stick together in similar ways.

You recode our conscience as a God-given faculty. I can understand what you're coming from, but as I mentioned above, i don't follow in your ontological commitments. I think the idea of a higher authority is a confound in this - and recent studies have shown that this is all that is necessary. A "higher authority" which observes your actions has the greatest explanatory power when explaining why people act altruistically or morally. Now, admittedly, religions have done a wonderful job of creating a higher authority which is ever-present and omniscient. It's a good way to get people to always think about someone watching over them. This doesn't mean that it's true, however. Likewise, social sanctions (rule of law/being observed by other group members) is exactly as powerful as believing in a God in terms of acting morally. I'm sure that you'll take issue with some part of this, and we can argue it if you want.

If you want to discuss your conception of evil, I'm up for it (though it will probably take me a while). Needless to say, I understand the logic of your argument, I just really disagree with it. If nothing else, I have a huge contention with the very idea of a "trial period."

As to "whittling down" everlasting life to achieve wonder, I don't think that was exactly my point, and I'm sorry if it came off that way. I'll work on a better way to put it.

I, likewise, am sorry that it's taken me a while to get back to you. I've been incredibly busy with school and work and haven't had much time to myself. Things do seem to be winding down, but I have appreciated this conversation. You're quite level-headed compared to many that I've talked with (I know you've said much the same in regards to Moristotle and "militant atheists). So, in the interest of rational and polite debate, if you ever want to discuss something, feel free to drop by the blog.

And finally, regarding the financial meltdown, yes, indeed this is a tragic situation. Should we descend again into the Bronze Age, I will be ready to agree with you. At the moment, I am still enjoying modern civilization. Then again, I've been lucky enough to keep my job and stay in school. This is not to belittle anyone who has been hurt by the financial crisis, but in the long-view, people are still quite a bit better off than they were centuries ago, in my opinion.

Anyway, shoot me a reply if you get a chance and are still interested in it.


tom sheepandgoats said...

Hi Ragoth....

Been busy lately. I just replied briefly to your last comment on my blog. and just noticed your last reply here....which I'll ponder over and probably shoot something back your way.

Ragoth said...

That sounds fine, I noticed your comment on your blog as well.

Take your time, I think we've all hit a huge workload.


tom sheepandgoats said...

Does probability/chance/permutation really work the way you say it does?

Let me illustrate by means of a brief article I read regarding bombardier beetles. (I wrote of it in more detail here.

You are also mentioned (briefly) here)

The bombardier beetle defends itself by spraying boiling, stinking liquid from its rear, sending spiders, birds and frogs running for cover. The liquid is actually boiling, it’s 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Built-in reactive chambers and release mechanism are potent enough to change speed, direction, and consistency of its toxic spray. Scientists try to learn from it, try to adapt it to various modern gadgets. “Andy McIntosh of the University of Leeds, England, says ‘Nobody had studied the beetle from a physics and engineering perspective as we did - and we didn’t appreciate how much we would learn from it.’”

If you flip a coin heads five times in a row, it does not take you twice as long to flip it ten times in a row. The time required increases exponentially, not linearly. So on micro-evolution, I can well picture the mutation/natural selection model accounting for the detail changes in finches. But it’s another thing entirely to string together enough successive mutation/selection combos to proceed from amoeba to blasting butt beetle (macro-evolution). Yes, granted, there are many different individuals who might have hosted the process. Nonetheless, the beetle must be able to trace a pathway from his butt to the first amoeba organism. Even well before that, if we’re putting God completely out of the picture. Ragoth, if you say the burden of proof is on me, I will just reverse it. I would simply feel too gullible were I to accept that the beetle mechanism comes about through accumulation of random mishaps. Isn’t it like flipping your coin to heads a million times in a row? Perhaps a billion? Time is not inexhaustible…physicists put limits upon it, as they do with the age of the planet, and given the exponential nature of a given series of mutation/combos….I doubt time itself allows for it. The infinite time/monkey/typewriter saying is not valid because the quantities we are dealing with, though very large, are far short of infinite.

Frankly, during the time I’ve blogged, I’ve come to think more and more that reason has relatively little to do with it. Instead, it is emotion and heart that dominate most disputes. I don’t mean just between you and I, but with all people. You can’t prove your model to me. I can’t prove mine to you. Yet we can both garner facts to make our respective models convincing to us. We use “our” facts to beat up the other side, but in doing so we are mostly just satisfying our own egos, I think. Ah, well, it is just for us to present matters as best we can, learn as best we can, and let God (no-God from your point of view) sort it out.

tom sheepandgoats said...

also, a fellow named Dave, an atheist, wanted me to write a post detailing reasons for belief in the Bible. (see his comment in my post New International Version and the Tetragrammaton) I sent him to this post as an example of an ongoing discussion. Maybe he'll be snooping around a little.

I also sent him this link to a prior post of mine. And upon reflection, I submit it here. It fits right in.

tom sheepandgoats said...


Here it is:

Ragoth said...

Hey Tom,

I feel like I posted my main comments on the matter of the bombardier beetle on your own blog. You note an important point - it's not an individual flipping coins, it's an entire population. An individual does not evolve, a population does. Also, the information content of a 4-letter code (represented in three-letter strings that code, ultimately, for proteins) is much greater than the information content of a coin-flip. Likewise, with sexual reproduction, you get the fun of a sort of lotto with sexual recombination - basically, to continue with the coin-flipping story, imagine a large group of people flipping strings (god I've started sounding like such a theoretical physicist..."imagine a spherical cow")

Now, to represent selection, we'll eliminate anyone who accumulates too many "tails." Let's say every time someone accumulates 20 tails, they are eliminated from the group. Now, to keep this model simple, we're going to assume that one new person is "born" for everyone who "dies." In reality, populations go through swings due to selective pressures, but, whatever, we're staying simple. Now, this new person will be produced with a record that is a random combination of two surviving members of the population. If they have more than 20 tails in their "record," they will "die" and be replaced again.

Now, let this population continue flipping coins again and again and again. Over time, the population will approach individuals with close to a million "heads," seemingly in a row. It may never actually hit that record, or only a few may, but the population as a whole will be very very close to a perfect record (let's assume that once you reach a string a million units long the string stops growing...see, this is where the metaphor really breaks down...DNA reproduction has much more complex methods of replicating and propagating itself). I know this may seem quite improbable to you, but it's actually quite simple as a mathematical operation, which model natural evolution. You can run these simulations with very small (and larger) populations on home computers today, and the same pattern emerges - when you have cross-over sexual reproduction of several traits that exist in normal distributions, combined with selective environmental pressures, these traits approach [but never ultimately reach] an optimal solution quite quickly. And this can produce "creatures" which are utterly unrecognizable to the starting population, over relatively short time periods.

One important point is that these changes are not entirely random, and selection is certainly not random...alright, i feel like I've argued this enough and gone over this enough times for my own satisfaction, so I won't belabor it anymore.

And I'm hesitant to agree with you entirely on your point about emotions. I admit emotions do play a role, and perhaps an important one, but I don't go into the post-modern camp and say that we each merely cut up the "data" into separate realms of "facts" based on our preconceptions and experiences and social context/conditioning (yeah, just totally over-simplified post modernism).

And if Dave's snooping around, well, I'll welcome him. Thanks for the referral.

As always, I hope this finds you well, and it's good to hear from you.


GetYourWordsWorth said...

This was really fun to read Ragoth and Tom!!

Was nice to see how you both endeavored to explain yourselves. Even more fun (though timely) to read Ragoth's words and realize that there are others like me who wish for brevity but continuously fail due to the desire to be understood! :-)

Hope you all are well!

Ragoth said...

Thanks for taking the time to read it all. I certainly agree that it's a constant issue where I'd love to have brevity, but find it necessary to write a really extended comment to get any sort of actual clarity.