The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘gods’

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Biblical “Inerrancy”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 5, 2012

Recently, while on vacation, my wife and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  For those who don’t know, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known writings of the Old Testament of the Bible in existence.  They are roughly 2000+ years old, and written in a variety of languages; plus, the story of their discovery and excavation is quite fascinating.

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A few things in particular struck me about the entire exhibit, which included some of the actual scroll fragments (and their translations); specifically, these things I observed about the scrolls seemed to come into direct conflict with the notion of Biblical inerrancy espoused by so many religious fundamentalists these days…

First of all, the fragments were just that… fragments.  The scrolls were terribly decayed and incomplete, which is to be expected after over 2000 years of exposure.  Now this wouldn’t seem to be that much of a big deal, were it not for my other observations…

Second, there was a lot of material within the Dead Sea Scrolls which doesn’t appear within the Old Testament Bible.  In other words, the Old Testament Bible seems to be a whittled down version of these more original writings.  Which begs a question: why did some of this original material make it into the Bible and other material was excluded?  The obvious answer is that at some point, someone (that is, people) had to decide what to include and what to exclude.  In other words, even at the very formation of what we call “The Bible”, it was going through a very real editing process by very real human hands.  And this leads me to my third, and probably most damning, point…

The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves give differing, and even contradictory, accounts of various Old Testament Biblical stories.  That is, they are not even consistent within their own writings, and these are the earliest (and therefore most original) Biblical writings we have!  Why would this be, if the Bible is supposed to be error-free?  The answer is simple, yet difficult for some to accept: the scholars who have painstakingly analyzed the scrolls for decades have found that these writings were written in a variety of different communities by a variety of different authors (most likely local priests or community leaders).  As a result, each author had their own “spin” they wanted to place on various stories, which led some accounts to conflict with other accounts.

The conclusion is obvious: far from being inerrant in nature, the Bible is, and apparently always has been – even back unto the days of the Dead Sea Scrolls before “The Bible” even existed – a work of wholly fallible humans.

Posted in religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 27, 2012

I was inspired to write the following JREF Swift blog post as a result of my earlier posts (here and here) on the question of gasoline prices in the United States and the powers (perceived or real) of the U.S. president.  I hope you find it enlightening…

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

On my blog, I recently put together a post – Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction – about higher gas prices and how people are blaming President Obama for it.  As I pointed out there, Republicans blaming him for the increase in the price of gasoline (and oil in general) are wrong for the same reason as when Democrats blamed former President Bush back in 2007: the President doesn’t really have that much power to influence oil and gasoline prices.

So, if it is true that no such power exists for the leaders of our government to affect the price at the pump (and that is true, as the prices are set more by market factors such as global supply and demand of oil), why is it that people want to lay blame upon our mostly blameless leaders?  I struggled with the answer to this question for some time, but I think I have finally hit upon a possible answer: many people, either consciously or not, attribute powers to the President of the United States and Congress that simply do not exist.

And that asks the next obvious question: why do people attribute such powers to our political leaders?  Why is it that many of us assign almost god-like abilities to our decidedly non-god-like and wholly fallible authority figures?

I think the answer is multi-faceted and can give some interesting insights into how we think about a lot of things, especially regarding politically oriented topics.  In addition, an analysis of this topic can lead us into a deeper discussion of a philosophical concept known as “agency”.

First, I think (somewhat cynically) that there are some, if not many, politicians in government who, either actively or inactively, encourage the notion that they have more power than they are in reality.  After all, this is one of the reasons why people vote for candidates running for political office: because they make promises and we expect them to deliver on those promises, whether or not those promises are in any way, shape, or form realistic to achieve.  This also goes for the various subsidiaries which surround the government, such as lobbying groups, political action committees, etc.  But it’s too easy to stop there.

Second, I think that in many ways we are somewhat hard-wired to make inferences to the existence of things which are not there.  In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as “agency”, where we assign some kind of powers and abilities to an entity through our beliefs about that entity or our behavior towards it.  For example, how many of us have been in the middle of some very important work on the computer when suddenly the program crashes?  No doubt that many of us then engaged in a certain amount of cursing at (not necessarily about) the computer, as if it could not only hear but understand us.  (Aside: my wife works with computers for her career, and she will swear up and down that “they know what we’re thinking”)  The computer itself is real enough, but what about the agency which we assign to it?

But when you step back and think about it, it’s downright silly to rant and rave at the computer.  The most obvious reason for this is that it simply doesn’t work.  Yell at the computer all you want, but that won’t fix the problem; actually trying to solve the relevant hardware and/or software problem will fix things.  The other reason is that, let’s face it, at the end of the day the computer is simply a collection of circuits, wire, switches, and assorted electronics.  Does it really have a mind with which to interact?  The answer, so far with today’s common technology, is a negative, yet for some reason we engage with the computer as if it did have such a mind.  And in so doing, we assign agency to the computer. …

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Posted in economics, philosophy, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Freedom From Religion Foundation to Air Ad on CBS

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 24, 2012

Given the amazing success of the Reason Rally this weekend in Washington, DC (roughly 20,000 secularists/atheists/non-religious people showing up in the rain is a success to me 🙂 ), it seems more than appropriate that the Freedom From Religion Foundation runs an ad which will receive a nationwide airing on CBS on Sunday and Monday.  The ad opens with President John F. Kennedy’s famous remarks about an absolute separation between church and state.  Here’s the ad:

Wonderfully done, and well-timed.  This is an especially important time for those of us in the non-believing community to step up and be counted, given the preponderance of religiously-oriented stupidity on display in election-year politics these days.  If we hope to uphold church-state separation and fight back against those who would turn our secular republic into a theocracy, we need to get vocal and get active!

Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist for bringing this to my attention! 🙂

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Center For Inquiry Chicago Event: “On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For”

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 12, 2010

Anyone involved in skepticism in and around the Chicago area no doubt knows that one of the key organizations in the local skeptic/freethought movement is the Center For Inquiry Chicago. They have an upcoming event that I would like to pass along to you all in case anyone’s interested in attending…

The Center For Inquiry/Chicago invites you to our multi-media, participatory, Fall extravaganza!

On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions
and Other Things to Die For

In Wicker Park at “St. Paul’s” Cultural Center – 2215 W. North Ave. – Chicago
Saturday, September 18th 2010, from
7:00 pm – 11:00 pm

The program includes:

  • Mark Twain “in person”Warren Brown, a nationally renowned Twain scholar, will perform as Twain, Huck, and Jim, the runaway slave, and will illuminate their views on science, humanism and slavery. A Q&A discussion will follow the performance.
  • Davis Schneiderman, a thought provoking multimedia author, college professor, and editor will read sections from his new book: “Drain.
  • Miki Greenberg of “It’s A Girl” will mobilize us with his satirical songs.
  • Poetry Slam! Write your own verse and then sign in with Davis Schneiderman, the host! Be ready to present! As always with a Slam, everything goes: reading, reciting or singing your poem/song, in costume or in plain clothes. Use your creativity, but stay with the theme, “On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For.” Be prepared—in keeping with the Slam tradition, the audience will express its admiration or disapproval of your wordsmithing!
  • Art exhibit by three CFI/Chicago members—Ayala Leyser, Eric Wall and Ivan Phillips—on the theme “Not What Meets the Eye: On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For”

Throughout the evening:

  • Food and snacks included with your admission. Cash bar is available for very reasonably priced drinks and soft drinks.

Free street parking, public transportation is nearby, and bike stands are available.

Click here to register online! Don’t miss this one!


If you’ve never before been a Friend of the Center, become a Friend at $60 and pay only $7 more for this event—over half off!

Price if purchased online by Sept. 11th (one week before):

Regular: $15
Current Friend of Center: $12
Student: $8

Price if purchased online after Sept. 11th, or at the door (if at door, cash is much preferred):

Regular: $18
Current Friend of Center: $15
Student: $10

See below for performers’ bios:

Warren Brown, a nationally known Illinois Humanities Council “Roads Scholar,” presents a first-person Chautauqua-style program as Mark Twain. Twain will take us on a journey on water, land, and air, sharing insights from the “Diaries of Adam and Eve” and thoughts about Galileo and Newton. Mark Twain is claimed by freethinkers as one of our own for his still remarkably contemporary, funny and humanist viewpoints on religion, hypocrisy, and the straight-laced Victorian “virtues” of Then and Now.  Brown received the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award for his Chautauqua-style portrayal of Samuel Clemens, “bridging the lessons of history with the demands of contemporary living.”

A multimedia artist and writer, Davis Schneiderman is the author and editor of eight books, including the novels Drain, Abecedarium, and the forthcoming blank novel, Blank: a novel. He co-edited the collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game; as well as the audio collage Memorials to Future Catastrophes. His creative work has appeared in numerous publications. He is Chair of the English Department, and Director of Press/&NOW Books, at Lake Forest College.

As a pianist, composer and arranger for Maestro Subgum & the Whole, Miki Greenberg has been making music on Chicago’s underground scene since 1986. He co-founded the Lunar Cabaret in 1994 and is currently with the group “It’s A Girl,” working on his 16th album. Superstition, religion and things people die for were his obsession while working with his previous band, “Fetal Position,” as he continues to mix good entertainment with wit and critical thinking.

For more information, please visit or email

Posted in religion, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Google-of-the-Gaps Logical Fallacy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 23, 2009

I just saw this funny little cartoon – hat tip to the Friendly Atheist – and had to share it with my thoughts…


I like to call this the “Google-of-the-gaps” logical fallacy, which is a humorous version of the classic god-of-the-gaps fallacy. Essentially, the god-of-the-gaps is a logical fallacy which is an argument from ignorance: it states that because we lack the knowledge to draw any kind of reasonable conclusion upon a particular question (such as life after death, for example) then in our ignorance some stat that God (or gods) must be the solution.

Of course, the god-of-the-gaps is a silly argument to make, because with just a single change in wording, by substituting something else for the word “God”, one could argue that the explanation is Santa Claus, unicorns, leprechauns, space aliens, or numerous other silly things which are wholly unsupported by any evidence.

As I tell my students: you must make conclusions based upon what you do know, not upon what you don’t know.  And lacking substantive evidence to draw a conclusion, simply state the most obvious truth: “I don’t know.”

But I bet Google knows 😉

Posted in humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Power of Prayer… Fails

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 22, 2009

We have all heard on numerous occasions about “the power of prayer” to heal the sick & dying.  Stories abound about supposedly miraculous recoveries that are attributed to intercessory prayer – that is, prayer on behalf of someone else who is ill.  Sadly, the reality is that the power of prayer… fails.

Case in point: a couple in Oregon is facing jail for relying only upon prayer to cure their child of pneumonia.  It seems that whomever they were talking to wasn’t listening, because the kid died.

Parents face jail for praying instead of getting doctor for baby

A US judge has rejected defence arguments that claimed selective and vindictive prosecution in the manslaughter trial of a couple whose 15-month-old daughter died of pneumonia while they prayed for her recovery.

Clackamas County Circuit Judge Steven Maurer told lawyers for Carl and Raylene Worthington that he had already determined the Oregon City couple had a duty to seek medical care for their daughter, Ava, despite their religious beliefs.

“There are limits, especially when it comes to the protection of young children,” Maurer said.

The couple face manslaughter charges in the death of Ava, who died of pneumonia in March 2008. A state medical examiner has said she could have been treated with antibiotics.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  Though I am an atheist, I can understand people wanting to pray to make themselves feel better in times of great stress, such as during the hospitalization of themselves or a loved one.  I was in the hospital recently myself, and a colleague of mine called me – he told me that he’d pray for me, and I thanked him.  I didn’t thank him because I thought his prayers would help at all (they don’t), but I instead thanked him because it showed me that he cared about me.  But this is beside the main point of this entry.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Science, Morality, and Meaning

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 1, 2009

Sometimes people are turned off from science because they view it as a sterile & cold process.  Often the argument is made that if one takes a science-oriented view of the world that it doesn’t necessarily foster a good moral life.  Many argue that only religion, as opposed to science, can offer any guide for morality, ethics, and the philosophy of the good life.  I think those critics of science are wrong.

That is why I wanted to pass along a great podcast from the folks at Point of Inquiry which touches on all of these topics.  On May 1st, D.J. Grothe interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer about his book Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

Here is a quick summary of the interview…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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