Monday, May 21, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.5: Fasting

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Administrative stuff first. As always, my numbering system is unpopular and confusing. I'm hoping that among the many hundreds of you following this conversation, there are a few of you who are skilled in the art of explaining anal-retentive stuff to non-anal-retentives. If you're one of these, please send me a PM so we can work out a way to make it easy for everyone to understand. Don't bother imploring me to change the numbering. I'm too old and crusty for that. In the mean time, you'll have to live with my best explanation: it's like an outline.

It seems that there's some confusion around my thoughts on hypocrisy. Rather than getting bogged down in it, let's move on from the hypocrisy issue for now and see if we can find simpler ideas to tackle until I can make the fundamentals a bit clearer to everyone. I expected it to be difficult to get this conversation off the ground, as I've been trying and failing to systematize these ideas for a long time. One of my primary reasons for making this series is to get everyone's help in pounding out some kind of framework. I appreciate you guys hanging in there while we try to get liftoff.

Let's try a case study in invitational ethics. My annoying and confusing series-numbering system might be a good place to start. The way I number my episodes is a symptom of an anal-retentive personality, obviously. Some of you will see this trait of mine in a moral light: for you, it might be associated with righteousness or conscientiousness, or, more likely, with sadism: maybe I remind you of your cruel math teacher or the floss-obsessed dentist. If you understand my episode numbering, you might conclude that all these confused people are lazy whiners who slept through math class. If you don't understand my numbering, you might conclude that I'm a pompous windbag, or I'm trying to make you feel small, or both, or worse. I will argue that all such moral judgments are figments of our imaginations. Fabricated. Insane rationalizations built upon primitive instincts. The grotesque offspring of our Ptolemaic theory of morality, which looks more like a religion the more I look at it.

What would Jesus, mouthpiece for coercive ethics, have to say about these moral judgements? Skip ahead a bit in the Gospel of Matthew to 7:1-5: Don't judge. If you do, it's ass-kicking time, courtesy of Casper the unfriendly ghost, or, if you like, the people around you, in the form of shame, humiliation, maybe even life-threatening ostracism. P.S. Hypocrites suck, in case you didn't hear me the first twelve times I said it. In today's society, this seems to translate into something like Before I criticize anyone publicly, I'd better work out how likely it is that they'll publicly turn my criticism back on me. At times I've also seen it translate into I'd better think about my own faults before I say anything about anyone else's faults, even if those other people's faults are real, horrible faults while mine are just little faults, and I have really good reasons for having every single one of them. I'll just judge them in silence instead. Jesus planted the seeds of all kinds of neuroses.

What does invitational ethics have to say? First, anal-retentiveness is the result of brain chemistry. Is my brain chemistry my responsibility? In some senses, yes: I can practice math and get better at it, so obviously I can take a measure of responsibility for my brain chemistry. What I have no responsibility for is the aspects of my brain chemistry involved in personality and aptitude. Some of us tend to be anal-retentive unconsciously, others are more relaxed. Some people are lucky enough to be born with an aptitude for math. These people find it relatively easy to become proficient mathematicians. Others are so unlucky that no reasonable amount of work will ever make them competent even to manage a bank account. This is all the result of features of brain chemistry over which no one has any control, therefore for which no one has any responsibility. The ability or inability to understand my numbering system has zero ethical weight.

Invitational ethics takes the point a step further: Even someone with the ability but not the inclination to work hard enough to understand my numbering would not be slapped with a label of judgment, such as lazy. There are reasons for our behaviors, reasons that we can't see clearly through the murk of coercive ethics.

Going back to Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus gives us his wisest advice concerning fasting: do it secretly. He believed that fasting is all about your relationship with Casper; wiser humans know that the reasons for fasting are asuperstitious. But I've said that I'll leave Jesus alone about the supernatural, so when he said, "your father who is in heaven," we'll say that he meant something like "your own personal higher self." Still, he obviously doesn't understand the importance of fasting. Fasting is a means of conditioning the mind or inducing various numinous states. The best advice we can get on the topic from the sage among sages is, Don't make a face when you're in public? How about advice on when and how to fast most effectively for different states, or better yet, a simple reminder that fasting is a matter of personal choice and is never to be forced on anyone else?

In Verses 19-34, Jesus encourages the poor, as it was so well paraphrased to me recently, to stay poor and shut up. He seasons this excellent advice with some horoscope-talk about the eye being the lamp of the body. Fans of Jesus may understand this to mean that whatever you set your sights on is what you're likely to get, so be careful not to set your sights on money. In other words, you guessed it: “Fuck your feelings.” Suppress your greed. Not a single word about self-examination, asking yourself where your so-called greed comes from. No allowance at all for the possibility that what appears to be greed is actually a compulsion, brought on by childhood experiences or simply atypical brain chemistry. A morality that doesn't account for human brains can hardly be the best morality for human brains to adopt.

That's 8.5. Thanks for watching.

Monday, May 14, 2012

God's QC 8.3.2: Whose Friend?

Here I'll explain how Jesus is a friend to the rich.

In Matthew 26:6-13, expensive burial preparations are performed on Jesus. Someone among Jesus' followers seems to have understood that "the poor" aren't just an abstract policy issue, but rather real human beings who suffer every moment of every day. This enlightened follower balks at the expense and suggests that the money could have been used for the poor. Jesus responds to this suggestion with, "The poor you will always have with you." Really. He really says that. Am I the only one who reads this as Jesus' resignation that poverty is here to stay? Am I the only one who suspects that Jesus is unaware of the actual human beings he is talking about when he says, "the poor"? This is a horrible thing for Jesus to say, and a condemnation to the poor throughout history.

In Matthew 6:1-4, Jesus gives us some advice on charity. In these four verses, he mentions the needy a couple of times, but again he seems to recognize them only in the abstract. He doesn't see that any alleviation to a suffering person is desirable, regardless of the internal vagaries of the brain doing the alleviation, especially if the owner of said brain is giving through an intermediary such as a charity and probably will never meet the suffering person.

In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus has all sorts of wonderful advice about just living for today and accepting what you have. Special thanks to the YouTuber with this name, which I'm too dignified to pronounce (sluggdiddyyddidgguls), for pointing out that this advice is basically, "Hey poor people, accept your situation and be quiet."

Here we have seen the following from Jesus:
  1. A casual disregard for the genuine suffering of real human beings, resulting in
    1. Unflinching resignation to perpetual poverty
    2. The conceit that a giver's attitude counts for anything when contrasted with suffering
  2. A command to poor people to stay poor and shut up
Jesus is no man of the poor, but clearly, a tool of the rich. He has been of great service to the rich in general for two thousand years, setting an example of casual disregard for the poor. This has perpetuated the genuine suffering of generations of real human beings, all to the benefit of people who, as I have said, have enough luxury in their lives to have a conscience about the attitude the have when they give. Jesus is no savior. He is no champion. He's a poverty-sustaining cancer in sheep's clothing.

That's 8.3.2. Thanks for watching.

Friday, May 11, 2012

God's QC 8.3.1: Jesus, Enemy of The Poor

Here I will explain how Jesus is an enemy of the poor.

Some of you disagreed with my claim that Jesus erred in exhorting us to be secretive in acts of charity. I reconsidered my claim, trying to make room for having been too harsh on Jesus, but on further reflection I've realized that I was far too easy on him. Jesus seems not to have realized that poverty involves real suffering. Instead he trifled over whether the giver is behaving with the appropriate attitude. As Sam Harris says of the "god" who clears up your eczema while allowing children in Africa to starve, this is obscene. Relative to the poor, Jesus is a laughingstock. Or, rather, he would be, except that his ridiculous sentiments have poisoned our water supply. We accept poverty. Obviously, it's something that will never go away, as even Jesus, the boldest, most radical moral thinker of the last two millennia, tells us so. We put band-aids on poverty because so few people believe that it can be addressed systemically. This Jesus robbed the poor of their only hope and dressed up his crime in words that are useful only to those with the luxury of a conscience about giving with the proper attitude. I'll pretend for a moment that I have some right to speak for the poor and I'll say, Jesus, thanks for nothing.

As if you couldn't tell already, I consider this an important point, so if you see flaws in my argument, speak up. I claim that there is no version of Jesus that deserves the accolades he receives relative to his concern for the poor. Later on in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus actually defends expensive burial preparations with, "The poor you will always have with you." How many children could have been fed with the money for the burial preparations? No one knows, and obviously, Jesus neither knew nor cared. Just like no one knows how many children could be fed with the tens of millions upon tens of millions that have been, and are continually being spent to prevent gay marriage. And obviously, most, if not all, of those spending the money neither know nor care. Perhaps it's unfair for me to say that they don't care; that might suggest more callousness than is actually present. Still, it is fair to say that the welfare of the poor takes a lower priority in their minds than the so-called sanctity of marriage, even if their prioritization occurs unconsciously. At least in this case they are justified by their teacher: Jesus exemplified this sort of casual disregard for the genuine suffering in the world in favor of trifles. If you still think Jesus had any words of practical value to the poor, please do let me know.

On a completely unrelated note, I am looking for two people willing to volunteer their technical skills in exchange for the glory of being publicly embarrassed by Yours Truly, GreatBigBore. First, I need an audio engineer type who knows how to use GarageBand and can make my music sound less like leaf blowers and garbage cans. Second, I need a merciless editor for my scripts. I'm having a problem with this video series, making each episode way longer than the time limit imposed by my attention span. PM me if you're interested.

That's 8.3.1. Thanks for watching.

God's Quality Control 8.4: Hypocrisy

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Before I start, I'd like to draw your attention to an error in the public-service announcement I made in a previous episode, concerning the video library titled, "The Web's Best Videos on Evolution, Creationism, Atheism, And More." I said that the library is the work of bdwilson1000, but actually it's the work of the YouTuber known as Underlings. I'll put a link to the original video in the Consummation Bar. Don't worry, it's not plagiarism; bdwilson1000 is one of many channels that have mirrored the Underlings video. Thanks very much to Underlings for all the hard work, and to bdwilson1000 and all the others who have mirrored the video recently. Those crazy kids might find a practical use for that Interwebs thing after all.

One of the themes that comes up in all of the examples involving a child with scissors is a concept that I reluctantly call "personal responsibility." I worry about using such a phrase, because its usual use is as a reason for dismantling existing social programs and a tool for discrediting of the idea of social welfare. When I say "personal responsibility," I mean something entirely different from the meaning employed in such arguments. Again, I hope that with some examples I can show you what I mean, rather than overloading you with a complex definition.

If I, as a normal adult, cut myself with scissors, then my suffering is my own responsibility. If scissors fall out of the sky and cut me, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you, as a normal adult, cut me with scissors, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you are a person who is mentally incapable of handling scissors properly, child or otherwise, and you cut me with scissors that I've allowed you to have, then my suffering is my own responsibility, not yours, even if I've told you ten times not to touch the scissors.

So far, I imagine that most of you would agree with me, and you might expect that if we disagree it would be over the boundaries of the gray area in a child's life between unreadiness and readiness. But here is a point far more important than that gray area: it's not up to anyone but the child to determine when readiness occurs. Your well-being is negatively affected if I transfer responsibility for your welfare from my shoulders onto you before you're ready. If I make scissors available to you and then tell you not to touch them, then transferring the responsibility is exactly what I've done. Naturally, given that invitational ethics cares about flourishing, a seven-year-old who is still unready for scissors would be treated with the same compassion and lack of judgment as a seven-year-old with a speech delay, not as a kid with an attitude problem.

If you are developmentally unready for scissors, and you find some scissors and cut me with them, then my suffering is not my responsibility, but neither is it yours. Responsibility, if there were any, would lie on those whose job it was to make the scissors unavailable. If you are unready, and I know it, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, then the responsibility lies with me, not with you. If you are unready, but I believe you to be ready, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, the responsibility is still not yours. It might be mine, or it might be that of whoever told me you were ready, but it's definitely not yours.

Again, just a few examples to give you a sense of where I'm coming from. Let me know if these don't make sense, so I can find some better examples. My reason for bringing up this idea of personal responsibility is that punishment always seems to involve an attempt to transfer responsibility to someone who isn't naturally responsible for the charge being assigned. If you're too young for scissors, and you cut me with scissors that I gave you, then taking the scissors away involves no transfer of responsibility, so it's not a punishment. If, after taking the scissors, I tell you that you're a bad kid, that's a transfer of responsibility. I am making you responsible for my suffering, although you aren't responsible for it. That's a punishment. It occurs to me that perhaps all cases that I would call punishment could always have an element of this kind of transfer. That might help us a bit toward having an intuitive sense about what counts as punishment.

In Matthew 6:5-13, Jesus has some words on prayer. Again, in this series I won't comment on the supernatural element, but Jesus brings up an important point in these verses: hypocrisy. Everyone hates a hypocrite. Every time we hear about a gay-basher who turns out to be gay himself, we express outrage at the hypocrisy. Every time we hear about a socialism-basher whose family business has been receiving government subsidies for decades. Every time we hear a terrible driver complaining about terrible drivers. Every time someone complains about anything, someone hearing the complaint will observe the complainer's behavior and be outraged at the hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is a poorly understood phenomenon. The reason it's so poorly understood is that most of us interpret it in the framework of coercive ethics.

Consider the shape of hypocrisy through the lens of invitational ethics. What kind of talk can lead to the charge of hypocrisy? Basically, any time I use the word "should," I open myself to the possibility of being called a hypocrite. What we seem to overlook is that any time I use the word "should," I'm really talking to myself, even if I think I'm talking to you. Even if I (and you) think I'm shouting at you. In fact, if I'm shouting at you, it's because the message I'm trying to deliver is one that I really, really don't want to hear.

If I frequently advise young people to take basket-weaving classes, it's likely that I have a personal, if unconscious, reason for doing so; perhaps I feel that my life would have been richer if I'd learned basket-weaving; perhaps my mother wanted me to learn it and now I feel disappointed that I never did; perhaps I lost a basket-weaving competition when I was a kid. When I advise you, I'm telling you something about myself, about how my mind works. When I complain about anything, I'm telling you something about how my mind works. When I guess at what you're thinking, or what your motivations are, or when I talk about how people should behave or how the world should operate, I'm telling you something about how my mind works.

A hypocrite is nothing more than a person with an opinion that involves the word "should." If I loudly proclaim an opinion about how people should behave, it makes perfect sense that I don't behave that way. If I were entirely at peace about the behavior, I wouldn't have a strong conviction about it and therefore wouldn't feel the need to announce my opinion about it. Hypocrisy is a perfectly normal behavior, not to be treated as any kind of pathology or error in judgment, and obviously not a moral failing. It's just how our brains work, and has no more ethical weight than our tendency to talk about the weather as a social icebreaker.

That's 8.4. Thanks for watching.

Monday, May 7, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.3: Punishment

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Before I start, I'd like to direct your attention to YouTuber bdwilson1000. He has compiled an awesome library of YouTube videos that he calls "The Web's Best Videos on Evolution, Creationism, Atheism, And More." I'll put a link to his short introductory video in the Consummation Bar. Thanks much to BD for all the hard work, especially considering that he must have watched every single one of my 400-or-so videos. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll note that my videos are very well-represented in his library.

A few of you asked for clarification on my claim that no one has ever been persecuted because of righteousness. Persecution can never be more than indirectly connected to the morality of your behavior. The most important factor in persecution is whether enough of the right people in the world feel motivated to go to the effort of persecuting you. Clearly, the existence of persons with both the motivation and political muscle to persecute you is not a reliable indicator of the morality of your behavior. In some senses it's meaningful to say that you're being persecuted for your behavior, but it's never meaningful to say that you're being persecuted for your motives or for the merit of your motives. If Jesus had been a great thinker, he would have thought it through, and not only would he have refrained from spouting such nonsense, he would have eliminated the need for us to have this interesting, but ultimately tangential mini-discussion. In other words, let's move on, unless you find something highly relevant to the main discussion.

Naturally, there are lots of questions about the definitions of the words I'm using. Let's talk about the word punishment, but let's postpone attempting a formal definition. I really want to avoid this becoming a technical conversation if at all possible. Let's see if we can get a general idea of the meaning from some examples.
  • There are horse stables near where I live, and I recall hearing a horse owner explaining an idea he'd learned in a horse behavior clinic. It was something to the effect of loving the horse enough to be as harsh as necessary, but also loving the horse enough to be no harsher than necessary. If I'm harsher than necessary with a horse, that's punishment. We don't have to dig down into the meaning of the word necessary. Just assume that we can agree in principle on what's necessary.
  • When I was a young man I once brought home a forlorn little dog from the humane society. I took her to the vet for shots, and during the examination she bit the vet. I reacted by hitting the dog. The vet explained to me that hitting is not part of a dog's natural social life, and gave me the name of an excellent book on dog ownership. If I hit a dog, that's punishment. If I attempt to relate to a dog in a way that is difficult or impossible for it to understand, that's punishment, or at least something akin to it, something that's not conducive to anyone's flourishing.
  • Say you're a child who is not yet developmentally ready to handle scissors. In this example I'll be an adult. If I see you handling scissors I will confiscate them. I know that you might experience some grief at the loss of a toy, but that is unavoidable for me, given my motive of promoting the flourishing of everyone involved. With the exception of this unavoidable discomfort, I endeavor not to cause you any further discomfort. I might in fact cause you further discomfort, but I'm not making any deliberate attempt to cause you avoidable discomfort. In spite of your discomfort, this is not punishment. However, any deliberate attempt to cause you discomfort beyond the unavoidable definitely is punishment.
  • If, after I've recovered the scissors, I do or say anything that causes you any kind of emotional or physical discomfort (including sending you somewhere you don't wish to go), that's punishment.
  • If I kindly explain to you that the scissors aren't safe, that's not punishment.
  • If I tell you that scissors can cut you (in the hopes that you know what it means to be cut), that's not punishment. If I go beyond simple words like "cut" or "hurt," elaborating on the kind of injuries you might sustain or the pain you might experience, that's punishment.
  • If I threaten to cause you discomfort in the future if you handle the scissors again, that's the threat of punishment, also known as coercion. 
  • Say that I mistakenly believe that you're developmentally ready for scissors, so I allow you to handle them, and then you stab the family dog in the eye. At that point I'm no longer deluded about your readiness, and everything previously said about taking the scissors away still holds: gently confiscating, kindly explaining, and showing you sympathy for your grief are not punishment. Scolding you, browbeating you, sending you to your room, scaring you, physically harming you, all of that is still punishment.
I've given a few examples here to give you an idea of what I'm talking about when I use the word punishment, what I'm proposing we remove from our lives. I assume that these few examples will generate lots of questions and challenges, so I'll stop there for now. We can come back to the discussion of what punishment is after I see which direction the conversation goes.

In Verses 27-30 in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus has some extremely harsh words concerning our inner lives in general and our inner sex lives in particular. Regardless of how you interpret Jesus' specific prohibition, it's clear that in his world, you definitely can cause harm simply by thinking, even with zero intent to act. This is obviously superstitious baloney. Also, it's clear that Jesus had some poisonous ideas on sex. As I've said, suppressing our impulses, especially the impulse to fantasize sexually, is a formula for madness.

In Verses 31-37, Jesus has some words on divorce and oaths. I find nothing in these verses even worth criticizing. If any of you guys see something good, please let me know.

In Verses 38-42 we find the best justification for living as a doormat any superstitionist will find in the words of Jesus: turn the other cheek, give more than you're asked for, go further than you're asked to go. Some of you have suggested that I'm misinterpreting the bible, but my interpretation is unrelated to the point of the discussion. I'm talking about large segments of the superstitionist community that have interpreted Jesus' words in this way. This is one of the many reasons I say that the words of Jesus weren't all that great after all: too many of the reasonable interpretations have clearly unreasonable results.

In Verses 43-48 we are exhorted to love our enemies. It would have been a lot better if he'd given us some practical advice on how not to have enemies. Enmity is just another expression of coercive morality.

In Chapter 6 Verse 2 Jesus delivers a command that I find utterly shocking, given his reputation as champion of the poor. Here he tells us to be quiet about giving to the needy. Talk about irony. If I give to the poor quietly, the poor do benefit from my gift, but consider: if I make a lot of noise while giving to the poor, maybe some of the people who hear my noise will consider giving to the poor as well. Surely it couldn't hurt. Seems to me Jesus should have kept his mouth shut on this topic.

That's 8.3. Thanks for watching.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.2: Anger

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus. I'd like to thank everyone who has joined the conversation so far, from supporters to skeptics to hecklers. It seems that my hopes for a rich discussion are already being realized. Some of you have asked about the intro/outro music. It's a new piece I'm working on; I haven't completed it yet. It will probably evolve with this series. The title is, "If I can't punish my kid, then what am I supposed to do when he stabs the dog in the eye with a machete every 20 minutes?"

The ideas I'll present in this series have been forming in my mind for many years, but I have searched in vain for a rational underpinning. Sam Harris' recent works on morality have addressed that problem. Harris summarizes his underpinning as "the flourishing of conscious creatures." This is the foundation of invitational ethics. I invite you to define "good" as conducive to the well-being of creatures that can suffer. Now, if this were a philosophy course, we might here start a long discussion about utilitarianism or the like, but let's put that discussion on hold for now and explore some of the humbler practicalities of this definition. There's no point spending any time thinking about its applications to utilitarianism if we're going to find out early on that it can't be used in everyday life.

It seems that I haven't been clear on a couple of points, so let's get those worked out. First, there is some question about exactly who or what is the object of my criticisms in this series. Some of you have pointed out that the New Testament as we have received it may differ significantly from the actual words of Jesus. Others have pointed out that Jesus may have been addressing only his immediate audience and cannot be held responsible for 21st-century understanding. And of course it's possible that no such man ever existed. Let's make sure we're all weighing the same apple.

I think you'll agree that almost everyone, superstitious or otherwise, who has made any serious study of Jesus, will describe him as some combination of wise teacher, great moral innovator, promoter of peace and compassion, spiritualist, holy man. Even Gandhi, although he is burning in hell right now, is said to have found Jesus to his liking. If we were to ask Gandhi for a concrete example of some excellent attribute of Jesus, he would point to something in the canonical Gospels. The point of my complaints is that what I find in the Gospels is not a great man, but at best, one of the horde of run-of-the-mill street-preachers who roamed first-century Palestine.

I need to clarify a point about eliminating punishment. I don't mean to propose that we eliminate disincentive. Coercive morality confuses punishment and disincentive. Punishment is counterproductive. Disincentive has been shown with scientific research to be useful. Let's use science some more, to discover the most effective disincentives. Science is already telling us that prison is a terrible idea, as well as the use of emotional and/or physical punishment on kids.

I have a similar point concerning the elimination of prisons. I don't mean to propose that we allow serial murderers to roam the streets. Obviously, at least for a little bit longer, there will be people that we must remove from society in order to protect the rest of us from harm. But there is an enormous gap between that and the idea of prison. I propose, for reasons I hope to make clear in this series, that we treat everyone with kindness, and do our best to enable everyone to live the most fulfilled life they possibly can, including those who must be constrained for the safety of the rest of us.

A few of you have asked me for my thoughts on applying invitational ethics to child-rearing. I've been experimenting with these ideas for many years, in my relationships with my daughter and other people. I've also been making suggestions to my friends concerning their relationships with their own children and other people. These experiments and suggestions are starting to look like case studies in invitational ethics. I will probably present some of these case studies to you, but it might be more fun if any of you guys want to give me some material for a case study from your personal life. It doesn't have to be about child-rearing. Anyone who's interested, send me a PM so we can discuss details.

In Verses 21-22 in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus introduces an idea that many of his admirers consider an excellent condemnation of legalistic thinking, but legalistic thinking is an inevitable outcome of coercive morality. Coercive morality assumes that people are fundamentally broken and need some sort of external mechanism to control them. This leads to the endless production of rules, often pointless and arbitrary rules, which leads directly to legalism. Jesus knew that legalism was a symptom of a larger problem, but he got it wrong when he guessed at what the problem was. The problem is the whole moral framework.

Sadly, many admirers of Jesus also see in these verses a ruling that anger is a bad thing. Or perhaps more sadly, many people admire Jesus because they agree with him that anger is a bad thing. This pronouncement, especially in light of his later words about turning the other cheek, has been taken by intelligent people the world over to mean that we should live our lives as doormats, never speaking up when someone steps on our toes, accepting injury meekly (or at least with the appearance of meekness). I will argue that habitually suppressing the most basic of our impulses induces in us all a kind of insanity from a very young age.

In Verses 23-24, I almost want to give Jesus some credit. He's telling us not to let bad blood linger between ourselves and others. But then what advice does he give us on how to attain reconciliation? Not a word. Similarly, in Verses 25-26, he urges us to settle legal matters privately, without going to court. But again, no practical advice on how to reach agreements. These enormous gaps in Jesus' message are key to the problem of people assuming that we're supposed to suppress our impulses so thoroughly as to live as doormats: given that Jesus is so wise, if he'd known of any better advice to give us, he would have done so. Unfortunately, when I step on your toes, the best anger-management advice Jesus has for you is, "Fuck your feelings."

That's 8.2. Thanks for watching.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.1: The Beatitudes

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus. Before we dive into his actual words, a few more words of my own on the framework of invitational morality, starting with the idea of should. We use should on ourselves in the same way that we use it on others. I tell you how you should behave, I tell myself how I should behave. I sometimes punish you when you behave as you shouldn't, I sometimes punish myself when I behave as I shouldn't. Occasionally I will even coerce you into punishing yourself, occasionally you will coerce me into punishing myself.

Earlier I mentioned guilt as one means of emotional punishment and coercion that we use on each other, but I forgot to mention humiliation and shame. These are among the foulest, most poisonous offspring ever misbegotten by the prefrontal cortex. We use these on ourselves and each other with surprising frequency. Even parents who have sworn off corporal punishment—seeing it for the evil it is—use guilt, shame, and humiliation with abandon in order to control their children, not seeing that these punishments are far more scarring than many physical punishments they might administer.

I propose that we do away entirely with the concept of punishment, both emotional and physical. Let's stop using guilt, shame, humiliation, and the like, on anyone, whether adults or children. Let's stop imprisoning people, including after-school detention or sending kids to their bedrooms. Let's stop all forms of bodily affront, no matter how mild. I propose that we do away with the concepts of "moral" and "immoral." No one has any rights. No one has any obligations. I call it "invitational morality" because I'm inviting you to try on this way of thinking, in the hopes that it will increase the quality of your life and those around you. If you find it useful in that way, then you might invite others to try it as well.

Reading the New Testament sequentially, we find that Jesus' first pronouncements appear in Matthew Chapter 5. In Verses 3-12, we find a short speech by Jesus that is known now as The Beatitudes. This speech is viewed by many as representing some of the loftiest words ever spoken by any human being. The first three verses go like this:
  • 5:3 - "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
  • 5:4 - "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
  • 5:5 - "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
    Taken together, the message of these three blessings seems to be primarily that although your life sucks now, it will be better for you at some unspecified point in the future, most likely after you die. I find it somewhat difficult to give much credence to a moral philosopher whose primary solution to the problems of life is to look forward to death.
  • 5:6 - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
    You might start to notice here that Jesus hasn't really said anything of value in these first four verses. They have the ring of a horoscope about them: vague and flowery speech that can be interpreted to mean almost anything.
  • 5:7 - "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."
  • This blessing starts off really well, but then Jesus ruins it with a big Yahweh-style "or else:" be merciful, because if you're not, Yahweh will kick your ass. This is the worst kind of motivation to have for any behavior. Mercy is the same thing as forgiveness: suspension of punishment. Mercy is good because punishment is counterproductive, not because you'll get in trouble for not being merciful.
  • 5:8 - "Blessed are the pure in heart."
    Someone help me to understand what "pure in heart" means. Does it mean that you can pull the sword out of the rock? Does it mean that you won't go over to the Dark Side even when the emperor tortures you with his lightning fingers? I hear that nowadays people think the phrase "pure in heart" refers simply to decent folk who strive to live a good life. Either way, not exactly the stuff of genius.
  • 5:9 - "Blessed are the peacemakers."
    Sure, it's great to be a peacemaker. But really, if you're not going to give some useful advice on how to make peace, then don't whet our appetites by bringing it up. Someone might want to argue that Jesus went on to give good advice later, with all that about turning the other cheek. But again, turning the other cheek is an expression of coercive morality, which Jesus swallowed whole. Turning the other cheek might result in the kind of peace that means that no one is actively engaged in hostilities, but it has nothing to do with people being at peace within themselves. It would have been better if Jesus had given us some thoughts at how to be at peace rather than just advising us to keep a lid on our tempers.
  • 5:10 - "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness."
    This is ridiculous. No one has ever been persecuted because of righteousness. Certainly people have been persecuted because of their religion, but it's not because their religion is righteous; it's because their religion is not that of their persecutors. The early Christians were persecuted for their righteousness, you say? My understanding is that the early Christians were labeled atheists, because they went around telling everyone that their gods didn't exist, and that they were persecuted largely because it was thought that the gods were angered by the claims of these atheists. That persecution is not because of righteousness. It's the same treatment that has been doled out to every unpopular group since the beginning of time. "Persecuted because of righteousness" is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.
  • 5:13-16 - "You are the salt of the earth."
    I won't bore you by reading the rest of it. It's garbage. It reads like a horoscope, in that it can be interpreted to mean anything.
  • 5:17-20 - Here Jesus does some messiah talk, about how he has come to fulfill the law. I'll ignore this kind of thing in this series. The standard to which we'll hold Jesus for this QC session is simply that of great moral and inspirational figure. I won't comment on whether he was a deity, whatever "deity" may mean, or on his lack of scientific knowledge. Here we're exploring only the question of whether his message lives up to its reputation. So far, the answer is no; The Beatitudes aren't worth much as inspirational material.
That's 8.1. Thanks for watching.