On Attitudes Toward Evil

As I have been thinking in recent months both about different religions—but especially Christianity—and about evil in general, it strikes me suddenly that how different worldviews regard evil is deeply important. This is especially important to me now because of the stunning and sickening amounts of evidence that has emerged that many, not just a few, of our supposed "elites" have been involved in one of the very most evil of human activities, the enslavement and rape of children.

Secular Western Society

It has always been my view that evil, properly so called, is a real and horrible thing, though I did not until recently formulate any clear idea about what it was. But I knew my position was not the intellectually fashionable one, looking at most "sophisticated" modern art and culture, as well as the discourse about evil. The fashionable view seems to be that, while activities traditionally regarded as evil might be abhorrent, there is a certain degree of rebel "cool" and authenticity about them—even about destructive crime. Thus, somehow, The Godfather films, about murderous thugs, are regarded as the pinnacle of sophistication. The callousness of a film like Natural Born Killers is ignored while its edginess is celebrated. The music of criminal gangs literally celebrates crime and is regarded as the trendsetter of cool. So, surely, it is sickeningly appropriate that some of our most admired leaders in politics, science, and entertainment would be close partners and friends with Jeffrey Epstein, a child trafficker.

Of course, most of us are, or claim to be, sickened and shocked by such behavior, and if we happen to enjoy entertainment that seems to elevate evil, we say it is just fantasy. Rarely do we ask ourselves why we find depictions of evil so exciting, attractive, and sophisticated. Similarly, we tend to look at entertainment that elevates honesty and goodness as insipid, boring, and vulgar—or perhaps that is just how the entertainment that Hollywood produces turns out. Movie villains are always the interesting, complex characters; heroes are always dull and flat.

But what should we think about evil? If we put the question seriously, secular scientists and scholars assure us that evil does not really exist. Their views, though doubtless presented as the height of sophistication—because only intellectual sophistication could explain why someone might take such a bizarre stance—strike me as themselves merely naive, if not positively corrupt and dishonest. But more on that anon.

I mention the views of modern, secular Western society toward evil, because I want to compare them to some ancient and religious views of evil. I will save the Judeo-Christian tradition for last.

Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism

These ancient views embrace the notion that there are two different forces at work within the universe (and by extension within human society), one good and benign, and another evil and malevolent. Thus the view is, in general, called dualism (not of mind and body, but of good and evil as cosmic forces). The struggle between these two cosmic principles is at least part of what leads to suffering.

Now, I am not a historian or religious scholar, so I cannot speak on this with any authority, but it seems to me the key motive behind such dualism is not merely to explain the existence of suffering. It is, also, to explain the evil tendencies within us. If there is a noble struggle, it is the struggle to purify one's soul of the evil in which we are enmeshed. But the power, ultimately, is more or less balanced and not all on one side as in Christianity.

Hinduism

Hinduism predates the aforementioned religions, and it has similarly dualistic notions, but instead of there being two opposing (and specifically personified) forces, it is typically said that there are good and evil in all of the Hindu deities and in all of us, although the gods are generally held to be good and there are supposed to be evil demons opposed to them. The admixture of evil, or bad karma (behavior), in human life is why one of the key requirements of dharma (law) was to live unselfishly and to ritually purify ourselves (not unlike in the Old Testament Jewish tradition).

Buddhism

Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism's stance on evil is relatively simple: while it is crucial that we avoid bad karma, as with Hinduism, the truly enlightened view, which we will have if we achieve nirvana, is the elimination of ego and the illusions of the world. As with Hinduism, this is inherently complex and confusing. But the idea seems to be that evil exists and matters for purposes of weighing up your karma, but it does not really exist if you have achieved nirvana. Since nirvana is a higher, more enlightened state, it seems that Buddhists hold that evil does not really, in fact, exist.

For both Hinduism and Buddism, it is because we are inevitably mixed up with evil throughout our lives that we end up being reincarnated instead of being liberated.

The New Age Movement

While the so-called New Age movement is very diverse in outlook and it is hard to generalize accurately, one of the most common strands one finds in it is gnostic dualism—the rejection of an all-good, monotheistic divinity—via "theosophy." But unlike ancient dualists, New Agers believe that good and evil, though they appear to be at odds, do not really exist, because they are subjective creations of the human spirit. In the New Age of Aquarius, such old ideas will pass away as we all attain some sort of enlightenment, possibly to realize that we are all part of a single universal soul or spirit.

There is something seriously wrong about the notion that evil does not exist because it is a mere construct of unenlightened people; that is a positively pernicious idea that only Buddhism avows. Again, this is not my area of study and so I am only guessing, but the notion that evil seems to be so only due to an unenlightened perspective is not apt to be comforting, in the long run, to those who have suffered from monstrous human evil. Indeed, this strikes me as the sort of doctrine that abusive cults might use to blind their followers to the injustice done in the name of "enlightenment."

The Judeo-Christian Tradition and its Difference

While cognate ethical concepts are to be found across all or most religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition truly stands out in one particular: there is, in fact, one thing in the universe that is utterly pure and holy, namely God, and we fall short of God's purity, which is why it is essential that we be redeemed.

While Jews and Christians traditionally believe in demons, who can be one cause of evil, we fallible humans do not need their help. Evil lives in us due to "original sin," which can be understood as the doctrine simply that we, all of us, inevitably do choose to do something sinful before too long. In this this realistic moral assessment of human fallibility, Judaism and Christianity are much the same as most other religions.

Again, where this tradition differs, however, is in the notion that above us there is an utterly good God. This God does indeed desire for us to live humbly, fairly, and compassionately; most religions are concerned for us to do that. But the God of the Bible (in both testaments) in addition says that the only way we can have a chance at a life made holy is not through any sort of "enlightenment" in the next world, not through not by fighting off opposing forces by which we are inevitably contaminated, not by being joined to a world soul, but—while remaining a separate individual in this world—through the redeeming grace of God. That means that God basically forgives your sins, but only if you have subjected your sinful will to his. God is willing to as it were wipe your sins clean if you are sincerely willing to be made an agent of his (pure, all-loving) will.

Now here's the question: Is the notion of "saving grace," as I have quickly and roughly explained it, a difference that might actually matter?

I think so. All of these other religions have human beings mixed in with evil forces which they cannot properly fight; ultimately, in an enlightened state, the evil on Earth is held not to exist, or not to matter. That seems to imply that it is a matter of perspective—as certain New Agers put it most straightforwardly—that there is, in fact, truly evil in the world.

The Judeo-Christian view is that evil certainly does exist and it absolutely does matter. It is not obviated by a shift in perspective according to which we are one with the universe. We remain individuals throughout. We must, quite individually, take responsibility for our evil, period. But with the help of God, i.e., if we (again individually) enter into a certain kind of relationship with God, then our evil is forgiven or redeemed.

Secular Western Society Redux

If you now want to review what I said about the cynical views of secular Western society toward evil, you will find they have more in common with non-Christian religions than with Christianity. Like dualistic views, Hinduism, and New Age philosophies, we live in an inevitably messy world and are thrown upon our own resources, at least in this world. But, again like Buddhism and New Age philosophies, evil does not really exist according to a more enlightened (scientific, scholarly) views.

What do you think? What have I missed?


Why I Have Not Been a Christian, and Why That Might Change

A Personal History of My Nonbelief

I think I lost the faith I was raised in (Lutheran) when I was 16, a few years after the family stopped going regularly to church. That was when I first started studying philosophy more seriously. To be specific, I stopped being Christian because I stopped believing in God.

A methodological skeptic

I had no particularly special reason to reject belief in God, back then; it was just heaved overboard with virtually all my deepest beliefs when I went through a process of systematic doubt, one not unlike Descartes'. Before I had read Descartes, I decided that it was extremely important that I have the Truth, with a capital T, in all its depth and complexity. So I decided that the only way to arrive at that would be to systematically study philosophy and to begin by ejecting all my beliefs, a stance called methodological skepticism. The belief in God was, of course, one of these, although I think I had already started to doubt a year or two before the philosophy bug bit me.

The reason I desperately wanted the Truth and went through what was an intellectually and even to some extent emotionally wrenching period for some years, in my late teens, is that I had come to understand that the truth about how to live and how to think about the world was actually extremely important. One example I gave myself was some people I knew who had gotten deeply into drugs. I knew (because they told me) that they thought drugs were really cool, that they could expand your consciousness, man. But I watched as several of those people descended into what looked to me like a brain-dead stupor and even crime. It occurred to me that their former beliefs about drugs turned out to be not just false, but quite dangerously false. I then extrapolated from that example to many other life situations. In this way I clued myself in to an idea that I think many adults never do learn—that errors in our thinking that have consequential impact on our lives tend to be systematic and deep. They tend to be about important, broad matters, often aptly described as "philosophical" even if a person knows nothing about philosophy.

Veritas

This is not to say I had no thoughts whatsoever about proving the existence of God. It was obvious enough that belief in the existence of God was, to be sure, one of those extremely consequential beliefs, with systematic, deep impact on our lives—enabling, as it does, an acceptance of various kinds of (theistic) religion and everything that entails. But none of the arguments I encountered seemed adequate. For example, I seem to remember criticizing the cosmological argument, that the universe must have had a beginning and that there must be some explanation of that beginning that was outside of time. Well, doesn't that mean there might have to be some explanation of this entity that exists outside of time? What does it mean, anyway, to exist outside of time? Sounded like potential nonsense, and I did not want to accept anything that I did not quite clearly understand. And perhaps the universe always has existed and that there was indeed a cause of the Big Bang in some unknowable state prior to it.

My formal study of philosophy in college and then grad school (lasting from 1986 until 2000) did not change my skepticism. I remember a student at Ohio State coming up to me around 1995 and asking what my response to the fine-tuning argument was, and I had to concede that I didn't have a response off hand, and that it was certainly among one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God. In fact, I was much struck by this fact, at the time, and it made me wonder if perhaps I was not giving theism short shrift after all. Later on, in 2003-5, I taught philosophy of religion a few times at Ohio State, and learned about the arguments in more depth. I was able to explain the arguments both for and against the existence of God with enough plausibility that the class was evenly divided on the question, at the end of the term, of whether I myself was a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. I never did tell them that I was an agnostic, in fact.

Might exist

How I Might Become a Christian

It is 2020. Has anything changed? Well, yes. I find myself taking theism in general and Christianity in particular much more seriously these days. I notice, of course, that this runs directly counter to my old methodological skepticism, which has not really changed, in general. So let me explain a few things I now believe about Christianity, and why I might make an exception to my skepticism for it.

The first thing I want to point out is that, now that I am older and more experienced, the dangers of false belief—i.e., the moral hazards to me, personally—do not seem to be nearly as pronounced as they might have been when I was younger and relatively naive. My experience of life means that, even if I do accept something quite incorrect, I am less likely to get involved in something life-ruining at this stage in my life.

Was He a zealot?

Besides, in the case of Christianity, decades of experience have brought no great and deep insights into anything that I would call dangers associated with Christian religious practice. This isn't to say zealotry and radicalism don't exist, which of course they do; it is just that I know that I am very unlikely to get involved with them. This is true of the most sincere believers I know. They are, quite simply, extremely pleasant people to be around, and they are, far from being crazy, some of the most sane and grounded people I know. It is also quite plausible that it is their faith that has grounded them. They take morality seriously, as something they should act on. They understand and live by the notion of Christian humility and charity, the combination of which make them perfectly docile.

Meanwhile, the more I have learned about the psychology and practices of both atheism and left-wing thinking, generally speaking, the more I am forced to admit that no small amount of my own nonbelief might have been rooted in not just general skepticism but also in propaganda. In short, modern Western society, especially in academic and intellectual circles, is deeply hostile to Christianity, so that it simply has not been given a fair shake. I don't just mean that Christians have been made to look like bigoted fools—though indeed they have been so slandered—I mean the best side of the religion has been systematically hidden. It has not been shown to the best advantage.

I'd like to read a few books like this

In practice, this has meant that I have not been exposed to the best versions of the arguments for God and Christianity, I have not really understood the Bible (and also did not grasp that there was something quite interesting to understand), and I have been largely ignorant of the details of Christian apologetics. In a society more sympathetic to Christianity, those possessed of the more compelling arguments for God would receive a more frequent hearing, I would have studied the Bible properly at some point (I am reading it all the way through for the first time now), and I would be more thoroughly familiar with apologetics as its elements would be both commonly studied and "in the air."

I am not ready to call myself a Christian because I am not ready to declare and defend a belief in God. But, privately and publicly, I have been re-examining many of the, to me quite familiar, arguments for the existence of God, and I have come to a new perspective on several of them.

Reflections on Philosophy of Religion

Any one argument for the existence of God is not particularly persuasive, but taken together, they are more so. If you take the various specific conclusions of specific arguments as data, then "A personal God with whom it is possible to have a personal relationship" becomes an explanation of the set of them, and thus the conclusion of an argument to the best explanation (also called an abductive argument). In other words:

  1. Probably, there is something outside of space and time that explains why there is something rather than nothing.
  2. Natural laws and constants seem fine-tuned for the existence of matter and the rise of life.
  3. We have experience only of minds producing such timeless or abstract things as natural laws and constants.
  4. The only explanation we seem to be able to come up with for why there are these natural laws and constants is that they are aimed at, or have a purpose or function of, the origin of the universe and ultimately of the life we see around us.
  5. Any such purpose would seem to be benevolent and to suggest rules for us, insofar as it allows us to live well, if we live in accordance with our nature and circumstances on earth.

I hear he had some arguments for God

Individually, conclusions like 1-5 look relatively weak, but they are, nevertheless, in need of some explanation or response. (Perhaps I could add to this list.) We can respond critically to each of them, indeed, which is what I have been doing for decades. But an idea I never have really taken seriously, until quite recently, is that we can explain them all together by reference to an eternal, non-extended mind-like entity, originating not only the universe but the laws according to which it runs, which entity has purposes and even benevolence toward life. Thus all of the various "arguments for the existence of God," or several of them anyway, become so much data, or explananda, for a single overarching argument to the best explanation, the explanans being the ordinary notion of a personal God.

I'm not sure precisely what to make of this argument—not that I haven't had thoughts about that. I might elaborate those thoughts later.

Said he believed anyway, go figure

Anyway, to get from there to Christianity, it is necessary to move well beyond what philosophers call "natural religion," i.e., conclusions you can arrive at without any "revealed religion." Why should the God of the Bible (called variously Yahweh/Jehovah, the LORD, and Jesus) be identified with the entity posited as an explanation of 1-5? I'm working on an answer to that as well. It's not simple.

For one thing, it requires that one grapple with the idea of the soul or spirit, of a mental entity independent of any body. While I have always thought it to be beyond doubt that there are mental experiences and hence minds in some sense, the notion of a mind independent of any body (so, a soul) has always seemed puzzling to me. Frankly, one of the stronger arguments for souls is near-death experiences, a reported phenomenon I have never been able to rule out.

But this would mean I would have to re-evaluate the physicalism I have long adhered to, when it comes to philosophy of mind. I have thought that the mind is a property of the body, and the thing that makes it seem to be so completely different from anything material is quite the same as what makes the problem of universals so puzzling: what are properties, anyway? I'm not quite sure I can see my way clear to abandoning that rather elegant solution. But I can admit that, even if (as Hume emphasizes) I cannot introspect a self independent of any passing thoughts or feelings, I do seem to have a sense of a self. I always thought of that as being my body (so that my thoughts are properties occurring to me, a body). But I suppose now that there is something rather absurd about that suggestion. I mean, look, when I say that I'm happy or sad, thoughtful or confused, virtuous or weak, am I referring to my body (such as my brain)? Surely what I mean—and this is an important point, since the whole argument turns on what I am introspecting—is something quite different from my body. Which part of my body is happy? My mouth, which smiles? No. My head? Don't be silly. My entire body without any differentiation? That does not make sense. My brain? That seems more plausible, but I'm not thinking about my brain, surely, when I say I am happy. No, it's my self I mean, which is something I have a definite sense of and which is different both from my body and from any particular idea or feeling I have.

Well, it's possible.

This probably doesn't quite entail that I have a soul, much less that I have an immortal soul. Anyway, I'll leave that there for now.

In any case, if I am going to take all of these things seriously, and consider embracing a belief in God, let alone in Christianity, then I admit that I would have to abandon my methodological skepticism. And I am not really sure I want to do that, as it seems to me it has served me well.


How I'm Reading the Bible in 90 Days

The Bible is easily the most influential book of Western literature. If you haven't read any part of it at all, you aren't educated, period. But, for that matter, if you haven't read it all the way through, then again you still have a massive hole in your education. That's what I told myself last month, deciding once and for all to fill in that hole.

I guess I'm still an agnostic, but let's just say I'm newly curious. I might explain why later on, but for now suffice it to say that for many years I was not particularly curious about the possible truth of monotheism or Christianity in particular—and now I am.

So last month I decided to start reading the Bible all the way through. While I had read quite a bit of it when I was a kid, then a chunk (25%?) again to my boys over the last decade as part of their homeschooling, I never did read the entire thing cover to cover. Maybe more importantly, I never really did understand it. Now that I am reading it, I am understanding Christian (and Jewish) theology much better than I used to.

Even with great care, the big problem about reading the Bible is understanding it, because it is a difficult text. I don't care if you are super-smart and have read lots of difficult texts; if you haven't read the Bible in particular, then you won't understand it without a lot of help, period.

For such a truly ancient book, the Bible is actually quite an amazing piece of literature, history, theology, and philosophy, if you didn't know. Not for nothing has it dominated and shaped Western civilization. Not for nothing did most the greatest minds of Western civilization (most philosophers other great minds such as Sir Isaac Newton) admired it for millennia. It may be confusing and confounding, but it is not stupid. It makes a lot more sense and is much more consistent than many atheists and agnostics believe. I am not declaring here that it is the Truth, but I am declaring that it is far more coherent and intelligent—again, properly understood—than many people in our modern, secular culture know. They think it's stupid; the reason they think so is that they don't understand it. Period. The significance of the Bible text is complex, layered, and deep. But you can't understand that significance without reading it, studying it, and getting help (see below) with your study.

As I first post this, I've done 30 days of my Bible-in-90-days plan, and I've been clued in to some modern discoveries, ideas, and tricks for doing this. I thought I'd share them, if for no other reason than to memorialize this for myself in case I want to do it again sometime:

  • You don't have to use a printed book to read the Bible. I'm using several apps concurrently. This is lighter, easier, and comes with audio and multimedia built in.
  • Top Bible apps? I have reviewed a lot of Bible apps fairly closely. At present (this could easily change), there are five stand-outs, all iPhone apps since I don't use Android: YouVersion's Bible app, Tecarta Bible, Bible Hub, Logos, and BLB (Blue Letter). None of these is perfect (they should contact me and I'll tell them how to improve). What do these excel at?
    • YouVersion's "Bible" app: The plethora of great reading plans (see below), the audio versions, and good but not perfect UX (design/ease of use), especially when it comes to switching between translations. Unfortunately, no commentaries available.
    • Tecarta Bible: Excellent (still not absolutely perfect) UX, good audio versions, free built-in commentaries. You might want to buy a commentary, and if so, I'd recommend doing it through this one because of the design (and they have dozens available, pretty cheaply too).
      Note: As reading hubs, the above two are the best I've found so far.
    • Bible Hub: While the design (it's an app wrapper for a website) might be off-putting, they've got massive numbers of free commentaries that have become my go-to place for second opinions. The amount of free study/scholarly resources packed onto the website is amazing and as far as I can tell, superior to any other app's by far. Just for example, check out this array of free commentaries on one Bible verse. So, that's in the app. If only they would improve their appalling UX...
      Note: The above three are the ones I've been using on a daily basis for the last two weeks or so.
    • Logos: Lots of free resources, particularly the Faithlife Study Bible and online dictionary. The UX is "clever" but actually clunky, so I don't use it much; I can see how some might like it. Especially good for word study and serious Bible scholarship.
    • BLB (Blue Letter): tap a version, get a bunch of resources including, again, a bunch of commentaries. Bible Hub is probably better. Good for word study.
    • So in general, I am currently using YouVersion for the reading plan, actual reading, and audio; Tecarta Bible as my "go-to" commentary; and others for backup commentaries. I also use a Bible dictionary app and a backup Bible atlas map when the commentaries fail me.
  • Here, let me try. If anyone reading this wants to pay me to plan out an open source, collaborative Bible study app from the ground up, I am willing to do so for a fee (gotta eat). If well-coded and my UX/design recommendations were followed, it suspect would blow all others out of the water. Gee, that doesn't sound like Christian humility, does it? Well, let's just say I find these apps frustrating, as useful as they are, and that it is easy for me to imagine how to improve them by using the best ideas from all.
  • Listen to an audio version while you read. Maybe this is a matter of taste, but I find that if the text is coming in through the ears as well as the eyes, I'm able to focus and understand better. But be sure you pick a decent audio version. There are a lot of clunkers, it seems to me. A lot of "dramatizations" in which the voice actors leave much to be desired. I ended up preferring the deep British voice (free) that goes with the KJV in the YouVersion. No nonsense, no strenuous attempt to interpret the text or "do voices."
  • Play with app reading settings. Your overall experience may be changed significantly, maybe even profoundly, by changing any one of these variables in your app, so play around with these:
    • Bible version/translation: KJV for literality and purism, NASB for (maybe) scholarly accuracy, ERV ("Easy-to-Read Version") for ease of reading, etc.
    • Go-to reading app. You might prefer one I haven't listed. Go with the one that's easiest for you to use.
    • Go-to commentary. Do try several. Some are free, and some other feature-rich ones are quite cheap (less than $10) if you purchase through the app.
    • Go-to sets of reference (maps and Bible dictionary). Super important if you actually want to understand what's going on, which you should, because your commentaries won't always answer your questions properly. Keep trying until you get a set of reference materials that always answer your questions satisfactorily.
    • The speaking voice. I keep coming back to that deep-voiced British guy after trying out others. Frankly, I can't stand the ones who lamely try to act out parts and get them totally wrong.
    • Reading plan, if you use one, which I recommend (see below).
    • Font style, font size, and background (white or black). Yeah, those things make a difference too.
  • Making sense, important. But back to strategies I'm following. In general, do make a real effort to understand the hard vocabulary as well as the person, tribe, and placenames. If you don't, then yeah, it's going to be merely puzzling and look like ancient nonsense to you. If you do, a lot of things start falling into place. Individually it may not matter whether Og or Abimelech was a king, priest, or general, or whether he came from came from Shechem, Moab, or Bashan, but attention to the full set of these details will help the whole to come together much more coherently.
  • Translation switching: for vocabulary. Pick a literal translation (I use the KJV) and stick with it. This can be harder to read but it will get you closer to the original thoughts than versions that are basically just rewritings. I gathered from a few different reliable sources that Bible scholars also like the NASB (North American Standard Bible). Still, I look at other, easier versions when you have trouble with the actual vocabulary of a verse (YouVersion's Bible app is good for this: just tap on a verse, then tap "Compare"). This can be faster than consulting a commentary, if your issue is just about vocabulary.
  • Study Bible: for proper nouns. While switching back and forth between versions can help you puzzle out some archaic vocabulary, the person, tribe, and placenames require other kinds of resources to make sense of. The most efficient way to make sense of this is to use a study Bible (that's what I do, anyway), especially one that comes with many detailed maps integrated just where they are needed (ESV Study Bible is what I use in no small part for the maps). But no study Bible seems to be complete, so the more the better. A Bible dictionary/encyclopedia will often help answer more general questions the commentaries don't cover (like "Who was Abimelech again?").
  • Intros: background for theology, culture, history, archaeology, etc. If you're not familiar with the Good Book, you can't just read the thing straight through. Especially if it's your first time reading the Bible, you definitely will not understand it if you don't have the assistance of not just commentaries, but also introductions or lectures. Book introductions (e.g., an introduction to the book of Genesis) or video lectures (which cover similar information) are essential to understanding the theology of the Bible above all, which is kind of the whole point, but also the narrative structure, which is important if you want to make sense of what you're reading. I've been reading my study Bible's text introductions sometimes, and always also watching short YouTube videos.
  • Study the general concepts. Sometimes you'll notice certain concepts coming up again and again without much introduction or explanation, things like covenant, sacrifice, various angelic beings, redemption, forgiveness, etc. When you come across these and you really have no idea what they really mean, look them up and read several paragraphs about them, at least. If you don't have at least some rough understanding of those (and quite a few other) concepts it is absolutely certain that you will not understand the Bible. Many of those concepts are very unfamiliar to modern, largely amoral, secular minds, and require special explanation.
  • Reading the Bible in 90 days is doable and is a good idea. There are lots of "reading plans" built into several Bible apps, including the top two listed above. Again, YouVersion's Bible app has the biggest selection that I found and their reading plan feature is very well designed. Now, most whole-Bible reading plans are for 365 days, but that struck me as being too slow. For one thing, as with any body of knowledge (think especially of foreign languages), the more you jam it all in together in a relatively short space of time, the more mental connections you will make and the better understanding you will have. So I experimentally tried out the 90 day plan, and worked my way up to doing all of a day's work in one day. It actually requires something like 60-90 minutes per day—not really that much. This includes consulting resources.
  • On "The Bible Project." So a seminary professor and a writer got together with a team of dozens to produce some quite well-made and opinionated, but extremely informative videos about not just every book of the Bible, but how to read it and various Biblical concepts. These videos are part of a daily orienting "devotional" that goes along with the reading plan I chose. I'm not 100% sure I trust the theology of these videos (er, so do they really think the seraphim are flying snakes?), but they sure are handy in how they encapsulate a lot of information briefly. I'm checking out other video series as well, anyway.
  • Do searches on critical questions. Naturally, if you're the least bit curious, you'll have hard and critical questions. Why does God seem to be so, um, harsh in the Old Testament? What really do the Israelites have to atone for? What's the point of all the sacrifices? Is there any real reason to take the history of the Gospel story seriously? Etc. Use your search engine of choice to look up the answers. You might or might not be convinced by the answers (I'm afraid I'm not, in some cases), but if you don't know how serious committed believers answer such questions—and especially if you assume that they have no answers to such questions, because they're not smart enough to think of the questions or take them seriously—then again, I guarantee you simply won't understand what's going on when you read the Bible.
  • Do not zone out and let the words wash over you. Look, maybe you don't need to understand everything in the greatest detail, as a serious scholar does, but if you let a verse pass you by and you can say to yourself, "Wait, what did I just read, and what did it mean?" and you don't know, then you're not really reading. You're sort of pretending to read. Don't do that. If you let whole sections, chapters, or books go past you when you're on autopilot, I guarantee you'll miss something important. The only time when you can safely skip something is when you're going through "the begats," the repetitive details of sacrificing (but going through one of the repetitions seems necessary), the word descriptions of boundaries of the territories of the twelve tribes, and other such things that are best regarded as reference information inserted into what is otherwise a narrative.
  • I walk and read. I happen to pace through my whole house as I read, getting my hourly walking minutes in (something I do for health) and my reading time in. By the end of the day I've finished my day's reading. If not, I do another half-hour's reading after the kids are in bed, no problem.

There are of course many other things I am not (or, not much) but could be doing and that at a future date I might recommend: Bible study groups, both online and in face-to-face; getting help from an actual human being (always a good idea); doing a course on the whole Bible concurrently with reading (something I started on The Great Courses Plus, since we have a subscription, but found was too much of a commitment to do along with 60-90 minutes of daily reading).

Anyway, there you have a catalog of strategies I've followed the last few weeks. Since I'm far from being an expert on any of these subjects, I submit these just as ideas, and maybe more experienced people will be able to give me more ideas as well.


A Theory of Evil

First posted Aug. 16, 2019. Revised and reposted Nov. 4. Good to read alongside "Why Be Moral."

For a long time, the nature of evil eluded me. But dark contemplation of the Jeffrey Epstein case and of the very existence of pedophile rings has clarified the nature of evil for me. Here, then, is a brief and provisional theory.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. I will explain what I mean by this, but first let me clarify what, on this theory, evil is not.

One personification of evil: Jeffery Epstein

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. Epstein himself richly deserves our contempt. But evil is something more far-reaching: it is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.

Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes might claim to "hate everybody," and they are very much distrusting, but they aren't necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they're just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They have ideals that we fall far short of, and it is actually their unyielding principles that make them misanthropes. They are impressed with the idea that we are all sinners, so they have not given up the idea of sin. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Distrust and disappointment are not evil at all.

Quite a good book

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil—i.e., understanding the very idea of contempt for the humanity of some others—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that anyone has such contempt. I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers' charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn't like. I have become increasingly impressed, over the years, by the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one's fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admired was Dostoyevsky's Idiot, Prince Myshkin; his trusting nature, his unwillingness to accept the existence of evil, was his problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.

Kant

An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian would say they treat others as mere means to their selfish ends, not as ends in themselves. That formulation is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist in real life, not just in horror stories.

With that long preamble finished, let me now explain what I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of some disagreeable human feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee, but it might be due only to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that might only be contempt for ugliness and nerdiness.

However nasty they can be, I don't propose to call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target's humanity.

Not quite evil

So, what is that? I add "human life" as a clue: I mean contempt for the very life or existence of a person, not just for perceived weaknesses, faults, sins, or mistakes. This could entail careless disregard for a person's mind or body, or both; it could entail active desire to harm without regard to ultimate consequences. Certainly this comes in degrees. Perhaps a bully who relentlessly teases is on the road to something like evil, if over time it becomes clear that the bully thinks of the person as merely a plaything for pleasurable torture. But most bullies have some regard for their victims: killing, for example, is out of the question. An accidental killing would inspire deep guilt in most of the world's bullies, who are merely bad, not evil. Lack of a sense of guilt indicates positive evil.

But clearly, evil is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of evil because there are degrees not just in the scope of one's contempt for humanity (as I will explain shortly), but also in the amount or strength of one's contempt.

I take the latter to be a truism: some people are merely bad, some are inconsistently evil (for example, reformed), and some are "pieces of work." The concept of a "piece of work" has long interested me. Perhaps it can be understood as a person who consistently has a mild amount of contempt for the interests of those who surround him, but who hides this contempt well. In any event, bad sorts have contempt for the basic humanity of others, contempt that waxes and wanes with their moods, their society, substances imbibed, and even their philosophy or religion.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.

How should we understand the other key term, "contempt"? A brief gloss is "considering someone to be inferior or worthless." It is typically regarded as an emotion, but there is a distinguishable attitude of contempt as well, one that could be cold and unfeeling, insofar as it merely involves a low evaluation of others. The attitude of contempt would be the contemplation of another person as being unimportant. Someone who regards some others with "nothing but contempt" will not credit them with rights, interests, or consideration typically accorded to (respected) peers.

But contempt for the humanity of others is a special sort of contempt. Note that we sometimes speak of dignity as a sort of "baseline value" that people have, in virtue simply of their being human. Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Root of all evil?

Evil is essentially dehumanization. If love of money is the root of all evil, that would be because it reduces human beings to commodities—which is to dehumanize them.

So far I have omitted to mention the varying scope, or target, of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape.

If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond a righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which is sometimes regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.

"I am a man."

Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect as a peer to positive desire to harm or exterminate some dehumanized vermin.

War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one's enemy. By contrast, noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder: Is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

Child rapists would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

Jimmy Savile—a child rapist, pure evil, was knighted and allowed to thrive for decades by powerful people. Ask why.

One very broad possible scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn't find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. "After birth" abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.

One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.

One of the original anti-natalists, Théophile de Giraud

Now, let me be fair: I don't claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition?

My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don't start taking your contempt for human life to heart.

I accuse no one of evil of the broadest possible scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history's worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.

Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos, The Monster of Génova, admitted to rape, torture, and murder of 138 children and teenagers

So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and child rape) but with some incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for "extremely bad." That's not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature of contempt for humanity.

The existence of evil is simply hard for some people to accept, and that is precisely because they can't imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only after confronting the increasing evidence from this case from my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was really able to believe it.

A modern impulse, which looks naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. Old-fashioned ideas of evil strike "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically "understand" evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the unambiguous attitudes of specific, real people.

I don't recommend it

This modern notion that the concept of evil is somehow insensitive is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently. To deny that evil exists is to make it easier to be evil.

Indeed, in the last few generations—since in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to explain why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.

This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.

If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. A good first step to stopping it is to re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.

I leave you with a related thought.

What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.

Ary Scheffer, The Temptation of Christ

If so, then the love for God may be understood as a perfectly natural love of the supremely creative force in the universe. For what could be greater than the creator of the universe, and what could be more loveable? And then it certainly makes sense that they would regard Satan as a force most worthy of our hatred and condemnation, since Satan is held to be an essentially destructive entity, the one most contemptuous of human life as such.


On the clash of civilizations

There is a global conflict underway. A good way to understand it is by looking at the different interests that are coming into conflict. And a good place to begin is, of course, with:

The immigrants. People from the “global south” are immigrating north, inspired by the images of prosperity they see on television and the Internet and drawn by ever easier and cheaper transportation and lax immigration policies. In some cases, they are actually escaping real oppression. In most, however, they are merely running from poor, backward, relatively lawless, and restrictive systems. In any case, there is certainly mass immigration, mostly northward.

The conservatives. Conservatives view the demographic and cultural changes that this mass immigration brings with alarm. They have many different concerns:

  • If demographic trends continue, it is easy to see how Christianity (or more precisely a slightly Christian secularism) might well be replaced in Europe by Islam within a few generations.
  • Already, the presence of Islam in Europe is changing some legal processes, and Sharia law could well be instituted in some places before that much longer, if the Muslim population continues to grow.
  • In the United States, immigration from the global south means more Democratic voters and more enthusiasm for socialism. Conservatives don't like that.
  • In general, Western civilization (religion, languages, tastes, mores), maybe especially in Europe, are weakened as non-Westerners move in.
  • In Europe, places that have been largely free of crime for generations are suddenly dangerous. In America, a talking point (I'm not sure how well supported it is by statistics) is that there is more crime if we have more illegal immigrants.
  • And yes, for some there is surely a racial element to their concern: they don't want Europe, or America, to become less white.

The nationalists. I make a separate category for the Japanese, Hungarians, and others who are broadly opposed to immigration, period. They may be distinguished from Western conservatives who are often perfectly happy with a fair bit of immigration, just not unregulated, indiscriminate, and too much immigration. The Japanese, Hungarians, and quite a few others simply don't want to change the character of their societies, as immigration might well do. They look at the effects of immigration on Europe and America and say, "No thank you."

The progressives. On the other side, there are many progressives and liberals, as well as many libertarians, who essentially want there to be open borders. As with progressives' demands for censorship, their increasing moral fervor for open borders is evident, but they don't often want to admit it in so many words. But the reasons for the stance are clear:

  • These are disadvantaged brown people who need our help. Why not give it to them? To exclude them from sharing in our prosperity is racist.
  • Indeed, the conservative position is easily dismissed as racist, which by contrast gives progressivism a brighter moral luster. (That isn't an argument progressives make, but it certainly seems to inspire them.)
  • We can expect greater support for socialist, globalist projects from immigrants, who are more left-leaning. We can do more for them, and they will be grateful to and supportive of our programs.
  • If the "Western" or "white" character of European and American civilization are in decline, let it decline. If there are people reproducing more, who can support social programs arriving from other places, that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

The elites. Closely overlapping with, but distinguishable from, the rank-and-file progressive viewpoint is what I will call the elite viewpoint. Their concerns are perhaps hidden and cynical but no less real and influential:

  • We need cheap laborers and "guest workers." These immigrants do jobs our own people are not willing to do. Few will actually admit to thinking so, but a view aptly described "elitist" is that society actually needs an underclass and European and American societies need to replenish theirs.
  • Immigration is shaping into a massive left-right fight, and that's a good thing—it justifies concentrating power in the hands of the more enlightened power centers of Brussels and Washington, D.C., as well as justifying the seizure of new powers that, formerly, liberals would never have agreed to (such as control of speech and mass surveillance).

This conflict has come to a head recently—why? It seems to be a combination of factors. There has been lax immigration enforcement for generations; this has led to a growing flow (and now a flood) of immigration, including illegal immigration especially recently; there is again especially recently widespread pro-immigrant sentiment on the left and among elites, which has given political cover and support for expanded bases of social support; in recent years, tolerance of illegal immigration has become de rigueur, with signals everywhere in mass media indicating that complaints about illegal immigration is politically incorrect; meanwhile, some of the ill effects of illegal immigration, especially crime in Europe and political chaos in the U.S., have made immigration in general an important hot-button issue; and, finally, the urgency of the issue has radicalized some, who are all but declaring that they are in favor of open borders.

In other words, things are coming to a head especially because our elites and progressives seem increasingly openly in favor of open borders, and the borders really have been opening up. This would seem to entail an enormous change in global civilization; and it makes an adjudication of all of the issues listed above (and below) incredibly important to settle.

In a blog post last March, I asked whether Western civilization is collapsing. In the end, I didn't find the question all that fruitful. Conservatives say yes, progressives say no or who cares, but it doesn't seem that anything is going to be settled by discussing that question. I think it might be more enlightening to ask another: What do we want the world to look like?

The main options of immigration policy seem to bear directly on this question: open borders (as many progressives and libertarians want); the status quo (which nobody seems to want, but which seems very difficult to escape); traditional regulated immigration (which we all say we want, except for the explicitly open border radicals, but which the Establishment resists tooth and nail); and very little or no immigration (a la Japan).

The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

But perhaps "What immigration policy do we want?" is not the question I want to ask. I'm asking a philosophical question that is, perhaps, prior to or in any event seems logically bound up with questions about immigration policy. The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

It is tempting to place before the reader a few choices:

  • Traditional pluralism. We want a smorgasbord of different nations, each having a different language and culture, a national religion, etc. In other words, more or less how the world was before the advent of globalism...and colonialism.
  • Monoculturalism. We want a single global monoculture, everyone speaking the same language, having the same secular beliefs, democratic socialist politics, a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, globally regulated Internet, etc. Eventually, a single world government.
  • A midway position. Something in between these, more or less like what we have now. Maybe there will be a lingua franca like English and "best practices" for business and technology, and plenty of intermixing, but most countries (there will always be exceptions like the United States and Canada) will retain a national identity, even if they are members of superstates.

Then we might ask on what grounds we can adjudicate among these—and then proceed to the debate.

But this is also not quite an honest sort of debate to have. It is not unlike imagining what your ideal state would be like, and then telling an elaborate story about Utopia. This is fairly useless because unless Utopia is possible, then you're simply telling a story. If you can't rationally expect to be able to bring about your Utopia—if there is no clear way to get from here to there—then taking half-steps in that direction might well prove to be disastrous. For example, you might say you want a global secular monoculture, but if you expect to get one by advocating for open borders in the E.U. and the U.S., don't expect to usher one in anytime soon. How are you going to get the rest of the world on board? And wait a moment—do you want the rest of the world on board? Or is it only the Western world that you want to lose any cultural distinctiveness? Would you prefer to have that (or to tolerate that) in Japan, Indonesia, Somalia, and Argentina?

So I don't want to invite speculation on what your Globutopia would look like. It seems to me that the question really is "Do we want open borders—and if not, what sort of immigration policy?" after all. This is the relevant question in the sense that it is essentially the question we disagree on.

That is not to say there are not more fundamental questions than that. For example:

  1. Is it preferable that all or the vast majority of people in a country share the same culture—language, religion, traditions, mores, broad political culture (in the U.S., our "civic religion"), etc.?
  2. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
  3. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world have roughly the same amounts and types of cultural difference among different countries? So it's not a global monoculture, but global multiculturalism spread out everywhere.
  4. Is it possible for human beings with radically different cultures to get along very well in the same country? If it's a problem, how much of a problem is it? What is the best solution to that problem?

These are essential, fundamental questions. If we don't know our answers to these questions, it seems unlikely we will be able to defend our answers to "Do we want open borders?"

I would love to make advance tentative answers to those questions, but they are very difficult and I don't want to go on for much longer. Probably many of you would be uncomfortable if I were to put these questions to you; that is probably why we don't talk about these essential questions very much. They are deeply uncomfortable questions. They are politically fraught. But they are still important.

Here are a few notes on the four questions above:

  1. Suppose I say, thinking of a country like Ireland or Japan with a fairly distinctive culture that seems charming in various ways—that seems to benefit in various ways from being homogeneous—that it is a grand thing for everyone to share the same culture. Well, what does that say about the United States or India, countries with large minorities or various distinctive cultures? "Diversity is our strength," we are told. Is it sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness? Or what?
  2. Suppose I say, thinking of various dystopias and the morass that is global entertainment culture as interpreted by Hollywood (and its imitators elsewhere), that a global monoculture would be a massive mistake? On the other hand, I've observed many college educated people around the world going to similar hotels, restaurants, conferences, entertainment venues, riding in similar cars and trams, using similar tech, starting similar startups, etc., in New York, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They seem to like it. Everybody is nice and speaks English at their conferences. Is that so bad?
  3. The idea of global multiculturalism (like, Christians and Buddhists in equal numbers everywhere) strikes me as interesting but deeply implausible. Only educated cynics, mostly but not only Westerners, view religion as a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from. That approach seems insincere and glib. Most of us think there are differences here that really matter. Surely the idea of "global multiculturalism" is not really possible. Is it?
  4. Then there's the big question: Can people with radically different cultures be expected to get along in the same countries? Well, they certainly have to, that's for sure. I don't support religious wars, for example, or race riots, or (as in the U.S. lately) political skirmishes that resemble nothing so much as brawls between fans of opposing sports teams. But if it's a problem, what's really the solution? In the U.S., political differences have gotten so bad that some suggest we split the country in two—because we can't get along. Terrible idea, I'm inclined to think.

I haven't even mentioned another essential question to our current problem: Do we in the West have any special obligations to the people of the global south, either because their countries were formerly colonized, or because the West is more privileged? That's a question we might want to answer separately even if we think we have the other ones figured out.

There are, in fact, other crucial and fundamental questions. Here's another one: Are all cultures of equal value? Should some religions, for example, be stamped out? Don't act all shocked, now. Some atheists think Christianity should be stamped out. Some conservative Christians want Islam in Europe and America stamped out. Muslims seem to want all other religions stamped out (but maybe especially Judaism). We're probably all glad that human-sacrificing religions are gone.

What the hell do we want?

We should be talking about all of these issues and not letting them be settled by default by our elites.

Maybe I'll hazard some answers later, but I'll give you the floor now, if you're brave enough.


Gay activists and Hollywood liberals vs. traditional Muslims vs. free speech liberals

Here's a richly ironic slice of our strange, sad old world in 2019.

Ellen Degeneres is (quite rightly) protesting the Sultan of Brunei for introducing the death penalty (stoning to death) for gay sex. He's also executing people for adultery, but Ellen doesn't mention that:

https://twitter.com/TheEllenShow/status/1113177461276082177

To this, a reply was posted by an account, "Jihyo" (apparently, the name of a Kpop singer), who claims to be a Demi Lovato fan and medical student, and who writes various pro-Muslim comments. The reply was:

This is a Sharia law in Islam. And lgbt is never okay. I am an educated person & a medical student. In gynecology, urology & dermatology departments, we often get gay patients with terrible diagnoses. They always come with complaints relate to their sexual activities.
(I'm not embedding this because it repeats that Ellen tweet also might well be removed anytime by Twitter. But that's just a cut-and-paste quote of what "Jihyo" wrote.)

In the ensuing war of words, which you can easily imagine if you don't look for yourself, "Jihyo" is taken to task for being "cruel and inhumane," for being not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc.

One person more seriously responds that "there is no religious justification for this punishment." This is an interesting formulation: does the person mean that no religions cite any justification for stoning gays to death, or that no such religious justification would succeed if attempted?

For their part, the Sultan, his people (who perhaps understandably do not criticize his policies), and this "Jihyo" clearly disagree with both interpretations, as do many other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Yemen, and others. All have the death penalty for gay sex.

So now we have the interesting spectacle of Ellen, along with reliably progressive celebrities like George Clooney and Elton John, criticizing the Sultan of Brunei for a policy that they might or might not realize is already practiced in the most devoutly Muslim countries of the world.

And, interestingly, nobody is calling them "Islamophobic."

Well, why the hell not? Shouldn't they be called Islamophobic? What gives? If a conservative, or Allah forbid an alt-right conservative, were to dwell for long on the precise same facts about the modern Islamic world, if they were to call traditional Muslims "cruel and inhumane," not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc., then what would happen to them? Well, the U.K., Canada, Austria (probably all of the E.U.), and other countries do criminalize criticism of Islam—whether such laws should, in fairness, apply to Ellen's criticisms of Muslims seems unclear.

The weird unresolved tensions and rich ironies on display here are no doubt what caught the attention of a Paul Joseph Watson, who has worked for Alex Jones' Infowars for many years. Once, he called himself a member of the "alt right," before the term became much more clearly associated with fascism. He is, whatever else he is, an avowed foe of the left. Earlier today he posted an article on the kerfuffle titled, "LGBT vs Islam (Choose Your Fighter)," and wryly observed, "This one isn’t going to end well, is it?"

But is it only erstwhile "alt right" people like Watson, and free speech zealots like me, who observe the ironies involved here? Of course not. Old-fashioned Bill Maher could be counted on to notice the weirdness, too. He criticized Clooney for proposing a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel: "What about Saudi Arabia? If you really want to get back at them, stop driving or using oil."

Gay conservative Andrew Sullivan made some well-placed observations on Maher's show as well: "The nice thing about a free society is that you can have a political life and then you can have your actual life. Not everything has to be political." He added, "We shouldn't be dictating our lives by religion, according to the dictates of wokeness. It kills the vitality of a free society."

Sadly, this hullabaloo will all probably disappear in a week's time. Brunei will start executing gays, just like Saudi Arabia. Gay activists will go back to making common intersectional cause with Muslims from countries where those same gay friends would be executed. After a few years, self-righteous (but strangely unreflective) Hollywood progressives will once again start checking in at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Europeans and Canadians will keep enforcing blasphemy laws against Islamophobes who criticize Islam, even when such unwoke cretins are criticizing Islam for executing homosexuals—as long as the cretins aren't too powerful and aligned with the left, of course. Then it's OK. Then they're not Islamophobes.

Attempting to make sense of all this, the beautiful people will placidly declare that they "contain multitudes." Life will likely go on much as before.


Until this year, when I decided to lock down my cyber-life and reformed how I use social media, instead of writing the above, I would have just posted some snide remarks on Facebook or Twitter. But since I've quit Facebook and don't use Twitter except in service of media I have some control over, i.e., Everipedia and this blog, now I have to consider whether the issue is worth making a whole blog post over. In this case, I thought so.


Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, "Is Western civilization collapsing?"

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."


Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.


These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.


Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you'd conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we've ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn't persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I've been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We've been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we've been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let's suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn't it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who's to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive "jealous God" of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn't design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we're witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn't such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn't god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that's what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I'm still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren't enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don't see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that's all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.