Reliability of the Gospels

Are the gospels reliable sources on the life of Jesus? There is a wide gap between the scholarly rigor that historians use to research the past (to conclude that an interpretation of history is "most likely") and the arguments made by Christian apologists (to conclude that the biblical narrative of history is "truth"). Below is a concise explanation of scholarly standards for deciphering history, and why the gospels do not meet that criteria.

Note that this doesn't make them false, it simply means that they are unreliable historical accounts. They can be believed on faith, but there is little historic justifications for believing they're true.

Bart D. Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Fancy Dining that Doesn't Break the Bank

Most of what Val and I have been posting so has been in regards to pretty heady topics: science, religion, politics, philosophy, etc.  But we've also been shifting paradigms on the small things too, small changes to our behavior or lifestyles that work better for us even if it's not traditional or common.  From time to time I'd like to share these other ways that we've broadened our minds as well, starting with a cheap dinner date idea.

Yesterday was our first anniversary, and the one thing we know we wanted for sure was a nice dinner at a restaurant with a fun atmosphere and excellent food.  The problem was, how to do this when we're living on a tight budget?

We ended up ordering a three-course meal at an upscale restaurant. A small apple and goat cheese salad to start, a cup of roast pork chili verde, and for the main course the excellent pasta of the day with a vodka red sauce, chili verde, house sausage, bitter greens, and a soft white cheese.

All together this should have been a $80 dinner for us, but we managed to eat at this fine restaurant for only $35.  How did we manage that?  We only had water to drink, and we shared all three dishes.  It was a luxuriously slow dinner, we received excellent service throughout, and they even gave us both full portions of soup for the price of one.  Plus we were able to enjoy a larger variety of foods, the pasta alone would have been enough to fill us up if we'd had our own meals.

Anyone else have their own way of doing things that gets them a better experience for less money?  If so feel free to help us keep shifting our paradigms.

In search of reason,



Tip of the hat to "Big Religion and Spirituality Blog" for pointing out a new term for me to add to my lexicon: Ignostic.

Ignosticism is the position that all other theological positions, even agnosticism, assume too much about the concept of god.

In plain English, what ignostics are saying is that before we can argue if god(s) exist, we need to define the god concept in a clear and specific manner. Before we do, asking questions of existence is futile because the term "god" is meaningless.

I fully subscribe to this idea, and I'm glad I now have a term to sums it up.

Ethics Part 2.5: Moral Compasses Revisited

Before I start let me repost my late addition to the last post in my ethics series in case you missed it:

I had another thought to share that is related to this subject: When talking about morality I consider moral/immoral to be a false dichotomy. Actions that are wrong and should be avoided or punished are obviously immoral, however everything else is not moral by default. I consider moral actions to be actions and behaviors that we want to encourage and reward. Actions that we would not punish but we also do not feel any need to encourage are morally neutral. For example, doing you homework in order to do well in school is a moral action, however watching an hour of TV after you finish would be morally neutral. I know I didn't explicitly mention morally neutral actions in my post, but they were part of the framework I was basing everything on.

When writing about the Moral Compasses I felt guilty that I couldn't find anything to cite. I'd read about it very closely in a magazine (don't even remember which one) about a year ago, and because when I scrutinized the article I found that it fit in with my anthropological framework of human behavior and psychology, I accepted it and integrated it into my own way of thinking. Not in the habit of blogging yet, I didn't record where I found it, what the original study had been, or how to find it again. Well I was just looking under the wrong terms it seems. Today I found a NY Times article on the study (beware it's quite long) that goes into great detail on the subject (so you know I'm not making it up ;) ). Thanks to Greta Christina, another blogger who pointed me towards it in her own article on ethics and values.

Edit: I've changed the labels for each value on the original post, because these are simpler.

In her article Greta aggressively argues for the idea that some moral values are inherently stronger in liberals, and others are inherently stronger in conservatives. Remember how I said that for a secularist Harm and Fairness were the most crucial? Well Greta argues for how they are also the primary moral instincts of liberals. This makes a lot of sense, since secularism is philosophy supported by liberals and attacked by conservatives (oooh Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck; so many hours of anger and laughter that you give me). Greta points out, as I did, that these are the two value sets that are best able to be applied to both yourself and others. She also does a better job of explaining why universalization of values is important

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.

In fact, it's inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable

Comrades in Blogs

Without A Clutch has joined up The Out Campaign Blogroll, and the The Atheist Blogroll. Both can be found along the sidebar.

We're also proudly showing our support for Foundation Beyond Belief:
A unique charity whose humanist and atheist members support ten outstanding secular organizations per quarter. Choose your donation level, and distribute among the featured causes as you wish.

The Foundation features ten charitable organizations per quarter in the following cause areas:
* Health
* Education
* Poverty
* Environment
* Child Welfare
* Human Rights
* Animal Protection
* Peace
* The "Big Bang" Fund (small charity, big impact)
* Foundation Beyond Belief

We've also set up the sidebar to link to more resources on various topics that relate to our blog.

We hope you find something fun and useful!

Never stop questioning in search of reason,

Val and Mike

Neil Degrasse Tyson is a Rock-Star of Science

More accurately, he is a rock-star of science literacy. We need more educators stressing the importance of learning to ask the right questions, I count myself very lucky to have had several.

In search of reason,


What does the Christian Bible say Hell is?

I stumbled across the blog of another former church goer. Sounds like he used to be in much deeper than me, and knows his Bible better than most believers do (which, based on personal experience, I don't find surprising). A piece of his "About Me" section:
Hi. I’m Dave.

I am on a journey.
I call it a ”Life Walk”.

The older I get, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. I am increasingly wary of those who propose to have all the answers. The experiences I’ve had, the truth I have discovered, and the questions I still have, I share with others through counseling, writing, singing, and just plain friendship.

I been involved in “church” much of my life. I’ve been an elder, a co-pastor, a worship leader, etc. etc. In December of 2007, my wife and I finally came out of organized religion. I still function in many of the areas I used to, but I now do so in a more free-flowing, organic fashion, outside the walls of what we have called “the church.” I’m not big into labels, but I guess I would call myself a “non-religious Jesus lover.”

This is a journey of much discovery. It’s exciting, frustrating, fun, and scary.
I fully share his feelings about knowledge and people that claim to have all the answers prepackaged. I can also appreciate someone who wants to hold onto the community aspect of religion, and like Thomas Jefferson, appreciate Jesus like any other teacher of morality without clinging to the supernatural claims. I personally can't do it, but that is mostly because of the political agendas that churches I've attended push, and because I get the uncomfortable feeling that believers are thinking that they deserve an explanation for why I don't share their beliefs. More power to Dave that he can navigate that potential minefield.

What caught my eye was a recent post on the Christian concept, or rather the adopted pagan concept, of hell.
If your idea of hell is a place, perhaps located in the center of the earth, where wicked souls suffer eternal torture in fire and brimstone, supervised by the devil and his demons — no — there is no such place.

You can’t make a scriptural case for this kind of hell unless you select certain passages and discard others — and even then your case shaky at best. This popular notion of hell is an unholy marriage of ancient pagan ideas about the underworld and the afterlife with selected Biblical passages taken out of context.

The fact is, there are three Greek words with different meanings in the New Testament that are unfortunately translated into English as hell in the King James version. But the English word hell comes with a ton of baggage. In pre-Christian Germanic mythology it (or similar words) referred to a nether world where the dead were punished — and the word has helped carry this pagan concept into Christianity, along with other concepts of a fiery underworld borrowed from ancient Greco-Roman mythology.

But when we dump all this baggage and examine the Scriptural passages that deal with punishment in the afterlife, and when we see that the passages vary in their description of the nature of that punishment, we are left with this simple, unconfusing concept: “hell” is eternal separation from God.
The Christian churches have simply adopted and adapted the Hades mythos to create a bogeyman. There is no such thing in their holy book, it was just invented - or rather assimilated from existing European religions - centuries later.

To believers who may be worried for me on my behalf, please don't be. I repeatedly opened my heart to Jesus and the Christian god in my youth and felt nothing change. When I stopped believing I felt nothing change. Either I have always been separated from the Christian god because I was not specially chosen, he has always been with me and doesn't actually require my belief to stay with me, or possibly, he doesn't exist in the first place. No matter what the answer is, my belief or lack of belief in the Christian god has been shown to have no effect on my life or who I am, so why worry about it? Perhaps I am missing out on eternal life in heaven (which doesn't seem very appealing to me, but that is a topic for another time) and I will end up eternally separated or cease to exist when I don't have to be. In response to that, I believe Samuel Clemens put it best when he said "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."

In search of reason,


A Morning Walk

You've heard that a walk a day can be good for your health, so you decide to try it out one morning before you really start your day. You've got two choices for where to start your walk, Door #1 or Door #2.

Door #1: You open your door to the fresh air of a summer morning. The birds are happily chirping away. You look up and down your street, taking stock of the green lawns, hearty trees, and diversity of flowers before walking down to the local creek. It's flowing briskly, and there are little pools with minnows and crayfish, you can splash around and even drink from it without worrying about rash or infection. You come back from your walk refreshed, with energy to meet the rest of your day.

Door #2: You open your door and are met by the fresh scent of smog. It's eerily quiet. Visibility is low, but you can see enough to crunch through the dehydrated grass, over the plastic bags blowing around, and out to the street. You walk down to the creek - barely a trickle and choked with beer cans, soda bottles, and who knows what else, with no living thing in sight. You'd never think of drinking from it. You're wheezing by the time you get home, and you're definitely not feeling any more refreshed.

I don't know anyone who wouldn't pick Door #1. Even if you deny human-caused climate change and believe that environmentalists are all a bunch of overzealous nut-jobs standing in the way of progress and modern living, you still want to live in a clean environment. You expect the water coming out of your tap to actually be clean, not just look clean; you want your food to be free of harmful chemicals; you prefer if there isn't trash along the road; when you vacation by lakes, rivers, and oceans, you should be able to swim in them without sharing the swimming hole with sludge and dead fish; and so on.

With the way our society has grown up, these things don't just happen on their own. People carelessly toss junk out the windows of their cars, out of sight, out of mind. Companies dump poison and pollutants into our water supply (check out this article about BP using a loophole to dump nearly 50 times the mercury limit per year into Lake Michigan. As a Michigan girl living in Indiana, it made me sick to my stomach, and angry. This was in 2007, but I'm not holding my breath that anything has changed.). Companies sheer off entire mountain tops, destroying environments that keep us healthy and releasing toxic runoff into our water supply. The list goes on, and you'll probably hear more about it from me later.

We have to be proactive to keep our communities clean, the same way you have to actively pick up the clothes from your bedroom floor. It's not easy to change old habits, and I'm still having a terrible time remembering to pick up my clothes. But Mike reminds me, I remember more often, and I'm doing better. We don't have to make these changes on our own, and we don't have to make a ton of big ones all at once, but we do need to be more proactive in the way we live. Think about things you throw out. Do you really need that styrofoam cup, or could you bring a mug? Where does that plastic water bottle go? (Hint: A lot of them end up in ocean gyres) There are small changes we can make that will make our communities, wherever we may move, a lot better places to live.

I have heard the idea from theists that 'This is not our home, we are not of this world, we are merely temporary residents, our true home is in heaven.' When I get down and think about it, I'm personally a little disturbed by this way of thinking, but it's not an inherently bad idea. However, I have heard it used to justify, '... so why should I care what happens to the planet?' If you're thinking along those lines, think about this instead: If a god created this world specifically for us, lovingly designed it to support our life, which was made in his image, then he has given us a great gift. One we should love, cherish, and protect, not ignore simply because heaven is waiting.

For non-theists: This is the only life and world that we have. We don't have the time or luxury of waiting for it to get better on it's own. We should all be striving to leave this world better than we came into it, to protect it for future generations so that they can move forward, instead of working backwards to fix our mistakes.

This isn't a topic we can choose to ignore, just because it's uncomfortable and we don't like change.

Never stop questioning,


Jesus and Yeshua

Even when I was a Christian I had a funny feeling about the Crucifixion story. Something never seemed quite right about it. I don't mean evidence for it actually occuring or not, but rather the narrative itself.

Years later as I was moving away from Christianity I had to examine it again. I was giving up most things in my religion because when I tried to study them closer they no longer made sense to me, but the doctrine of salvation through the blood of Christ meant that it was dangerous to turn my back on it all. Giving up on the Bible meant trading my eternity in heaven for an eternity in hell.

As you can imagine this made it not just frustrating, but frightening, that the more I read and studied the Christian Bible, the less sense it all made.

Imagine you're learning something in school, and you think you understand what the teacher is lecturing about. But then when you go home and read the textbook closely, you find that you no longer understand it. In some places the textbook contradicts your teacher, in others it contradicts itself. It has lessons devoted to things that are irrelevant to the course, and it has lessons that are so outdated you would be horrified if anyone you knew tried to follow them. Worst of all, there seems to be no way out. You need to pass, you need to understand your teacher, the textbook, know it fully and believe in the often contradictory lessons it holds. Getting it wrong or worse, dropping out, will haunt you forever.

That's about how I felt when in college I actually sat down and started reading, not the passages I was directed to, but the Christian Bible in its entirity.

In Our Own Words

A couple months ago TheThinkingAtheist YouTube channel compiled testimonials of their viewers.  It was so popular that people asked for a second one, which was posted yesterday.  A large variety of people from around the world expressing how they were raised, why they are atheists, and how being open about who they are has affected their lives.  Both videos below.

In search of Reason,


Why Talk About Religion?

"If you don't believe in God then why do you talk about religion?" is a question that I have gotten several times from the Christians around me. In asking this question they are making several assumptions. The question assumes that the god in question should be the Christian god, and also implies that they feel if you reject religion you have no reason or right to talk about or be critical of it.

This ignores that fact that many politicians are not just Christian, but campaign and vote on the conservative theological values of the more fundamentalist minority of American Christian churches. Obviously basing their politics on their religion means that their religion can affect my life, and I have as much right to be critical of that as any other way of thinking that influences politicians. It's also ignoring the fact that Christians feel no such restrictions to talk about things they disagree with (If you believe in Jesus why do you talk about Allah/Buddha/Scientology/non-belief?).

When I'm asked that in so many words those are my usual responses, mainly objections to the assumption that I have no right to criticize something related to their belief system. But when the question is posed with honest curiosity, along the lines of "what is your interest in religion?" then they have asked a very good question. It's a good question because it requires introspection to answer it fully and properly.

I've been asked the question often enough in one way or another, so I decided to find out not why I object to being silenced on the subject, but why do I feel compelled to research and talk about religion and Christianity in particular.