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Christians stole Christmas from pagans


Unpacking the Islam/imperialism binary that’s become so popular with theorists

First of all, this issue is so frustrating because you have to isolate what people mean when they talk about these two terms.

To start with, imperialism & colonialism: the French and British had colonial endeavours in the Middle East, and particularly North Africa, during the imperial era. Algeria was a French colony. Libya was colonized by the Italians. Aden was a protectorate of the British. Napoleon invaded Egypt, but his military endeavour failed.  The British occupied Egypt from 1882 and oversaw the Suez Canal, until they were ousted in 1956. Of course there was also the British Raj (but then, that’s not the Middle East), and most of what the British did around the Arab Gulf had to do with protecting the interests of the Raj — the Gulf was more incidental to British imperial interests, comparatively.

But here’s what gets left out of a lot of these discussions: Britain and France were actually two separate powers, often playing off an empire which was not European at all, that is, the Ottoman Empire!

The Ottoman Empire existed for centuries (since 1299), and for much of its existence, it was ascendant in most of what we now call the Middle East. At times, the European powers allied with the Ottomans. At times, they allied with Arabs against the Ottomans. Arabs were under Ottoman suzerainty, including the sharif of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The decline of Ottoman power and thus rising poverty and lapses of social cohesion is one factor my book on Saudi Arabia (author, James Wynbrandt) lists as contributing to the rise of a religious revival “back to fundamentals” movement in Arabia, led by the ultra-conservative cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

These movements have occurred throughout the history of Islam — for instance, at the end of the Arab-Persian-Turkish Islamicate Golden Age following early Arab imperialism, the conservative cleric al-Ghazali so successfully attacked neoplatonic Hellenistic philosophy that it was never again as popular among Arab scholars. Now, of course, you can look at these religious revival movements, and their analogues in Judaism and Christianity, and ask whether these religions will just forever have be plagued by conservative tendencies, or whether they can transcend them and be totally universally reformed and progressive everywhere somehow — myself, I’m rather dubious, but that’s beside my main point, at least here.

There was actually quite a bit of fornicating and boozing going on in Arabia, some of which was just a matter of “polite society” looking away (Samaritans ignoring the Philistines, as it were) and some of it was a matter of Muslims of the more cosmopolitan Hijaz feeling somewhat special (and thus above the laws) due to their proximity to Islam’s birthplace. There were red light districts. Alcohol was sold near the Kaaba.

Abd al-Wahhab, horrified by all the fun these people were having, aggressively went after the culprits, as well as all the people who combined elements of ancestral worship, animism, and other forms of “idolatry” in their practice of Islam (which was pretty common — I mean, a lot of the more nomadic Arabs weren’t literate and hadn’t read the Qur’an and were basically just doing whatever they pleased).

Al-Wahhab made a pact with the al-Saud family. Saud would conquer tribes militarily, and al-Wahhab would indoctrinate them into his very conservative form of Sunni Islam. As has been discussed before, monotheism, and particularly aggressive and conservative forms of monotheism, is a powerful tool of social control. It united much of Arabia before in Muhammad’s era. Through the military conquests of the al-Saud family, it united much of it again, but not without quite a bit of significant opposition.

One major source of opposition was the Ottoman Empire itself. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Egyptian viceroy to the Ottomans, underwent a campaign into the Arabian interior, and later sent his son, Ibrahim. Some were happy that the Ottomans repelled the Wahhabis, who had been attacking sites like Karbala (a Shi’a stronghold) in present day Iraq, but the Ottomans ended up being so brutal in their suppression of the Wahhabis (Muhammad Ali’s son, Isma’il, actually sent the ears of those he killed back to Cairo because there were too many heads to send them all) that many in Arabia preferred Wahhabis to the Egyptians & Ottoman power.

So where did the Europeans come into these affairs? Well, the European colonial powers were pretty much opportunists and would shift alliances wherever it seemed like it’d be beneficial for them to do so. At first, the British tried to ally with Muhammad Ali against the Wahhabis, but he wasn’t actually having it. During WWI, some Arabs fought against the Ottomans and allied with the British — hence, T.E. Lawrence’s campaign with the Arabs against the Turks. And when the USA entered the picture, those in Arabia actually generally preferred to work with the US because it didn’t have a history of imperialistic endeavors in the region, relative to the British.

But I think the biggest imperial effect of the Western powers came after WW I, when the Sykes-Picot agreement, created in secret between the French and British, carved up the Arab world and betrayed promises made by the Europeans to the Arabs, as well as the Balfour Declaration, and the Zionist movement for the state of Israel. You also have quite a bit of Western interference and manipulation in terms of secret coups (like the 1953 coup in Iran, in which the CIA played a role) and market forces (ARAMCO, Anglo-Persian Oil, US-Saud alliance based around oil), followed by an era of Cold War conflicts.

More than anything, it’s this last era which people mean when they talk about imperialism and Islam in the Middle East, even though these conflicts aren’t so much imperialism/colonialism proper (the US has no empire/colonies in the Middle East; the violent clusterfuck of Israeli policy is endorsed by the US, however) as militarism with an imperialistic bent (the whole “spreading democracy” bullshit). You may say I’m splitting hairs, but in order to deal with these forces, I think it’s important to be as specific as possible and eschew sensationalism.

Anyhow, my detour about Wahhabism earlier was to illustrate that particularly conservative forms of Islam were alive and well in the Middle East prior to Sykes-Picot and prior to the Cold War and the resulting militarism. But just as people usually refer to several different forces when they talk about imperialism in the Middle East, there have been different movements associated with Islam, and when people talk about imperialism creating radical Islam, the movements to which they refer — as near as I can tell — are the political organizations focused on asymmetrical warfare, or what people in the states would call terrorist cells. The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and now ISIS. The term Islamism has been proposed for these movements, and it’s useful shorthand, but it gets pretty messy when you consider that they’re not really some kind of umbrella movement, but rather several different movements, with some at times being enemies to one another.

So, what caused these radical movements? Islam? Imperialism?

Well, imperialism definitely did fuel plenty of reactionary backlash in the Middle East. And the noble warfare ideology of jihad in Islam does lend a divine sort of framework to forms of aggression and resistance or perceived resistance (perceived insofar as — does anyone think ISIL is really liberating people?). Though there are other factors you can bring up. Modernity itself, and the speed with which it’s overtaken the region, has played a role. And a lot of these movements have reacted against Arab nationalism of a more secular variety (look at Sayyid Qutb & the Muslim Brotherhood). And of course, to my mind, one of the biggest driving forces has been the radicalizing power of wars. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization (formed 1988-1989) was created by Arab volunteers who had battled the Soviets in the Afghan civil war. Palestinians suffering Israeli occupation have radicalized and resisted via asymmetrical warfare. Hezbollah was created in Lebanon in reaction to the Israeli invasion. ISIS itself didn’t really come onto the scene until the wars in Iraq and Syria destabilized the region and gave room to pivot and take power. These aren’t state actors (much as ISIS is trying to be… and who knows, at this rate), and these aren’t empires. These are reactions — against imperialism, market forces, yes, but also against modernity and its perceived secular decadence, AND against states themselves (& state borders), and they are filtered through a pre-existing conservative climate (salafi/Wahhabi).

So, I guess if you want to be simplistic, it’s “both/and,” with a judicious helping of other shit.

Now, if you want to get even more complicated, you can ask about the line between Wahhabism and these newer movements. Conservative, after all, isn’t the same as violent. Your racist uncle at Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily an abortion clinic bomber, but is he (ideologically speaking) a slippery slope to an abortion clinic bomber (or, at least, providing the atmosphere in which such a person is excused, a la Bill O’Reilly)? And that’s why Saudi Arabia has fallen under a lot of criticism. Since its basis as a state is linked to Wahhabism, and since it has spend large sums on setting up madrassas to school kids in Wahhabi doctrine, there are many Muslims who feel the royal family has helped unleash groups like al-Qaeda, and has to eat some blame for this.

This gets really messy. Saudi Arabia is and Wahhabi here is, I think, somewhat analogous to preachers who went to Uganda and said how evil queers are, only to try to wash their hands of the resulting legislation, or Bill O’Reilly talking about what a “baby killer” George Tiller was before he was murdered by a fanatic, or conservatives in the Southern US trying to pull some love the sinner, hate the sin anti-queer bullshit — these examples are merely approximate, but I think you see what I’m driving at. The state is an ally of the US and firmly repudiates the kinds of Islamist groups I’m talking about, but many Muslims take this repudiation as being similar to the examples I gave of conservatives who stirred up an ideologically brutal climate, only to disclaim the bloody results. Plus, Saudi Arabia as a state is pretty terrible for all kinds of human rights violations (in its basic laws, Shi’a genocides, rights of women, labour laws, public beheadings) — just that it operates as a recognized polity/state.

NOW, I certainly left a lot out of this analysis. I didn’t go that much into South Asia (Pakistan, mainly), North Africa, or the parallel Islamist cells in other parts of Africa like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. I didn’t talk too much about other schools of Islam or other reform movements, the Iranian revolution, Indonesia, or the eternal clusterfuck that is the Balkans and what Russia called the “Central East” states, i.e. Chechnya. For that matter, I didn’t even really discuss all the different Arab nationalist movements, like Hussein’s Ba’ath party or Gamal Abdel Nasser or the brutal (but secular) Syrian regime. The fact is, the topic is just too fucking big. But that’s the point I’m trying to make. You can’t boil something this complex down into cheap soundbites, and when you try, you end up with ridiculous generalizations.

So, here is the last thought I want to leave you with. And bear with me, because this is difficult to articulate. But, if you find yourself pulling out this binary, what exactly are you trying to achieve with it?

For those of you (hawkish, right-wing minded sorts) who think Muslims are, as a category, suspicious elements, are you brazenly advocating profiling or segregation or — what, exactly? And for those of you who believe that Muslims who do radicalize & join ISIS (or al-Qaeda, etc.) are true and honest freedom fighters motivated sheerly by injustice towards Palestinians & reacting against imperialism — are you, I don’t know, advocating this? Saying “well, I’m not advocating it, but it’s just a thing” and shrugging your shoulders?

You see, this is why I’m reacting impatiently to this sort of discussion: it doesn’t go anywhere. You reach intolerable conclusions like Muslims are inherently radicals or radicals are inherently freedom fighters, and then you’re either a simpleminded bigot or a bizarre apologist, depending. And yes, I’m aware that Leftists who take the latter stance will sometimes distance themselves from the implications of their rhetoric, but they still give plenty of credence to the rhetoric of reactionaries themselves.

I have a few ideas for a possible alternative framework, but that may require a few more posts.


“If humans are just atoms, then they are not morally relevant”


One common — and pernicious — argument against naturalistic explanations of persons is that if people are just conglomerations of atoms, then they are not morally relevant (or that they lack moral significance; herein, I will assume that ‘moral significance’ and ‘moral relevance’ are interchangeable). The point, I take it, is supposed to be that, in virtue of their composition, anything composed of atoms would fail to have the right sort of properties to be morally relevant (whatever those sorts of properties are). For example, Christian apologist Brian Colon writes, “If all that exists is matter, then that would mean that we are nothing but matter as well.  If that’s true then why do we believe that humans are worthy of respect? […] Humans really are worthy of respect.  This is inexplicable on the Atheistic Worldview.” [1] Call this the atomic objection. In this post, I will show that the atomic objection fails spectacularly and argue that theists should not advance the atomic objection against their atheistic interlocutors.

1. What’s so wrong with being composed of atoms?

At minimum, the theist needs to do more work to spell out exactly what the atomic objection is supposed to be, or why it’s so objectionable to think that humans are composed of atoms. Notice that one way to make humans sound morally insignificant is with locutions of the following sort: ‘humans are just x’, where x can be filled in with whatever humans are taken to be composed of. For example, the materialist might say, “humans are just atoms in motion”, and this sounds rather deflationary and depressing. But the same could be said of their supernaturalist rivals — “humans are just immaterial souls” or “humans are just immaterial minds created in the image of God” or whatever — and it would sound just as deflationary and depressing. Therefore, one cannot simply list the component parts of humans and, from that list, surmise whether humans have some sort of moral significance. Instead, one needs to show that given their component parts, humans either can or cannot have attributes which endow them with moral significance.

Moreover, any property theists claim we possess in virtue of having a soul — the ability to form rational thoughts, or the ability to appreciate love or goodness, or whatever else — are likewise properties the atheist will attribute to our having minds, ultimately reducible to a particular kind of brain. If the theist claims physical matter cannot have thoughts, the ability to appreciate love, and so on, on the basis that they cannot see how physical matter could possibly perform those sorts of processes, the atheist is free to point out that they cannot see how the possession of a soul allows us those properties either. The theist can maintain that the soul performs those processes in ways mysterious to humans, but the atheist can just as easily maintain that the brain performs those processes in ways equally mysterious.

This impasse between the theist and atheist can made rigorous through a famous argument schema called the Moorean shift.

1a. The Moorean Shift

Since Rowe’s 1979 article “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” [2], theists and atheists alike have noted that the problem of evil can addressed, by the theist, through a Moorean shift. In what follows, I will explain what Moorean shifts are, how they apply to the problem of evil, and finally show that the theistic objection I’ve been discussing in this post can be subjected to an atheistic Moorean shift. Arguments of the form [3]:

1. p

2. q

3. Therefore, r.

Can be responded to with parallel arguments of the form:

4. Not r.

5. q

6. Therefore, not p.

Shifting from 1-3 to 4-6 is termed a Moorean shift. The idea is that arguments like 1-3 are sometimes just as rational to maintain as arguments of the form 4-6. William Rowe maintained that theism and atheism can both be rational positions, depending on how one formulates the problem of evil. In a 2007 article, William Lane Craig follows Rowe and offers the following rendition of the problem of evil (where I’ve re-numbered the premises) [4]:

7. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

8. Gratuitous evil exists.

9. Therefore, God does not exist.

Still following Rowe, Craig suggests the Christian can provide the following Moorean shift (again, with re-numbered premises):

7. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

8*. God exists.

9*. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Craig notes that premise 7 is uncontroversial between atheists and himself and explains that premise 11* can be maintained, by the theist, by appealing to independent arguments made on behalf of theism (such as the Kalam cosmological argument, the argument from contingency, and the moral argument). I’ll put aside whether Craig is right to maintain premise 8*. Supposing Moorean shifts are legitimate responses to apparent defeaters, objections the atomic objection can be similarly Moorean shifted by the atheist. For example, one way to state the atomic objection is as follows:

10. Nothing that is composed solely of atoms can have moral significance.

11. Atheists maintain that humans are composed solely of atoms.

12. Therefore, atheists should maintain that humans have no moral significance.

However, atheists are unlikely to accept premise 10. In fact, atheists are free to perform the following Moorean shift:

10*. Atheists maintain that humans have moral significance.

11. Atheists maintain that humans are composed solely of atoms.

12*. Therefore, atheists should maintain that some things composed solely of atoms have moral significance.

Here, atheists can maintain 1o* on the basis of independent arguments for secular moral realism or secular moral significance, just as Craig maintains 8* on the basis of independent arguments for theism. The theist cannot object that 1o* is question begging, unless they concede that 8* is likewise question begging.

2. Does our being created by God grant more moral significance to us than our not having been created by God?

The theist might try another approach. On Christian theism, humans were created for specific purposes and perhaps this explains why humans are more morally significant than they would be on atheism. On this account, humans have the proper sorts of lives when they maximally fulfill the purpose for which they were created and, when they fail to fulfill the purpose for which God created them (that is, when they fail to fulfill their telos), they fail to realize their greatest happiness. Moreover, humans have moral significance because they were created in the image of God — and so they resemble God in the appropriate ways, which includes their being non-physical, rational, free minds. In contrast, if there is no God and if humans are mere conglomerations of atoms, then they were not created for a purpose, have no telos to fulfill, and are not non-physical, rational, free minds. On this view, humans are morally significant because they have the requisite attributes to lead lives that are meaningful or purposeful in some important sense.

First, as already discussed, this version of the atomic argument can be responded to with a Moorean shift. The atheist maintains that humans are rational, free minds while simultaneously maintaining that they are composed of atoms not created by God and can appeal to secular arguments for moral realism and moral significance.

Second, the mere existence of someone who created oneself for some purpose does not suffice to provide one’s life with purpose in the relevant sense. All of us have parents who, presumably, brought us to life for whatever purposes they possessed. But it would be strange to say that we should always embrace our parents purposes as our purposes. Perhaps one’s parents wished that one become a doctor, but one is happiest if one is a philosophy professor. For the theist to claim that God having created us endows our lives with purpose in the relevant sense, the theist must maintain that God differs from parents in some relevant way.

One proposal might be that God recognizes some Good we might fulfill and has designed us in such a way that we would be maximally happy if we were to fulfill that Good. There are three metaphysical possibilities for the existence of such goods: a. such goods exist independently of God; b. such goods exist as a consequence of God’s will; or c. such goods can be identified (somehow) with God’s nature. I turn to each of these in turn to show that none of them succeed.

a. The first possibility: there are goods independent of God, but which God recognizes and has designed us so that we might fulfill them. Here, the problem is two-fold. First, by construction, none of these goods can exist as a result of God’s will or nature and therefore must not have been created by God. But, due both to God’s aseity and to central Jewish, Christian, and Islamic doctrines, nothing exists independently of God. Second, if there are goods, in virtue of which we might be maximally happy, independent of God, then such goods — because they are God-independent — can exist with or without God. Therefore, human lives could be meaningful — and thus morally relevant — on any atheist view which allowed for the existence of the Good.

b. The second possibility: the Good towards which our lives are to be properly directed is the result of God’s will. However, one might ask what sort of reasons God possesses for so directing us. Such reasons cannot involve a prior recognition of the Good, for such goods, and that we should be directed towards them, is the result — and not the cause — of God’s will. And, by construction, such goods cannot be somehow identified with God’s nature (though I will later consider the possibility that the Good is to be identified with God’s nature). Thus, it seems that such willings would be totally arbitrary and without reason if they only existed as the result of God’s will. Again, this is troubling for the theist, because willings without reason are random; God might as well have directed our lives towards evil or axiologically neutral states of affairs.

c. Finally, the theist might maintain that God directs our lives towards Good, where the Good is (somehow) identified with God’s nature. States of affairs which are maximally good, in the axiological sense, are those which maximally resemble God’s nature. However, it is fairly difficult to make sense of this view. What could it possibly mean to say that some creaturely state of affairs — which, like all other creaturely states of affairs, is infinitely distinct in every respect from God — somehow maximally resembles God? Christian philosopher Mark Murphy remarks:

[Craig] offer[s] no account […] of exactly how God’s nature provides the relevant standard [of goodness], a fact which is treated as an important consideration against nontheistic accounts of the nature of moral value. In reply to Craig, a number of writers suggested that a standard nontheistic account treats moral value as grounded in prudential value — what is good for persons — but as valued from an impartial perspective, one that takes into account all of the persons who can be made well or badly off. Craig rejects this view, claiming that it is not straightfowardly entailed by the existence of prudential value and the capacity of humans to take this impartial point of view that there is anything like moral value. But of course neither is it straightforwardly entailed by the proposition that God exists that there is anything like moral value. What we have here is a classic example of uneven standards being applied to the debate at hand, treating an appeal to God as able to fill an explanatory gap when it is far from clear that this appeal succeeds any farther than a nontheistic account does. [5]

Thus, for Murphy, grounding the Good towards which our lives might be directed in God’s nature is left mysterious by the theist. Moreover, if the theist can appeal to divine mystery to explain philosophical difficulties, the atheist can just as well appeal to naturalistic mystery. The God of the Gaps is just as good an explanation as Nature of the Gaps.

But I think the situation is actually worse for the theist than Murphy indicates. As traditionally conceived, God’s nature is radically unlike anything in the created realm. To say that God transcends the created realm is at least to say that God is infinitely different from the created realm. So what could it possibly mean to say that a state of affairs is good if the state of affairs appropriately resembles God? Any given state of affairs, at least in the creaturely realm, will always differ infinitely from God; so are no states of affairs good? But then what would it mean to say that one’s life might be appropriately oriented towards the Good?


We’ve seen that the atomic objection does not succeed in showing that atheists are inconsistent if they posit humans to possess moral significance. At best, in positing the atomic objection, theists show that atheists are left appealing to mystery, but theists equally appeal to mystery in their claim that souls are morally significant. Either way, one maintains that substances — whether spiritual or physical — are somehow endowed with moral significance. Moreover, claims that only a spiritual substance created by God could be endowed with moral significance are left either allowing for atheistic moral significance, positing that persons are somehow only randomly morally significant, or with only more mystery.

[1] Colon, B. (2010) “Atheism a Failed Hypothesis”. On the Evidence for Christianity website.

[2] Rowe, W. (1979) “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(4): 335-341. 

[3] Ibid, pp 338-9.

[4] Craig, W. (2007) “Theistic Critiques of Atheism”. In Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 69-85. Also see the online expanded version.

[5] Murphy, M. (2004) “Suarez’s ‘Best Argument’ and the Dependence of Morality On God”. Quaestiones Disputatae, 5(1): 30-42. Block quote is from pp 32-33.


Responding to McHugh’s Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice (MOADJ)

New Apologetics is a Roman Catholic apologetics, theology, and philosophy organization devoted, among other things, to ministering to atheists. For a couple years now, I have been friends with the organization’s head — Christopher McHugh — whose arguments interest me due to their originality. Chris defends a novel version of the ontological argument he calls the Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice (herein: MOADJ), of which I’ve long been suspicious. However, it’s only recently that I’ve been able to articulate where, exactly, the argument goes wrong. In this post, I will offer several critical responses. I encourage Chris — and his followers — to offer a reply.

Chris’s theological positions are summed up in a deeply technical document entitled The Tractatus, written in the style of medieval disputatio, and is located here. To read the MOADJ, scroll down to the section entitled “The Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice”. If that gave you a headache to read, you’re not alone. I find it incredibly dense and difficult to slog my way through. Nonetheless, I’ve read it multiple times (I hope you’re happy,  Chris!). The argument concludes that, contrary to appearances, injustice does not ultimately exist because there is a necessarily existent justice-making power that rectifies all injustices:

  1. Since “not being an unjust situation” is situationally necessary, either there is no sense to the concept of “injustice”, or there is an infallible justice-making power which is also situationally necessary. The action of this power “redeems” and transforms unjust situations reconciling them to perfect justice. Such a reconciliation would have to be metaphysically coextensive with the commission of the injustice itself such that every situation is transubstantiated to be exactly the right thing at the right time, otherwise “not being an unjust situation” could not be situationally necessary.
  2. It is not the case that there is no sense to the concept of injustice.
  3. There is a situationally necessary justice-making power. [from 6 and 7 modus tollendo ponens]

However, a parallel argument can be constructed for the non-existence of cats. First, we need to modify the second axiom to read:

Axiom 2: The property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with the property “being a cat.” [For any instance of a cat, there is a logically possible situation in which some other animal replaces the cat. For example, if there is a cat on my bed, there is a logically possible situation in which there is a dog on my bed.]

Next, we replace sentences about injustice with sentences about cats in the argument: 

  1. If the property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with another given property, then it is compatible with the complement of that property. [from Axiom 1]
  2. The property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with the property “being a cat.” [Axiom 2]
  3. The property of “being situationally necessary” is compatible with “not being a cat” [from Axiom 1 and premise 2, modus ponens]
  4. If the property of “being situationally necessary” is compatible with “not being a cat”, then the property of “not being a cat” is situationally necessary. [from Axiom 3 and premise 3]
  5. The property of “not being a cat” is situationally necessary. [from 3 and 4 modus ponens]
  6. Since “not being a cat” is situationally necessary, either there is no sense to the concept of “being a cat”, or there is an infallible not-cat-making power which is also situationally necessary. The action of this power “redeems” and transforms cats reconciling them to perfect non-cathood. Such a reconciliation would have to be metaphysically coextensive with the commission of the cat itself such that every possible cat is transubstantiated to be exactly the perfect non-cat at the right time, otherwise “not being a cat” could not be situationally necessary.
  7. It is not the case that there is no sense to the concept of cats.
  8. There is a situationally necessary non-cat-making power. [from 6 and 7 modus tollendo ponens]

This parody argument provides an important clue as to what went wrong in the original argument. The first axiom of the MOADJ states:

For any property “a”, necessarily one of the following is true:

1) Property “a” is compatible with either property “b” or its complement, “non-b.”

2) Property “a” is compatible with both property “b” and its complement, “non-b.”

The problem is that (1) and (2) are not exhaustive. Some properties are compatible with neither b or non-b. The first premise of Chris’s argument depends on the assumption that if the property of “situational necessity” is not compatible with some property p, then situational necessity is compatible with the complement of p, thereby entailing that p’s complement is situationally necessary. The parody argument suggests we consider the property of being a cat. Situational necessity is not compatible with there being a cat, because cats are contingent, but the situation of there not being a cat is not necessary either, because the situation of there not being a cat is also contingent. Thus, we should add a third condition to the first axiom:

3) Property “a” is compatible with neither property “b” or its complement, “non-b”.

However, granting a condition like (3) halts the original MOADJ. The conclusion no longer follows, because, among other things, one can no longer make inference from premise 2 to premise 3. I am reasonably sure that no fix could be made to the MOADJ either. To see why, notice that the inference from premise 2 to premise 3 has implications that would be illegitimate for modal logic S5. Premise 2 states that the property of unjust is not compatible with the property of being situationally necessary. In other words:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.01.10 AM

When commuting modal operators with a negation, you simply switch box to diamond and diamond to box, so commuting the negation with the two modal operators yields:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.02.32 AM

But necessarily x entails x. Thus, we can conclude:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.05.45 AM

In other words, Chris should conclude that, for any situation, that situation is possibly not unjust. But not being unjust is equivalent to either being just or morally neutral. Therefore, while Chris’s MOADJ concludes that all situations are necessarily just, at best, we can conclude that all situations are possibly either just or morally neutral: Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.06.38 AM

Chris’s conclusion is mistaken. Note that no characteristic of injustice is drawn upon other than that injustice is contingent and not necessary. Had Chris’s argument succeeded, we would have to conclude that for any contingent property, there is some necessary opposite property. Obviously, that’s not true; the property of there being a cat is contingent, but so is the property of there not being a cat.


A Return of the Satanic Panic?

For individuals interested in American culture or religion, the late 1970s, 80s, and early 90s are a period of time remembered as the “Satanic Panic”. The Satanic Panic was a period of time in which Americans became convinced that dangerous devil worshiping cults were abusing children and murdering people in dark rituals. Police officers and courts contributed to the panic, as they bought into rumors propounded by conservative Christian groups concerning the dangers of “Satanic Cults” [1], and daytime television programs warned parents of a massive, widespread Satanic conspiracy endangering the well-being of their children [2]. Stemming from the “cult scare” of the 1960s and 70s [3], blossoming to a widespread paranoia about devil worship in the 1980s [4], and finally debunked by numerous investigations in the early 1990s (especially by FBI agent Kenneth Lanning’s 1992 report on Satanic Ritual Abuse, or SRA), the Satanic Panic left in its wake numerous people falsely accused of crimes, lives ruined, and murders unresolved. The unfortunate episode in American religious history inspired The X-Files (and other horror movies and television programs).

The Satanic Panic also led to the persecution of a number of minority religions, including Wicca, Santeria, Vodoun, and others, by a literal 20th century witchhunt. A recent triple homicide in Pensacola, Florida, and its subsequent description as a “Wiccan ritual” by police officers, has led members of the neopagan community to worry about the return of the Satanic panic. A neighbor of the murdered family expressed to local reporters that, “It’s frightening to think about. Especially when you have small children […] to find out that it was this weird, satanic cult, witchcraft whatever, is just really unsettling.” The reporters repeated the neighbor’s message without criticism, signaling to a wider populace that “Satanic” “witchcraft” poses a legitimate threat to their children. The national media repeated the same message, again without criticism.

The persistence of the Satanic Panic past the early 90s has been a recent research interest of mine. I became interested in the issue in graduate school when I learned of a 2013 murder that the media had labelled “Satanic”. Miranda Barbour, who had recently married Ellyette Barbour, had met Troy Laferrara through a personal ad posted to Craig’s List. Miranda and Ellyette murdered Leferrara, left his body in an alley, and left to party at a strip club. When a reporter visited Miranda in prison, she described himself as a member of a Satanic cult, operating in numerous states, who had killed more than 20, but less than 100, people. In all likelihood, the story was a complete fabrication. Nonetheless, in the ensuing months, the media constructed a folklore surrounding Miranda and her supposed occult beliefs, constructing a theology, rituals, and other elements of a legendary religion. The case, and the media’s construction of a “Satanic” crime, became the focus of a working paper that I will be presenting on a panel at a conference in October.

In the past few years, there have been a variety of other cases resembling events from the Satanic panic. Ostension is the carrying out of a ritual originally appearing in legendary or folkloric categories [5]. One example of ostension is the popular “Bloody Mary” ritual in which teens chant in front of a mirror in the attempt to summon a spirit. Most instances of ostension are harmless, and the construction of makeshift rituals or the visitation of supposedly haunted locations, remains a common childhood past time in many communities. However, when preexisting legends or folktales involve violent rituals, teens may be encouraged to carry out acts of violence. During the Satanic Panic, teens who heard stories of devil worship from their Christian churches or daytime television were sometimes inspired to construct makeshift rituals. Paradoxically, the development of the Satanic Panic itself — and a widespread paranoia about violent occult ritualism — led to makeshift violent rituals.

Recently, two teens in Waukesha, Wisconsin, attempted to murder a classmate in order to summon the fictional character Slender Man, a supernatural entity they believed to inhabit the local woods. In several other recent cases, a numbers of homicide suspects who apparently cannibalized their victims, and who possess deeply frightening and anti-social appearances, have been characterized by the tabloid press as “Satanic” [6]. I don’t know whether these cases were instances of legitimate ostension, or if, as I strongly suspect and as was common during the 1980s, the cases were labelled “Satanic” because the suspects adorned themselves and their belongings with occult symbolism. In one case, the suspect’s Facebook profile is publicly visible, and is adorned with artwork from the band Slayer. Slayer uses Satanic symbolism on their album covers, but that someone who listens to Slayer happened to murder another person is not evidence that the murder was, somehow, Satanic ritualism.

In light of these recent cases, I asked a colleague whether or not we are seeing a return of the Satanic Panic. His response was that the panic had never actually ended. I share his assessment, but note that the panic has changed in significant ways over time. How, exactly, popular, social, and digital media, as well as the evolving American religious landscape, has affected — and will affect — the panic remains a fascinating area of research. As the recent event in Pensacola reminds us, the engagement of academics with the popular media is vital for preventing the demonization of minority religions.


[1] Police officers often received information on supposed “Satanic cults” from conservative Christian organizations. Training videos, released to law enforcement agencies during the 1980s and 1990s, are available on YouTube. Note that the video contains numerous references to minority religions, including Caribbean syncretisms, labeling them “Satanic”. Also notice the awkward, exploitive use of a bikini model to “demonstrate” the details of a “Satanic” crime.

[2] Geraldo Rivera provided the most famous.

[3] See, for example, Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing), pp 8-13.

[4] For various academic works on the Satanic Panic, see (1991) The Satanism Scare, Richardson, J., Best, J., & Bromley, D. (Ed), (New York: Walter De Gruyter); Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing); Frankfurter, D. (2006) Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[5] See Bill Ellis’s (1989) “Death by Folklore”, in Western Folklore, Vol 48, No 3.

[6] See, for examples, see various articles by the Daily Mail and the Mirror.


“look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”

For people in the secular-o-sphere, you would have to be living under a rock not to have seen the massive implosion surrounding Ophelia Benson’s gender politics that’s been going on for the past week and a half. Heather McNamara, Heina Dadabhoy, and Jason Thibeault (among many others, I’m sure) have all provided great analyses.

I would be remiss not to mention that long before these events, Alex Gabriel wrote with nuance about Ophelia’s dogwhistle remarks, and this piece sets important background for what has been transpiring. I’m adding a brief commentary of my own, as some people are still expressing a ton of confusion over what went wrong here. Granted, if the great writers I just linked can’t convince you of the problems at hand, I’m sure I also can’t, but as a person who pays a lot of attention to how people express themselves, and what they say or don’t say, I feel compelled to weigh in.

It all began with this post about Free Pride Glasgow banning drag.

Now, I’m the kind of person who encourages nuance and complexity. I think there are many ways of approaching drag and the conversation on drag. Writers as diverse as Judith Butler and Matt Baume have written on the subversive potential of drag. There have also been discussions of the misogyny and transmisogyny in drag performances and the insensitivity of some drag performers to trans women (and this discussion is far from over). My point here is that this discussion has been had, but it’s also ongoing and I think there is plenty of room for legitimate contributions.

As a matter of fact, five days after its announcement that drag was banned, Free Pride Glasgow has changed its policy back to welcoming drag, as Ophelia’s original link now shows if you click it. So, yeah, that tells me a conversation is being had and has been had and the community has been and is working through these kinds of topics, and it’s not exactly the kind of Orwellian scenario Ophelia’s original post suggests. As to the post itself:

Sometimes it will disappoint some people within the community? Why? Do some people within the community want an unsafe space?

Or maybe it’s that “a safe space” isn’t exactly the right thing to hope to create, or at least not exclusively. For a lot of people “a safe space” is one that has only straight people in it, after all. Gay pride has always been rowdy and raunchy and Dionysian, proudly so – that’s always been part of the point. I’m not sure wanting to create “a safe space” is compatible with that.

Um…so no more playing around with gender, now it’s either trans or cis?

Is that really a good idea?

So there you go then. The answer is yes: no more playing around with gender. No more mocking it, no more teasing it, no more parodying it.

Is that really a good idea?”

These are not contributions to any sort of discussion. These are not even analyses. These are sarcastic rhetorical questions (and leading ones; the conclusion she wishes people to draw is obvious). And, considering the topic is rather sensitive, it’s remarkably tone deaf to plunge ahead without even addressing (or showing any awareness of, possibly because she doesn’t have awareness of?) the legitimate concerns of trans women towards certain drag performers, including this remarkable piece by Zinnia Jones on Ophelia’s own blogging network.

So, yeah. Ophelia’s very first post had its share of problems. And obviously, shit got worse.

Here’s why I, and a lot of other people, see this entire damn post (and everything that ensued from it) as bad faith: as the thread goes on, it looks more and more as though not only is she not interested in really discussing drag, but her original post which sort of seems to be defending drag is really a veiled annoyance that the feelings of trans women are being prioritized on this issue. Really? In the context of a space dedicated to different iterations of queer identities, you’re bothered about that?

This is not a legitimate conversation. This is, if I’m being extremely charitable, a lot of foot stamping “I was here first!” gatekeeping politics, which are always revolting. And if I’m not being charitable, it’s just bigotry and transmisogyny and giving a space for bigots like commenter Liz to add TERFy remarks without any challenge.

And as for this follow up, what exactly is the meaningful difference between the ontological and the political definitions of womanhood in this scenario? While there is likely a worthwhile conversation to be had about political identities (and I’ve asked myself plenty of philosophical questions about how we categorize our political identity movements; I even think the queer umbrella potentially condenses so many disparate identities that I wonder how politically useful it is — so, again, I’m not exactly averse to such questions), this evades that the very reason Ms. Benson was asked about how she sees trans women was because her remarks repeatedly insinuated that — however she views trans women — she feels priority should be placed on cis women who were criticizing drag first (?)** and she pretty much says as much.

Hand-wringing about semantics and dragging out the conversation of political movements is to deliberately ignore that she was asked about her views because she was heavily implying that trans women need to “know their place” in subordination to prior (cis) feminist critique. Like I said, that is at the very least (and at my most charitable) revolting gatekeeping whiny bullshit.

If there’s one thing I get impatient with, it’s people who deliberately move goal posts and act completely tone deaf and then drag in topics which are kind-of-irrelevant-in-this-exact-moment like so many shiny objects to distract from the nasty implications they let drop in their spaces. It’s treated as bad faith because it is bad faith. People should not have to explicate your perspective as though reading a text full of vague symbolism (although it is, in fact, not too difficult to do so).

**Addendum: What the hell does here first/did [thing] first have to do with the price of shit? We don’t argue we should prioritize Aristotle’s perspective on Greece’s economic crisis over those of currently-living Greeks. I bite my thumb at this second-wave “[cis] women criticized [whatever] first” bullshit — if it’s even true, which it may not be, since categories are continually shifting, as is our understanding of them.


skeptical language

As a skeptic, I see a lot of discussions about what constitutes good atheism or bad atheism. I also see discussions about where or how it’s considered rude to express your disbelief. Perhaps most relevantly, I see discussions about where or how it becomes rude to express your disbelief in someone else’s belief.

I feel like the bulk of atheists I personally know tend to take a pretty hands-off approach to discussing religious beliefs, focusing more on the social side of religions. That’s understandable for many reasons, and I think the lousy actions we associate with individuals such as Famous Atheists Who Are Kinda Dicks probably have contributed to an atmosphere where most of us endeavor not to be that dick.

On the other hand, where do we draw the line? And where does that line become about secular respectability politics?

I’m remembering this conversation I saw a few years ago.

I used to belong to a private IRC chatroom where about ~20 people would come in and out regularly. There mostly wasn’t a set topic or theme. A couple of people in the chat were Unitarian Universalists. There were also some progressive Christians. And, of course, there were atheists, some of whom were outspoken skeptics and some of whom were more passive in their secularism.

One day, one UU and an atheist, one who I deemed to be more in the passive camp, had a pretty awful argument.

It started like this.

They were discussing some belief — I honestly can’t even remember what — but am 99% sure it involved either a belief in something supernatural, or a practice related to the aforesaid.

The atheist remarked, “Dude, that’s cracked. :)”

Cracked, in this case, like — off-beat. Now, this particular lady sometimes caught flack because her smileys were perceived to be passive-aggressive on occasion, though she would routinely note that she intended them to soften her comments, to convey that there was no malice in her observations. I am still friends with her. If she comments on my posts about secularism at all, it’s usually to say she is apathetic towards secularism as a cause. So, she’s definitely not a Dick sort of atheist, and this observation about a “cracked” belief or practice was completely offhanded.

The UU became noticeably tense. She responded, “I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that I believe in [topic at hand],” to which the atheist responded, well, I know you are [in this or that church] that does believe in that, but I still find this belief really unlikely.

At this point, the UU wrote: I cannot conceive of someone who would be so unthinkably rude as to say something like that in front of someone who belongs to this group, to insult someone’s beliefs right in front of them.

She then demanded an apology.

She said, if you value my friendship, then apologize, now. I don’t want to hear anything else from you besides an apology.

I remember watching this whole exchange and finding it extremely surreal.

There’s a lot you could talk about. A lot you could debate.

The first aspect of the discussion which grabbed my attention was the ipso facto perspective that saying something negative about someone else’s [religious] belief is inherently extremely rude.

The offended party didn’t just indicate she was upset about her own belief being dismissed. She implied it would be extremely offensive to be dismissive towards anyone’s religious belief.

And yet I found myself thinking: if you don’t believe in the supernatural, how exactly can you not be dismissive towards it? Like, even if we atheists don’t sit around in circles talking about the more fantastic claims that have been made in the name of different world religions, presumably people who are atheists by definition don’t find such claims to be very likely.

Should we simply mask our opinions about the world as it is, or about history, so as not to offend believers? And to what extent do believers owe atheists anything in return? Because it’s not like I think the offended party owed it to the atheist to continue to be friends with her. No one owes anyone else any sort of allegiance.

So if you don’t believe in someone else’s [religious] belief, where, or how, does it become rude to say so?

And if you find the [religious] belief fantastically improbable, where, or how, does it become rude to imply that it’s an out there belief?

This is a messy terrain for me, because I feel certain that pretty much everyone picks and chooses their own line. On the other side of that line is Shit They Consider Bizarre. I’ve known people who made a big deal about embracing any and all religious beliefs who then turned around and talked about how absurd Scientology or an impending rapture was. I think literally no one on Earth is 100% consistent in thinking all claims are exactly as likely as all other claims. And, frankly, if someone did think that, I can’t see why that would give cause to take their perspective particularly seriously.

Yet, you can’t really demand people not to be offended if you find their beliefs odd, even if you say it really nicely, or even if it’s not specifically directed at them, but in a more general setting (as this chat was).

Sure, some people are easy-going and just don’t give any fucks. But plenty more do give plenty of fucks. When I’ve talked in any way about the unlikelihood of supernatural claims, I’ve gotten pushback that’s taken the form of either “this is a foregone conclusion; why are you talking about it?” or “how dare you force other people to share your beliefs!” or some such variation on those themes. If it’s a foregone conclusion, as even so many other atheists tend to think, why does stating skepticism with any force tend to almost immediately draw claims that you’re rocking the boat?

I want to be sensitive to people’s humanity and people’s feelings and, yes, people’s beliefs.

But I also want to be an iconoclast:
I want to destroy the Sacred. All Sacred. By that, I mean I want to destroy that Sacred Supernatural Which Posits Itself as Above Critique. I want to tear down arbitrary symbols which position themselves as full of meaning. I want to drain the blood of the signs and signifiers of the magical and the otherworldly and the scientifically unlikely that imposes itself upon reality. Not all at once. Incrementally. Little by little.

Not with a bang, but with a whisper.


a history of violence: i.

There’s a story I want to tell. There’s something I’m trying to make sense of. I’ve held off on writing this post until now because I’m not sure of my ability to adequately synthesize my thoughts. I’m caught in a sort of Foucaultian conundrum about discourses. But yesterday, something catalyzed me.

I want you to understand the scenes within which I move through the world. My office building, a twenty-two story high-rise owned by a prominent newscasting organization, lies in the heart of Downtown, amid urban sprawl and ongoing construction work. An open-air mall sits behind the stone pavilion where my building gives way to the markers of the middle class, the Panera and Starbucks, where women in dress jackets and heels and men in suits congregate for their lunch breaks. This is the business district. Nearby, less than two streets away, are the totems of law and local government power: the courthouse, the social security office, the federal buildings. From my office window, I can sometimes see and hear protest marches in the street below. Mexican nationals in Aztec regalia, an anti-ISIS rally by the Kurdish community just down the street, people organizing around my building demanding that its owner organization give better coverage to the cause of Palestinian rights. And everywhere, you see the poor, the disabled, and the homeless.

Yesterday, I was on my final break of the afternoon. Sitting outside, reading articles on my phone, I overheard an argument:

“Do you know how much these cost?” a kid was saying, holding up his skateboard. “These cost a lot of money!” He shook it in his hands like a sign of protest.

An older man, one of the security personnel who work in my office building, had come outside and was standing amid a group of kids. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about six to ten kids (I didn’t count), and all but about two were black. The security guard (a white man, I think; possibly a white-passing Latino, but I read him as white) wore a three-piece suit and polished shoes. He had called the children homeless, or said something insinuating that he thought them so.

“You said we were homeless!” the boy was saying; the children gathered round the man, protesting that they owned quality Nike shoes.

“I see you here everyday,” the man answered, sounding very unfriendly.

I only heard snippets of conversation. The children condemned this older man’s comments. They demanded, either overtly or through their actions, an apology. The man continued to insist they weren’t allowed to skateboard here. Some set down their skateboards and dashed loops in front of the building in reaction to his comments. I thought to myself, surely this man will go away, right? But he didn’t. He kept standing there, arguing with these children.

Eventually, I heard: “I’m going to call the police,” and one of the black children, on skateboard, answered, “Call the PO-lice, then!”

At this point, I couldn’t just watch. I walked over and said, sir, what’s going on here? The man turned to me and, in a clipped tone, asked me whether I worked in the building. I answered that I did. I said, “These are kids. I don’t see the big deal.” I don’t remember everything I said, or he said, or the kids said at this point. My nerves were shot.

I do remember an uproar went through the kids; looking at me, they declared how that man had called them homeless, had indicated they were poor, had taunted them about not being in school or not being able to go to school, had said something about college being expensive (to which he answered, in the same clipped tone, “Well, it is expensive, isn’t it?”).

I do remember that the guard turned to me, and said, “It’s private property. The rules are, it’s [skateboarding] not allowed.”

I do remember he gave me the number of the building manager’s office, as if daring me to go ask. I remember I said I might indeed go speak with the manager. I remember turning to one young girl, the smallest of the kids, and whispering, “I support you” and “Good luck” and “I’ll see what I can do.” I remember another young boy said, “Thank you, ma’am,” as I turned to walk back into the office building.



There’s much to say here, and much I struggle to say. Police are the agents of the moneyed classes against the urban poor. Urban poor, predominantly black and/or disabled, are perceived to “devalue” real estate. That came through loud and clear in the exchange between a group of children, most of them black, and an older security guard who had weaponized the language of poverty against them with his not-so-subtle remarks. Whatever income bracket these children’s families actually were in was irrelevant: they were black, thus immediately assigned poverty, immediately considered as detriments to the security of the white middle-class landscape.

But even that is not the full story. This security guard: Is he not himself evidence of capitalism turning the lower middle-class into the agents of the bourgeoisie against the vulnerable underclass? Well-dressed though he may have been, what I know about the San Diego economy suggests to me that he doesn’t get paid that much to be an asshole to kids. And what shall we say about the words “private property” — an ideology taken-for-granted by a man who threw it at me to ever-so-simply justify the threat of calling the cops on skateboarding children?

Common sense dictates that children should be free to play in an open pavilion before the mall. Bureaucracy, its spiraling labyrinth of legalese (produced by and for the upper classes), dictates otherwise. It normalizes itself. It embeds itself into consciousness. Private property. A security guard “just doing his job.” Where does that leave those children?


I have seen gentrification. I do not live in Downtown. I live within suburbia. My apartment lies near another business district, a place literally named Executive Square. I pass bankers and businessmen when I take walks from the local mall to the pizzeria. There, or in the Starbucks, I see young professional white people with their expensive dog breeds, wealthy older white families, in addition to college kids, both white and PoC. Notice I say PoC — some are black. Many are East Asian pre-med students, many are Desi professionals working at the large engineering firm nearby, many are Arab, Japanese, and Southeast Asian transfer students studying English for a semester or two here.

At the mall in this sector of suburbia, there’s a 24/hour fitness where a friend of mine and I were going to work out. My friend is a black man. One night, I arrived there slightly late (I walked), only to find him angry and frustrated because a cop had just accosted him outside of the gym doors.

“That’s racial profiling,” I said, obvious. “You’re damned right,” he answered.

The gym itself, right before the entrance to the mall, is the emblem of the white middle/ruling class, representing its dreams and its fearful psyche. Another time, as I arrived, I saw the police handcuffing a man against a lamp post. This man was white, but he had the markers I’ve seen on the very poor and the mentally disabled — the visibly homeless population. He screamed and begged to be released, saying that he was sorry, asking to be let go.

Inside the glass doors, I looked over at the woman standing beside me. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to say something, do something, but knew I couldn’t. I’m just one person. I asked her what had happened with that man. She didn’t know. She looked bewildered. I asked: Had the man actually done anything to warrant this arrest? I’ll never forget her answer.

“Oh yeah, I mean, he definitely needs to be taken in,” she said, looking at me like it was absurd that I’d even ask such a thing. “He’s crazy.”

Mental illness and poverty: Crimes. Property devaluation. Vagrancy laws. When I worked in this suburban place, they locked the bathrooms because of the fear of homeless people coming into them and taking tissue paper.

Watch this video of Cenk Uygur’s analysis of (former) Officer Casebolt of the McKinney police department going off on a bunch of black neighborhood kids. The racist commentary — every word — must be heard, accounted for, remembered. At 18:54, a faceless white woman with a California accent appears, declaring that an officer who held down a young black girl and waved a gun above her head “deserves a medal.” That woman’s voice echoes in my head against the woman in my local gym who declared a man should be taken in by the cops. It’s the same tone. Same kind of voice. It’s the sound of the white ruling class, guarding itself against infiltration by those it perceives as undesirable.

Ultimately, outrage is easy. Tears are easy. I want to think more deeply, analyze more deeply, work towards a formulation of structural analysis. There are things I still haven’t said, tiers I still haven’t addressed. There’s a murmur of violence spreading out through the city.


William of Ockham’s Response to the Cosmological Argument

I’ve been reading The Sheed and Ward Anthology of Catholic Philosophy (ed. James Swindal & Harry Gensler, 2005). Apparently, William of Ockham, though a Christian, argued against several traditional arguments for God’s existence (pp 220-222 in the anthology, taken from Ockham’s Quodlibeta, p 1, q 1).

Some folks have argued for a prime mover based on the supposed impossibility of an infinite regress of causes. The regress of causes must stop somewhere and so must stop with a cause that is not itself caused. This is supposed to be a piece of evidence for God; medieval theologians understood this to establish that the universe had a cause, though the other properties of that cause needed to be filled in through other arguments. (This is one version of the cosmological argument.)

Here’s Ockham’s response. Consider a continuous piece of matter (i.e. a piece of matter can be infinitely subdivided). If you strike the piece of matter at one point, the forces will move through the matter, transmitted to all other points. Since the matter is continuous, the force will have to be transmitted through an infinite number of points before the force reaches any other point. And that means that there will be an infinite series of causes and effects throughout the material. Thus, infinite regresses are possible after all.

One objection that could be thrown at Ockham — and that William Lane Craig would be likely to use — is to distinguish between potential and actual infinities. Potentially, you could decompose the continuum into an infinite number of pieces, but no one actually has infinitely subdivided the continuum, so it’s not an actual infinity. However, this response strikes me as rather poor. For any given time, there is a corresponding cause-effect pair in the continuum and, as time marches forward, all of those cause-effect pairs are passed through. We don’t need to decompose the continuum ourselves for it to be an actual infinity.

Another kind of response would point out that continua do not exist. Matter cannot be infinitely subdivided, not because it would take forever, but because matter is made of atoms. However, this doesn’t work either. The prime mover argument is supposed to demonstrate on the basis of a priori reason — and not on the basis of empirical observation — that the universe requires an unmoved mover. Yet there is no a priori argument that decides between continua theories of matter and atomic theories of matter; historically, that issue was settled only through scientific experimentation. Thus, continua are not conceptually impossible. But if continua are not conceptually impossible, then an actual infinite series of causes cannot be impossible.


why I read the Bible

I read the Bible.

The entire Bible. Cover to cover. At least, the Protestant version. There are other versions, other Gospels, many of them relegated to what we call apocrypha. I did it because I set a New Year’s resolution in December of 2014, and that resolution was to study the sacred texts of the world (or “sacred texts” — I am after all an atheist). I set that resolution because what we as human beings have is our history, and the oldest writings which preserve history and myth do a great deal to inform much later writing.

Whether we like it or not, whether we’re believers or not, whether we want a secular world or not, art and literature throughout the planet and certainly the tradition we’ve inherited from the Renaissance and medieval times are imprinted with symbols from the stories of the Bible. Not to put too fine a point upon it, but history and literature are my life. I can’t imagine a life that’s not dedicated to a lot of backwards-gazing, a lot of thinking upon the struggles from one era to another.

Let me quote from Gregory Mobley (“The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible”) —

“I am passionate about stories, and about the way that humans tell stories to themselves and each other in order to make sense of the chaos. There are stories that humans have been telling ever since they wandered off the savannas of the southern trough of the Great Rift Valley. There is something incredible about the Bible and those stories. About 3,500 years ago, the ancient Lebanese invented the alphabet, and within 500 years of that, this new technology had spread to Greece and Israel, cultures located on and next to the northern trough of the Great Rift Valley. And so we have from the dawn of literacy two big text witnesses, Homer and Bible, at this turning point, this axial age when the old world of orality gave way to the new world of literacy. Homer and Bible represent two huge arks just as the flood of alphabetic writing began to inundate the thousand and one stories of that preliterate world whose lifespan makes our mere three millennia of alphabetic literacy seem but as yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night.

Onto the ark of Bible they come two by two: all the characters and stories of the old oral world. Adam and Eve and all the mythic wisdom and confusion about what it means to be gendered. Cain and Abel, the farmer and the cowman, and the perennial struggle between competing economies. Isaac and Ishmael, the smooth man and the hairy man, city mouse and country mouse. Samson and Delilah, representing impulse and cunning, their relationship and emblem of how vulnerable love makes us.


Every time I walk through the ark of Bible, I notice more of these primeval pairs lurking in the holds and wandering around on deck: serpents and rainbows, heroes who complete their odysseys home from war and heroes who do not, male heroes who get trapped in an underworld and the female heroes who rescue them, and the actors in all these role-reversal scenarios involving first and last, older and younger, Dives and Lazarus. Up the gangplank they come, the dragon of chaos, the natural man, the seven antediluvian sages who gave gifts of culture to humans, the seven heroes, the four demons. They bring with them their stories of the flood, of the plague, of the quest of combats and courtships, of Edens and Armageddons. The biblical writers shaped these characters and plots to fit into the peculiar shape of their ark, with its kosher fare, Hebrew idioms, and above all, its enigmatic, elusive Almighty, YHWH.”

Mobley’s enthusiasm for stories speaks to me. That said, as both a secular person and a modern person, I am not going to say that I don’t struggle with a great many things in the Bible, because I do. As a person who believes in the modern liberal concept of individual religion and the right to free practice, the Bible’s incessant drumbeat against idolatry and the worship of other gods caused a continual murmur of indignation in the back of my mind: “My God*, men! Live and let live!”

Although the voices of a great many authors and perspectives appear within the Bible, if there’s one strain of thought that continues almost unabated throughout these voices, it’s that of critique. Sheer, incessant critique. A determined insistence that other people are doing shit all wrong and they need to be told they’re doing it all wrong. And they are told this in language so visceral that my stomach knotted at points. (Hosea and Jeremiah, then the overwhelming brutality of Revelation.)

These writers were disgusted. They were outraged. But in this victor-written history, we are left wondering, was what was transpiring around them even remotely worth this disgust? Were they a bunch of assholes telling everyone else how shitty they were, or were the people around them indeed burning up kids on altars at the drop of a hat and ripping off the poor every which way you looked? We will likely never know for sure.

Looking back two thousand, or nearly three thousand years into the past, what as I as a modern person see in the psychology of these long-dead voices is the anxiety of life before nations, the indescribable feeling of identity within a relatively small grouping in the narrow Levant that is ever-precarious, ever-threatened by empires rising up on all sides. When Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the neo-Babylonian empire, appears to destroy the last stronghold of Judah, blinding Zedekiah the king and taking the Jews into exile, it’s shocking.

In Psalms, the lamentations of the exiles echo forth from this desolate past: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

T.S. Eliot echoes these words in The Wasteland, lamenting the modern world:


The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

175 Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

180 Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

185 The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

I always read several books at a time. I do that to keep my reading fresh. As I was reading the Bible, I was also reading the Jewish American author (and Nobel winner) Saul Bellow’s brilliant novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which critic Martin Amis has called The Great American Novel. Here, two-three thousand years later, in the landscape of America, these images and references still come tumbling forth: the Jewish mother whose kitchen magic and worries of everyday superstition are far removed from the great God of creation who parted the waters, the aunt who tells Augie fearfully of the tortures of Dinah, the metaphor of the confusion of Pisgah, and a modern American feeling unmoored by the specialization of trade, unable to fight the fearful Apollyon. Jewish communities in synagogues and Passover, bringing the inflections of Yiddish and Eastern European languages into the American patois.

Reading the Bible at the same time as I read what a Jewish American author (in a boldly American text, I might add: the novel opens with its titular character declaring himself an American) was able to do with these symbols, how he was able to transplant them into a modern context — I realized it was the perfect complement and perfectly encapsulated why I, though a non-believer, will forever read the stories that religions have imprinted onto the world.


*no pun intended. see, though? the language is all over our English idioms and expressions. still.